Review: The Stranger
The Stranger is often pointed as a markedly existentialist work. I definitely agree. Before reading this, I never really understood what “existentialism” means; now I think I do.
As far as I can see, the prevailing view is that Camus identifies with Meursault; that Meursault’s message is Camus’s message; that the main character’s non-conformity is the only right thing in a pointless world. I don’t see it that way. I understand how the first-person narrative could lead to this thought, but the ego does not mean anything in this context. That would be preachy, and Camus does not preach. He merely registers facts as he sees them. Meursault’s story is a warning, or to be more exact, an ascertainment of what would happen if you don’t create your own meaning in life.
I believe the book is trying to tell us that we can’t expect to be born with a purpose; the soul-less universe just doesn’t bother to grant this gift to us. We can’t expect society to help us find our way either; it can only judge you, and it does judge you all the time, but it can’t give you anything meaningful.
The only values that give meaning to your life are those that you create on your own, and they will often seem silly from the outside. Like the affection Mr Perez had for Meursault’s mother in the nursing home; or Salamano’s ugly dog and their odd relationship; or Marie’s infatuation with a man who seems to give her nothing in return.
These silly things make human existence meaningful. But if a person lacks them, there’s no problem, there is yet another option: to not exist. A person like Meursault who finds no true meaning in living, can find meaning in “not living”. The threat of being executed is the only thing that brings up actual emotions in him, and when he finally accepts his imminent death (tomorrow, or in 20 years), that actually makes him happy. (And this time the judging society turns out to be quite helpful, as it is quick to condemn people to non-existence.)
Personally, I do not agree with such an extreme relativism; my world view is different and I think that there are, indeed, some absolute truths. But I enjoyed the brilliant way Camus presented his philosophy, leading the reader in a vortex of thoughts, so I can easily give five stars to The Stranger (not that it matters 😉 ).