The Stranger, Albert Camus’ 1946 pseudo-existentialist classic, was my most feared book in the Well-Read Man project. I read his other famous work, The Plague, back in college. I thought it was a pretty decent book about a town going through the misery of plague and quarantine. I found out after I turned in my essay that the book wasn’t really about an actual plague at all, but about something deeper, more meaningful, more existential, more difficult to figure out.
Warning: This review contains spoilers, but does it make a difference?
So I didn’t have much hope in being able to grapple with The Stranger, and the book didn’t disappoint. The story, narrated by a Mr. Meursault, speaks of life and death in and around Algiers, along the North African coast. Specifically, the story involves his own life and pending execution, stemming from both the natural death of his mother and the violent death of an Arab man by the narrator’s own hands. In the first half of the book, he attends his mother’s funeral and has a fling with his girlfriend before shooting the man on the beach. In the second half, he deals with his year in prison, his time before the court, and his pending death sentence.
The narrator makes it clear that it matters not whether he lives or dies, whether he loved his mother or not, whether he pulled the trigger or not. As Freddy Mercury says in Bohemian Rhapsody, “Mamma, I just killed a man…. Nothing really matters to me.” The story is all about a man for whom nothing really matters. What I can’t figure out is why Camus wrote the book at all, since it doesn’t really matter if he writes or doesn’t write. As he says in the book, “In either case, other men and women continue living, the world will go on as before.”
The narrator goes out of his way to discard God and the Christian view of salvation. But he is equally indifferent about man and society. It can’t be said enough: Nothing really matters. And yet, the mere existence of the book proves that it must matter, or Camus would not have bothered writing it, and college students wouldn’t bother reading it. Like The Catcher in the Rye, this novel makes the case for a worldview that itself helps to tear down. And while that victory over apathy doesn’t prove that God exists, that there is life after death, or that loving your mommy makes any difference at all, it does at least give one a reason to wonder if those things are important.
(For more information on this book, visit its project page.)