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Introduction

Camus gave the world a new kind of hero when The Stranger and the accompanying essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus burst upon the literary scene in 1942. They were published in the dark days of World War II: France had surrendered to Hitler, the British were under siege, the Americans were still recovering from Pearl Harbor, and the Russians were on the defensive. With such a background, the work and philosophy of Albert Camus was an appropriate response to the tension of resisting the Germans. The individual’s resistance was the very definition of freedom. Camus believed, and many agreed with him, that the world was meaningless, absurd, and indifferent. However, he also wrote that in the face of this indifference the individual must rebel against the absurdity felt by the mind and uphold traditional human values.

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Albert Camus

Albert Camus lived in a period of remarkable turmoil in the world-two world wars were fought, and colonized countries began independence struggles-notably India and Algeria. Camus was born in the latter, a French colony in North Africa, in Mondovi, on 7 November 1913. When he was almost one, his father, Lucien Auguste Camus, was killed in the outbreak of World War I. Left fatherless, Albert lived with his mother Catherine Stintes Camus, his older brother Lucien, his uncle Etienne Stintes, and his grandmother. They lived in a three-room apartment in the working-class Belcourt district of Algiers.

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Plot Summary

A Part One

The Stranger opens with the narrator, Meursault, receiving a telegram telling him his mother has died. Departing on the afternoon bus from Algiers, he travels fifty miles to Marengo for the funeral. Upon arrival he meets the director of the retirement home who leads him to the mortuary where his mother lies in a coffin. There Meursault begins a vigil that will last until the next morning. He dozes, awakening to the sound of his mother’s companions at the home. They sit across from him, joining in the vigil. The night is punctuated by fits of crying and coughing by the residents. Meursault remains unemotional. The burial the next day becomes a blur of images for Meursault: the funeral procession in the hot desert sun, the village, the cemetery, the tears and fainting spell of Thomas Perez-a male companion of his mother-and finally the bus ride back to Algiers. At one point in the day, a funeral helper had asked him if his mother had been very old; Meursault gives a vague response because he does not know her exact age. Such seemingly superfluous details resurface with great significance later in the story.

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Characters

A Marie Cardona

Formerly a typist in the same office as Meursault, Marie Cardona happens to be swimming where Meursault goes swimming the day after his mother’s funeral. She likes Meursault and their meeting sparks off a relationship. She asks if he loves her but he tells her, honestly, that he doesn’t think so. Still, he agrees to marry her, but then he is arrested.

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Construction

A Narrative

Psychological self-examinations are common in French first-person narratives, but Camus’s The Stranger gave the technique of psychological depth a new twist at the time it was published. Instead of allowing the protagonist to detail a static psychology for the reader, the action and behavior was given to the reader to decipher. Camus did this because he felt that “psychology is action, not thinking about oneself.” The protagonist, along with a failure to explain everything to the reader, refuses to justify himself to other Characters. He tells only what he is thinking and perceiving, he does not interrupt with commentary. By narrating the story this way, through the most indifferent person, the reader is also drawn into Meursault’s perspective. The audience feels the absurdity of the events. However, other Characters, who do not even have the benefit of hearing the whole of Meursault’s story as the book’s readers do, prefer their ideas of him. They are only too ready to make their judgments at the trial. Moreover, they readily condemn him to death as a heartless killer without regret

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Historical Perspective

A Algeria

Resuming a policy of imperialist expansion after the Napoleonic era, France invaded Algeria in 1830. The French soon controlled the city of Algiers and some coastal areas, but not until 1857 did they subdue the whole region. France sent settlers to colonize the conquered region, but even as late as 1940 the French in Algeria were outnumbered 9 to 1. During World War II the Algerians fought on the side of Germany, which occupied France. However, they were not too keen on resisting the Americans, and when General Eisenhower landed in November of 1942 he met little resistance. That invasion prevented Camus from leaving France and joining his wife in Algeria until the liberation of France in 1944. Throughout the rest of the war, the Algerian independence movement grew due to contact with other Westerners-British and American soldiers.

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Themes

A Absurdity

Absurdity is a philosophical view at which one arrives when one is forced out of a very repetitive existence. As Camus says, in “An Absurd Reasoning” from his essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus: It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm-this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.

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Questions

Consider the element of time in the novel. Suggest some reasons why Camus chose not to establish the date or era. Keep in mind the historical context of the novel and the universal pretension of the theme.

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Compare and Contrast

1942: Algeria is a French colony under the government of Nazi occupation. Today: The political party which established Algeria as an independent nation has lost power to more fundamentalist groups.

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