Albert Camus was a French writer and philosopher whose principal school of philosophy was absurdism, and the study of the Absurd. From my very basic understanding* the main conflict posed by absurdism was the human mind’s tendency to rationalise and assign meaning and value to the meaning of life, and the inability to do so. His works often explored man’s desire for significance and meaning in the face of the silent and cold existence of the universe. While many of his works and essays are linked to existentialism, Camus was always keen to point out that he was not an existentialist.
*Having only read Camus’s The Plague and The Outsider, I am keen to pick up The Myth of Sisyphus next, in which Camus explains his understanding of the absurd in more detail. From the little I’ve read on the subject it seems fascinating.
L’Étranger was published in France in 1942, and was later translated into English in 1946, published as The Outsider (or The Stranger in the US). A philosophical novel, its outlook centres on the Absurd, and an odd character named Mersault, the narrator of the book and the titular ‘outsider’. The very first line reads “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Immediately Camus introduces us to a protagonist who is distant and does not conform to the same emotions one would expect a man in society to do.
The first part of the book details the funeral of Mersault’s mother, and Mersault’s general indifference and lack of grief is noted by several characters. Just days after the funeral he meets with a female colleague, Marie, who he begins a sexual relationship with, as well as becoming acquaintances with his volatile neighbour. On a weekend at another friends beach hut, Mersault carries out a spontaneous act of violence and shoots a man dead. The reasoning for this is never explained in certain terms by Mersault. The second half focuses on Mersault in prison and standing trial for his crimes. To his surprise the prosecutor focuses not on the murder itself but Mersault’s lack of empathy, his quietness, his passiveness. He believes this points to his guilt, and through further trials, accuses the defendant of lacking remorse. As such, he believes the only appropriate punishment is death.
Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.
Mersault is described in sparse detail. If he has opinions he keeps them to himself. His actions and the consequences of those actions have little affect on him. The overall plot is simplistic and at around 150 pages The Outsider isn’t a difficult read, but this gives the reader a canvas upon which to prescribe their own ideals. Depending on your morals and understandings of human nature, this book could disturb you, it could anger you, it could depress you. At times I was sympathising with Mersault, at others I despised him.
Less of a story and more of a fascinating character study, The Outsider is an interesting introduction into the philosophical dilemmas that Camus and the Absurd pose. If you have any interest in the Absurd and existentialism, take a look.