Existentialism is often defined as a philosophical movement or tendency, emphasizing individual existence, freedom and choice. As a result of the diversity of positions associated with this term it is impossible to define precisely. As is evident through the root of the word, exist, there is a stress on definite individual existence and freedom of choice. Certain aspects of existentialism are witnessed in The Stranger. Existentialists attempt to direct our attention to ourselves as individuals. They force us to think about our relation to such topics as the existence and nature of God, what it is to be Christian, the nature of values, and the fact of one’s own death. Man is the only known being, according to the philosophers, that defines itself merely through the act of living. In other words, first you exist, and then the individual emerges as life decisions are made.
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Many existentialists believe the greatest victory of the individual is to realize the absurdity of life and to accept it. Existentialism is liberating for those of us who do not rely on fate, God, or chance to guide us through the path of life. One aspect that is questionable is our ability to continuously reinvent ourselves through our actions. While this is possible, the majorities of people stick to old ways of doing things, or follow others blindly. Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple. Mankind has free will. Life is a series of choices. Few decisions are without any negative consequences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through. The decisions you make are whom you are, so decide accordingly. In “The Stranger” Meursault embodies all of the six existential themes. The first existential theme is freedom. Freedom means that whatever happened prior to now do not influence what your next choice in life will be, we are free to make any choice we want.
Meursault displays Freedom by just doing as he wishes to do. In part one of the novel Maman dies so he attends the funeral, nothing out of the ordinary. While attending his mother’s funeral, Meursault decides to smoke cigarettes, drink a cup of coffee, and he fails to show emotion. This just shows how Meursault is displaying his free will; he does not let the influence of his mother dying effect what he wants to do. The second and the third theme’s Meursault displays together. These themes are existence which is the awareness of our choices, and passion which are psychological feelings that we understand before thinking kicks in. Meursault displays both of these themes at the end of the novel. Meursault wants his life to be here and now, he is not concerned with the hereafter. Meursault wants the remembrance of his life. Through this thinking Meursault displays Existence and Passion. The fourth theme is contingency. It basically says that life is unpredictable, prone to chance happenings, also to the unexpected. Meursault displays this theme at the very end of part one of the novel. Meursault is so content with walking back down to the spring unaware that he is going to end up destroying his happiness by shooting the Arab. This is a very unpredictable event because Meursault is just so happy and content with the sun shining on him, then all of a sudden something unexpected happens and his happiness is gone. “I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy.” The fifth theme is individuality. An individual is a single unique member of a collectivity. Meursault lives out his individuality. The strongest display of individuality is at the very end of the novel when Meursault wants a large crowd of people to witness his death, and he also wants them to greet him with cries, but those of hate. “I had only wished that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
By being hated Meursault retains his individuality. If Meursault goes out there begging for forgiveness he would just become a member of a collectivity. The final theme is reflection. It refers to the capacity to bring that which we are unaware of into awareness. Meursault leads a pre-reflective life. He goes through his daily events and is so absorbed in each moment that he never reflects on them. Meursault does this until he looks at a reflection of himself for the first time in prison. Meursault looking at himself shows his transition from pre-reflective to reflective. He begins to become aware of what he was unaware of. The main theme in The Stranger is that life is absurd. Reason is incapable of explaining human nature. Meursault’s absurd beliefs are that life is meaningless and without purpose. The meaninglessness implies absence of any obvious meaning to our life. This cannot be explained, because no one can explain someone else’s sense of meaning or meaninglessness towards life. Camus’ The Stranger presents the character of Meursault who, after killing an Arab, is sentenced to death. This conflict portrays the stark contrast between the morals of society and Meursault’s evident lack of them; he is condemned to death, less for the Arab’s murder, than for refusing to conform to society’s standards. The discussion of Meursault’s responsibility takes place at the end of the novel. Meursault’s execution symbolically brings forth emotion, as Meursault confronts his nothingness and the impossibility of justifying the immoral choices he has made, he realizes the pure contingency of his life, and that he has voided, in essence, his own existence by failing to accept the risk and responsibility that the personal freedom of an existentialist reality entails. Meursault never really takes responsibility for his actions, all Meursault does is wish that his life could go back to the way it used to be. Meursault is an anomaly in society; he cannot relate directly to others because he does not live as they do. He cannot abide by the same moral confines as the rest of the world because he does not grasp them; he is largely indifferent to events occurring around him. Meursault’s entire being is unemotional. He derives a certain level of pleasure from eating and drinking, smoking cigarettes, sitting on his balcony. Yet all these things are tactile; Meursault derives physical satisfaction from them, but there is no emotion attached. This is in direct contrast to society, whose strict guidelines focusing on right and wrong depend on an individual’s sense of these concepts.
