Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Stranger

You probably know the basic story: Mersault, a Frenchman living in French Algiers, commits a murder for no immediately discernable reason, stands trial, and is confronted by a world which sees things considerably different than he does. The Stranger a short, simple story, fast-moving and engaging. But of course there is much more to it than that.
Mersault is notable for his strangely detached personality. He feels emotions just like anyone else, but he’s usually only capable of registering them on an intellectual level. For him, there is only the moment that he lives in, and the very immediate future. He doesn’t understand regret. He doesn’t understand the need of other people to inject false meaning into the universe. And he doesn’t understand that he is different than them. It’s this last that plagues him during his trial, when he finds himself unable and unwilling to pretend, to play-act grief at his mother’s funeral for instance or to create a plausible reason why he shot his victim three more times after he’d already killed him. These things, Mersault tells us, are entirely pointless. He is not a bad man—he’s just incapable of seeing the world for anything other than what it is, and, like a visitor from another planet, he can only view the false pieties and surface-y emotions of those around him with a curious, clinical detachment.
On one level, you could argue (as the prosecution in the novel does) that Mersault is a sort of sociopathic monster, incapable of real love or kindness. But it’s not really true—he does feel those things, and does take pleasure from making someone else happy (he agrees to marry Marie because he knows it will please her, he expresses sympathy to Salamano when his dog disappears, he writes a letter for Raymond) but the satisfaction he derives is temporary and inconsequential.
I was in my twenties the first time I read The Stranger. I read it again about ten years later. And now, another ten years on, I just read it again. The book has a strangely cumulative effect; I find more and more to appreciate in it the older I get. Albert Camus denied being an existentialist, but The Stranger is certainly an existentialist work, and some readers find it dark or depressing—I think those readers miss the point. To me, the ending is almost uplifting (granted, in a strangely impersonal way) in it’s acknowledgement of the “gentle indifference of the universe”, and the realization that the only meaning that exists is the meaning you have given things.
“To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.”

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