The Stranger by Albert Camus

Ths Stranger or The Outsider, by Albert Camus, is the story of Meursault, an Algerian who is living in North Africa. One day Meursault murders an Arab. The story isn’t that simple and at the same time it is that straightforward. Camus divided the novel into two parts, before and after the shooting. Many claim that this is an existentialist novel; however Camus didn’t think he was an existentialist. Instead, he explores the theory of absurdism in the book. This is a new philosophy for me so be patient while I try to explain. From what I gather, this philosophy explores the conflict between people searching for the meaning of life and intrinsic value and the inability of people actually finding it.

Understanding this philosophy, even a basic understanding, will help when reading this novel. At least it did for me since the main character comes across as rather cold and distant. In the opening pages he learns of his mother’s death. Instead of reacting to the news, he slowly goes through the motions of the funeral and having to take time off from work. Meursault notices that others experience grief, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he drinks coffee and smokes.

When he murders the Arab he doesn’t feel any emotions or express why he did it. All he mentions is that the heat was getting to him.

“It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun.”

If you like connecting with the main character this book may be hard to handle. I felt zero connection with him. Also, I didn’t feel much sympathy either. I didn’t hate him. Instead I was more fascinated by him. It’s a little like watching a car accident. You know you shouldn’t watch, but you can’t help yourself. The entire time I was reading I kept thinking that no good was going to come from this. The exploration into human emotions and how we all expect people to feel a certain way was fascinating. This isn’t a novel that will make you stand up and cheer and hope for a happy ending. But I believe it will make you think.

My edition was translated by Matthew Ward. In the translator’s note I was surprised that Ward claimed he translated this novel so it would be more accessible for Americans. This puzzled me. And I guess I hadn’t put too much thought into that before when selecting novels that have been translated. For example he says the British translation has this sentence: “As usual, he had his dog with him.” Ward’s translation is: “He was with his dog.” The change isn’t too drastic, but it is a change. Ward’s sentence gives the sense that the dog is more like a companion, maybe like a spouse. I really wish I stuck with my French lessons so I could have read this in its original language. I’m envious of those who can read and write in more than one language. For now, I think I’ll pay closer attention to which translation I pick up.

Camus, born in 1913, was from French Algeria. He was only 46 when he died in a car accident. Three years before his death, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, making him the second-youngest winner of the award. He was the first African-born writer to claim the prize. The Stranger is on my 1001 list. Albert Camus has two more novels on the list: The Plague and The Rebel.

Have any of you read The Stranger? What did you think of it?

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American living in England. When she isn’t writing, she’s traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs, or reading. Not necessarily in that order.
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46 Responses to The Stranger by Albert Camus

  1. Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte. Yes,I read it in French at school and can still remember the first line! It was hard going at 16 years old in French, but it made a huge impression and I’ve since read it again in translation. Very powerful. Not a “fun” read though.

    • TBM says:

      In my copy it starts with: Maman died today. That got my attention when I started reading. No it isn’t a fun read but I found it an intriguing read. It’s a short novel but not short on ideas and expectations of people.

  2. Caroline says:

    It’s certainly one of the most important French novels. I read it in school but I’ve read pretty much everything he wrote later as well. Tight prose, interesting and to the point. His images stay in the mind. In terms of “liking” – I liked La Peste better but this is an amazing book. I don’t know what you sentnece is in French but knowing that Camus wrote briet sentences – Il était avec son chien – the second – would sound plausible.- I could look it up if I knew on which page. 🙂
    His death is quite absurd, by the way. I mean, the cisrcumstnaces but I don’t remember the details. I think he drove on his own instead of driving with others to be quicker.

    • TBM says:

      I like his brief sentences especially given the subject matter. makes it easier to believe that the character doesn’t have any feelings with short to the point sentences. The writing is still beautiful but in a harsh, haunting way. I don’t know much about his death, only that he died in a car accident. I might try tracking down a documentary on him to learn more. He’s seems like a fascinating person. In school I was always told he was an existentialist–now I’m learning he didn’t think so. And the quote is on page 26 of my copy. Not sure if this will help, the paragraph starts with “On my way upstairs…”

      I own a copy of The Plague so I think that will be my next novel by him. I read it years ago, but don’t remember much about it.

