“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” That’s how the Nobel laureate Albert Camus’s timeless classic, The Stranger, begins. You might have already judged the protagonist, Meursault, from those few heavy words, just as I did. But as you go on to the read further, you realize it’s not so simple. Or maybe it’s just that. We’ll get there.
Meursault works in an office in Algiers, France where he accepts each day as it comes and as such takes little interest in his career. More so that news from his boss of a promotion and a consequent transfer to Paris doesn’t excite him at all. The news of his mother’s death, which he receives as a telegram from the old age Home, causes him a mild annoyance because now he as to ask his boss for a two day leave. At the funeral, instead of feeling dejected and remorse, his mind wanders off to objects such as the shining screws in the coffin, the colour of the dresses of nurses, bellies of the mourners and the scorching heat of the sun. When the undertaker asks him how old his mother was, he says he does not know.
A day after the funeral he meets Marie at the swimming pool and that night they sleep together. A few days later, Meursault and his neighbour-friend Raymond, are at the beach and Meursault sees one of the two completely stranger and unknown to them Arabs who had been following them the previous day. Meursault was, by chance, carrying his friend’s gun. The sun overhead and the flash of it on the knife of the Arab results in him shooting the Arab once and then four more times after a pause, brilliantly conveyed by the phrase : “knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness”
At his trial, in front of society’s judgemental eyes, he displays the same sort of indifference that has been portrayed throughout the book. And once again his attention is drawn to the colour of the fans or the noise coming through the court room window. The prosecutor and judge hopelessly question him about his motive to kill the Arab, citing the carefree incidents of him not feeling remorse after his
mother’s death and sleeping with a girl just a day after her funeral. But all that Meursault had to say was, “because of the Sun”. The jury established that he was a criminal at heart and the Judge sentenced him to imprisonment.
When you get to the end of this ponderous philosophical book, one realises that it is not the Arab who was the stranger, it is Meursault who was a stranger to himself and it is each and everyone of us who are strangers to ourselves.
Many people fail to look beyond the whole existentialism message of the book – it raises so many other philosophical questions. What truly defines humanity and what does it feel to be human? During his trial, Meursault is shown to not exhibit any remorse after his mother’s death, and hence assumed to be inhuman. Does each and every person have to react in the same way that society sees it best? He is most definitely human, but just detached. Are our emotions created by what others expect in a certain situation? I see people around dictating what others should do – and that for me is the most inhuman conduct. Maybe it is people’s way to rationalize their own concepts of living and behaving, and what doesn’t conform with their idealogies is termed inhuman. There should absolutely be non conformists in society, otherwise how else would humanity separate itself from traditions. Meursault knows he has done something wrong, accepts his fate – yet not passively. He was condemned because he did not wish to be part of the game of life. He was a stranger to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringes of life. Not all of life’s voids need to be filled.
The Stranger is an inquiry into the realms of existence. The writing is brilliant and well, as any philosophical text goes, it raises a lot many questions than it answers. One can consume this book within a few hours, but the book will consume you for a few weeks.
‘Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter’ – ALBERT CAMUS
– Poojan Gohil