Title & Author
The title of the novel is The Stranger. The author's name is Albert Camus. The translation by Matthew Ward (Vintage International 1988 edition) is used for this analysis.
Historical and Cultural Context
The author Camus was born in Algeria in 1913; his poor upbringing would later affect his ideas and his writing. He formed a philosophy of absurdity that had neither hope nor despair; it was a hopeless optimism. It fit in well with, and influenced, the still-forming ideas of existentialism. Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre arguably influenced Camus, as evidenced by allusions to “The Wall” in Chapter 5 of the 2nd section. The main character of the novel, M. Meursault, is an example of absurdity. He goes through the 8 stages of absurd existentialism after he is sentenced to death (and thus thinks about life).
Camus witnessed things during his childhood and early years that would have led him to the conclusions that he made. His father died shortly after he was born, in a battle in World War I in 1914. He was impoverished for much of his youth, and was only able to pay for a college education through hard work. Unfortunately, he became ill and was never able to complete his education. The results of these years led him to believe in the meaninglessness and utter absurdity of life.
The Arabs in the novel are treated with less respect than those of French descent, as was mostly true during that time period. The Arabs remain nameless throughout the novel in order to more accurately represent the attitude that French society had towards them.
The novel takes place in Algeria, mostly in the city Algiers. It is during a period of French colonialism in the early twentieth century, and most of the characters are of French descent. The racial and social tension between the French and the Arabs is evident in the novel through the conflict between Raymond, his girlfriend, and her Arab relatives.
The point of view of the novel is first person. The main character Meursault narrates the entire novel from his jail cell while waiting to be executed; the first section of the novel is a retelling of the events that led up to his death sentence.
The protagonist is Meursault, a very dynamic character who finally thinks about life when faced with death. He is indifferent to the world until he realizes he may no longer be a part of it. By repressing his emotions, he was able to outwardly feel nothing at all. However, his real emotions were represented by his physical sensations, as in the case of his feeling uncomfortable in the sun. When he is sentenced to death, he begins to think, and reflects back on his actions. He reaches an emotional breaking point when the chaplain is yelling at him, and finally allows his emotions to be released at once; he has been through the stages of existentialist thought. He is now ready to accept his own fate, take responsibility for his actions, and invite the remaining absurdity of his life.
The antagonist in the novel is, coincidentally, Meursault. The primary conflict is internal to Meursault; the antagonism comes from his emotional repression. Because he is unable to express negative emotions like frustration, they are instead released through actions. Unfortunately for Meursault, one such action was the killing of the Arab. Also, he was seemingly indifferent towards his mother's death, because of his inability to express sadness or grief.
Marie is Meursault's girlfriend. She is fooling herself into thinking that Meursault loves her (or even cares at all) because she wants a relationship. However, she seems to be happy with a simple sexual affair prior to Meursault's imprisonment. It is evident by her lack of commitment post-imprisonment that she finally came to her senses. However, within the confines of the novel, she is a completely static character.
Raymond is a crude and immoral static character, and is a foil to Meursault. While Meursault is indifferent towards the world, Raymond is actually sinister. He beats his girlfriend, and then devises an evil plot to use her and degrade her to get revenge. He is targeted by her brother, and is the reason that Meursault is ever even in contact with the Arabs. Unlike Raymond, Meursault never wants to hurt anyone, and doesn't ever intend to cause any harm - he simply does not care.
Person vs. Person:
Meursault vs. The Arab - Meursault is followed by the Arabs (while in the company of Raymond, who they are pursuing). The Arabs attack Raymond. Raymond takes a gun to protect himself, but Meursault takes it from him in case he is tempted to use it - never intending to use it himself. This conflict is a red herring - Meursault did not care about the Arab. The reason he shot him is very debatable - however, I believe that it was Meursault's way of expressing emotion through unrelated action. He unknowingly tried to express his frustration with life and sadness over his loss through killing another human.
Person vs. Society:
Meursault vs. Society - Throughout the entire novel, Meursault is at odds with the functioning and machinery of society. Not only does he disobey the unwritten rules of society, but he is completely ignorant to them. Meursault is sentenced to death by a judge who claims that his crime was in fact “parricide”… on the grounds that he was indifferent at his mother's funeral. Unfortunately for Meursault, the judge does not understand that he was incapable of feeling emotion, and repressed the sadness that he felt. He is presumed to die by guillotine, although this event never actually takes place in the novel.
Person vs. Nature:
Meursault vs. The Sun - Meursault feels tired at Maman's funeral, and frustrated on the beach with the Arab, supposedly because of the sun. He thus condemns himself by shooting the Arab “because of the sun,” and by not caring at his mother's funeral for the same reason. This conflict, like the one between Meursault and the Arab, is a red herring. Meursault is never in conflict with the sun, but rather his own emotions (of which the sun is symbolic). He is unable to feel these emotions because of his repression, and his only release is through his actions. These actions are what condemn him. This conflict only ends when Meursault is finally able to stop repressing his emotion on page 120.
Person vs. God/supernatural:
Meursault vs. “God” (the chaplain and the magistrate) - when dealing with these two characters, Meursault has an extreme amount of frustration. All the frustration that he feels towards society is vented towards these religious members. Meursault feels frustrated by society's belief in God, and his clash with specific members of society due to his atheism. This conflict plays a role in his overall conflict with society by driving him away from it. Meursault feels attacked and threatened by the chaplain and the magistrate who believe that he is inhuman because he does not follow society's rule that one must believe in God. The resolution to this is Meursault's emotional outburst towards the chaplain when he is finally able to vent his frustration.
