Getting to Know The Stranger
This week on Big Book Energy, we are diving into Albert Camus’ absurdist classic, The Stranger. This was our first official Book We Hate, chosen by Jennifer for Paige. Jennifer’s first, and only, read of The Stranger was her senior year of high school. It was advertised as an example of existentialist literature, and Jennifer thoroughly hated it, though whether or not she really understood it is up for debate. After going through two rounds of graduate school and numerous existential crises, she has a feeling The Stranger may have a different appeal to her now.
But boy oh boy was this a philosophical can of worms to explore in only our second episode. And we are not philosophers so….input and commentary are appreciated! The following are some things we learned over the course of this chat. First, Albert Camus was an all around bada**. Born in Algeria in 1913 when it was still under French control, Camus grew up in less than ideal circumstances. His mother struggled to provide for him and his brother, and Camus was afflicted with tuberculosis at a young age which shattered dreams of an athletic career. After receiving the best education possible in these circumstances, Camus tried to forge a better life in France where he was an editor, and later participated in the French Resistance against the Nazis in WWII. Finally, he was presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. So, really like #goals, minus the tuberculosis. Camus published The Stranger in 1942, though this had been preceded by plays, collections of essays, and Camus would go on to write more novels. Unfortunately, Camus’ life was cut tragically short by a car accident at the age of forty-six.
While The Stranger may have been marketed to Jennifer as an existentialist work in high school, Camus actually fought this association, classifying his work as absurdist. What is absurdism, you ask? Great question! That we are not really qualified to answer! But we tried. In short, absurdism is recognition of the conflict between our tendency towards seeking meaning in life and the fact that life is random, irrational, and completely out of our control. This is something that we can see in Camus’ own experience in life, and definitely also appears in his literary work. The Stranger, following a short period in the life of Meursault, is split into two parts: before The Murder and after The Murder. Meursault – who we refer to as M ever after because…we don’t know French – deals first with the death of his mother. Although, does he really deal with her death? No one can tell as he has literally no emotional response at her funeral. Then, after spending some time with his buddy Raymond, a local pimp, M gets into trouble. After a brief loss of control and sanity, M kills a man in cold blood.
Perhaps the most fascinating portion of this book is M’s trial. What condemns him is not the brutal murder, but his emotionless and remorseless response, both to killing a man, but also to his own mother’s death. In fact, his response to his mother’s death is by far the most important piece of evidence used to justify the death penalty for M. Though technically he had done nothing wrong at the funeral, the lack of what society considers an appropriate response is the true nail in the coffin – both figuratively and literally. Encyclopedia Britannica characterizes Meursault as kind of like a rebellious figure who, “refuses to conform to society’s demands.” We find M to be a character so devoid of human emotion as to be suspect for some kind of psychological disorder. However, is it possible that his complete apathy to the world and events around him is a sign that he is still struggling to find purpose after accepting the world is irrational? Let us know what you think in the comments!
While we muddled our way through absurdism this week with an admittedly high brow pick, below are a collection of links that hopefully will give you more information on Camus, absurdism, and also random topics from this week’s episode:
A list of The Stranger Things:
- Albert Camus’ Britannica entry gives a good breakdown of his life.
- He also has an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- For those more academically inclined, there is an Albert Camus Society that publishes a Journal of Camus Studies, though you may need to be connected to a scholarly institution to access the journal for free.
- Absurdism…is absurd, but if you’d like to explore it further, we cannot recommend enough this page from Philosophy Terms.
- Here’s the AR thing Jennifer was talking about. Accelerated Reader is a software published by Renaissance that encourages students to read while also working on their reading comprehension and critical thinking.
- Finally, here’s a quick look at how guillotining works on the human brain, and some fast facts about the guillotine. Looks like humans lose consciousness only a few seconds – think three or four seconds – after decapitation, so the facial expressions, etc. observed in the French Revolution were most likely involuntary.
Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.3. Follow us on social media if that is your thing, and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content!