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The Stranger

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English Literature

Meursault, the narrator of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger (1942) is the kind of man who doesn’t cry at his own mother’s funeral. Feeling detached from society and other human beings, Meursault drifts through life, lost in his own thoughts. He is unmotivated by love or money and has no belief in things like justice or religion. To those who know him, he is strange, but to society at large, he is a stranger.

Camus uses this philosophical novel to explore the concept of absurdism as well as the morality of truth. By taking us inside the mind of a man who rejects societal norms, he questions what it is to be normal.

The Stranger: a summary

Let's summarize the novel first.

Part I

The novel begins with Meursault leaving Algiers to attend his mother’s funeral. While putting her affairs in order, Meursault feels no grief or sadness and is content to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. During the funeral, he spends most of his time making observations about the weather and the other attendees, who seem shocked at his lack of emotion.

Returning to Algiers, Meursault meets Marie Cardona, a typist from his office. They go see a comedy movie and then spend the night together. The next day, Meursault encounters his elderly neighbor, Salamano, who is cruelly swearing at his mangy dog. He also encounters another neighbor, Raymond Siente, a pimp. Raymond tells Meursault about his unfaithful mistress and how he has just beaten up her brother. He asks Meursault to help him write a letter that will lure her back to his apartment so he can exact revenge. Meursault agrees to help.

The next morning, Meursault and Marie return from swimming to find Raymond fighting with his mistress. The police arrive, and Meursault promises to testify in court on Raymond’s behalf. Salamano’s dog has run away, leaving the old man grief-stricken and alone.

At work the next day, Meursault’s boss offers him a promotion that would include a move to Paris. He is confused when Meursault seems completely unmotivated by the opportunity. Meursault is similarly unfazed and indifferent when later that day, Marie asks if he’d like to marry her.

On Sunday, Meursault, Marie, and Raymond go to the beach, where they encounter two Arab men. One of them is the brother of Raymond’s mistress. A fight ensues, and Raymond is stabbed in the arm. He produces a gun, which Meursault confiscates to prevent further violence. After walking along in the sun’s throbbing heat, Meursault comes across one of the Arab men and kills him with one shot, then calmly shoots the body four more times.

Part II

Having been arrested, Meursault shows no remorse for his crime, much to the disgust of his defence lawyer. He slowly adjusts to life in prison, only lamenting his lack of cigarettes and women. During the trial, the prosecutor uses Meursault's lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral to portray him as a remorseless criminal who deserves the death penalty. The jury agrees, and Meursault is sentenced to public execution by guillotine.

In his prison cell, Meursault desperately hopes to be spared by appeal and dreams of escape. Struggling to accept the certainty of his fate, Meursault is unable to sleep and dreads each dawn as it reminds him of the morning they will come to execute him.

The prison chaplain requests to visit Meursault three times. Each time, Meursault refuses until the chaplain, desperate to reason with the condemned man, enters the cell. The two argue about atheism and God, with Meursault refusing to acknowledge his sins or ask for forgiveness from a deity he doesn’t believe in. The priest becomes distraught, and Meursault explains he understands death more than the priest ever will. Meursault explains that both life and death are devoid of meaning and that any quest for meaning in life is absurd. The priest relents and leaves Meursault to look at the indifferent stars, finding solace in the fact that they are as apathetic as him.

Characters in the Stranger

Meursault is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. A French Algerian man who is emotionally detached from the events and people around him. Meursault finds no meaning in the things that give structure to most people’s lives. He cares not for love, friendship, family, or his job.

Marie Cardona works as a typist at Meursault’s company. She becomes romantically involved with Meursault and hopes to settle down with him someday. She remains loyal throughout his trial.

Raymond Sintes is Meursault’s neighbor and a pimp. After a violent altercation with his mistress, Raymond accompanies Meursault and Marie to the beach, where the mistress’s brother (the Arab) stabs him, leading Meursault to kill the Arab.

Salamano is Meursault’s elderly neighbor. He complains about his mangy dog and is often seen swearing at it, but is distraught when it runs away. His grief contrasts with Meursault’s lack of feelings for his own mother’s death.

Meursault's mother is dead at the beginning of the novel. She spent the last three years of her life in a nursing home and shared many of Meursault’s detached characteristics.

The Prison Chaplain visits Meursault, offering him forgiveness and salvation. In a tense exchange, the chaplain tries to get Meursault to renounce his atheism and apathy.

The Arab is the brother of Raymond's mistress. During the initial violent confrontation, he stabs Raymond and is later killed by Meursault.

The Stranger: analysis

What is the novel about?

Symbolism

First let's look at the book's use of symbolism.

The Sun

The sun is a recurring symbol throughout the novel. During his mother’s funeral, Meursault seems more affected by the weight of the sun and its heat than the emotional toll of burying his mother. On the day of the murder, Meursault describes the sunny beach as “unbearable,’’ and the heat as “oppressive and inhuman”.1 In the courtroom, Meursalt’s only defense is that he was suffering from heatstroke and unable to control himself.

