BACKGROUND: ‘In our society,’ wrote Albert Camus, ‘any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ This may seem a bewilderingly dramatic, almost self-indulgent sort of assertion, but it is one which Camus brought to life in The Outsider, and to frankly devastating effect. The Outsider has become something of a cult classic over the years, especially in undergraduate circles. It inspired The Cure’s ‘Killing an Arab’, a song which attracted a degree of controversy when it was (wrongly) assumed to advocate racial violence. The Outsider itself has also been subject to an array of assumptions and misconceptions, particularly with regards to its philosophical project. In my opinion, however, it is not only one of the great novels of the Twentieth Century, but also one that provides a useful introduction to one of that century’s most compelling philosophical movements, Existentialism.
The Outsider, first published in France as ‘L’Étranger in 1942, is commonly regarded as the greatest example of the Existentialist novel, outshining even Sartre’s La Nausée. This in itself is an extraordinary feat, for, whilst Jean-Paul Sartre was generally regarded as the founding father of Twentieth Century Existentialism, and held an almost unassailable sway over France’s academic elite for several decades, Albert Camus first emerged as a relatively obscure journalist and playwright, who had grown up in poverty in Algiers.
Sartrean Existentialism is a finely wrought thing, the agonising complexities of which were outlined in his heaviest, most earnest tome, Being & Nothingness. In 1945, he described the Existential project as ‘the attempt to draw all the consequences from a p...
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...der of ‘the Arab’ appears to be of secondary importance; what truly appals the court is Mersault’s unrelenting atheism and his refusal to display any remorse.
FINALLY: As alluded to earlier, there are several misconceptions surrounding The Outsider, chief among these being the assumption that Mersault’s curt and disinterested demeanour prior to and immediately following the murder represents some sort of Existentialist ideal. It does not. In fact, it is only much later that Mersault begins to exhibit the evidence of his epiphany.
The Outsider is often unpleasant, but always beautifully written, and tremendously lyrical in places. It is only a short novel, in fact, it is as slender as a magazine… and one could easily read it in a single sitting. But it packs one hell of a punch. Read it. It might just change your life.
Summary: A Twentieth Century Masterpiece
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