The Stranger

Author: Albert Camus

Translator: Matthew Ward

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1942

I read it: November 2016


Mersault is a man adrift in a life that moves around him. The novel opens with the death of his mother, and he goes through the motions to put her to rest. Other people do most of the work for him, and he spends a lot of time dozing off (the guy must be narcoleptic) and avoiding the blazing light and heat (the sun seems to have it out for him). He doesn’t have a bad life otherwise: steady job, girlfriend, interesting neighbors. He is self-reflective but has no particular stance on his existence:

Then he asked me if I wasn’t interested in a change of life. I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all. He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that that was disastrous in business. So I went back to work. I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn’t see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn’t unhappy.

The rest of the plot gets kicked into a gear because Mersault befriends a complete jackhole who plans revenge against a woman he hates. For some reason, the protagonist becomes his ally and even goes on vacation with the guy. And then, for some other reason, he commits a murder on the dude’s behalf. It’s partially due to that infernal solar influence: “It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward.” And blam.

As the translator points out in the intro, the book is divided into exactly two halves. In the first half, Camus uses short, direct sentences to push his character toward tragedy. In part two, Mersault is detained and then sent to prison, and the writing breathes a bit. He runs through all the possibilities in his mind and basically admits that justice is being served to him as expected. In relaying a story from a newspaper clipping he gets ahold of, he sums it up as such: “I thought the traveler pretty much deserved what he got and that you should never play games.” Mersault is a traveler of sorts, going from free to condemned. Is he also the stranger? The title doesn’t seem to have a direct bearing on the story (unless I missed something big), but perhaps is meant to sum up being a stranger to oneself.

At the trial, Mersault’s friends and family all come to his defense, muttering to the jury, “You must understand.” (“But no one seemed to understand.”) As if the evidence against him wasn’t enough, he also undergoes a character assassination, with the prosecutor spending a large amount of time bringing up his mother’s funeral and Mersault’s apparently insufficient emotion at the event. The jury is convinced to try not a man, but a monster, even though Camus seems to argue that it takes only a normal man to commit a murder.

I wasn’t head over heels for the book, but I can see the attraction to studying it and picking it apart. I think I expected some sort of false-accusation story, but the crime itself was relatively straightforward. The twists and turns happen in Mersault’s head within those prison walls.

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