Books: The Cheapest Vacation You Can Buy

{January 17, 2014}   {Review} The Stranger by Albert Camus

The StrangerFrom Goodreads: Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” This edition includes the original English translation by Stuart Gilbert, first published in 1946.


I first read this when I was in high school.  I hated it.  I didn’t get it—not ever a little bit.  The only thing that resounds in my mind is my English teacher asking the class if the main character had a name, and we all said “no.”  WRONG. I remember her telling us that he did have a name, and then showing us where it was… but that’s all I remember besides not understand the book or liking it in the least.

So, of course it’s only fitting that, fifteen years later, I find myself in the classroom being asked to discuss The Stranger.  I hemmed.  I hawed.  I asked fellow educators what to do—I did not want to work with this book.  First of all, I still didn’t understand either the philosophy of absurdism or existentialism, and trying to wrap my head around these two concepts was throwing me for a serious loop.  Secondly, my own experience with the book was getting in my way of attempting it again.  But of course, we do what we must, and I reread the book with my personalized, watered down notes on absurdism and existentialism in front of me every step of the way. And guess what?  I finally got it.  But it took a while.

I think my main issue stemmed from the fact that absurdism and existentialism have such convoluted definitions that trying to muddle through the definitions themselves bogs the mind and causes extreme confusion.  If you google the terms, you will see that most of the language used in trying to decipher the philosophies is extremely formal and above and beyond easy recognition.  So, it took me a while to search through multiple definitions and finally come up with a watered down version that I would be able to not only understand, but also be comfortable in presenting in a manner that made understanding the text easier for others.  This took a while, but I eventually got there.

Absurdism is the belief that there is no meaning in life, but that the individual will continue to search for meaning regardless, trying to make meaning in a meaningless world.  So, an absurdist would believe that there is no point to anything.  In other words, our main character, Mersault, who has adopted this absurdist worldview, finds no meaning in life, death, work, friendship—and understanding this allows for our comprehension as Camus develops the story.  We see Mersault constantly shrugging off questions and concerns from his peers:

Do you want to be friends?

–I guess; it doesn’t matter.

Are you sad your mother died?

–Not really; it doesn’t matter to me; I’d like to take a nap.

Do you want to get married?

–Umm, if it makes you happy? It doesn’t matter to me.

Why did you kill that man?

–I don’t know, because I could, I guess.

And so on and so forth go these interactions throughout the book.  Understanding absurdism and the fact that there is no meaning behind anything sheds light on Mersault’s casual, blasé manner.  And while I constantly want to put meaning behind his actions, stating that Mersault’s a depressed person and that’s why he acts the way he does, absurdism actually stops me from being able to do this.  And that’s because there is no meaning behind anything, this book included, so in other words, there is no ability to state that Mersault’s depressed as there’s no meaning behind his actions.  Read that again.  My definition is still a bit convoluted, I believe.

As a person who is constantly searching out the meaning behind a text, I find myself searching for meaning and trying to attribute meaning to Mersault’s actions and characters, BUT, as there’s no meaning, I can’t actually do that.  So says and absurdist.  And while I disagree, it makes sense on a philosophical level.  In other words, the book just is, and Mersault just is, and no one can attribute meaning to what is happening because there is no meaning in the world.  However, we will constantly try, and fail, to assert meaning.  Okay…

Existentialism has a very widespread meaning, but the easiest form for me to understand is that it goes along the lines that there is nothing above man, above “me,” and that life revolves around me.  I am, therefore, responsible for just me, and you for just you.  We, as readers, constantly see this philosophy show up in The Stranger as well.  Mersault is constantly wondering how everything affects him–he doesn’t worry about how it affects others.  He pays more attention to the details around him than other’s feelings because it’s all about him.  But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because there isn’t any meaning, so…  Ugh.  I feel like we’re going around in circles now.

But, all this philosophy speak aside, I actually found that I enjoyed this book so much more this time around, and discussing absurdism and existentialism with others made this a fun read, so I’ll say that overall, I enjoyed it.  I’m not in love with it yet.  No, not yet; but perhaps that will change when I re-read this again next year. Three stars.

3 stars

I’ve owned a copy of this novel since high school.


et cetera
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