Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus

Summary: Meursault's mother has just died.  He goes swimming with Marie.  While at the beach with friends, with the sun in his eyes, he shoots and kills a man.  He goes to prison and is sentenced to death.

Musings: My summary above has "spoiled" the book, but I really know of no way to provide an overview to The Stranger that would effectively convey the book's essence.  This is my second or third time reading the novel (I know I read it in high school, but I'm not sure if I also read it in college), and I'll admit my reason for choosing it was rather lazy: I'm one book short of completing the Books of the Century challenge, and The Stranger allowed me to finish the challenge easily, since it's so short.

The Stranger is really a "classroom" book, by which I mean I think it is best understood and explored in a critical literary environment.  It's an absurdist novel that is focused on the way in which individuals are molded--and, when resistant, judged--by arbitrary standards of society.  Meursault is a character focused on physical, not emotional needs, and he goes through life accordingly.  During his mother's wake, he thinks primarily of being sleepy or dizzy.  When he kills "the Arab," he does so not out of anger or anything else, but because the sun is in his eyes and has made him uncomfortable.  As a reader, we find him odd and his lack of attachment disturbing, but our judgment of him is turned on its head during his trial.

In the trial, the prosecutor attacks Meursault for failing to cry or show emotional distress at his mother's funeral.  His shooting of the Arab is all but forgotten, and he is condemned solely because he did not act in the expected manner of a bereaved son--a point that, of course, has nothing to do with the shooting.  Here the reader reacts against society and its judgment of Meursault, but it is too late: the jury sentences him to death.

Before the trial and later while waiting execution, Meursault is repeatedly exhorted by others to express remorse and turn to God.  Meursault refuses, and in the end comes into his own sort of peace as he "opened [him]self to the gentle indifference of the world" (122).  The others say Meursault will only find peace in God, but instead he finds peace in knowing that he does not matter and the world does not care.  I too found this reassuring--it means there is no set plan, set fate, or set "way" we should lead our lives.  This freedom gives each person who recognizes it the ability to truly live as he/she sees fit, though it's clear from the book that society tries hard to destroy this freedom.

As it's been years since I read the book for an assigned class, I don't know how standard my interpretation is, but I liked analyzing and thinking about the short but powerful novel.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.

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