The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942


“…When I’m stretched out on my bunk, I see the sky and that’s all I see.”

Spoiler Alert

Continuing with the 52 week book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge ). This book falls into the Book I’ve been meaning to read category. I’ve started and stopped this book several times in my life, usually not getting past the funeral.  The main character’s disinterest was a turn off. If he doesn’t care, why should I?  I didn’t know much about the plot, and having read it twice now, I still feel like my copy of the book is missing a few chapters.

The story begins at the seemingly uneventful funeral for Meursault’s mother. Upon his return home, he spends a pleasant Saturday with new girlfriend Marie, and at the end of the weekend sums up his life to this point as, “…one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work and that, really, nothing had changed.” His neutral observation carries no tinge of sadness, regret, happiness or relief. This neutrality represents Meursault’s attitude toward every other aspect of his life as well.  He describes major events with the same disinterest, for example:

About marrying Marie: “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.”

Refusing a possible job promotion: “I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.”

Striking up a friendship with Raymond: “I don’t have reason not to talk to him.”

Meursault prides himself on his detachment the way a pessimist congratulates herself for “seeing the world the way it is.”  Some of his favorite phrases include “It doesn’t make a difference” and “It doesn’t matter”. He shows a touch of disdain for people who do care about anything.  But the passivity he values so highly ultimately leads to his downfall.

His friendship with Raymond proves to be the catalyst that leads him to commit murder. Through a bizarre yet plausible chain of events Meursault finds himself on a beach with a gun, alone with the man who slashed Raymond with a knife earlier that day. The man holds up the knife and Meursault fires, killing him.

In prison, the insular Meursault realizes the way things really work. He’s a slow learner when it comes to the importance of social mores and can’t fathom how his indifference could be viewed as anything but rational. The prosecution, however, sees it as cold and calculating and treat it as evidence.

I should point out that The Stranger is a work of absurdism and so the trial goes a little off the rails. A character witness admits to offering Meursault a cup of coffee during his mother’s vigil. The prosecution uses his acceptance of that coffee against him, claiming that “beside the body of the one who brought him into the world, a son should have refused it”.  Seeing a comedy in a movie theater a day after his mother’s funeral becomes proof that he’s capable of murder.  Though he did commit murder, no one seems interested in the motive or even the crime itself. His crime seems to be breaking away from society-approved behavior that offer safety and security to the rest of us.

Meursault realizes too late that human interactions are “a game”. When he finally does learn, he ultimately chooses not to play at his own expense.

What makes The Stranger so difficult is that Meursault, though guilty of murder, isn’t wrong about “the game”. If his life to that point as been filled with the mundane and the meaningless, why pretend otherwise? Why ask forgiveness of sin when you don’t believe in God? For me, the outrage is that no cares about the murdered man and while Meursault will be put to death by guillotine, it will be for not conforming to the court’s standards, not for ending a life.

These are the things that still linger in my mind:

Not knowing much about the colonization of French Algiers in the forties, I wonder if Meursault could have gotten a way with killing “the Arab” if he simply would have acted sorry.

There’s much debate as to whether Meursault is psychopathic: Perhaps, but I think someone with psychopathy would have known how to play the game and played it to save themselves.  However, he may be the most accurate portrayal of high functioning autism I’ve seen. A sincere inability to lie, even to help himself and a searing bluntness that isn’t meant to hurt. I don’t know if Camus was going for that, but he pulled it off well.

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