Despite the significant developments in science during the 19th century, the two devastating wars of the following century dismantled human faith in scientific and rational thinking. This negative outlook on society was first observed in Philosophy by authors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Twentieth-century literature is deeply influenced by existentialism that focuses on the character’s consciousness rather than following the traditional unfolding of the plot. In this way, contemporary literature makes the psychology of the individual its nucleus, yielding to the exploration of topics, such as absurdity, mortality or freedom. Therefore, this 101 series will analyze some of the most important existentialist works of literature from the 20th century to explore how the authors have intertwined their motivations with the widespread pessimism of the time.
This 101 series is divided into the following sections:
4. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Albert Camus and the Alienation of The Stranger
5. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Carmen Laforet's Nada and the Emptiness of Experience
6. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles' Eastern Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky
Albert Camus and the Alienation of The Stranger
Albert Camus’ The Stranger is one of the most known novels of the 20th century. The appeal of the work consists of the exploration of different ideas and motifs belonging to Freudian precepts and Existentialism. Camus offers the psychological portrayal of an apathetic individual which sparked several controversies at the time and also gave a glimpse into the philosophy of the Absurd. However, the final outlook on the story can only be perceived if it is read as a personal reflection in which Camus defines his vision of the absurd.
The psychoanalysis of literary characters was commonplace for twentieth-century writers. The intellectual world was immersed in the Freudian principles that defined the mind and equilibrium. Therefore, some regarded Freudian ideas as a medium to portray complex characters as well as define their struggles (Makari, 1988). In the novel, Camus presents the main character, Meursault, as an emotionally detached young man. His principal features are his lack of empathy and affection equally in happy or sad times. This detachment allows Meursault to avoid developing emotional relationships and to react shallowly to different problems. In psychology, detachment is regarded as a barrier that permits humans to escape emotional demands or close contact with others (Mahdi, 2019).
The plot of the novel follows Meursault who is a clerical worker in Algiers. The story opens with the death of his mother and his attending the funeral “seemingly unmoved” (Hauhart, 2016, p. 9). Afterward, an Arab has an argument with Meursault who ends up killing the man although there was no real provocation. He is convicted of the offense and spends his last days waiting for his execution. During this time, Meursault refers continuously to different natural elements, such as the sun, the sea or the sky that underline “the necessity of making existential choices” and “the fact that consequences flow from those choices.” (Hauhart, 2016, p. 9).
Camus was one of the most significant writers of his generation and the general impact of the novel on the public was impressive because of phenomena, such as terrorism or war. These issues were perceived as the product of an irrational and amoral world which made the perfect scenario for the novel’s reception. The French readers saw in Meursault a reflection of their meaningless existence and so did the rest of the European public. Both existentialism and the philosophy of the absurd presented a situation where human life had lost any sense and many identified with that notion (Hernández, 2012). The Stranger has been the center of several debates since its publishing in 1942. According to Viggiani (1959), the novel is an example of the author’s outlook on the philosophy of the absurd. Therefore, it is closely related to the Myth of Sisyphus in which the homonymous protagonist is condemned to repeat endlessly a meaningless task of pushing a stone up a hill. At first, the novel has a simple appearance, but it is the result of an extremely well-crafted plot. Therefore, the narration contains a wide range of motifs and symbols that refer to different elements of philosophy. For example, the main protagonist, Meursault, is one of the most important eccentricities of the book. He embodies the absurd hero just like Sisyphus did in Greek mythology since he does not follow any conventional rules. Meursault claims his freedom by showing indifference to any kind of emotional situation (Mahdi, 2019).
Meursault seems a rather normal individual from a simple reading of the text. Thus, Camus tries to portray him as a common person. For example, he worries about his boss’ answer when asking him for some time off to attend his mother’s funeral. He also has a lover named Marie that works in the same office and enjoys competitive sports. Nevertheless, Camus hides Meursault’s true features under his common appearance (Hauhart, 2016). In reality, Meursault thinks that any action is absurd because life has no purpose. Thus, he “resists action” (Hakutani, 1989, p. 369). Meursault does not seek chaos or order and maintains an apathetic attitude toward life. This passivity is related to Camus’ outlook on art. The author defends that art’s purpose is not to order, eternity or explanation, but to experiment with different situations. For Camus, artists cannot explain the world we live in since that enigma is “both infinite and inexplicable” (Hakutani, 1989, p. 369).
