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The Stranger (novel)

The Stranger, or The Outsider, (from the French L’Étranger, 1942) is a novel by Albert Camus. It is one of the best-known examples of absurdist fiction, and one of the most famous novels of the twentieth century. The novel tells the story of an alienated, anomic French man, Meursault, who eventually kills an Arab man in Algiers. At the trial, the prosecution calls him a remorseless killer, and he is convicted, and waits to be executed. The book uses a pre-World War II Algeria in setting drawn from Camus's own upbringing.

Plot

At the start of the novel, Meursault attends his mother's funeral, where he does not express any of the usual emotions that such an event often induces. He is asked if he wants to view the body of his mother but declines, instead smoking and drinking coffee in front of the body. The novel goes on to document the next few days of his life through the first person point-of-view. He helps his best friend Raymond Sintès, one of his neighbors, to get rid of his Arab girlfriend because Raymond suspects her of infidelity. Later, Raymond and Meursault encounter her brothers on a beach, and Raymond is injured in a resulting knife fight. Meursault returns to the beach and shoots one of the brothers in a moment of confusion caused in part by the glare of the sun. "The Arab" is killed, and Meursault fires four more times into the dead body. Later the police easily discover who committed the crime, and Meursault is arrested.

At the trial, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The argument follows that if Meursault is incapable of remorse, he should be considered a dangerous misanthrope who should be executed by guillotine. Meursault is convicted largely due to the lack of emotions shown at his mother's funeral, rather than for the murder of the Arab man.

As the novel comes to a close, Meursault meets with a chaplain but rejects the opportunity to turn to God. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. The final lines echo his new realization: "As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

Philosophy

Albert Camus, like Meursault, was a pied-noir (literally black foot)—a Frenchman who lived in the Maghreb, the northernmost crescent of Africa along the Mediterranean Sea, the heart of the French colonies. Usually classed as an existential novel, The Stranger is indeed based on Camus's theory of the absurd. In the first half of the novel Meursault is clearly an unreflecting, unapologetic individual. He is moved only by sensory experiences (the funeral procession, swimming at the beach, making love to Marie, etc). Camus is reinforcing his basic thesis that there is no Truth, only (relative) truths—and, in particular, that truths in science (empiricism/rationality) and religion are ultimately meaningless.

Of course, Meursault himself is not directly aware of any of this -- his awareness of the absurd is unconscious at best; it 'colours' his actions. But Camus's basic point remains: the only real things are those that we experience physically. Thus, Meursault kills the Arab because of his response to the glaring sun, which beats down upon him as he moves toward his 'adversary' on the beach. The death of the Arab isn't particularly meaningful in itself: it's merely something else that 'happens' to Meursault. The significance of this episode is that it forces his life (and its meaning) as he contemplates his impending execution. Only by being tried and sentenced to death is Meursault forced to acknowledge his own mortality and the responsibility he has for his own life.

Another theme is destiny; Camus suggests that we are responsible for our actions and their consequences (free will or existentialism). Truth is another motif in the book. Meursault, despite being judged by many of his contemporaries as amoral, is consistently honest and direct. In his unyielding candor, he never displays emotions that he does not feel. Neither does he participate in social conventions calling for dishonesty. Although grief is considered the socially acceptable or "normal" response, Meursault does not exhibit grief at his mother's funeral. This incorruptible honesty takes on a naïve dimension when he goes through the trial process; he questions the need for a lawyer, claiming that the truth should speak for itself. Much of the second half of the book involves this theme of the arbitrariness of "justice". A public official compiling the details of the case tells Meursault he will be saved if he repents and turns to Christianity, but Meursault refuses to pretend he has found religion. More generally, Meursault's honesty overrides his self-preservation instinct; he ultimately accepts punishment for his actions, and refuses to try evading justice.

The absurd is a theme that at times throughout the book seems to override the 'responsibility' aspect of the powerful ending. The ending seems to reflect that Meursault is in fact satisfied with his demise, to the extent that one can be satisfied with death, while also of course being terrified, whereas the erstwhile sensory observations, which were mostly stand-alone and, if they did impact him, did so in terms of something physical (e.g. "I became tired"), become very relevant to his self and being. It seems that, in facing death, he's found revelation and happiness.

