Thursday, August 25, 2011


Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know.

These are the first words of THE STRANGER, the novel by Albert Camus that was published in 1942. The book tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who senselessly kills an Arab man and his subsequent arrest and trial for the crime.

THE STRANGER is an example of existentialist literature and exhibited Camus' belief in the absurdity of man's existence.

Part One begins with Meursault being informed of his mother's death and going to her funeral. He doesn't show any of the expected emotions of grief and doesn't express his feelings in the narrative. Meursault is an ordinary, middle-class man. He has a job, a group of friends, and even a girlfriend, but what sets him apart from humanity is his indifference and lack of empathy for just about anything whether it be the abuse of a woman, the abuse of a dog, or even the death of his own mother. In this first section Meursault objectively details his existence and describes the world around him. This includes an affair with Marie, a woman who works with him. He likes her and enjoys being with her, but can't express love for her. He describes the old man and his dog who live near him and who have a love/hate relationship with one another. He helps his friend Raymond take revenge on a girlfriend, yet Meursault seems without passion and judgement. After an encounter with a group of Arab men, one of which is related to the girl that Raymond abuses, Meursault goes back to the beach where he encounters one of them and in the blinding heat, kills him with Raymond's gun. 

In Part Two, Camus describes Meursault's incarceration and trial for the murder, but Meursault expresses neither guilt or regret. As the trial evolves, all of the above details are brought out as evidence for Meursault's guilt. Is he on trial for the murder?...or for his indifference and actions surrounding his mother's death?

Meursault is found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine. Near the end of the book he meets with the chaplain, but rejects his opportunity to turn to God. The chaplain persists and finally Meursault becomes angry, with a climactic outburst about the meaninglessness of existence and the universe's indifference towards humankind. In the end Meursault accepts his fate and acknowledges his mortality and responsibility for his own actions.

Camus' philosophy of the absurd was set forth in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus which was also published in 1942. He analyzes man's search for meaning, unity, and clarity in the face of a world devoid of God and eternal truths and values. The world is absurd because it is meaningless and indifferent. Camus comes to the conclusion that the best way to deal with this realization of the absurd is not to commit suicide, but to revolt and for one to create their own meaning in life. The essay deals with many issues and analyzes the work of other philosophers such as Heidegger, Jaspers, and  Kierkegaard. Camus also talks about Don Juan and his place in the absurd world, as well as the life of the actor and the conqueror. In Part Three he explores the absurd creator or artist and looks at the work of Dostoyevsky. 

In the final chapter, Camus talks of The Myth of Sisyphus, where for all of eternity Sisyphus is forced by the gods to push a rock up a mountain to the top where it rolls down again and he has to repeat the act over and over. Camus sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death and is condemned to a meaningless task. Camus presents Sisyphus's endless and pointless toil as a metaphor for modern lives spent working futile jobs in factories and offices. In the end though Sisyphus reaches contentment when he becomes conscious of the absurdity of his situation. In an appendix Camus also examines the work of Franz Kafka and its relation to the absurd.

The Plague (1947) was Camus' second novel and tells the story of medical workers finding solidarity in their work as a plague sweeps through the Algerian city of Oran. The characters ranging from doctors, to vacationers, to fugitives, all exhibit the effect the plague has on the populace, and each deals with it in a different way. The novel has been read as a metaphorical treatment of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation of France.

The book deals with the themes of exile, separation, solidarity, community, resistance, and religion.The Plague emphasizes that ultimately we have no control, life is irrational, and the world and existence are absurd, but still we should not give up, but find meaning in our lives when dealing with events that are out of our hands.

The Rebel (1951) was a book-length essay which covers both the historical and metaphysical development of rebellion and revolution in societies, especially Western Europe. Camus writes about a variety of artists including Epicurus, Marquis de Sade, Hegel, Nietzsche, Breton, and Dostoyevsky and how they all historically portray man in revolt. The book deals with the contradictions of rebellion as those who do rebel often become totalitarian themselves once they take power.

The Fall (1956) was the final novel published in Camus' lifetime and is told as a first-person confession by the character Jean-Baptiste Clamence as he reflects upon his life to a stranger. Once a highly respected lawyer, he details his crisis and ultimate fall from grace. It takes place in Amsterdam often in a bar named Mexico City. There are references to Dante's Inferno, Nazism, and the Ghent Alterpiece by Van Eyck. The Fall explores themes of innocence, imprisonment, and the illusive quality of truth. 

Exile and the Kingdom is a collection of six short stories published in 1957. They were written between 1949 and 1955 and they further explore the themes of Camus' other work. He is concerned with the dilemma of the outsider or stranger, the conflict between solitude and community, exile and belonging, and speech and silence.

These themes were directly linked to Camus' own life as he was French but born and raised in a working class family in Algeria. During WWII, he was one of the leading writers of the French Resistance and editor of the underground newspaper Combat. He also alienated himself from other leftist, including Jean-Paul Sartre, with his criticism of Stalinism. He was distressed by the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s, and anguished by the terrorism on both sides and eventually chose not to take a stand on the issue. These life experiences directly informed his writings.

Camus also wrote plays, as well as essays and literature. 

Other important writings include Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961) which was a collection of essays that did cover conflicts including the Algerian War and included an important essay critical of capital punishment called Reflections on the Guillotine. The Artist and His Time is an essay that concludes that the justification for the artist is to speak up for those who cannot do so for themselves.

A Happy Death (1971) was actually the first novel by Camus and draws on memories of suffering from tuberculosis, working for the maritime commission in Algiers, and his travels in Europe. It is considered a precursor to The Stranger, but Camus decided not to publish it when he wrote it in the late 1930s. It came out after his death.

The First Man was an autobiographical novel Camus was working on at the time he was killed in an automobile wreck in the town of Villeblevin in 1960. It was found in the mud near the accident site and published by his daughter in 1995. In an absurd twist, an unused train ticket was found in his coat pocket. At the last minute, he had decided not to take the train, and instead travelled by car with his publisher and close friend Michel Gallimard who was also killed in the accident.

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