The Stranger is, above all, an existentialist story that includes ideas from Absurdism. Meursault is a man that does not follow defined rules of bad and good, and he does not fit into social categories. He only lives sensual experiences and rejects all phenomena related to the state of mind. He does not even love Marie who has developed strong feelings for him. Meursault only considers her to be a sexual object to satisfy his demands (Hernández, 2012). Thus, The Stranger adopts a darker tone in comparison with the Myth of Sisyphus since it presents “indifference toward society’s hypocrisies coexisting with both alienated indifference and a thinly camouflaged, disillusioned rage.” (Haber, 2019, p. 359).
Camus uses symbolism to frame themes of existential choice and individual responsibility. Since the artist is not able to define the world, the task is relegated to natural elements. For example, there are continuous references to the sun, the sea, the sky, and the sand from the beginning of the novel. These references are made by Meursault who avoids thoughts of his mother’s death. Since the protagonist is emotionally detached, he finds a connection with his physical surroundings. As the plot unfolds, Meursault is more aware of the landscapes than he is of human feelings and attributes. He feels completely integrated when relating to natural phenomena but feels his otherness when experimenting with sensations that go beyond the physical world (Hernández, 2012). The culmination of these climatic descriptions arrives with the killing of the Arab. This scene is dominated by continuous images of sand, the sea or the sky. Camus sets a trend among writers when describing North African settings thanks to the use of highly evocative images. This will be later followed by other authors, such as Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (Hauhart, 2016).
In his trial, Meursault affirms that he never wanted to murder the Arab when asked about the murderer. He even defends himself by stating that the sun was the factor that disturbed his mental state. At this point of the trial, every single one of the people present believes in Meursault’s culpability. Nevertheless, when looking back at the scene, Camus presents the action as a hallucination “as though he were a sleepwalker, or as if his body were being moved along by a power entirely outside his mind or his will” (Poser, 2000, p. 262). After committing the crime, Meursault is moved to tears which could have been a delayed mourning reaction to his mother’s passing.
Arthur Scherr (2014) proposes a political reading of Maursault’s killing of the Arab. The scholar establishes that the character is shaped by a general view of the colonizer’s figure. Therefore, he arbitrarily commits the crime as a “wake-up call to the colons to comprehend their cruelty and treat the Arab majority with fairness, dignity, and decency.” (Scherr, 2014, p. 180). After all, the reader cannot ignore the French dominance over Algeria which resulted in a devastating civil war. The context of the novel largely responds to Camus’ experience as of French descent in the African country. In this wise, the author seems to position himself favorably towards an autonomous Algeria.
When Meursault is judged for his crime, the human and natural forces enter into contact since he is not only charged with killing a man, but also for being an amoral person. Meursault’s conflict with society reaches its peak and is seen in his ethical nakedness. For example, several shots against the Arab are constantly mentioned, but Meursault claims that the important one is the first since it is the one that killed the man. Camus contrasts Meursault’s opinion with a society that gives great importance to the several shots. For society, not only is Meursault a killer, but he is also a cruel person that wanted to see his victim suffer (Hernández, 2012). Nevertheless, his punishment is ambiguous since he is condemned for his apathy and his lack of hypocrisy. One cannot know the real cause of his execution, that is, the reader does not know if he is judged by his crime or by his unwillingness to play the social comedy. In the myth, Camus notes that the world is not absurd, but it is rather irrational. The confrontation of man with the world is the origin of absurdity since the principal longing of the human being is unity (Henry, 1975).
This clash between the individual and the world is largely explored in Camus’ bibliography. The author had a really turbulent life since his early childhood because he experienced several devastating situations, such as tuberculosis, the Second World War, and Algeria's independence. These phenomena shaped his principles and outlook on the world. In this way, his thoughts were very much related to existentialist ideas and to absurdism. Camus is the figure that solidifies the philosophy of the absurd since he includes ideas from this movement in all his novels. Nevertheless, there were other predecessors that helped formulate the philosophical tendency. In the novel, the author proposes a conflict between two different ideas that question the irrationality of human life: on the one hand, the longing of the human being to find reason and unity, and, on the other hand, the universe’s indifference (Hernández, 2012). However, The Stranger “is not a formal philosophical position, rather more of a lyrical, essayistic “sensibility” on the dilemma of facing vast unknowns.” (Haber, 2019, p. 352). Absurdity is defined as the conflict between our longing for a rational world experience and the inevitable failure of such expectation. For Camus, the world is utterly indifferent to human desires and, thus, defines “absurdity as a sense of uncanniness” (Haber, 2019, p. 352).