      • Caroline says:

        I have a biography of him, bought it recently, it came out not too long ago. In English. I always liked him better than Sartre. The fact that they split and didn’t get along well – had certainly something to do with the fact why he didn’t want to be called an existentialist. I don’t get along with Sartre. I like his plays but not his other books.

      • TBM says:

        I haven’t checked my list to see how many of Sartre’s books are on it. He intimidates me some. Would you consider Camus an existentialist? I’ve always heard him described that way.

      • Caroline says:

        Yes, I still would, to some extent. His concept of the absurd isn’t all that different.
        Unless you tackle Sartre’s ohilosophical work, there is nothing to be afraid of. His plays are absolutely great. The novel I read was painfully boring. He isn’t a good novelist. Clunky style… Camus was a natural. But some of his philosophical texts are dense as well. You know I’m actually in the mood to organise a non-fiction readalong one of these days. I imagine there would be even more to discuss.

      • TBM says:

        Thanks for all the input. If you do organize one and if I can get the work via the library I’m in. Currently I’m reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade. It’s about Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna Ferber. It doesn’t go into too much depth, but I’m finding it interesting reading. And I like Meade’s writing style. I read her bio on Parker years ago. I think it’s called What Fresh Hell is This.

        I did check the 1001 list and the only Sartre I spied was Nausea–maybe many others consider his writing clunky as well 🙂

  3. niasunset says:

    I read too but it’s been for a long time ago… But I remember how impressive it was. I love to read Camus… Especially Plague. Thank you dear TBM for sharing this. Love, nia

  4. I very much enjoyed this book. To my mind, at the time he wrote it, he had not yet come over completely to the side of “absurd”, he developed his absurdity as time went on, there are still essential existential elements in the book. In college we read this back to back with Sartre’s No Exit and you can see why they started as friends and ended as “frenemies” or antagonists depending on which version you believe.

    • TBM says:

      I haven’t read anything by Sartre but I’m curious now after reading this one. I vaguely remember them being frenemies but not sure why–getting older sucks. I’ll have to do some more reading. Does that mean The Plague has more “absurd” elements–not sure if that is the correct way of putting that. I’m curious about this philosophy and his writings. Much different from what I’ve been reading lately. Refreshing, but haunting as well.

  5. mairedubhtx says:

    Yes, I read it in French in high school. It was slow going and difficult for a 17-year old to really understand. I have since read it in translation (I have forgotten who the translator was). It isn’t an enjoyable read, but one that makes you think. I think it is an existential book, despite what Camus said. What did he know?

    • TBM says:

      I wish I knew enough about existentialism and the absurd to join the debate. I will agree with you that this novel makes you think. I’m pretty sure if I read this in high school it wouldn’t have made much sense to me. I still don’t “get it” but I can appreciate it now.

  6. i read this in college, but i don’t remember it at all. that is so strange. i guess a re-read is in order.

    • TBM says:

      I know how you feel. People will ask me if I read a novel and then they expect me to tell them all about it. When I can’t they say, “I thought you were a reader.” I am, just not a rememberer–not a word I know.

  7. The Hook says:

    I read this in college. I’ve always thought it inspired the opening verses of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Great choice – again!

  8. nrlymrtl says:

    I read this in college and found it very interesting because it captured so well a man who lacked empathy for the people around him, and lacked feelings. I remember the class discussion and bringing up this point and another student argued that he did have feelings because he liked the feeling of the fresh drying towel in the men’s room. This was the first time, in my mind, that I separated emotional feeling from enjoying the feeling, or touch, or something. Hence, I have always linked this book with a crucial step in becoming an adult.

    • TBM says:

      That’s interesting because I didn’t pick up on that. It is a strange encounter with a man who doesn’t have emotional feelings about anything, including his mother’s death. It would have been interesting to read this book in college since I would like to listen to the debates in class. I was always so shy though, but I enjoyed listening. Maybe now I would contribute to the conversation.

  9. letizia says:

    There’s a stark simplicity to the language when you read it in French – I wonder if that comes across in the English translation. For example, French sentences are normally quite long when compared to English ones but in Camus’ writing his sentences are quite short. So it creates that strange but intriguing (I love that you use that word) distance between reader and text.