But even that revelation was in the "gentle indifference of the world". A central contributor to this theme was that of the pause after he shot the Arab for the first time. In one key moment, while being interviewed by the magistrate, he mentions how it did not matter that he waited and shot four more times. In this incident, Meursault thinks completely objectively, and truly there is no difference in tangible results: the Arab died in one shot, and four more shots did not make him any "more" dead. This is seen also in his reflection on the absurdity of humanity creating a justice system to impose such meaningful actions as "death" upon a human: "The fact that the [death] sentence had been read at eight o'clock at night and not at five o'clock... the fact that it had been handed down in the name of some vague notion called the French (or German, or Chinese) people--all of it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the decision".

In writing the novel Camus was influenced by other existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. Camus and Sartre in particular had been involved in the French resistance during World War II and were friends until ultimately differing on their philosophical stances. Ultimately, Camus presents the world as essentially meaningless and therefore, the only way to arrive at any meaning or purpose is to make it oneself. Thus it is the individual and not the act that gives meaning to any given context. Camus deals with this issue, as well as man's relationship to man and issues such as suicide in his other works such as A Happy Death and The Plague, as well as his non-fiction works such as The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.

English translations

The original French language novel was first published by Libraire Gallimard in Paris in 1942. In 1946, it was first translated into English by British author Stuart Gilbert and this translation was read by millions for over four decades. A second English translation was published in 1982 by British publishing house Hamish Hamilton. This translation, by Joseph Laredo, was adopted by Penguin Books in 1983 and reprinted for Penguin Classics in 2000. In 1989, another translation by American Matthew Ward was published.

The tone of the three English translations is quite different, with the Gilbert translation exhibiting a more formal tone. An example of this difference can be found in the first sentence of the first chapter. The original French text is: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier"

  • Gilbert translation: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday."
  • Ward translation: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday." ("Maman" is an informal French term translating to "Mom.")
  • Laredo translation: "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."

Translation

Étranger in French has several meanings. One is "foreign", as in exterior to one's country, while another is used to signify a generic person who is unknown, similar to "stranger". It could be argued that the title would be better translated as The Foreigner, as the main character is a foreigner, which would be fitting in the context that Meursault was a man of French origins living in Algeria. However, knowing Camus's position in regard to Algeria, it may not mean "foreigner" because the character Meursault is a pied-noir, probably with several generations of family living in Algeria before him. Camus was known to advocate that pieds-noirs were as much citizens of Algeria as the Algerian population.

Another translation of Étranger that could be used is an outsider. This would suit Meursault because he seems to feel that he is not the same as everyone else. Alternatively, "Foreigner" may appropriately describe Meursault in regards to his separation from the social norms of society. While not being conscious of the motifs he portrays, he lives his life existentially, without being encumbered by meaning exterior to his own experience, a trait that would make him seem "foreign" to his contemporaries. Most English translations use the title The Stranger. However the title is also sometimes translated as The Outsider.

References in popular culture

In cinema, the novel was adapted to Lo Straniero (1967), directed by Luchino Visconti, and Yazgi (2001), directed by Zeki Demirkubuz. Comic book author Steve Gerber cites Camus, and in particular, The Stranger, as his principal influence, particularly on Howard the Duck (1974-1978)--"Howard is Mersault with a sense of humor, an existentialist who screams and quacks as a hedge against sinking into utter despair. Gerber also depicted Shanna the She-Devil reading the novel in her treehouse.

In popular music, it inspired songs by Blur, Nirvana ("On a Plain"), The Cure ("Killing an Arab"), Aria, John Frusciante ("Head (Beach Arab)"), and Tuxedomoon. In 2006, it was reported that George W. Bush read The Stranger while on vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch, to the derision of the American press and comedy establishment (especially The Daily Show)

In the film Who's Camus Anyway?, Japanese director, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, makes several references to Camus, The Stranger and Meursault. The indie rock band Titus Andronicus uses the famous last line of The Stranger at the end of their song "No Future Part Two: The Day After No Future", from their album The Airing of Grievances, and the final song on that album is entitled "Albert Camus". Punk rock band The Lawrence Arms recited the book's last lines in their song "Asa Phelps Is Dead" from their album Ghost Stories. In the episode "Sudden Death" of TNT Television drama The Closer, a young man unders suspicion of murder quotes The Stranger at Brenda Johnson during an interrogation.

References

See also

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