Meursault is perfectly capable of analyzing the situation, but not of responding to it as society wishes him to. Life or death, and anything in between, makes no difference to him. Meursault sees the outcome as inevitable. He cannot perceive any right or wrong in killing the Arab. The action in itself was not out of deep hatred for the man but, as he reveals at the trial, “because of the sun.” The sun at the beach, similar to the sun at his mother’s funeral, was beating down on him. The sun represents Meursault emotions, which he cannot deal with. Likewise, he cannot deal with the intense heat, the light reflected off the Arab’s knife which seems to stab at him. Meursault’s senses are being overwhelmed, and the only way to handle the situation is to end it – so he fires the gun. The death of the Arab in itself is not crucial to Meursault’s fate. Meursault’s true undoing comes from his lack of emotion. At the beginning of the novel, Meursault sits at his mother’s funeral, quietly analyzing details of the scene. The onlookers present do not understand him; in fact, they are afraid of him. The prosecutor says, “I look into a man’s face and all I see is a monster.” What Meursault has realized, by the end of the book, is that any meaning he finds in life he must create. Meursault is the absurdist, explaining the philosophy of existentialism: Man’s isolation among an indifferent universe. There is no inherent meaning in life – its entire value lies in living itself. Meursault feels he has been happy, and longs to live. When he must die, he wants a crowd to greet him “with cries of hate”; they are screaming because they want life and the world to have meaning; they need this because that is what their entire existence is built upon. As the magistrate asked of Meursault, “Do you want my life to be meaningless?” Meursault understands how estranged the individual truly is from society. Until the conclusion, he was a stranger to himself as well as to the rest of the world. In the end, he opens himself “to the gentle indifference of the world,” and “finding it so much like myself,” he feels he has been happy, and is again. Society finds this unacceptable, and by refusing to conform to its face-value standards, Meursault must die.
Albert Camus believed that to be a true existentialist you had to remove yourself from society as much as possible since a belief in the foundation of government was to conform. Conforming to society norms is considered bad, it doesn’t allow the individual to progress and reach his own decisions Camus realized, however, that restricting himself from all social conformity was impossible. Camus depicts a man with very little emotion. Once in a while he shows a bit of heart, but for the most part, he gives a robotic appearance. The character expresses no feeling about anything except that light is a sign of evil or annoyance, while the dark becomes a place of calm and seriousness. In society, the common idea is that light is good and evil grows in the darkest of places, but in Albert Camus’ novel, evil is good and the light is bad. In The Stranger, Albert Camus uses Mersault and his experiences to convey the philosophy that man is full of anxiety and despair with no meaning in his life except for simple existence. The concept of existentialism is reflected through Mersault’s experiences with his mother’s death, his relationship with Marie, the killing of the Arab, and his own trial and execution. Camus uses the death of Mersault’s mother to convey his existentialistic philosophy. He seems more concerned about the time of death, and not the fact that he just lost a loved one. It also conveys the existentialist idea that reason is powerless to the idea with the depths of human life. Furthermore, Mersault shows no compassion at his mother’s funeral either. He does not cry or behave the way that society expects him to. This leaves the impression that Mersault is insensitive, or that he did not love his mother. As an existentialist, he accepts life as it is without seeking deeper meaning. Mersault’s murder of the Arab is another example of existentialism. The absurdity of the murder is what makes it a good portrayal of the concept of existentialism. This part of the novel shows how Mersault is not only a stranger to his experiences in life, but also to nature. For the first time, the sun and his sensual pleasures begin to act against him, and cause him to lose control. Most of Mersault’s actions have no true conscious motives. Mersault shoots the Arab because of his physical discomfort with his surroundings, but in any case he consciously makes the decision to shoot the Arab. When he is taken into police custody and is asked if he would need an attorney, he is genuinely confused. It is simple to him: he murdered a man and is now ready to face the consequences.
