Albert Camus, 1942
The Stranger is a book I’ve known a lot about without ever reading it. It is often thought of as more of a philosophical tract than a novel in and of itself, and indeed I recently listened to a lecture series on existentialism that was more or less centered around it. The Wiki, which can generally be relied on for the conventional view of such things, teaches us that
Its theme and outlook are often cited as examples of existentialism, though Camus did not consider himself an existentialist; in fact, its content explores various philosophical schools of thought, including (most prominently and specifically) absurdism, as well as determinism, nihilism, naturalism, and stoicism.Now given all that, it is a remarkably approachable and readable book. It’s also a brisk little thing, which I barreled through in less time than it takes to get through an installment of Harry Potter. The style – at least in my translation (by Matthew Ward) – is terse, unadorned, and bears a recognizably American influence; if I had been told that this was a book by Earnest Hemingway, or for that matter Raymond Chandler, I wouldn’t have objected. Although it doesn’t have the structure of either a detective novel or a thriller, it has a similar sort of narrative arc. Unpleasant situations develop, and our curiosity about how they will be resolved keeps us engaged and turning the pages through to the end.
With this kind of readability, it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious that this is a book that “explores various philosophical schools of thought.” Frankly, I doubt I would have caught on if I hadn’t been coached. Much of what Camus intends as absurdism can also be read as psychological malady.
Take Meursault, the central character of the book. His most notable characteristic is his emotional flatness. He reports the events of his life with a vacant blandness, from a Sunday spent alone in his apartment to the death of his mother. He takes up with a mistress, the guy upstairs beats up his own mistress – these events are all pretty much the same to him. He furthermore conceives of life as something that happens to him rather than something he is really an active participant in, up to and including the famous murder that is the central event of the book. His subsequent imprisonment doesn’t bother him much because nothing bothers him much. His emotional life is completely empty.
Now, a character like this can be categorized as absurd, and his complete estrangement from the emotional world can be viewed as an exaggerated picture of existential alienation. A reader today, however, is more likely to see someone suffering from a pathological inability to process emotion. From this point of view, The Stranger becomes a rather hard-edged The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Meursault representing not the universal difficulties built into the human condition but merely a certain type of mental illness.
None of the above is meant to contradict or minimize the philosophical content that so many have found in the book, and that Camus clearly intended to put into it. What I’m saying is only that The Stranger works as a novel with or without the intellectual superstructure. You can read it and think deep thoughts, or you can do like Michael5000 and read it and think shallow thoughts. It’s a good book either way!