It’s hard to describe experiencing such an emotional reaction to The Stranger, because the book is starkly unemotional throughout. Even the first sentence – “Mother died today” – is infamously callous. But I can say unreservedly that The Stranger changed my life.
The plot is simple to the point of allegory. Meursault, the protagonist, discovers that his mother died in a home for the elderly. He seems unphased by this, and begins an affair with a former coworker the day after his mother’s funeral. After befriending a pimp and helping him humiliate his former girlfriend, he spends a weekend at the beach, where he kills a man for no explicable reason. After being arrested, Meursault stands trial, where he finds himself condemned, not just for murder, but for his callousness toward his mother’s death and his casual treatment of his friends and acquaintances. Meursault refuses to defend himself by pretending emotion that he doesn’t feel, and is condemned to death. The book ends as Meursault awaits death in a prison cell.
The Stranger is the most famous work of Albert Camus, a French existentialist philosopher and novelist. Existentialism emerged after World War II, particularly in France, where the devastation wrought by Nazi Germany caused people to question their values and beliefs. Existentialists maintain that there is no objective meaning to life, no God above or Hell below, and that institutions like the Church and the State, honor and faith, are distractions designed to give human beings the illusion of purpose. The Stranger reflects these notions – a meaningless life and a meaningless murder, followed by a meaningless death. Depressing stuff, right?
Wrong. Meursault’s story isn’t about cosmic emptiness – it’s about human triumph. The climax of the book takes place when Meursault is in his prison cell, awaiting death and obsessing about a loophole. What if there were some way he could escape the guillotine, he wonders? Could his appeal succeed? Could he escape from prison? In the midst of these musings, Meursault is visited by a priest, who attempts to convince him to become a Christian and repent for his sins. Meursault is hostile, though. He argues that to believe in an afterlife would be tantamount to renouncing the value of the life he’s living. Lashing out at the priest, Meursault shows passion for the first time, vigorously defending the value of his life. Meaning is found in living, argues Meursault, and he will not give up on the meaning of his life just because he’s scared of dying. After the priest leaves, Meursault realizes that he’s happy – that living is a privilege, and that no matter when he dies, he will relish his moments of life.
Based on this depiction, it’s easy to dismiss existentialists as slightly more sophisticated hedonists. But Camus didn’t embody that in his life or in his writing. During World War II, Camus joined a cell of the French Resistance, putting his life at significant risk to fight against Nazi occupation. After the war, he dedicated himself to campaigning for human rights, working for the United Nations and advocating against the death penalty worldwide. Perhaps the best representation of Camus’s philosophy is his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who is condemned for all eternity to push a bolder up a hill, only to have it roll back down. Sisyphus’s existence seems pointless and miserable, but as Camus points out, it’s no different from ours – the human experience is to live, accomplish meaningless objectives, and die. But that’s not the endpoint, that’s the starting point, because individuals have the power to forge their own meaning, and to find pleasure and satisfaction in their lives even with the knowledge that it’s all transitory. To live a good life, Camus famously concludes, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The Stranger is a tough book to read, and Meursault is a tough character to root for. It’s easy to get caught up in the fact the he’s a pretty unsavory person. He seems to have no problem with associating with lowlifes, he treats his mother coldly and ignores her death, and he’s an unrepentant killer. In a traditional sense, he is beyond redemption. But Meursault doesn’t need our forgiveness to live and love his life. And so his choice to relish his life without redemption and without hope isn’t depressing, it’s inspiring. When I first read The Stranger, I was depressed and convinced my life was meaningless but wracked with anxiety about losing it. Meursault didn’t offer redemption or hope, but he did show me what it meant to create my own meaning by loving my life, and to this day I can’t read the ending passages of The Stranger without getting shivers. I hope Meursault won his appeal, got out of prison, and lived a quiet life doing what he loved until he died in peace. His fate is unclear in the book, but I’ll choose to imagine Meursault happy.
Max Accardi is a member of the Honors Program at Drury University. He is a senior chemistry and political science major.