I never intended to read The Stranger; it was one of those books you discover by accident and spontaneously decide to read it without giving it much thought. What’s more is that I read this book after New Years and I was running on three hours sleep, but for some reason the summer heat made me more thoughtful, and thus made me appreciate this novel more. For me, The Stranger was a reading experience that involved a series of haphazard moments, and in a way, this is similar to the experience of Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger.
The Stranger follows the unorthodox life of Meursault. He is detached, apathetic, strange, but above all, he is different, because his way of thinking and being deviates from what we call ‘normal’. Meursault is what we could call a social deviant.
It’s important to note that the point of this novel is not that Meursault is a social deviant — the point is that many would perceive and label Meursault as such. As the book is told from the perspective of Meursault, the reader is able to tap into his psyche – we see the world as how he sees it, and though it is often strange and devoid of something (I will elaborate on this later), his perspective on things still makes sense to some degree. However, it is necessary to empathize with those who perceive Meursault, to see how they perceive him. That is where the message of this novel lies: the essence of this book is how we, social beings with social conventions and moral systems, will manipulate and dictate images so that it aligns with how we perceive or understand the world. Meursault’s critics therefore, in a hopeless attempt to make sense of his actions, distort his being and impose their distortions on Meursault.
Which leads to the question of why Meursault’s critics did this in the first place. It’s undeniable – from the prose and the actions of the character – that Meursault lacks something. And I think this delves into the question of what it means to be human. Meursault lacks certain characteristics that we would typically characterize as being human – to show remorse, to show emotion, or even to fight for one’s survival and dignity.
Regardless of what people measure the idea of ‘be human’, at the end of the day, such is defined by socio-cultural standards, values, and people. What it means to ‘be human’ is ultimately defined by us, and imposed by us for our need to feel comfortable – people who are different or resist these ideals are alienated, marginalized and ostracized. Though this does not justify Mersault’s actions, because they still had a devastating effect, The Stranger calls into question of why we have constructs such as ‘humanity’ and how they may serve to suppress otherness, especially the kind that we cannot understand.
Do I empathize with Meursault? A little, but only because The Stranger was written from his perspective. However, I have to admit that if I watched the events of The Stranger unfold in front of my eyes, I would be terrified of Meursault – the fact that he would appear calculative and resigned, that his emotions – or lack of – betray nothing but instead paint a more mysterious, unintelligible picture, and the fact that we cannot understand him. We fear these people or entities of this nature, and I think a purpose of this book is to scrutinize this tendency.
One of the key parts of the novel is at the end, namely the discussion between the priest and Meursault, and is a great example of Camus’s absurdism (which is a very interesting area of philosophy; one that I’m interested in reading more about). The Stranger may be a slow book, but it’s short length and succinct writing makes it a book that can be appreciated more after a second read. Furthermore, The Stranger is a type of book where different themes and ideas will emerge for different people. The Stranger is an easy and relaxing read, but also raises the good kind of questions: questions that provoke, and questions that call for discussion rather than answers.
Book Name: The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus
Publisher: Vintage International