The Stranger by Albert Camus
Albert Camus was a French journalist and writer who was born in Algeria (part of North Africa that was owned by the French) in 1913. He is often considered an existentialist, even though he did not think of himself as one or even as a philosopher. Existentialism, roughly speaking, is a philosophy where meaning is not defined by some essence or pre-defined framework; rather, existence is what provides meaning. If you have no clue about what was just said, try this: Watch a quick video. Camus' writing is often considered the philosophy of the absurd and is captured best in his book the The Myth of Sisyphus where he equates human fate to that of the Greek king Sisyphus, who was punished to spend eternity repeatedly pushing a rock up a hill only to have to watch it roll back down. One of the best known existential questions was posed at the beginning of the Myth of Sisyphus: "There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." Spoiler alert: He doesn't recommend suicide.
Camus had an interesting career and was married twice, although he had a lot of affairs. He died at 46 in a car accident. In his pocket was a train ticket, as he had planned to travel with his wife and two daughters, but accepted a ride from his friend and publisher at the last minute. They both died in the accident. The Stranger is his first novel.
Monsieur Meursault: He is the main character of the book and her narrates the book also. He is a quiet guy who only speaks when he has something to say and doesn't have a lot of emotions.
Maman: Meursault’s mom. Maman is a French word that a little kid would use…like mommy. She dies before the book starts.
Celeste: The owner of the resteraunt "Celeste’s" which Muesualt eats at a lot. Meursault and Celeste are kind of friends. He testifies at Meursault's trial.
Thomas Perez: A very good friend of Maman at the nursing home.
Emmanuel: A friend of Mersault’s from work. He really isn’t the book much.
Marie Cardona: Meursault's main squeeze in the book. He had met her thorough work and runs into the day after his mom’s funeral and they become letters.
Salamano: One of Meursault’s neighbors. He is an old man and has this old dog that has no fur. He constantly complains about the dog and beats it.
Raymond Sintes: Another of Meursault’s neighbors. He is supposedly a "warehouse guard", but he is a shady guy. He beats women and is pretty much a sleezeball.
Weird old lady: She sits down and has dinner with Meursault at Celeste’s one night but they don’t talk. She is strange and shows up at Meursault’s trial.
Masson: Raymond’s friend who has a house on the beach.
This book isn’t very long and the plot is pretty straightforward. There is this guy Meursault. He is young and lives in Algiers. He works as a shipping clerk. The book is broken into two parts. Part one starts with Meursault being told that his mother is dead. He goes to nursing home she was living to attend the funeral. He never looks at the body of his mom and never cries. He also can’t remember how old she is either. People think that is weird. Then he comes home and the day after the funeral (a Saturday) he goes swimming. He meets this girl he used to work with named Marie and they end up going to see a movie and hooking up. The next day Meursault is invited by his neighbor Raymond to eat dinner. Raymond tells him about this girl he is dating and says she is cheating on him. He wants to get her to come over, sleep with her, then spit in her face and toss her out on her ass (a real nice guy as I said). He asks Meursault to write a letter for him that will be nice and get her to come over. Meursault writes the letter. In the words of Raymond, they are now "pals".
The next weekend, Marie and Meursault go swimming again and have a lot more sex. Meursault loves her body and really likes having sex with her. The next day she asks him if he loves her and he says love doesn’t mean anything and he didn’t think he loved her. She is kind of sad, but then they hear some screaming.. Raymond has that girl over and he beats the shit out of her. The policeman arrives and breaks it up. Raymond and Meursault go out and later and Raymond asks Meursault to testify that the girl had been cheating on him.
Raymond calls Meursault at work and invites him and Marie to his friend’s beach house. He also tells him a group of Arabs have been following him (one was the brother of the girl he beat up). Later on, Marie asks Meursault if they can get married. He is really indifferent and says sure. She asks him if he loves her and he again says he doesn’t think so.
That Sunday Meursault, Raymond, and Marie go to the beach house of Raymond’s friend Masson. They swim around and Marie and Meursault find some time alone to have sex in the water. Then they all eat and drink a lot of wine. The women do the dishes while the men all go for a walk. They run into the Arabs on the beach and they get into a fight. One Arab pulls a knife and cuts Raymond up a bit. Then the Arabs leave. After Raymond is patched up, he and Meursault go out for another walk and find the Arabs. Raymond has a gun and is going to shoot the Arab who cut him. Meursault tells Raymond he can’t shoot the guy unless he draws a knife again so Raymond gives Meursault the gun and goes to fight the Arab. The Arabs go hide so Meursault and Raymond leave. Raymond goes back inside the beach house but Meursault doesn’t. The sun is beating down on him and he wants to go back to where the Arabs were because it was a shady cool spot. When he gets there, the Arab with the knife is there. He draws the knife and the sun is beating down on Meursault. Meursault shoots the Arab and then shoots him four more times. This is the end of part one.
