By Jake Oblak, IV Form
The Absurd Act of Looking for Meaning in Camus’ The Stranger
What is the meaning of absurdism? How are absurdist people perceived by others? How can someone be impacted by this lifestyle? These are all questions that arise from The Stranger by Albert Camus. This philosophical novel follows a man named Meursault through a portion of his adult life. His experiences in the book range from his romantic relations with his girlfriend Marie to being sentenced to the guillotine after being convicted of murder. Throughout these events, problems emerge as a result of Meursault’s absurdist lifestyle, and personal values. Consequently, Camus delivers an eloquent introduction to absurdism and negative impacts of believing in a counter-cultural philosophy, but based on his own logic looking for a message in his writing would be ignorant.
Absurdism is an uncommon philosophy compared to modern day ideologies, but its outlook on life is unique. Absurdism is defined as “a philosophical perspective which holds that the efforts of humanity to find meaning or rational explanation in the universe ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least to human beings” (New World). As this definition explains, absurdism is based on the idea that life has no meaning and is completely arbitrary. As a result, looking for any kind of meaning in life would be considered futile. Through an absurdist lens partaking in events in order to fulfill a requirement created by society is ridiculous. This is a common theme which occurs repeatedly throughout The Stranger. Absurdists believe in doing what feels right to them, rather than doing what is right in the eyes of the norm manufactured by society.
Albert Camus is a central figure in absurdism and was one of the first to enlighten people about the staples of the philosophy. Camus formulated the philosophy as a whole and acted as an ambassador for the spread of absurdism. He often wrote about absurdism in his literature such as in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus (Maguire). In The Stranger specifically, Camus addresses the philosophy of absurdism and how its principles may apply to common human experiences. Camus displays some of the atypical ideology of absurdism through the main character Meursault. Meursault lives an absurdist lifestyle and only places emphasis on things that matter to him and that he sees as relevant.
This ideology of Meursault first comes to prominence after Meursault’s mother dies. Meursault’s mother is about to be forever sealed in her casket when the funeral coordinator asks, “Would you like to see your mother one last time?” to which Meursault simply answers, “No” (Camus 13). This behavior by Meursault is not a unique occurrence, Meursault upholds the same eccentric demeanor after the funeral service when he describes his trip back home: “[I was filled with] joy when the bus entered the nest of lights that was Algiers and I knew I was going to bed to sleep for twelve hours” (Camus 18). While it appears that Meursault is apathetic towards his mother’s death from these passages, that is actually not the case. Instead, he is just following the fundamental basis of absurdism, which states no meaning is contained in Meursault’s mother’s death and he should move on. Meursault appreciated his mother while she was alive, but feels no need to mourn unnecessarily.
The theme of Meursault’s neutrality towards relationship resurfaces with his lover Marie. After spending a plethora of time together, Marie falls in love with Meursault and aspires to take the next step: “That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to” (Camus 41). Meursault is indifferent about getting married to Marie because he doesn’t assign any significant meaning to the title of marriage. In the eyes of Meursault, marriage is another construct created by society that contains negligible value. Meursault likes to be with Marie because he enjoys her company not because he is hoping to gain the title of a married couple.
While these two events don’t hold a monumental significance in aggregate of Meursault’s life, a later event caused by his instinctive philosophy dismantled his life as he knew it. When Meursault stands face to face with an Arab man holding a knife, he acts on his compulsion rather than his logic of what is the “right” thing to do: “The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead… I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave” (Camus 59). Meursault shoots an Arab man not because he is threatened, but because he urges to in the moment. Acting on his own wishes and failing to recognize the long-term effect of his actions is a staple of absurdism. Meursault shot the Arab because it felt right in the moment and doesn’t look for any meaning in his own actions or the other man’s death. While it may seem evident that Meursault’s actions are deranged, he does not see it this way. Common sense and “normal” human morality would tell us that murder is seldom justified, but Meursault fails to recognize this in the moment. His personal beliefs have distanced Meursault so far from the norm that he can’t even recognize the salient issues with his actions until long after he committed the crime.
Camus also works to divulge some of the judgment that is cast upon absurdists because of their unorthodox philosophies. In today’s society, people are supposed to comply with an unspoken “norm” and failure to do so can create tension. This phenomenon becomes apparent when the magistrate is speaking with Meursault about God: “‘Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. Then he lowered his head and sat back down. He told me that he pitied me. He thought it was more than a man could bear” (Camus 117). The magistrate is acting as if Meursault’s beliefs have no value and as if he should pity Meursault because he does not believe in God. Meursault is viewed as a fool and as someone who is deeply struggling because his beliefs don’t align with the magistrate’s. However, not only are Meursault’s beliefs belittled by the magistrate, but also when he is on trial for murder. In the argument against Meursault for his felony, the prosecutor references his pastimes after his mother’s death: “He reminded the court of my insensitivity; of my ignorance when asked Maman’s age; of my swim the next day – with a woman; of the Fernandel movie; and finally of my taking Marie home with me” (Camus 99). Meursault’s belief of not placing an unnecessary meaning on his mother’s death is being used against him to show his “insensitivity.” This epitomizes society viewing Meursault poorly because he did not mourn as society does, but instead chose to move on because he can’t resurrect his mother. While the obvious pastime after the death of a loved one would appear to be mourning and sadness, Meursault is not socially aware enough to recognize how others interpret his actions. Meursault’s beliefs are contradictory to what the public believes, that to him he sees no problem with his actions and instead believes he is receiving a negative image derived from something, which holds no relevance.
The intentions of The Stranger are clear: to shed light on absurdism and other unconventional philosophies and show how negative connotations from society can impact people who believe these ideologies. However, the message appears to be ironic. The whole foundation of absurdism is built upon the idea that looking for meaning in the unexplainable occurrence of life is fruitless. But, if looking for meaning in something as large as life would reap no benefits, then why look for meaning in something as mundane as a book. Camus’ deep message about different philosophies and how their followers are impacted is tainted by the very lens, which he wishes to portray in this book. By taking on the lens, the entire meaning of the book is invalidated because looking for meaning in such a monstrous event as life would be futile, nevermind something as trivial as a bunch of paper pages written on with ink.
Jake Oblak is a IV Form boarding student from Bolton, MA. He enjoys playing hockey, going to the beach, and spending time with his family.
“Absurdism.” New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Absurdism. Accessed 2 May 2019.
“Absurdism.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism. Accessed 2 May 2019.
Maguire, Laura. “CAMUS AND ABSURDITY.” Philosophy Talk, 27 Feb. 2015, http://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/camus-and-absurdity. Accessed 2 May 2019.