"The Stranger"

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Do you ever feel guilty about the books you haven't read? You know those titles you see on "Must Read" and "Are You Well Read" lists that you swear you're going to get to some day and then ten years later you're still saying "some day"? For about 25 years I've been saying that about "The Stranger". Then a couple of weeks ago I just happened to see it on the library shelf and made myself bring it home.

Even before I read it I wondered what I could possibly write about it that hasn't already been said. There have been a thousand times more words written about this book than were actually written in the book. I just wanted to get it out of the way so I could stop feeling guilty about not reading it.

The book is written in 2 parts. The first part (I'm not going to worry about spoilers with this one because I'm sure everybody in the world but me knew how it ended anyway) tells the story of Meursault, a man in France living out his mundane life. The second part is the story of his trial after he kills a man.

I hated the first part. I thought the main character, who has been analyzed to death by much better qualified persons than I, was unwell in his mind or to be less subtle, nuts. He didn't seem to have any emotions, any compassion for others, any sense of purpose or any remorse for his crime. He let life happen to him and didn't realize or care that it was so. He killed a man for no good reason and it didn't matter. His story portrays life as meaningless, people as meaningless, social customs as...you guessed it...meaningless. I can agree with tiny little bits of that theory but on the whole it stands in direct opposition to what I believe, that there is meaning and purpose in everything. So, you can see the problem. I felt the book was as pointless as Meursault's life was made out to be. What possible good could it do anyone? I decided to read the second part only so I could cross it off my list.

But then things changed. I liked the second part. I read the ludicrous arguments of the lawyers and Meursault's reasonless thoughts on what could happen and still felt myself pulled more and more into the story. Maybe it's because the trial part of the book showed some of the characters feeling something; they spoke with some intensity even if they didn't make any sense. It had more life than the first part of the book.

I can't say I ever came to like Meursault. Talk about "emotionally unavailable"; he had to have been the model for that phrase. This is a man who didn't care about anything. He said he would marry his girlfriend Marie if she wanted him to but he didn't really care if he got married or he didn't. He said he supposed he must have loved his mother but that didn't matter either. Nothing mattered. I can't recall one instance in the book of him actually thinking about someone else's needs. Other people's feelings never entered into his thinking. Lack of emotion to that extent has to be more than just a personality trait, it's an illness.

It's difficult to say anything about the writing itself because I read the English translation, so I have no idea what the original French was like. I liked the writing very much but whether credit goes to the author or the translator I can't tell.

So I've read the book and crossed it off my must read list, though it didn't shorten that list any because when I took "The Stranger" off I added "The Plague". I want to read at least one more of his books to see if that whole "life is meaningless" thing was merely Meursault's outlook or if it is the author's philosophy and will carry through to his other books.

All in all an odd little book (117 pages in my copy) that still leaves me wondering what the point was. I saw it at Chapters the other day under a different title "The Outsider", but I don't know why it was changed. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Jeane said...

I have never read The Strager but I do have The Plague on my shelf. I'll probably have this idea in the back of my mind while reading it: does he show life as being meaningless...

Ordinary Reader said...

Jeane - Please come back and let me know what you think of The Plague after you read it. The Stranger was such a peculiar book and yet it was somehow appealing. Thanks for stopping by.

Linda Vincent said...

I remember reading this (in French)for my french A-level about 40 years ago! Thank you for the reminder..... :-)
PS I also remember Guy de Maupassants short stories, one in particular called 'La Mere au Monstres'. English version can be seen here....

How bizarre is that?!!!!!!

Jeane said...

I will certainly do that! I'm not sure when I'll get to it, though, my piles of unread books are towering and that one's not exactly screaming my name.

Jeane said...

Well, I tried it. I didn't finish. It was rather dull and depressing and felt kind of pointless, and I didn't care about any of the characters so I didn't want to continue. Maybe that shows he thinks life is meaningless? I don't know.

Ordinary Reader said...

Hi Jeane. I guess all his books must be like that. It's a little disappointing but then again there are lots of other books to read. I really don't want to waste any more time reading pointless ones. It was good of you to come back and share your thoughts. I appreciate it!

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