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.
This description describes Camus’s protagonist, Meursault, of The Stranger perfectly. The reason for the match is that the essay collection explained the philosophy of the absurd while the novel demonstrated the theory.
Meursault’s repetitive life runs smoothly. Then, little by little, Meursault’s happy stasis is pulled apart by the rest of the world’s movement and collapse begins. His mother dies-a certainty he has had his whole life is gone. He becomes involved with Marie, who asks him whether he cares for her and in asking nearly breaches his safe isolation. Raymond insists upon being his friend. Salamano’s dog just disappears, thus disrupting a parallel repetitive rhythm. He shoots a man, and the law demands that he die. Each subtle disruption to Meursault’s desire to be indifferently static brings him to a mental crisis. This crisis is resolved when he comes to understand the utter meaninglessness of his individual life within the mystery of life. The events of his story only make sense that way. Any other explanation leads him to theology-represented by the priest-or fate.
In an expression of Camus’s humanist logic, neither theology nor fate can offer men of intelligence (men like Meursault willing to use only bare logic to consider the question of life) an explanation for the absolutely senseless things that humans do-war, murder, and other heinous acts. The alternative, therefore, is absurdity. Meursault recognizes the “truth” that life is meaningless. That means life is just what one makes of it while being conscious of two certainties-life and death. In doing so, Camus argues, one would uphold traditional human values because they safeguard one’s life. In other words, human values (what we understand today as human rights) lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. When one is truly willing to face this Truth, one can be happy. Unfortunately, Meursault is executed before he can live in this fashion.
There are no hints which suggest that the novel takes place in a colonized country. There are, however, hints that racial tensions exist between French-Algerians and “Arabs.” From the first page the reader knows that the novel is set in Algeria and that the date of publication is 1942. Therefore, it can be guessed that the novel occurs in a colonized Setting. In addition, the narrator hints at the racial tension by telling the story as if it took place solely among some French people who happened to live in Algeria. Meursault only associates with French-Algerians, and the only people he names are French-Algerians. Then, for no apparent reason, he shoots an Arab.
While it could be argued, and usually is, that the issue of race and colonialism is not an important theme to the novel (because the novel is about the larger concern of absurd individuality) it is still important to note its existence. First, none of the Arabs in the book, including the murder victim, receive a name. In fact, the nurse at the nursing home is given no other attribute aside from having an abscess that requires her to wear bandaging on her face. The reader sees her as marked by this condition, and she is described as an “Arab.” The reader gains little information about her and it is perhaps speculation to say anything about her. The next Arab woman is the Raymond’s girlfriend. She accuses him of being a pimp, and he beats her. She has no name. In fact, Meursault comments on her name, saying, “[W]hen he told me the woman’s name I realized she was Moorish.” It does not bother him that his “friend” should be having relations with an “Arab,” nor does it bother him that Raymond wants to mark her for cheating on him. He wants to cut her nose off in the traditional manner of marking a prostitute. Finally, her brothers and his friends begin to follow Raymond. It is this nameless group of Arabs who Meursault, Masson, and Raymond encounter at the beach. One member of the group is found by Meursault alone and is shot.
The issue, then, of race is the most troubling and unresolved issue of the novel. If one reads the novel solely in terms of the theme of absurdity, the action of the story makes sense-in a meaningless sort of way. However, read in terms of a lesson on human morality and the ethics of the Western tradition wherein a white man finds himself through a struggle-or agon-in the land of the “Other,” then the story is very contradictory and highly problematic. Meursault certainly does arrive at a “truth,” but that arrival was at the cost of a man’s life as well as a ruined love.
C Free Will
Though the possession of a free will is taken for granted by most people, the presentation of its “freeness” in The Stranger is rather unsettling. Meursault consistently expresses his awareness of his own will as free. In some instances, this might be interpreted as indifference, but Meursault is decidedly, perhaps starkly, free. He does not feel the temptation to encumber his reasoning with considerations or dogmas. For example, he is never worried and is repeatedly doing a systems check on his body-he declares states of hunger, whether he feels well, and that the temperature is good or the sun is too hot. These are important considerations to Meursault, and they pass the time. Conversely, the magistrate is frustrated, tired, and clings to his belief in God. Meursault discerns that the magistrate finds life’s meaning only through this belief. But when the magistrate asks if Meursault is suggesting he should be without belief, Meursault replies that it has nothing to do with him one way or the other. This is because the only things that should concern Meursault, he decides, are elemental factors, such as keeping his body comfortably cool.