An Existentialist Analysis of Camus' The Stranger (The Outsider)
It was Camus who first introduced the idea of absurdity into the realm of existentialism. To him absurdity springs from man's relation to the world and to exist as a human being in society is inexplicable and wholly absurd. The philosophy of 'The Outsider
' is a philosophy of the absurd. Its protagonist, Monsieur Meursault; a middle class bachelor with a painfully simple life, is viewed as indifferent in the eyes of society. He does not care and is not ashamed of it. But his indifference is not one of callousness but stems instead from the 'benign indifference of the universe' in relations to his own existence. Camus
has wittingly created his main character as a reflection of his own moral axiom: that life is absurd and nothing else matters besides ones own conscious existence. Meursault is a stranger
, an outsider, one who is at constant odds with the absurd society he inhabits. Yet the circumstances he faces mold his perceptions of society and life and shape his consciousness, compelling him to come to terms with his own philosophy of life and to finally make peace with himself.
In the early part of the book, the reader sees a Mesault devoid of a spoken consciousness and one who feels total adversity towards society and vice versa. Camus has juxtaposed his character against the norms of society to bring out his stark differences through the usage of Meursault's uncanny ability to register cold, hard facts. Meursault refuses to spend the time and effort required in connecting these facts. This narrative effect can be seen from the opening passage, "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday." Here, we see Meursault's shocking indifference to his mother's death and his event stating quality. He merely recounts the dubious facts of his mother's death as plainly as the telegram had stated it. Throughout the whole process of his attending the funeral is treated with the same jarring coldness. Events and conversation are retold in a photo-journalistic like frankness, chronologically precise from the moment he catches the bus to time when he crawls into bed.
Meursault is also one who has virtually no emotion, detached from basic human experiences of love and affection. This can be seen when his fiancee, Marie, provokes an answer, "She asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing- but I supposed I didn't." Curious, she then asks, "Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her- mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me- would you have said "yes" to her too?" To which he replies in total honesty, "Naturally". His inability to feel love is coupled with his almost animalistic mating-like quality where it is a question of when, not whom. His indifference, lack of emotion, and his way of reporting his impressions factually shows little involvement in society, as if he were an outsider, a spectator, who must judge objectively and it is from this that his estrangement from society be felt.
Despite the stark language, the whole first section of the book is riddled with symbolism of his unspoken adversity to society. Camus has chosen the element of sunlight and heat as a metaphor of Meursault's unsubstantiated uncomfortability with society. Both sunlight and heat affects Meursault tremendously in the literal sense. Meursault is 'dazed', feels a 'thudding in my head' and 'waves of heat lapping at my back', and how 'with everything shimmering in the heat-haze, there was something inhuman, discouraging, about this landscape'. All are comments about how society affects him with such unbearable, drastic effect. He laments, "The sky was so dazzling that I dared not raise my eyes". This could mean a deliberate shunning away from society on his part as a reaction to something that bears such a torture to him that the subject itself eclipses the rational explanation of it. Meursault goes on to say, "A shimmer of heat played over the road, leaving bright black gashes. It gave one a queer, dreamlike impression. In front, the coachman's glossy black hat looked like a lump of some sticky substance. I found my eyes and thoughts growing blurred." Here we see a metaphorical interpretation of the effects the conditioning of society has on the individual. Meursault who finds his thoughts altered by the trickery of the 'sun', is actually commenting on how society changes ones perception of things to the point of blinding ones vision. Thus though these, Meursault's voluntary, albeit invalidated estrangement from society is conveyed to the reader.
The murder which signifies the end of Part One, unwittingly commits Meursault to the laws of society. He suddenly finds himself a victim of societal norms, the very thing he shunned. Here Meursault is obliged to accustom himself to society for his impending fate depends on it. He finds society absurd and it is through this experience that the reader comes to sympathize with Meursault's point of view and evaluates the absurdity of society. While being held, the prison guard converses with him:
'But that's the whole point of it', he said; 'that's why you fellows are kept in prison.' -I don't follow.' - 'Liberty,' he said, 'means that. You're being deprived of your liberty.' It had never before struck me in that light, but I saw his point. 'That's true,' I said. 'Otherwise it wouldn't be a punishment.'