    On a side note, my grandfather was in school with Camus and said he was a bit of a nerd which always makes me laugh! I think it says more about my grandfather’s love of science and dislike of artsy types than Camus’ actual personality 🙂

    • TBM says:

      How cool about your grandfather. I never considered him a nerd, but now I’ll think of that 🙂

      His writing reminded me of Hemingway: short and powerful. It is a shame that I can’t read it in French–I didn’t think of this when I was 16 and tired of my French teacher and lessons. And I should have stuck with my violin lessons as well.

  10. Being a French major, I had to read a lot of Camus in college. It is definitely better to read in the original French, but a good translation is next best. I’m kind of bothered by that translator’s remark. I hope he’s not dumb-ing down to appeal to Americans. Camus and Sartre are not fun reads, but they are important.
    Camus was supposed to take the train with his family, but chose to ride with his publisher instead. So tragic.
    Don’t feel bad–I’ve forgotten most of what I read in college!

    • TBM says:

      The remark by the translator bothered me too. Not only did I wonder if he was dumbing it down, but was he saying the British translation is too stiff and not accessible for non-Brits. What does that mean for all British authors? I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading into it too much.

      How tragic about his death–I need to learn more about him.

  11. I read this in school, in French, of course. I have to say, right away, that I disagree with your statement that Meursault *murders* an Arab. Meursault is only carrying a gun because he took it from his friend Raymond in order to prevent Raymond from using it. And then, the Arab in question pulls a knife on him! I could never understand why Meursault doesn’t claim self-defence! That’s what I found the most irritating, frustrating thing about the character – that he seems unable (or unwilling) to make the slightest push to explain what really happened! Perhaps it’s the lawyer in me 😉

    • TBM says:

      I know what you mean and I made sure to quote in the review that the Arab pulled out a knife. I was somewhat baffled that the lawyer didn’t claim self defense on his client’s behalf, but then I think that would have ruined the story or Camus point. Meursault was shown to be uncaring and his motives never are explained. He never claimed, “I was scared for my life.” It was like he was completely incapable of understanding the severity of the charge or his action.

  12. Adam says:

    I read this for an Intro to Philosophy class in college, but the questions that the teacher asked concerning the book didn’t seem like they were in relation to the book to me. I ended up dropping the class because I didn’t care for the way that it was taught and I didn’t need it to graduate.

    I know that it was an odd book, and maybe I’ll have to re-read it one of these days now that I’m outside of the classroom and can think about it on its own.

    • TBM says:

      It is hard to stick with a class when you don’t really get along with the teaching style. I suffered through one too many courses when I was in school. I’m curious about what questions your teacher was asking. I’m not sure I totally understand all the philosophical aspects in his novels.

      • Adam says:

        I don’t remember offhand, but to me it didn’t seem like it related to the story at all. If I have some time this weekend (and I remember to) I’ll try to find my stuff from the class, but I’m not completely sure where I have it at.

      • TBM says:

        That would be neat, but don’t go out of your way. If your school notes are anything like mine (chaos) I would hate for you to waste a day looking and not finding them.

  13. Fergiemoto says:

    No, I haven’t read this book, but sure sounds like I need to put it on my list. He was quite accomplished at such a young age.

  14. This is an important book. Too nihilistic and devoid of hope for me, though. I liked the harsh light imagery when Meursault is lying on the beach. It’s a cold, harsh tale.

  15. Geoff W says:

    That is interesting about the translations. I’m still a little unsure about this one, but it has such a following. I’ll have to see if it is on my Classics Cub list.

    • TBM says:

      It was on my classic list! I think I’m about 1/5th done. I feel bad though since I don’t keep up with the group and prompts. I just do it on my own–not nice of me.

      • Geoff W says:

        Well that’s the whole point of it to do what you want but to read more classics! I mean the founder no longer participates for her own reasons, so you’re in good company.

      • TBM says:

        I don’t think she expected such an interest. I keep thinking I would like to host a reading challenge but then when I think of the work I pretend the thought didn’t pop into my head.

      • Geoff W says:

        Oh yeah! Or there are already 3-4 out there that do almost the same thing.

  16. Jo Bryant says:

    sounds interesting

  17. I liked The Plague much better. But best of all I love the diaries.

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