Finally, Camus notes that there are three options when the individual notices their irrelevance. Firstly, suicide is regarded as an implicit confession of the worthlessness of life. Thus, it is easier to erase the subject from the universe. Secondly, the individual fully recognizes the irrelevance of existence, but deliberately ignores it. By affirming their insignificance, the person would commit a philosophical suicide and, therefore, this realization is never expressed. Thirdly, the individual can claim their true role in the universe and acknowledge their irrelevance. The last option is the only viable one according to Camus’ outlook on the world. Therefore, Meursault chooses the last one since he does not commit suicide and recognizes his insignificance. In the trial, he experiences a catharsis in which he acknowledges his meaninglessness and feels free. As a matter of fact, he feels at peace with his death sentence and no longer makes an effort to declare himself innocent (Hernández, 2012).
In conclusion, Camus rejects any ideology that proposes supreme rationality since he believed that alienation had become natural to the human being. Modern man invested in developing several comforts to satisfy the need for closure. For example, mass religion, institutions, or even rationality were human creations to appease human beings. Humans feel the need to fill the emptiness caused by the indifference of the universe and, therefore, are in continuous flight from the truth. In The Stranger, Camus reveals that it is impossible to evade oneself from life’s indifference and that every attempt to find meaning in life is an example of absurdity. Therefore, all social conventions seem void and utterly hypocritical because, deep down, nobody believes in them. The novel reflects the social comedy in which most humans are immersed and the contrast of this with a human who is aware of his alienation. This clash between the individual and the world’s apathy is the origin of absurdity, that is, as Camus claims, all human reasoning to understand the world is destined to irrevocably fail.
Haber, D. (2019). Intimate Strangers: Albert Camus and Absurdity in Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, Self and Context, 14(4), 349–366. https://doi.org/10.1080/24720038.2018.1557195
Hakutani, Y. (1989). Richard Wright’s “The Outsider” and Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.” The Mississippi Quarterly, 42(4), 365–378.
Hauhart, R. C. (2016). Sand, sun, sea, and sky: Alliteration, repetition, and the theme of existential choice in camus’ "the stranger". The International Journal of Literary Humanities, 14(3), 7-14. doi: https://doi.org/10.18848/2327-7912/CGP/v14i03/7-14
Henry, P. (1975). “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “The Stranger” of Albert Camus. Philosophy Today (Celina), 19(4), 358–368. https://doi.org/10.5840/philtoday19751949
Hernández, R. K. (2012). Albert Camus y el extranjero. Revista De Lenguas Modernas, (17), 123-129,442. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/albert-camus-y-el-extranjero/docview/1448246803/se-2
Mahdi, I. (2019). Emotional Detachment in Albert Camus’ The Stranger: A Happy Man Drawn into Misery. Journal of humanistic and social studies, X(2), 37–44.
Makari, G. J. (1988). The Last Four Shots: Problems of Intention and Camus’ “The Stranger.” American Imago, 45(4), 359–374. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26303878
Poser, S. (2000). The unconscious motivation to become a murderer in camus' the stranger. Modern Psychoanalysis, 25(2), 259. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/unconscious-motivation-become-murderer-camus/docview/212427265/se-2
Viggiani, C. (1956). Camus’ L’Étranger. PMLA, 71(5), 865–87.
Figure 1. Anonymous. (1957). Camus' Portrait from New York World-Telegram. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Camus
Figure 2. Sadequain (2016). Meursault at the Window. [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153309
Figure 3. Stuck, F. (1920). Myth of Sisyphus. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism
Figure 4. Yun, Y. (2011). Illustration. Retrieved from https://www.behance.net/gallery/1203311/The-Outsider-by-Albert-Camus
Figure 5. Ensor, J (1889). portrait of the artist surrounded by masks. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://historia-arte.com/obras/autorretrato-con-mascaras-de-ensor
Figure 6. Yun, Y. (2011). Illustration. Retrieved from https://www.behance.net/gallery/1203311/The-Outsider-by-Albert-Camus
Cover image. Stimac, V. (2016). The Myth of Sisyphus. [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.behance.net/gallery/44067829/Albert-Camus-The-Myth-of-Sisyphus-Illustration