Meursault finds this all completely baffling to the point that he has to talk with the warden to find out that prison deprives one of freedom which totally defeats the initial purpose of putting him in jail. While society tries to enforce its ideals on its Meursault, he acts in honest aloofness. In a conversation with the magistrate, "In the same weary tone he asked me a last question: Did I regret what I had done? After thinking a bit, I said that what I felt was less regret than a kind of vexation. But he didn't seem to understand." The magistrate wanted to hear that Meursault felt guilty and sorry for what he had done. Instead, Meursault feels annoyance rather than regret, to the frustration of the magistrate.
Faced with these challenges, Meursault attempts to make sense of what is happening around him and through it, tries to understand society. In his cell, he makes a conscious effort to 'learn' about his new surroundings, "I made a point of visualizing every piece of furniture, and each article upon it, and then every detail, so to speak: a tiny dent or incrustation, or a chipped edge, and the exact grain and colour of the woodwork." This symbolizes his willingness to acquaint himself with an entrapment which is alien to him: society and its workings. However, even on close inspection, he fails to make sense of it and this drives him father away from society. This is evident from an episode he had with his lawyer:
'You won't do your case any good by talking,' he had warned me. In fact there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings; I wasn't to have any say and my fate was to be decided out of hand. It was quite an effort at times for me to refrain from cutting them all short, and saying: 'But damn it all, who's on trial in this court, I'd like to know? It's a serious matter for a man, being accused of murder. And I've something really important to tell you.'
Meursault clearly feels frustration from this estrangement which fuels even more reason for his dislike of society and its mores. Through this, he garners experiential evidence that society is indeed absurd and it does one no good to be a part of it, hence forging an even greater alienation from it.
In the concluding chapters, Meursault accepts his fate which enables him to squarely face his death and come to terms with his position in this world. While undergoing this metamorphosis, Meursault discovers his independent consciousness. In a prison soliloquy, he relates, "…I heard something that I hadn't heard for months. It was the sound of a voice; my own voice, there was no mistaking it. And I recognized it as the voice that for many a day of late had been buzzing in my ears." This 'voice' he speaks of is his consciousness, spoken freely, unrestricted, and wholly accessible to his thoughts. This sudden enlightenment allows Meursault the grace of accepting his death. He rationalizes for the first time:
'…it's common knowledge that life isn't worth living anyhow'. And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or three-score and ten- since, in either case, other men and women would go on living, the world would go on as before.
Although he does not wish his death, he embraces it as an end. It did not matter how or when he achieved this end for to him, all ends ended the same- in death.
In the final moments before his death, the absurdity of society no longer bothers Meursault for now he deals with the greater elements of truth and reality. Meursault makes peace with himself, but not without a sudden purging of restrained convictions. He gets tangled in an argument with the prison chaplain who in the last moments of his doom, tries to convert him. In his rage, he lets loose a stream of tenets:
It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into- just as it had got its teeth into me. I'd been right, I was still right, I was always right. I'd pass my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I'd felt like it.
Meursault develops such a rational consciousness that it becomes his moral dogma, his immovable truth. This sudden outburst gradually forces the felt but unspoken philosophy of his existence to emerge into the open, and to finally express itself in words. It was necessary too for it gave him a new sense of direction:
I, too, felt ready to start life over again. It was as if that great gush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been happy, and I was happy still.
Meursault at last finds peace within himself. Alienated from society and life itself, he finds honor in death, taking nothing from this world with him, for it gave him nothing. The only hope he gains burgeons from his newly found consciousness, which will carry him into the unknown. Thus, Meursault's journey towards discovery and demise can be seen as a celebration of the human consciousness, grounded in the human spirit and its ability to overcome the absurd, to triumph when failure seems so immanent. Meursault finally realizes his estrangement from society and disregards what society thinks about him- as long as he is happy with who he is and what he had done. At the end of it all, Camus' fundamental principle is revealed: Apart from ones own conscious being, all else is otherness, from which one is estranged.