Part two starts with Meursault telling us that he has been arrested and has been questioned. It is a week later and he is talking to his lawyer. The guy starts asking him about his behavior when his mom died (remember how Meursault wouldn’t look at the body and didn’t cry?) He is asking because the prosecution has been investigating Meursault’s private life and are saying Meursault is a cold blooded murderer because he didn’t cry at his mom’s funeral (silly eh?). Meursault tells his lawyer he really didn’t think about whether he was sad about his mom dying or if he loved her. This really upsets his lawyer.
Then Meursault is questioned by the magistrate (local judge). The magistrate wants to know why Meursault shot the Arab four times after the first shot. Then he goes off about God and how we wanted to help him. Meursault tells him he doesn’t believe in God and that really disturbs the magistrate who starts yelling at him about having to believe in God.
Meursault is in prison while he is waiting for his trial and one day Marie comes to visit him. She tells him everything will be ok and they will get married when he gets out. Then she leaves and Meursault is talking about how living in prison is tough at first, but the time passes after the first few months. He is in prison for 11 months until his trial.
The trial happens next. The summer is slow for trials so the press are around making the trial into a bigger deal than it really is. The trial begins and Meursault is questioned. The prosecutor goes after him about his mother and how he wasn’t emotional at her funeral (this is a big deal in the trial). The people from the nursing home are called as witnesses to show how Meursault couldn’t remember his mother’s age, wouldn’t look at the body, didn’t cry, and didn’t pay his final respects at her grave.
Then all of Meursault’s friends are called to testify on his behalf. They say he is a good guy and that he didn’t mean to kill the Arab. When Marie is on the stand, the prosecutor brings up the issue that the day after his mother’s funeral, Meursault was out swimming, seeing a funny movie and having sex. When Raymond is on the stand, the prosecutor makes him out as a crook and that doesn’t help Meursault.
Then the lawyers make their closing statements. The prosecution talks about how Meursault is such a bad man because he put his mom in a nursing home and didn’t care when she died. The lawyer says he has no soul. The defense lawyer is not as good as the prosecution and Meursault is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by having his head chopped off in a public execution.
The last chapter of the book is Meursault in jail waiting on his appeal. He talks about how his mom said his father used to go to public executions and then come home and throw up. He won’t talk to the prison priest and thinks about his execution and how he wished he could escape somehow. He really doesn’t want to die. Then the priest comes in and starts in Meursault about God and turning to him. Meursault gets really mad because he doesn’t believe in God and sees no reason to so he yells at the priest and even grabs his collar. Then he goes back to thinking about his execution and his last thought of the book is that there is a large crowd at his execution.
THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART
- Notice how Meursault really doesn't believe in anything. He lives in the present from one physical moment to another.
- He enjoys swimming, sex, movies, and anything that appeals to his senses. He doesn't feel love towards anyone because he doesn't think it truly exists.
- Some people say this story is about a man facing the absurd. The absurdity of his trial and the absurdity of life.
- People are given life but everyone is condemned to die someday. Life has no meaning and is absurd.
- He is convicted of murder because of his behavior towards his mother and her death.
- Meursault could have easily escaped being executed if he had said "oh…I loved my mother and was so sad when she died." Or shown remorse for killing the Arab, but he didn't. He never compromised his thoughts and spoke only what he knew to be true.
- In the last chapter, Meursault gives a long speech yelling at the priest. This is kind of what he is saying: People are given life but everyone is condemned to die someday. Life has no meaning and is absurd. I have little time left to live and I don't want to spend it thinking about God because he doesn't exist. I only want to live the memories of the life I know.
- After this outburst and realization, Meursault feels refreshed in his life and is somehow more connected to the world. Of course he is going to die soon. He realizes how his mother felt at the nursing home. She made good friend Mr. Perez and she was happy with life…even though she was old and going to die soon.
- It's as if you take value in life when you know it is soon to be done.