Continuing my efforts to read the books I missed as an undergraduate but should have read, I finished Albert Camus’s The Stranger last night. At first, I wondered that it was the work of the same author. The first fifty or so pages were so plain, almost entirely devoid of reflection or even adjectives.* The most interesting part of this book happens after the narrator is imprisoned. The book comes strangely to life at that point. It reminded me of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz, as if we moved from black and white into color.
For the first part of the book, until the protagonist–Meursault–kills an Arab, the writing is a very spare narrative and mostly just describes how he spends his days. The overwhelming impression I got of Meursault was that he was quite apathetic. Whenever someone asks him for his preference, he replies that he has none. When his girlfriend asks him if he loves her, Meursault replies that the word is meaningless. He has small pleasures, but nothing affects him. Even when his mother dies, Meursault doesn’t seem to feel any of the grief an ordinary person would feel. For many pages, I thought that he might be stupid, or autistic, or had some kind of affect disorder. Like the language of the book, the character really seems to come to life after he is put in jail for several months.
All the descriptions of the book I had read previously made me think that The Stranger was about the crime, with a Trial-like exploration of the judicial system. Indeed, Meursault’s trial is almost as absurd as Joseph K’s. Meursault’s victim is clearly an afterthought as the prosecutor and the judge’s are much more interested in how the protagonist reacted at his mother’s funeral. In fact, his defense lawyer exclaims at one point: “Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?” (121**). As I read on, I wondered if the eponymous stranger was Meursault because no one else could understand him.
But The Stranger is more philosophical than it is absurd. As soon as I stopped trying to find a psychological explanation for Meursault, I found that I rather admired his acceptance of his death sentence. Critics will say that this is an existentialist book, but I wonder if Stoic might not be a better description. Meursault doesn’t worry about his place in the world or his purpose. He tries to appeal his sentence, but when that fails, he makes peace with his situation. Granted, Meursault doesn’t pursue virtue like a true Stoic would. But I can’t deny that he has the calmness of one. After a fascinating exchange with a chaplain who cannot accept his atheism, Meursault has this remarkable thought:
With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. (154)
The line about the “benign indifference of the universe” particularly resonated with me. I’ve long believed in something similar myself. Like Meursault, I take comfort in it because it truly gives us free will. We make our own choices and have to live (or die) with the consequences.
Like all good books, The Stranger makes one think about what one believes. Like a great book, it makes one question what one believes. I’m sure other readers will be disturbed by this book, especially in the way that Meursault thinks about death and what happens or doesn’t happen after. The Stranger might seem a simple read, but I found it very profound.
* I apologize for the formality of my language. I’ve been watching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and this always happens to me.
** All quotations are from the 1965 Alfred A. Knopf edition.