The dictionary defines a stranger as “a person whom one does not know.” But what happens when the stranger is oneself? It seems like a contradiction, but this is the theme explored by Albert Camus in his novella “The Stranger.” Through the narrative of the protagonist Camus relates through his characters deep philosophical notions about identity and the self, and what we can fully know about ourselves in the world. The protagonist sees life as arbitrary. He attaches no emotion to the happenings in his life. As a result, he looses his self-identity, becoming a stranger to himself. The story is of importance because Camus believes that many people go about their daily business without ever considering why they are doing what they are doing, and who is it who is really doing the doing. While people may be adept at certain skills in life, such as knowing how to repair a car, this knowledge is practical knowledge and secondary to the deeper epistemological questions about what can we know, and whether or not we can truly know ourselves. The protagonist Meursault, and his former lover, Marie Cardona, is key characters in the novella in understanding the answers to these deeper questions. Both of them serve as foils to one another. In this way both are different sides of the argument “can we know ourselves?”
“The Stranger” begins when Meursault receives a telegram to inform him that his mother has passed away. Meursault is not a young man, but neither is he an old man. Camus uses a literary technique of not showing any internal emotion of Meursault. Some readers might call his reaction to his mother’s death as cold. He describes the details of the action—Meursault taking a bus to the assisted living center where his mother lived—without expounding on his interior state. This creates confusion in the reader of why the death of his mother has not shaken him more. But as the plot develops, it is clear that much of life for Meursault has become tarnished. He is surviving, but not thriving. He lives, but he is not passionate about his life. Instead of discussing the grief at his mother’s passing, the narrator says, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday . . . which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday” (Camus, 4). This tone remains throughout the work. It is a dry tone void of feeling, almost as if a robot, instead of a man, narrates the text.
The foil to this sentiment is Marie Cordova, who is a person of feeling. She does not come until the last half of the book, but her presence is significant. She enters the novella right after his mother’s funeral. Once again, Meursault displays coldness by meeting Marie Cordova and enjoying a sexual interaction with her, “While I was helping her to climb on to a raft, I let my hand stray over her breasts. Then she lay flat on the raft, while I trod water.” They had worked together before, and he describes his time at the beach as “quite like old times’ a lot of young people were in the swimming pool, amongst them Marie Cordova, who used to be a typist at the office” (Camus, 14) Yet the reader suspects, though the narrator does not explicitly say it, one suspects that Meursault was a much happier person in during those “old times.” He thinks that they both had a crush on the other, though neither acted on it then. In the existential world of the narrator, there is no meaning in the world. So the meaning of the “carnal” interaction between Cordova and Meursault does not go further for the narrator. Sex is just sex, not part of some larger scheme of affection between man and woman. Meursault is fond of Cordova, but not more than he would be fond of his favorite food. In this way, he violates the philosopher Kant’s moral theory in which human beings should be seen as ends in and of themselves, and never means. Meursault only sees Marie for the pleasure she can bring him, he does not value her as a person. But the same could be said about his mother. Also the same could be said about how he views himself. He does not seem to value even his own life. It is not a cruelty towards other people that Meursault displays; rather, his view of people and the world is a natural outcome of his worldview—that there is no meaning in the world.
Marie is the opposite. She wants to marry. She wants there to be meaning in their sexual rendezvous that is more than just sensual pleasure. She wants something “more” and Meursault seems confused by this. Marie is confused with Meursault’s coldness. She is startled to learn after their sexual rendezvous that Meursault has just come from his mother’s funeral, “She mad no remark, though I thought she shrank away a little” (Camus, 14). Meursault reports this as casual news, perhaps as one would talk about a pet’s passing. For Marie, who does value certain things over others, this is not normal behavior. Eventually, she leaves Meursault.
Camus uses Meursault and Marie to convey not just personalities, but the philosophical ideas behind them. As he is an existential writer, Meursault represents existentialism incarnate. In existentialism, there is no objective meaning. Everything is arbitrary and dependent upon what one chooses. Nothing is better or worse, just different. There is no meaning, since of any viewpoint, one could choose the opposite and it would be equal.
Marie represents the regular masses. She wants Meursault to take her to a comedy. She wants to marry and have babies. In short, she wants to live a normal life and do fun things and find someone to love. An existentialist would find no fault in this viewpoint, but he could not be convinced that this viewpoint matters more than another. Marie might argue that it does matter though. Few readers would want to choose to see the world of Meursault—cold, unfeeling and arbitrary. So even if one were to give the existentialist the benefit of the doubt and for the sake of argument say that everything is indeed arbitrary, they still cannot avoid the fact that there are real outcomes to viewpoints. One can old a viewpoint, but one cannot control the outcome of that. If one believes that he can survive walking off a 10-story building, that is fine, but there are objective consequences to the person’s life if he does—he will die.
While Camus may be using his narrative to argue for his viewpoint of existentialism, in many ways it becomes an argument against it, since few readers would want to see the world as Meursault. This brand of existentialism comes at the loss of passion and emotions. It is hard to be passionate about anything if one also believes that the opposite of that thing is equally true. In this way, by feeling nothing about anything, Meursault becomes a mirage. He is a stranger to his self because passion is an important part of self-identity, and by seeing everything as arbitrary, one becomes a stranger to himself. This is what makes Meursault “the stranger.”
Camus, Albert, and Matthew Ward. The stranger. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print.