The Stranger is one of those novels that, had it not achieved classic status, no one would bother finishing it. Halfway through the book, and nothing’s happened yet? You can’t do that. People tend to think that makes a book dull.
(Presidential Fun Fact: Years ago, The Stranger was brought back into the public eye because then-President George W. Bush reported that he’d read it over a weekend at Crawford Ranch. The pervading question in the media was not, “What did the leader of the free world think of the novel’s philosophical message?” but rather, “He read a book?”)
The first half of the novel is spent developing Mersault’s day-to-day, that he’s just an ordinary chap. Except he’s kind of an alien. His girlfriend, Marie, asks if he loves her. “I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t.” His pimp friend, Raymond, details his plan to punish one of his whores for holding out on him. “I told him one can never be sure of how to act in such cases, but I quite understood his wanting her to suffer for it.”
Eventually Mersault, through his friendship with Raymond, gets drawn into a feud with a group of justice-seeking Arabs. One hot afternoon confrontation with the Arabs on the beach, Mersault shoots one of the men. Five times.
What follows is Mersault’s imprisonment and prosecution, as an outraged public struggles to make sense of him, and he mostly doesn’t struggle to make sense of anything.
Some readers have hailed Mersault as a strong character, a hero. I’m not even of the opinion that he’s an anti-hero. What he is, is a hypothetical. That is, if a human being was resolved to live in the quiet knowledge that belief, personal relationships, and even killing are no big deal, how would that person respond to society, and vice versa?
You’d probably call that person a sociopath. Suffice it to say, The Stranger doesn’t speak to me because Meursault doesn’t speak to me, even in the pulpit-pounding speech that concludes every philosophical novel from here to Atlas Shrugged, which in this instance conveys Camus‘ message most directly.
Really, if you told me you identified with Meursault, I’d look at my watch and say, “Whoa, the time! I really have to go! Goodbye!”
But he does enjoy life, in way. It works for him. This lack of concern for anything but the present frees him from the usual human crises of love, obligation, and the hereafter. Of course, Meursault does indeed feel alive once he’s embraced his coming death–the only certainty of existence.
What’s to admire about this guy, according to existentialists? That he is what he is, and that he makes no attempt to appear otherwise. If he responds emotionally and sympathetically to his environment, if he just toes the line, it will save his ass. But he doesn’t do it. Society is unable to influence his nature: he only proceeds as to his essence.
He Shot Me Down, Bang Bang
As an existentialist character, Mersault’s function is to expose the absurdity of the frameworks that seek to impose their meanings and values upon him. So what is the absurd in The Stranger?
Religion. The magistrate and the chaplain try to make a gallows conversion of Mersault, and yes, they do look silly in the attempt. But is it because their intentions are ridiculous, or is it because you know that with this guy they’ll fail miserably?
The legal system. It’s not as concerned with the death of the nameless Arab as it is with the fact no one saw Mersault cry at his mother’s funeral– that there is the damning detail. Their scale of moral wrongs (specific to Camus’ French Algeria) is a bit off. The legal circus also showcases how an aghast public points the finger and shouts, “He’s not like us!” Well, he’s not like me, either. In fact, save for some unfair exaggerations, I find myself mostly in agreement with the prosecution on this one. Camus… I think that means one of us is a little crazy.
What ultimately happens to Mersault is unwarranted. But I’m glad there aren’t more of him around. As he is a supposed representative of the existentialist mindset, is that the same as saying I’m glad there aren’t more existentialists around?
Or just existentialists with guns?