The Stranger, Albert Camus Symbolism of the sun, StudySmarterThe sun torments Meusault throughout the novel. Pixabay

Camus uses the sun and heat during difficult and uncomfortable moments of Meursault’s life (the heat of the funeral, the beach, and the courtroom) to create a sense of tension and pressure. The sun’s power represents Meursault’s inability to control emotions like grief, anger, and fear.

The crucifix

Camus uses the crucifix to symbolize religion and social order. Throughout the novel, characters try to appeal to a sense of decency by asking Meursault if he believes in God. The examining magistrate waves a crucifix at Meursault, imploring him to repent his sins and seek God’s forgiveness. When Meursault refuses, he’s dubbed “Mr. Antichrist”. The social order and structure represented by symbols like the crucifix, and characters like the prison chaplain, are completely at odds with Meursault’s absurdist view of life.

The Stranger, Meursault's rejection of religion earns him the nickname "Mr. Antichrist". Pixabay, StudySmarterMeursault's rejection of religion earns him the nickname "Mr. Antichrist". Pixabay

To Meursault, nothing matters, and life has no meaning. He rejects organized religion and confirms his status as a stranger to the rest of society.

The courtroom

The courtroom is the ultimate symbol of the social order Meursault rejects. Meursault offers little defence during the trial and does nothing to win over the judge or jury. The courtroom embodies justice and morality Meursault has denied. The prosecution is society's attempt to find meaning in Meursault’s actions.

Camus presents Meursault as being on trial for his character more than the murder in the courtroom scenes. The court is disgusted by the lack of grief during his mother’s funeral, rejection of religion, and inability to feel remorse.

To the judge, lawyers, jury, and journalists, Meursault is a dangerous and amoral individual who threatens society. Camus uses the court to symbolize society’s fear of individuals who reject the status quo. In the face of Meursault’s absurdist outlook and embrace of irrationality, the court sentences him to death.

Rhetorical devices

The most important rhetorical device Camus uses in The Stranger is a first-person narrative which gives the reader insight into Meursault’s point of view. By using this technique, we can get a sense of the isolation Meursault feels around other people as well dive deeper into his personal philosophy. As Meursault reacts or doesn’t react to the events and people around him, we can learn his absurdist beliefs. The language and prose are direct and simple throughout the novel, Camus avoids overly descriptive passages, and Meursault reports things in a matter-of-fact style that reflects his unemotional approach to life.

Place within 20th-century literature

The Stranger is classified as a philosophical novel. Philosophical novels, or philosophical fiction, are literary works that use characters and themes to explore deeper questions of morality and how to approach life. In The Stranger, Camus uses Meursault’s experience to explore absurdism as well as society’s reaction to this viewpoint. The novel is considered an important work because it deals with moral questions that society faced after WWII. After such widespread death and destruction, many authors and artists questioned the social institutions and beliefs that led to war. Camus’ novels and essays became important works in this discussion.

Camus wrote and published The Stranger during the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. He was an active member of the French resistance, writing for the banned magazine Combat.

The novel is also important for depicting French colonial rule in Algeria and highlighting many day-to-day tensions between French and Arab Algerians. Throughout the story, most Arab characters remain unnamed; Meursault’s victim is simply referred to as “The Arab”. Meursault’s apathy and lack of remorse reflect the brutal indifference of the French colonial system toward the suffering of Algeria's Arab population.

Colonial tensions

French Algeria, or Colonial Algeria, refers to the French colonization of Algeria from 1830 to 1962. After the French invasion of Algeria, an influx of French immigrants known as the Pieds noirs (“Black feet”) established settlements. Despite only being one-tenth of the country’s population, the French community was the ruling class, while the Arab and indigenous populations remained disenfranchised and powerless. French rule was brutal and discriminatory as all institutional power lay firmly in the hands of the settler minority. Albert Camus was born to French parents in Algeria in 1913 and was conflicted over France's role in his home country. Though he never fully abandoned a colonial mindset that the French had somehow civilized Algeria, he would, later in life, become a supporter of Algerian independence.

The Stranger: main themes

The main theme Camus explores in The Stranger is the philosophical concept of Absurdism.

Absurdism

Most people derive understanding and meaning from a range of ideas and institutions. These include religion, politics, and identity. Our morality and laws are built on concepts of right and wrong informed by these beliefs. Absurdism posits that it is impossible to find a sense of meaning in life and that any search for meaning is fundamentally absurd.

Meursault is not interested in forming bonds of family, relationships, or community. He believes these are failed attempts to introduce meaning into a cold and indifferent universe. He views events and people through the detached and emotionless lens of an Absurdist. He feels nothing at his mother’s funeral. He can’t feel love for Marie and classifies other people as either annoying or interesting.

The Stranger, Albert Camus Absurdism Theme, StudySmarterMeursault is happy to exist outside a society that does not want him. In some translations, the novel's original title is The Outsider. Pixabay

Throughout The Stranger, Meursault rejects most social norms—he doesn’t see the value of relationships or family, nor does he have remorse for murdering a man and refuses to accept salvation from the prison chaplain.

