Albert Camus (1913-1960) was an Algerian-born writer, playwright, political essayist, activist, and absurdist philosopher, who in 1957 was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. This essay focuses on his absurdist philosophy and in particular as exemplified in his work L’Étranger (The Stranger), written in 1942. In a comprehensive feature (Simpson, 2005) about Albert Camus, published on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), the author suggests that Camus’ concept of the absurd “does not simply refer to some vague perception that modern life is fraught with paradoxes, incongruities, and intellectual confusion”. Simpson goes on to explain that he believes that as Camus “emphasizes and tries to make clear, the absurd expresses a fundamental disharmony, a tragic incompatibility, in our existence”. It is worth noting that the French noun “l’étranger” has other meanings than “the stranger” in English. It can also mean “the outsider” or “the foreigner” or “the alien”. The central character in the book, Meursault, is portrayed by Camus as an apparently uncaring and unemotional anti-hero. In terms of Meursault’s relationship with society, perhaps “outsider” would be the better translation of Camus’ original title. Bonk (2010), in his paper Medicine as an Absurdist Quest in Albert Camus’ The Plague, attributes Camus’ absurdist stance to “Not only the machinations of his personal life but also that of his very world” (p.3). Marshall, in his article: Albert Camus: Philosopher of the Absurd. (2000), suggests that Camus’ view of the absurd could be “described as the confrontation between our human demands for justice and rationality with a contingent and indifferent universe”. Yet a third opinion, expressed by Morgan in his paper: The Burden of Knowing: Camus, Qohelet, and the Limitations of Human Reason (2012), attributes Camus with the belief that “the limitations of human reason” are a principal cause of the absurd. This essay focuses on Camus’ absurdist views expressed through his character Meursault, and illustrates those views with examples of a number of quotations drawn directly from the book.
Perhaps one of the best-known quotations, taken from the book’s opening lines in Chapter 1 was: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday”. These lines serve to introduce the character of Meursault and his general trait of emotional indifference. Rather than expressing grief when learning that his mother had died, he just mentions it and appears more concerned about the ambiguity surrounding the actual date of her death. When he says “That doesn’t mean anything”, he could be inferring that the message is confusing regarding the date of the death, or he could be suggesting that his mother’s death was a matter of no import.
The second quotation from the book is as follows: “She said, “If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.” She was right. There was no way out”. In Part One, Chapter 1 of the book, these are words spoken to Meursault by a nurse during the funeral procession on a hot day. On the surface, his remark “There was no way out” could have meant with regard to the hot weather and that there was no way to avoid the sun and the heat. However, it could also be construed in a wider context as a reference to death being unavoidable. In this book, death is discussed as the one unavoidable certainty in life.
At the end of Part One, Chapter 2, Meursault has spent Saturday – the day after his mother’s funeral – swimming and taking a girl to the cinema, then spends a lazy Sunday at his home, eating alone. After his evening meal, he reflected: “It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed”. This again shows that Meursault attached little importance to his mother’s death and subsequent funeral and had spent a leisurely and in part sociable weekend, apparently unaffected by those sad events. His rather odd attitude in that regard had been noticed at the swimming pool the day before by a girlfriend, who was clearly surprised when he told her his mother had did the day before. In Meursault’s words: “she made no remark, though I thought she shrank away a little”. Rather than be conformist at this time of bereavement (perhaps by withdrawing from social outings for a while) Meursault instead wanted to explain to the girlfriend “that it wasn’t my fault”. Yet another example of his character lacking normal emotions.
In Part One, Chapter 4 of the book, Meursault recounts a conversation with another character, Marie. He says: “A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so”. His answer typified his unemotional, blunt, and truthful character. He would not have replied in a different way just to be tactful or for any reasons of social conformity. It could be interpreted as Meursault’s lack of emotional understanding, and even his view of the meaningless of human life.
Part One Chapter 5 includes the following: “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”. This was Meursault’s reply when his boss offered him a position based in Paris, and shows his belief that in spite of change, life remains essentially the same, and that one’s life is essentially equal to those of everyone else. Although Meursault doesn’t at this point explain his belief that all human lives are equal, he does – in the final chapter of the book – identify death as the reason why human life is unchangeable.
Another example of Meursault’s odd behavior is at the end of Chapter 6 in Part One. Following somewhat hostile encounters with some Arabs during a trip to the beach, Meursault finds himself apart from his friends, holding a revolver borrowed from a friend, as he confronts one of the Arabs who has drawn a knife. Although he realizes on some level that he could simply turn around and walk away, he draws the revolver and shoots the man. Then, as he recounts: “I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing”. These thoughts show that Meursault behaved in a misanthropic way, thinking irrationally and detached from normality.
Bonk, Robert, J. Medicine as an Absurdist Quest in Albert Camus’ The Plague. Eä. Vol. 2. No 1 (August 2010), 3. ISSN 1852-4680.
Bowker, M.H. (2009). Meursault and Moral Freedom: The Stranger’s Unique Challenge
to an Enlightenment Ideal. Albert Camus Society Journal 1 (1), 22 - 45.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger (1942). Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, New York.
Marshall, Jim. Albert Camus: Philosopher of the Absurd. (2000). The Auckland University – New Zealand. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Education.
Morgan, Justin, K. The Burden of Knowing: Camus, Qohelet, and the Limitations of Human Reason (2012). Eleutheria 2:1 Winter (2012). 92.
Simpson, David. Albert Camus (1913-1960). (March 21, 2005). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 1 May 2012. http://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/#SSH5c.i