I was very young when I first read The Stranger. It was my first attempt on Albert Camus and I did know nothing about existentialism. I, nevertheless, become captivated by Camus, perhaps because of the strangeness of Meursault, the hero in the novel, his inability to express emotions, his extreme individualism, and his refusal to conform to social norms, characteristics that harmonised nicely with my adolescent sensitivities, alienation and quests for identity.
Today, I have outgrown individualism, at least the kind of individualism that Hayek describes as ‘false individualism’ which is the product of “an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason”. Alienation, on the other hand, is still here.
Meursault, a Frenchman in Algiers, lives an isolated life focused in the present. His plans, his idea of the future, barely extend to the end of the day. He is neither unhappy nor happy, he does not feel that life has any meaning and frankly, he does not much bother about it. He is existentially indifferent. Meursault is psychologically detached from other people, even from his own mother, the only family he has. On the announcement of the death of his mother, he shows scarcely a flicker of an emotional response. ‘It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.’
He asserts that life is absurd, a series of contingencies with no purpose or meaning. ‘I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world,’ he says. Almost accidentally, he commits an unpremeditated crime, he kills a young Arab. His crime is an act of free will and he assumes full responsibility for this but he does not experience guilt, remorse or shame. He shows the usual indifference and strangeness; he cares about practically nothing.
‘It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and the sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then, I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.’
During his trial and imprisonment, Meursault fully embraces his utter solitude, he refuses to comply with social norms, he does not want to change anything, he hopes nothing. Even before his own death, he challenges the social construct of religion. “He [the priest] wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.“
In The Stranger, philosophy and literature are inextricably intertwined, the novel is a literary presentation of the atheistic existentialism and Meursault its absolute atheist, existential and nihilistic hero. Only on the eve of his death he seems to connect with his mother, he finally understands.
“For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a ‘fiancé,’ why she had played at beginning again. Even there, in that home where lives were fading out, evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too.”