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Literature / The Stranger

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"Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know."note 

The first novel of Albert Camus, published in 1942—which subsequently launched his writing career.

The narrator is an emotionally detached young man, one M. Meursault (we never get his first name), a man who lives in French-colonized Algeria sometime between the two World Wars. The book opens with the news of his mother's death. He visits her nursing home, muses on the life she led there, then attends her funeral, most of which he finds quite boring. While he is reprimanded for not showing any grief, he doesn't really see the problem and soon asks out a nice girl he meets at the beach, who is a former co-worker. She becomes his girlfriend and the two happily spend time together as Meursault goes about his daily life, working in a nondescript office.

As the days go by, Meursault begins observing his neighbors. One of those neighbors, Raymond, enlists Meursault's help in getting revenge on his girlfriend, an Arab woman, who he thinks was cheating on him. As Meursault's friendship with Raymond progresses, the reader slowly comes to realize that Meursault's lack of grief at his mother's death wasn't an isolated incident. And some time later, when the brother of Raymond's girlfriend offends Meursault by getting the sun in his eye, things go off the deep end.

Throughout the novel, Meursault struggles to understand what everyone around him keeps being so upset about. Rather hilariously, it is not always Meursault's more reprehensible characteristics that people take offense at - his atheism, for example, is noted by the people around him as more offensive than his actions against an Arab. As Meursault ponders the meaninglessness of life, he is genuinely baffled when he begins to understand social concepts like grief, crime and punishment.

One of the defining works of Existentialism and Absurdism, and deeply satirical.

A Film of the Book, starring Marcello Mastroianni as Meursault, was made in Italy in 1967, directed by Luchino Visconti and produced by Dino De Laurentiis.

In contrast, the 1946 film of the same name directed by and starring Orson Welles has no connection at all to Camus' book.

Provides examples of:

  • Absurdism: An early specimen and one of the best known non-theatre examples.
  • The Antichrist: The prosecutor nicknamed Meursault like this.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: Meursault comes off as this. To him, life is meaningless since death is inevitable and nothing will remain, and so he thinks that nothing really matters whether it is ambition, goals, morals, friendship, love and ultimately even death itself, but he does not mind meaninglessness, and he takes joy in the moment. This also means that to him every life is equally valuable, even a dog's life. May be horrifying, depending on whether or not you follow Camus' philosophy.
    • Meursault is also one of the rare examples of this trope that follow through with the nihilistic aspect of this philosophy. While Anti-Nihilists typically decide to ascribe their own meaning in the face of a meaningless universe, Meursault is actually pretty ok with this idea and just doesn't care. Indeed, despite believing that everything is meaningless and nothing matters, ("I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered") Meursault judges that nothing should be done about it, which is pretty much in total opposition with what the traditional existentialist stands for. Thus Meursault is still able to enjoy and love life in spite of it being unjust, pointless and meaningless.
      Meursault: 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.
  • Artistic License – History: As more than one critic has noted, this book takes place in French-colonial Algeria before independence, and the main character, an ethnically French colonist (in the phraseology of the period, a piednoir) murders an Arab man that he doesn't know and has no reason to kill — and yet he is arrested and tried for murder and found guilty, and sentenced to death. In real-life colonial Algeria, he probably wouldn't have been arrested, and even if he had been, he almost certainly wouldn't have been found guilty. Of course, in the story it's clear he would probably have been let off if he hadn't admitted being an atheist. That convinces the authorities he's a monster, and it's this he really gets condemned for. See the entry under Kangaroo Court; it appears that the particular court that tries Meursault is more belligerent than normal, and appears to be doing whatever it can to find him guilty.
  • Author Avatar: Camus has incorporated some aspects of his life into his character. The story Meursault tells about his father vomiting after witnessing an execution really happened, to Camus' father.
  • Beige Prose: The narrator's tendency to give equal weight to everything - from his mother's death to how he feels about someone at any point in time - leads to this. This was intentional; Camus was intentionally imitating the "manly" American writers who wrote like this, particularly Ernest Hemingway. It also fits the purpose of the text. Mersault, being completely detached and succumbing to nihilistic despair, views everything in a muted gray funk.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Interestingly averted. Word of God claimed that it never occurs to Meursault to say anything but the truth, but in fact Meursault lies at least twice, each time with unpleasant consequences. He writes the letter for Raymond that will persuade Raymond's girlfriend to return, knowing that Raymond only wants her back so he can beat her up; later he lies to the police, backing up Raymond's claim that he didn't hit the girl.
  • Cessation of Existence: What Meursault believes happens after death.
  • Character Witness: Meursault and Raymond for each other.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Literal, with a side of irony. Meursault takes Raymond's pistol away from him so that Raymond won't shoot the Arab.
  • Chewbacca Defense: Mersault is convicted not so much for shooting an Arab as for not loving his mother enough and being an atheist.
  • December–December Romance: Between the elder Meursault and her "fiancé" Thomas Perez. He is inconsolable at her funeral, in contrast to her apparently indifferent son.
  • Domestic Abuse: Raymond's physical abuse of his girlfriend is what leads to his confrontation with the Arab, who is her brother.
  • Downer Ending: The book ends with the protagonist, having shot a random guy for no apparent reason, being guillotined for the murder, never showing any remorse or giving any explanation for his crime. Well, it's Albert Camus, what did you expect?
  • Empty Shell: Averted. Meursault may appear to be this, simply because of the Beige Prose (see above), but a closer reading reveals that he does have emotions.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first two sentences of the book, quoted at the top of the page.
  • Extreme Doormat: Meursault initially seems to be an Empty Shell, but given his violent outburst at the priest in the end, it's more likely that he's one of these with a small remaining core of selfhood. He apparently used to have ambitions and dreams, but he abandoned them all as meaningless. Since he thinks nothing really matters, he does pretty much anything people ask him to.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Eventually, Meursault comes to terms with his execution:
    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. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.
  • Foil: Meursault and just about everyone else.
  • Heat Wave: There is a recurrent heat wave in Algiers and the generally hot climate there has an effect on Meursault's mind.
  • The Hedonist: Subverted. At first it seems like Meursault only lives for the pleasures of the senses, but the things he enjoys are quite simple: hot chocolate, cigarettes, sex with his girlfriend (he refuses to go to the brothel when Raymond proposes it), strolling. Once in prison and deprived of all of his pleasures, it doesn't stop him from being happy.
  • The Hero Dies: Though his death is never depicted, he knows in the end that it's coming soon.
  • Hollywood Atheist: The law officials' attitude towards Meursault changes when they find out he's an atheist, and they try to portray him as a violent monster afterward. The prosecutor even said Meursault was worse than the parricide who will be tried after.
  • Incriminating Indifference: The prosecution's argument against Meursault is, essentially, "He didn't cry at his mother's funeral, therefore he's psychotic, therefore he deserves to die." It doesn't help that Meursault admits his guilt from the get-go.
  • It's Always Sunny at Funerals
  • Jerkass: Raymond beats his girlfriend up and has a neighbor write a threatening letter to her, gets in a fight with the girl's brother, and when the neighbor and friend he got into this mess kills him, leaves him for dead. Salamano literally kicks his dog, among other abuses. And the case can be made either way for Meursault.
  • Kangaroo Court: It's a fact that Meursault killed a man, so the court proceedings are meant to prove whether or not it was premeditated. Since there's no evidence to suggest it, the trial relies entirely on character witnesses, most of whom are actually supportive of Meursault. However, the prosecutor relies entirely on circumstantial testimony, insane leaps in logic, and outright theatrics to "prove" the act was premeditated. And it works. As Meursault himself notes, he's completely removed from his own trial.
  • Last-Name Basis: Meursault.
  • Light Is Not Good: Meursault mentions the sun being particularly bright on the day of his mother's funeral, and when he shoots the Arab. Light and heat is a recurring motif throughout the book, for example: when waiting for the bus, the wake, the burial, and the aforementioned beach. Meursault thinks of all of those examples negatively. Whether this means something is up to your interpretation.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Meursault doesn't think friendship is a very important thing and so doesn't bother to develop them, even if he hangs out with a colleague, it's only to pass time, and he usually spent most of it by himself.
  • Martyr Without a Cause: Camus described Meursault as a kind of martyr that "is ready to die for the truth". However, truth is understood as an absolute truth here, but Meursault's death was more about speaking his mind truly, thus it is safe to say he would be ready to die for anything that involves the truth. Camus even says of Meursault that he "is the only Christ we deserve".
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: The guard that Meursault befriends in prison mentions that other prisoners who (like him) miss women find ways to "relieve" themselves.
  • No Name Given: Meursault's victim is known only as "the Arab", emphasizing the utter randomness of his crime and his own detachment from it.
    • In fact, none of the Arab characters are named, perhaps as an illustration of the social gulf between them and the ethnically French pieds-noirs who make up most of the cast.
  • Not So Stoic: After spending the story completely calm and indifferent to absolutely everything, Meursault SNAPS at the priest at the book's end.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the 1967 movie, Meursault's first name is Arthur.
  • Off with His Head!: The death sentence was then carried out with the guillotine and until 1939, it was in public.
  • Purple Prose: Invoked in the prosecutor's angry tirades against Meursault. Especially egregious when he is expounding upon the perceived emptiness of Meursault's soul.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Raymond and Meursault.
  • The Sociopath: How the court interprets Meursault's stoic demeanor, especially after they find out he's atheist and didn't especially care for his mother. On one hand he fits most of the criteria: he doesn't feel grief, doesn't understand things like love, is in a state of constant boredom and only appreciates immediate pleasures such as hot chocolate, smoking, and sex. On the other hand however, he sees no point in lying and is bluntly honest (something a sociopath is mostly incapable of, often manipulating others for their own profit), isn't cruel or abusive towards the people around him, is capable of taking responsibility for his own mistakes and knows how insignificant he is (while sociopaths are shameless narcissists with a high sense of self-worth). Plus, he killed the Arab not for amusement but because he doesn't see why he shouldn't do it (so he lacks a moral compass but doesn't actually derive pleasure or satisfaction from it). Some authors argue that he might be in a state of Anomie.
  • The Stoic: Meursault, of course. He feels emotions, but not for the same reasons as most people, and he doesn't really show it.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Meursault. Or rather, Too Neutral To Live. He does things, usually, because there's no reason not to do them; the few things he enjoys are immediate pleasures like smoking and sex.
  • Uncatty Resemblance: Lampshaded with Salamano. He's acquired his dog's scabs and sores, and the dog has acquired his stooped, neck-straining look.
  • Verbal Tic: Everything Masson says contains the phrase "and I'd even say."
  • We All Die Someday: An important part of Meursault's philosophy, see The Anti-Nihilist above.