The Stranger, by Albert Camus, is an existentialist novel that reveals the life of an emotionally detached and absurd man, Meursault. He does not mourn his mother’s death, does not believe in God and kills a man he barely knows without any apparent motive. He approaches the world with a moral indifference and believes that there is no true meaning to life. Meursault’s characterization makes him come off as an outsider, or someone who does not fit in in this world. Meursault’s lack of control, misunderstanding of society, emotionlessness and indifference show how he is withdrawn and is therefore a stranger to the world, others and himself until he eventually makes peace with himself and society.
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The novel’s setting of Algeria allows Camus to portray the relentless Algerian sun as a driving force that controls Meursault throughout his life. Whenever the sun or heat appear in the novel, Meursault’s actions change. This exemplifies that the heat and sun are triggers for Meursault to become furious and debilitated. The blaring sun makes Meursault act in an irrational and absurd manner, according to societies standards. This motif is first introduced at Meursault’s mother’s funeral. Even though his mother just passed away, all Meursault can think about is the heat and that “the sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimmer with heat, it was inhuman and oppressive” (Camus 15). Meursault calling the evening sun inhuman and oppressive demonstrates how the sun weakens him and fogs his mind. Instead on focusing on the death of his mother, Meursault is worried about walking in the sun that creates a dizziness in his head. The force of the sun also becomes a main motivation for Meursault’s downfall. When facing the Arab alone on the beach, all Meursault had to do was turn away, “but the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back”(Camus 58). As he walks closer to the Arab the rays of the sun become physically painful to him and worsens as the Arab draws his knife. The brightness reflecting off the knife blinds Meursault into not knowing what he was about to do. It was at this point that “it seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire” (Camus 59). The hostile force was too much for Meursault and the sun forces him to fire the revolver, killing the Arab. The sun represents the domineering power of the natural world over human actions. Meursault is unable to control himself when the sun and heat are strong. He does not realize the power nature has over himself and is therefore a stranger to the world. The sun, like society, overpowers and oppresses those who refuse to assimilate and act like others. Meursault is the epitome of abnormality and becomes a victim to the sun’s dominance. If Meursault had not been a stranger to the world he could have known and understood the impact the sun had on him more fully and taken precautionary measures to protect himself.
Throughout the book, Meursault acts differently than society would expect, invoking a feeling of absurdity and confusion in others. He does not believe in following society’s traditions or expectations and floats through life without emotions. He is an emotionless and detaches man who does not seem to understand how everything else functions around him in the world. He especially does not understand how things like death, marriage and friendship have sentimental value for people. This emotionless and misunderstanding makes him appear as being numb and disconnected from others around him. Beginning with the death of his mother, Meursault acts indifferent towards the situation and even claims that he feels “really, nothing had changed” (Camus 24). Meursault’s reaction to his mother’s death could be justified by her living in a *nursing home, causing him to be disconnected from her. However, by societal standards, Meursault is viewed as strange and outlandish for not showing any emotion at his mother’s funeral. He also does not love with a passion or yearning, which is revealed when Marie asks him. He knows that he has a sexual attraction towards Marie, but when asked if he would marry her, Meursault replies “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to” (Camus 41). Again, Meursault is acting indifferent towards a situation where one would normally express some kind of emotion. He also does not fully understand why Marie looks sad when he said he does not love her. In addition to death and marriage, Meursault seems to also have a misunderstanding of friendship. When Salamano loses his dog, he seeks out Meursault for advice and asks “’They’re not going to take him away from me, are they, Monsieur Meursault?’” (Camus 39). Meursault answers with indifference and seems uncomfortable in this and other situations when people come to him. He is not sure why people are sharing their life problems with him and is not always sure how to act or respond. Adding the scenes of Salamano and his dog aid in getting the point across about Meursault’s alienation from society. It shows how a man has more emotion towards losing a dog he does not like than a man whose mother just passed away. Generally, Meursault is viewed as a stranger to others, since his actions do not follow the norms of society and he often does not understand why people act or believe in the things they do.
As well as being a stranger to the world and others, Meursault seems to be a stranger to himself. Meursault takes on the existentialism phenomenon that existence precedes essence. Some could argue that this not true since Meursault seems to be so keenly aware of every sensation he has and that he knows what he wants. However, Meursault is only going through the motions of life without any real feelings or passions. His emotionlessness is what makes him a stranger to others, but it is also holding him back from knowing who he really is. According to Sartre, “man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself” (22). Meursault has not yet reached the point where he can define who he is since he is detached from himself and does not quite understand what is means to be human. Meursault has isolated himself out of passivity or simply not making choices and letting life just happen. His only concerns seem to be about sleeping and smoking. Instead of mourning over his mother at her funeral he thinks about have a smoke. He does hesitate a bit but then concludes that “it didn’t matter. I offered the caretaker a cigarette and we smoked” (Camus 8). His response to most events is indifference, claiming nothing in life really matters. Meursault wastes away his Sunday by sitting in his apartment people watching, instead of engaging Meursault is the only one who can understand his response to situations and sees it as valid based on his view of life. This is again demonstrated when Raymond asks Meursault to assist in him getting revenge on a woman by beating her. Meursault claims that “Marie said it was terrible and I didn’t say anything” (Camus 36). He is apathetic towards Raymond beating up a woman, like he is with most things in life.
It is not until Meursault is sentenced to death and in jail that he comes to realizations, making him less of a stranger to himself and others. Being physically isolated from the world allowed him to see how he had isolated himself before. His passion is awoken when he screams at the chaplain and does so with both “cries of anger and cries of joy” (Camus 120). Meursault has stopped being passive and now, through words and actions, makes active choices. His perception of people also changed. Instead of isolation, Meursault hopes that a large crowd attends his execution. All these changes are due to a revelation everyone is elected to the same fate. He concludes that the universe is similar to him, in that it is indifferent to human life. He decides that life has no grand meaning or importance and that “everybody knows life isn’t worth living” (Camus 114). Death is inevitable and the life one lives on Earth has no purpose. He concludes that regardless of his impending death, he does not regret anything from his life and is ready to live it over again.
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Meursault is unable to understand society, take control back from nature and express feelings. The impending result of living like this is isolating oneself and becoming a stranger the world, others and oneself. By being a stranger to everything it is concluded that nothing really matters. This is why Meursault does not care about family, friends, love or death. He goes through the motions of life without truly living or experiencing anything. Life, his own or others’, has no meaning and this is evident through Meursault’s actions in The Stranger.
- Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Random House, Inc. 1988
- Sartre. Existentialism Is a Humanism.
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