Albert Camus’ The Outsider

The OutsiderAlbert Camus was a French Algerian writer and philosopher whose political career is perhaps best described as polarizing. He began World War II as a pacifist and ended it as a member of the French resistance group Combat, which published an underground newspaper that Camus would later edit. He was an outspoken opponent of America’s use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and an equally vocal critic of communism and the Soviet Union. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, barely two years before a fateful car accident ended his life; he was only 46 years old.

L’Étranger, published in 1942, translates literally as “The Stranger,” but my edition chooses the more thematically appropriate “The Outsider.” Camus’ outsider is Mersault, who is characterized perfectly by the novel’s famous opening lines: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.” The lines are jarring for their juxtaposition between what should be a traumatic and tragic event, the death of a mother, and the narrator’s failure to deliver the expected emotional reaction, preferring instead to focus on the comparatively minor detail of the timing of the death. The novel’s first chapter follows Mersault on his brief journey to bury his mother, who had been living at a home for the elderly, where he drinks coffee, smokes cigarettes, falls asleep during the vigil and refuses a last opportunity to see his mother’s face before the coffin is permanently closed.

It is uncomfortable to be confronted with a protagonist so seemingly devoid of normal human emotion. Despite the first person narration, the entire first half of the novel contains little in the way of speculation or reflection. Mersault’s girlfriend Marie asks him, directly, whether he loves her, and he answers just as directly: no. He nonetheless agrees to marry her. Mersault is not an active participant in his own life; things merely happen to him, and he refuses to ascribe to these incidents any great moral or cosmic significance. During a beach vacation he is attacked by an Arab and forced to kill the man in self-defense. Asked whether he experiences any remorse for the killing, Mersault can only answer honestly: “rather than true regret, I felt a kind of annoyance.” The crux of the novel comes when Mersault must present a case for his defense, and the prosecution endeavors to make his emotional non-reactions, particularly to his mother’s death, central to the case by painting him as soulless and incapable of remorse or affection.

Camus, in his Afterword, defends Mersault: “You must ask yourself in what way Mersault doesn’t play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.” Ultimately, Mersault’s love of truth condemns him to die. The prosecution, creating meaning where Mersault can find none, paints him as a monster and his crime as pre-meditated murder, and sentences him to death by decapitation. Confronted by the chaplin, who is the second character in the novel to attempt to convince him that God will give his life meaning, Mersault explodes:

I’d grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring everything out at him from the bottom of my heart in a paroxysm of joy and anger. He seemed so certain of everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He couldn’t even be sure he was alive because he was living like a dead man. I might seem to be empty-handed. But I was sure of myself, sure of everything, surer than he was, sure of my life and sure of the death that was coming to me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least it was a truth which I had hold of just as it had hold of me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d lived in a certain way and I could just as well have lived in a different way. I’d done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done one thing whereas I had done another. So what? It was as if I’d been waiting all along for this very moment and for the early dawn when I’d be justified. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew very well why.

Few people would find comfort in the belief that nothing matters. Our lives are fabrications of enforced meaning: family, careers, friendships. The expectation of the importance of these things to everyone is taken for granted, and those who deviate from these expectations, who like Mersault find in them no pleasure or purpose, are outsiders, outcasts, deviants. For Mersault, however, the conviction that there is no inherent meaning  – that no one is justified in telling him what he must feel or why – frees him to “the benign indifference of the world.” And, paradoxically, it is just this freedom that makes him happy, that confirms in him that he was, in fact, happy all along. Camus, who studied Plato, describes Mersault as “a poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows.” The implication, left unstated, is that the community to which Mersault is an outsider are themselves in love merely with shadows, trapped in Plato’s cave and unaware of the imperfectness of their worship, hostile, even, to those who do not share their adorations.