Existence is not inherently meaningful. Our direction and purpose is defined, not by our own will but by the will of others and a great state of cosmic indifference that allows this awesome liberty to take hold. This is the stage in which Albert Camus’s masterpiece The Stranger takes place, tackling deep questions about the nature of human existence primarily through his main character, Meursault.
Meursault begins the book having just found out his mother has died, reacting in such a matter-of-fact way that the tale’s opening line (“Mother died today.”) has become famous for its candid presentation. He speaks in an almost backward, disjointed manner, as though he doesn’t have to think very hard about the answers he gives to people because he has no reason to hide his true feelings about anything. Meursault could be considered a passive nihilist, accepting that the supposed “order” of existence is in itself insubstantial while not directly acknowledging this sentiment or attempting to convert anyone to his way of thinking.
The protagonist spends the first half of the book wading through his job, his mother’s funeral, activities with his girlfriend, and other insignificant activities that he narrates with a consistent and inflexible tone.
And always there is the sun. During his trip to the beach, Meursault’s girlfriend asks if he’d like to marry her and he gives her a non-committal answer under the blinding light of the sun. He comments on how hot his mother’s funeral is, wondering why all the people of the retirement home he sent his mother to look at him so strangely. The first half of The Stranger ends with Meursault entering a complicated series of events that leads to him shooting an Arabic man, compelled to do so by, as he describes it, the sun.
From there, Meursault is tried for murder leading to a deposition that focuses less on the contents of the killing itself (which was fairly straightforward), but rather on Meursault’s disposition. Before the trial the audience has an odd time classifying Meursault, curious to see if any action for or against him will elicit a reaction stronger than mere passive acknowledgment.
By the trial’s end, however, it becomes clear that Meursault is in every way a non-conformist, untroubled by the order of society and yet very much still a part of it. In broad terms, Meursault might be classified as a sociopath, but the book doesn’t directly pin any labels on him until the court can determine it for themselves, effectively chewing him up before slapping the death penalty on him. The judge, the lawyers, and the whole of the court don’t know how to process Meursault’s behavior and bizarre answers to such simple questions (like the aforementioned “the sun made me kill him” defense), leading to nearly everyone in attendance to decry him a monster for his seeming inability to feel anything at all.
As he awaits his sentence, Meursault is visited by a priest who desperately tries to convert him. The chaplain worries that Meursault won’t be accepted into heaven unless he confesses his crimes and bows to the will of God. This proves to be all Meursault can take, as he snaps at the priest to just let him be, showing for the first time any depth of genuine emotion. He ponders on this outburst and by the end of the story determines that he is not meant for this world. Religion, politics–even the mere act of human interaction prove to be too distant for him, and so accepts his death with open arms.
The Stranger showcases Camus’s ideological standpoint “absurdism,” which states that all of human existence is the result of a purposeless, chaotic universe from which no reason can be derived. The men and women who judge Meursault desperately try to pin a narrative onto his actions, to give meaning and sense to what otherwise might be called a senseless act of violence. In this way, they become akin to the overbearing light of the sun that Meursault wishes to avoid.
It takes a stint in jail for Meursault to recognize his own destiny, reflected back at him in the stars flickering above his cell. He finds a kinship in the soft twinkling and seeming indifference the night sky provides, and learns he has more in common with it than society or the world of the living. He is escorted out of his cell, drifting towards death like a leaf on a river, into the mouth of his great, uncaring beyond.