Camus uses the novel and Meursault’s arc to explore the lack of meaning in human life. He presents the institutions and relationships that govern human existence as insecure attempts to create meaning in an indifferent universe. To Meursault, the bonds of relationships and the adherence to religion and justice are irrational, whereas his lack of drive and emotions are a natural response to the indifferent universe.

Existentialism and Absurdism

Camus uses The Stranger to explore the philosophical concepts of Existentialism and Absurdism. Like Meursault, the Existentialism model rejects any meaning in life offered by traditional models like family, religion, and nationality. Existentialists believe that each individual must create meaning through free will, choice, and accepting personal responsibility. One of existentialism’s key proponents was Camus’ friend Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre argued that “Existence precedes essence,”2 suggesting that each individual’s life experience is unique and that we all form meaning through our unique lived experiences.

Absurdism emerged from Existentialism but rejected the idea that the individual can form any meaning out of life. As a writer and philosopher, Camus was interested in the meaninglessness of existence. He did not believe, as existentialists do, that the development of the individual self could create that meaning. Instead, he saw three options to the predicament of existence: suicide, denial of the absurd nature of life through religion, or embracing the absurdity of living.

Camus’ moral and message in The Stranger

What was Camus trying to say?

Truth

Many readers wonder why Camus would delve into the mind of such an unlikable narrator. What moral or message can be learned from a man who hates everything and everyone? In his Afterword to The Stranger, Camus tells us that while most people see Meursault as a reject, he is something else. Forced to live outside social norms because he “doesn’t play the game” and “refuses to lie”,1 Meursault simply doesn’t feel the same way as normal people. To fit in, he would have to lie to himself and others. Because Meursault refuses to play this game and is open and honest, society and societal norms are threatened. To Camus, Meursault was living his truth, and even though it wasn’t a positive truth, he was prepared to die for it.

Analysis of key quotes from The Stranger

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” (Part I, ch. 1)

The novel's opening line shows us that this traumatic event is simply mundane to Meursault. He is detached from others and his emotions.

“I fired four times at a lifeless body, and the bullets sank in without leaving a mark. And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.(Part I, ch. 6)

Meursault describes the act of murder in characteristic detachment and apathy. Like his mother's funeral, this life-changing event does not elicit strong emotions from the narrator and is reported in a monotone and matter-of-fact style that reflects Meursault's absurdist outlook on life.

“...we encounter a man whose heart is so empty that it forms a chasm which threatens to engulf society.” (Part II, ch. 4)

The prosecutor’s closing statement in the trial describes Meursault as a man who lacks a soul, humanity, or moral principles. He is viewed as a threat to decent society.

“...my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.” (Part II, ch. 5)

The closing line of the book sums up Meursault’s feelings toward his fellow human beings and society’s opinion of him. Having just argued with the prison chaplain, Meursault has cleansed himself of all fear and hope about his execution. He knows the world hates him and hopes the crowd will jeer at him because that's what they're supposed to do.

The Stranger - Key takeaways

  • The Stranger was written by Albert Camus and published in 1942.

  • The protagonist is a young French Algerian man named Meursault.

  • The novel is written in the first-person.
  • The novel is a philosophical novel that deals with the concept of absurdism.
  • The novel uses the concept of absurdism to explore ideas of morality, truth, and social norms.

Works Cited:

1Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Createspace Independent Publishing, 1942.

2Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Kulka. Existentialism Is a Humanism : (L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme). New Haven, Yale University Press, 1946.

The Stranger

The Stranger is about a man who feels no connection to other people or things.

Albert Camus

The main theme of The Stranger is absurdism. 

Camus' moral of The Stranger is that truth is important even if it is not pleasant. 

Camus' message with The Stranger is that truth is important even if it is not pleasant. 

Final The Stranger Quiz

Question

Who is the narrator of The Stranger?

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Answer

Meursault 

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Question

In which year was The Stranger published?

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Answer

1942

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Question

Who wrote The Stranger?

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Answer

Albert Camus

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Question

The Stranger is an example of a philosophical novel? 


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Answer

True

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Question

Which philosophical concept is explored in The Stranger?  

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Answer

Absurdism 

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Question

The novel begins with Meursault attending the funeral of which family member?


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Answer

Mother

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Question

Where does Meursault shoot the Arab?


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Answer

On the beach

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Question

In which country is The Stranger set?

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Answer

Algeria

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Question

Which title is The Stranger also known by? 

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Answer

The Outsider

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Question

Camus presents Meursault as an untruthful man. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Meursault has few pleasures in life. Can you name two of them? 

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Answer

Cigarettes and women. 

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Question

At the end of the novel, Meursault converts to Christianity. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Meursault's only defense is that he was compelled by the _______?  

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Answer

Heat of the sun. 

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Question

How is Meausault to be executed? 

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Answer

Guillotine   

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Question

How many times did Meausault refuse to see the prison chaplain? 

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Answer

3

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