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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
In this essay it is assumed that the reader has not read Albert Camus' The Stranger but is aware that the plot involves a character called Meursault, the shooting of an Arab and a subsequent trial. This essay is not a ‘The Stranger a study guide' but a brief look at some of the themes of the book. The intention is to entice the reader into reading The Stranger for themselves. Accordingly all mention of specific characters or plot points have been avoided where possible.
For Camus, life has no rational meaning or order. We have trouble dealing with this notion and continually struggle to find rational structure and meaning in our lives. This struggle to find meaning where none exists is what Camus calls, the absurd. So strong is our desire for meaning that we dismiss out of hand the idea that there is none to be found. Camus wrote The Stranger as an enticement to his readers, to think about their own mortality and the meaning of their existence. The hero, or anti-hero, of The Stranger is Meursault. His life and attitudes possess a strange rational order. His actions are strange to us, there seems to be no good reason behind them. For example. we are given no reason why he chooses to marry Marie or gun down an Arab. As a result, he is a stranger amongst us. And when confronted with the absurdity of the stranger's life society reacts by imposing (accepted) meaning on the stranger.
It's worth noting here that L'Etranger is sometimes translated as The Outsider but this is inaccurate. Camus does not want us to think of Meursault as ‘the stranger who lives ‘outside' of his society' but of a man who is ‘the stranger within his society'. Had Meursault been some kind of outsider, a foreigner, then quite probably his acts would have been accepted as irrational evil. But Meursault was not an outsider; he was a member of his society – a society that wants meaning behind action.
In the second half of The Stranger, Camus depicts society's attempt to manufacture meaning behind Meursault's actions. The trial is absurd in that the judge, prosecutors, lawyers and jury try to find meaning where none is to be found. Everyone, except Meursault, has their own ‘reason' why Meursault shot the Arab but none of them are, or can be, correct. In life there are never shortages of opinion as to why this or that thing occurred. How close to any of them get to the meaning behind action?
An interesting motif in The Stranger is that of watching or observation. Camus is writing a book about our endless search for meaning. We are all looking for a purpose in our lives. The characters of The Stranger all watch each other and the world around them. Meursault watches the world go by from his balcony. He later passively watches his own trial. The world around him is a fascination to Meursault. He keenly observes the sun, the heat, the physical geography of his surrounding. The eyes of the other are also depicted by Camus. Antagonism behind the eyes of the Arabs, as they watch Meursault and his friends. The eyes of the jury and witnesses at his trial. Finally the idea of the watching crowd, representing the eyes of society.