[Book Review] The Stranger – Albert Camus

Posted: June 28, 2017 in Book Review, On Life, Philosophical matters
Tags: , , , ,

Photo credit: Jacques Ferrandez

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.

I was thinking of a gripping sentence to start the book review but ultimately went with the first line itself. This is simply one of the best opening lines I have ever read (besides that of 1984, of course). Excellent way to start a novel. (Side note: This is a very interesting read on The Stranger‘s opening line alone. I’d urge you to spend a few minutes to read it).

And thus I embarked on a riveting read by Albert Camus. The novel is rather short in length, but it is exactly brevity that gives the work such a profound impact.


The first time I read The Stranger (L’Étranger in original French) was without a lens. I did not know who Camus was, what he stood for, or what genre the novel fell into. As such, to me, it was a story of a man whose mother died, and he has to make a journey to attend the funeral. Then he meets someone, goes on a vacation with a group of friends, shoots a person 5 times, goes to trial and is sent for execution.

That’s essentially it.

I am serious. If you read the novel without a lens, you would arrive at the same conclusion. A bland, short and inexplicably weird read.

Thinking that there is no way The Stranger deserves the praise it has amassed over the years, I decided to read it again, this time with a lens. To be able to do so, I did some background research and learnt some interesting things.

I learnt that Camus was a proponent of absurdism. Very briefly, it is the school of philosophy which postulates that as much as humans try to find meaning in their lives, they can’t. Why? Because the sheer amount of information, both known and unknown, makes certainty impossible to obtain. The conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any is called “the Absurd.” We want to make sense of the universe, but the universe itself has none.

Wearing the lens of absurdism took reading The Stranger to a completely different level.

For starters, the protagonist Meursault is strangely and overly indifferent. His aloofness is simply remarkable. The coldness is shown on various occasions in the first few pages when Meursault’s mother passed away. Although the story is told through the first-person perspective, we are never once shown how he felt about her death for Camus only provides us with a description of his detached behaviour. He expresses no grief whatsoever. Let us revisit the first few lines of the novel:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

I mean, who is not at least sad when their mother dies? That should have sounded the alarm in the first reading, but somehow it didn’t. The response is completely devoid of emotion. The telegram, as a means of communication, doesn’t exactly help either. Not a phone call or a visit in person, but a telegram. The human touch was absent; technology has taken its place. What’s more, throughout these lines, the main character seems hung up on the exact date his mother died. He debates himself whether she died the day the telegram arrives or the day before. That takes top priority.

Meursault’s nonchalance carries through various events following his mother’s death, many of which should have provoked at least a trace of emotion.

There is the off-handed comment of a home nurse during the funeral procession that reveals his inner thinking.

She said, “If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.” She was right. There was no way out.

Of course, the nurse was talking only about the heat. But Meursault’s following remark was entirely something else. “There was no way out” could easily imply the burden that is the human existence which will ultimately lead to death. The sun is the manifestation of human life and the heat is that of death. Only death is inevitable and inescapable. One way or another, it’ll get you.

Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.

So yes, human existence is pointless, because we all die in the end.

Another instance that shows Meursault’s apathy is his short conversation with his lover Marie:

A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.

Like seriously, who is this guy? Does he even understand how emotionally packed Marie’s question is? (Protip: he doesn’t). And according to him, love doesn’t “mean anything.” This signals his (forming and still primitive) belief that life is meaningless.

Towards the very end of the novel, when Meursault knows he will be executed for the murder of the Arab (told you there will be spoilers!), he has some kind of epiphany:

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

Meursault has finally come to terms with the fact that the world simply does not care. Our existence is pointless, and so are all of our endeavours. There is neither rationality and order. It is only through accepting this fact that we can find a modicum of solace.

There is so much more to The Stranger that I have not touched here. The heat, the court case, the crucifix. But all in all, everything goes to support Camus’ idea that the universe makes no attempt to assign meaning to our lives and we will spend our lives futilely searching for such meaning.

I really liked how Camus seamlessly weaves his philosophy into such a short novel, how he takes care of the little things and how he packs in so much symbolism. The entire novel is absurd. Meursault is truly a stranger to his own existence and to the universe, failing to find meaning in neither.

To paraphrase what the child said to Neo in The Matrix, there is no point.

To sum up, the novel is a close, critical study in man’s futile quest to find rational meaning in an irrational, meaningless universe.

If you want to find out more, read The Stranger in its entirety. Pay attention to the little details. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised.

Peace out.


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