The second half of the book begins after Meursault is put in jail and is awaiting his trial. Rather than being on trial for the crime, he is on trial for his values, like the lack of grievance of his mother’s death. Meursault is found guilty and he is convicted and sentenced because of his lack of moral feeling. While awaiting his execution, he thinks about how his life has no meaning besides just living and how death does not scare him. He realizes that life is meaningless and the world is irrational. This suddenly makes him happy and he accepts his death. There are numerous meanings to the title, The Stranger, one is that if you live a life different than what society accepts, then you are a stranger; an outcast, and will be punished by the rest of society. In other words, the title means that Meursault is a stranger to society. Nothing discussed in the trial had anything to do with the murder. It was all about the way he acted and how different he was. This was used to prove that people who are different are judged by their character over their actions. Also, most of the society was Christian in the book and held Christian values. They believed in an afterlife and a heaven while Meursault did not, since he was an atheist. Since society does not understand him, they cannot know him and therefore he’s a stranger. Another meaning of the title is that he is also a stranger to himself. He did not make any personal connections to the things he has done, only indifferent observations. He seemed unaffected by his mother’s death, the killing of the Arab, and his trial. Being a stranger to himself leads to the final meaning, which is a stranger to life. At the end of the novel Meursault is able to understand the meaning of life. He was able to do so because he was approaching death, which is an existentialist principle; death is the one certainty of life. Before, when his mother died or when he killed the Arab, he did not have any feelings. When he thought about his own life and that he was about to die, he accepted it. He realizes that one can truly enjoy their lives when they approach and accept death. The understanding of this allowed Meursault to be at peace with himself. Albert Camus’s philosophy in the novel can be related to the philosophy of existentialism, which stresses that the individual is solely responsible for the choices they make, there is no predetermination and there is no supreme being who decides morality. This philosophy is extended with the philosophy of the absurd, which states that human beings live an essential isolation in a meaningless and irrational world and people being able to accept that everything cannot be controlled in your environment, which is how Meursault live his life. In existentialism, you believe that there are some things that cannot be rationally explained and just happen out of your control. The Stranger was an unusually good book, which made me think. A majority of the book made me feel like the rest of society, which was not accepting Meursault’s behavior. However, the ending changed all of that and further analyzing gave me the real reasons for his actions. When I started reading the book for the first time I jumped in right away and didn’t want to close it because I never read anything like it. I had to go back a few times to re-read it to understand it better and every time I re-read it, I got a different message.
Meursault was an interesting character to read about. His ideas and beliefs seem wrong but are very right. I was able to understand what Albert Camus was trying to say with his philosophy. In fact, I have never heard of existentialism or absurd philosophy until I researched the author to see what he wanted to tell us. Meursault is able to accept the fact that everyone dies and realizing this allows you to live a better life. He lives a life that he controls and accepts all his actions that he does. I can’t say that I understand everything about him, like how he uses Marie for sexual reasons even if she tells him her love and commitment to him. Nonetheless, this character had the most interesting conflicts that kept me reading. I do feel, however, that the second part dragged on and got a bit dull. The first half of the book was filled with action and there were no direct reasons given for certain actions. In the second half, it is mainly of his self-realization about society and life, which I feel, could have been approached another way by the author, like being shortened. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thinking after reading a book or even coming to his or her own realization like Meursault.
Andrew Irvine, “Basic Themes of existentialism”, http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/wphil/lectures/wphil_theme20.htm
Crowell, Steven, “Existentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/existentialism/
“Existentialism Philosophy: Discussion of Existentialist Quotes, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus”
“New World Encyclopedia, Existentialism”
Solomon, Robert C. Wyatt, C. S. (1999). Existentialists: a primer to existentialism
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