Person vs. Technology:
Meursault vs. The Gun - Meursault is in conflict with the gun on page 59 when he shoots the Arab. There is a moment when Meursault loses control, and his emotional subconscious takes over and fires the gun. Unfortunately, the subconscious doesn't have a problem with killing another human. Meursault, on a surface level, blames the gun because it is what allowed him to kill the Arab. This conflict is resolved as Meursault slowly realizes, over the course of the second section, that he killed a man.
Person vs. Self:
Meursault vs. Himself - throughout the novel, Meursault's conscious self is in conflict with his emotional subconscious. He represses his emotions; he releases those emotions subconsciously through his actions. Meursault reaches an emotional and psychological breaking point when arguing with the chaplain on page 120. He finally snaps, and is able to feel the emotions he has been repressing. This allows him to complete his existential journey and accept his own fate.
The climax of the novel is the point on page 59 when Meursault shoots the Arab. “(His) whole being tensed and (he) squeezed (his) hand around the revolver. The trigger gave…” This becomes the turning point of the novel, as it is the end of his recollection while in prison. It starts him on his journey of thought through the eight steps of existentialism, and leads to his eventual emotional release immediately preceding his death.
One theme of the novel is that mortality is the most important thing in life. It is our own mortality, our sense of the inevitability of death, which causes us to think about life. Without this cosmic consequence, the world would be full of people who think and act like Meursault - completely indifferent towards the world. Essentially, the world would lose its meaning if not for mortality.
Another theme of the novel is that absurdity pervades all human life, and that hope is completely and utterly wasted. All one can be sure of is death, which ties this theme into the first one mentioned. It is useless for one to hope to live, because one is going to die anyway; the time of death doesn't particularly matter.
One memorable moment was when Meursault shot the Arab, on page 59. It is memorable because it completely changed the action of the novel. This one event changed Meursault as a character more than any other; his emotional and psychological state began a journey at this point that ended with his emotional outburst towards the chaplain at the end of the novel.
Another memorable moment was that particular emotional outburst, on page 120. It was the conclusion of the carnival ride that Meursault's brain had been on - his cerebrum finally spewed forth emotion like a child vomiting on The Inverter.
One notable quote is the end of the first section, on page 59, when Meursault states, (in reference to shooting the Arab) “…it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.” This is interesting, as it is almost an emotional response coming from Meursault. Upon shooting the Arab (the first shot), he has just begun his emotional and existential journey. Also, this is foreshadowing - the “door of unhappiness” in this case leads to the “room of the guillotine” as Meursault is to be executed for his crime.
Another notable quote is the last sentence of the novel, at the end of the second section on page 123 - “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” This shows that Meursault has finally accepted the absurdity of life, and thus completed his existential journey. He realizes that he can die without feeling any negative emotion; for the first time, something actually does not matter.
The novel is structured into two parts. The first part is a retelling of Meursault's experiences leading up to his murder of the Arab. The second part is his experience on trial and awaiting death. This two-part structure illustrates the two possible ways one can go through life without caring - indifferent to all around them, or enlightened as to the absurdity of life. Meursault becomes a true existentialist as he moves from the first to the second category in the second section of the novel.
The imagery used in the novel mostly consists of light/dark imagery and of physical responses to emotion. There is a relationship between light and heat, and Meursault's emotional state - his responses to physical conditions actually represent his emotional state. He supposedly shoots the Arab “because of the sun,” when actually his emotional state is being expressed through his reactions to the physical. This imagery of the harsh sun helps to make the connection between physical and emotional.
There is symbolism used to create the connection between Meursault's feelings and his actions is evident throughout the novel. When Meursault feels sad at Maman's funeral, he doesn't realize it - he instead thinks he is hot and tired, and blames it on the sun. When he kills the Arab in a blast of frustration, he doesn't realize that it is an emotional outburst - again, he blames the sun. In both of these cases, the sun is symbolic of Meursault's real feelings and emotions that he refuses to feel.
The syntax and diction throughout the novel suggest that Meursault is not thinking very much, and is acting on very basic instinct. His actions are those of someone attempting to be immediately happy or satisfied. The syntax and diction reflect this - Meursault speaks in short, concise sentences, and uses simple words.
Significance of Title
The title, The Stranger, is significant because it describes the main character Meursault. He is a stranger to society because he does not follow its rules. The usage of the word “stranger” means something closer to “one who is strange” than the usual “one who is unknown” in this case.
Parallels to Other Works
The Stranger can be paralleled to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in that both novels illustrate the absurdity of life. However, the conclusions drawn by them differ immensely. The Stranger concludes that, although life is absurd, it is not meaningless - on the contrary, simply the fact that it exists gives it an intrinsic meaning. This is therefore an essentially existentialist novel. On the other hand, The Sound and the Fury uses nihilist philosophy to conclude that life is inherently meaningless. Although both novels illustrate life's absurdity, they lead to opposite viewpoints about life.
The Stranger can also be paralleled to Forster's A Passage to India in that both novels show an existentialist philosophy. At the end of The Stranger, Meursault realizes that he must accept his death, but can do so willingly (and without negative emotion), thus bringing his life meaning. The same phenomenon occurs in the characters of Fielding and Aziz in A Passage to India when they realize and accept that their friendship cannot last. Both novels reveal existentialism through characters' acceptance of circumstances.
Sidenote: this novel inspired the song "Killing an Arab" by The Cure, on the album "Boys Don't Cry".