The Stranger

About Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Camus was a French philosophical novelist and essayist who was also a prose poet and the conscience of his times. He was born and raised in Algeria, and his experiences as a fatherless, tubercular youth, as a young playwright and journalist in Algiers, and later in the anti-German resistance in Paris during World War II informed everything he wrote. His best-known writings are not overtly political; his most famous works, the novel The Stranger (written in 1940, published in 1942) and his book-length essay The Myth of Sisyphus (written in 1941, published in 1943) explore the notion of "the absurd," which Camus alternatively describes as the human condition and as "a widespread sensitivity of our times." The absurd, briefly defined, is the confrontation with ourselves--with our demands for rationality and justice--and an "indifferent universe." Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to the endless, futile task of rolling a rock up a mountain (whence it would roll back down of its own weight), this becomes an exemplar of the human condition, struggling hopelessly and pointlessly to achieve something. The odd antihero of The Stranger, on the other hand, unconsciously accepts the absurdity of life. He makes no judgments, accepts the most repulsive characters as his freinds and neighbors, and remains unmoved by the death of his mother and his own killing of a man. Facing execution for his crime, he "opens his heart to the benign indifference of the universe."

But such stoic acceptance is not the message of Camus' philosophy. Sisyphus thrives (he is even "happy") by virtue of his scorn and defiance of the gods, and by virtue of a "rebellion" that refuses to give in to despair. This same theme motivates Camus' later novel, The Plague (1947), and his long essay The Rebel (1951). In his last work, however, a novel called The Fall published in 1956, the year before he won the Nobel prize for literature, Camus presents an unforgettably perverse character named Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who exemplifies all the bitterness and despair rejected by his previous characters and in his earlier essays. Clamence, like the character in The Stranger, refuses to judge people, but whereas Meursault (the "stranger") is incapable of judgment, Clamence (who was once a lawyer) makes it a matter of philosophical principle, "for who among us is innocent?" It is unclear where Camus' thinking was heading when he was killed in an automobile accidence (with his publisher, who walked away unharmed).
(Excerpt from Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 1995).


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