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.

The independence movement continued to grow after the war but was violently put down by French troops. The struggle escalated when the National Liberation Front (FLN) wrote a new constitution in 1947. Unable to deliver on the promise of the new constitution, the FLN began a war of independence with France in 1954. By 1962, Charles de Gaulle agreed to grant the country independence.

B World War II

World War II was in full swing in 1942, since America had declared war on Japan and Germany in response to the Pearl Harbor attack. However, the Allied cause did not look good. France had fallen to the Germans, and British troops were pushed from their holdings in the Pacific to India by the Japanese. On the Russian front, the Germans seemed to be on the verge of capturing Stalingrad when they attacked in February. This attack took the form of a gruesome siege. There was still hope, however, because both the British and the Russians refused to give in. Geography aided the Russians and the superiority of the Royal Air Force made the siege of Britain hazardous.

Summer began and the Allies started to gain against the Axis Powers. American troops were more successful than not in flooding the Allies with needed supplies through their base in Iceland. June brought real progress when the American Navy met the Japanese in the Battle of Midway. This decisive victory ended Japanese expansion in the Pacific and irreparably crippled their naval strength. In November, Eisenhower led a joint British-U.S. force in a landing in Algeria. In Russia, the Germans were still unable to claim victory since the Russian army was refusing to give way. In the end Russia lost 750,000 soldiers throughout the year. The Germans gained against the Russians only to lose all but eighty thousand men, who survived by cannibalism, and surrendered by February of 1943. Slowly the tide was turning against the Germans.

The success of The Stranger has been matched by an unceasing flow of criticism. Most of that criticism has been a positive affirmation of Camus’s place as a master of French literature. One reviewer even described Camus as the writer America had been waiting for since Hemingway. The criticism has also had the effect, good or bad, of rendering the novel a moral treatise. This occurred early on when Jean-Paul Sartre reviewed the work in 1943 and he said, amongst other things, that with this work “Albert Camus takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists.” Philip Thody, in a more recent article, says this is a misleading approach to The Stranger since in moral terms the novel is full of contradictions whereas, if read for its absurd theory, no break down exists.

Taking the cue from Sartre, other reviewers of the 1940s matched the novel with Camus writings in The Myth of Sisyphus and criticized Camus’s ability to handle Heidegger and Kierkegaard. Richard Plant, however, did not seem to need the heavy guns of philosophy to enjoy the novel, according to his article “Benign Indifference” of 1946. Instead, he claims, the novel presents the protagonist’s philosophy as “nothing but a rationalization of his sublime indifference.” Unfortunately, Plant seems to grow confused and, therefore, moves very quickly to compare Camus with the American style of writing. Plant says that the way Camus handles the shooting of the Arab should serve as a model to Americans of the “tough school.” Finally, Plant says, “Camus emerges as a master craftsman who never wastes a word.”

During the 1950s most critics were more concerned with Camus’s political stance in response to the Algerian independence movement as well as his disagreement with French intellectuals-namely Sartre. The strife of the decade, accompanied by ailing health, gave Camus a horrendous writing block as well as keeping him silent but for a few rare occasions. Critics generally enjoyed The Plague of 1947 and The Fall of 1956. The awarding of the Nobel in 1957 was seen as well deserved.

Two exceptions to the above were Norman Podhoretz and Colin Wilson. The latter wrote a book in 1956 detailing the trend in modernity, and its fiction, toward a hero who stood for truth. Wilson entitled this work in honor of Camus’s novel-in its British translation-as The Outsider. This character is defined as follows: The Outsider’s case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnamable impulses, yet they keep up a pretense, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for [this] Truth.

Sartre wrote similarly about the phenomenon Camus’s Stranger represented. However, Sartre believed such a being had a place in society whereas Wilson was simply recording a literary trend.

Podhoretz was also interested in this new hero. In 1958, he credited Camus with the correct identification of this new hero. “It was, of course, Camus who first spotted the significance of [the] new state of nihilism and identified it, in The Stranger, with the pathological apathy of the narrator Meursault-the French were far in advance of the Americans in seeing that the `rebel’ was giving way in our day to the `Stranger.’”