Forever concerned with the human condition, Albert Camus provided the early 20th century some of its most poignant philosophy and fiction on the meaning of existence. Arguing that mankind should stick its proverbial middle finger up at the pointlessness of life and live despite it (an idea explored in his other major novel, The Plague), Camus’s output also dealt with another facet of life: the absurd. Certain perspectives distancing consciousness from reality, his 1942 The Stranger is a brilliant rumination on the theme of emotional and behavioral accountability, and one of several reasons Camus won the Nobel.
Set roughly in the year of the book’s publication, Meursault is an ordinary man living in Algeria. He works; he sleeps; he goes out with friends; he loves; he eats—in in short, doing all the things considered normal of a person. Existing prominently on the surface, however, is an emotional detachment from life. Prelude to many character studies that would come in literature, Meursault exudes a sense of alienation from reality, his own mother’s funeral incapable of producing a reaction. Phlegmatic to say the least, he lives with impunity. A situation involving a lover and her brother coming to a dramatic head despite his indifference, Meursault commits one of the most horrendous acts a human can. His reaction to this, however, is where Camus’ message lies.
A major entry into existentialist fiction, Camus’ view of conscious existence holds tighter to the philosophy of Heidegger and Jaspers than Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. Not spiritual glorification, Meursault’s participation in the events of his life take on a metaphysical distance from reality that instead highlights his alienation. The despicable act he commits would bother most, yet he remains unaffected by it and in fact, seems confused dealing with the aftermath. Camus among the best post-modern writers on the philosophy of existence, The Stranger shows why.
Style strongly in the vein of Hemingway and other American writers of the time, Faulkner, Dos Passos, etc., Camus’ sentence and syntax have a sparse, loose feel that complements and enforces the distancing effect he was aiming at. Beauty and lyricism not the intent, readers partake in a text devoid of superfluous, over-descriptive language such that only the proverbial bones of Meursault’s life break the surface. Suffice to say, the usage of style to augment the distance to Meursault readers experience is a major component of the book’s success and an example of art producing value.
In the end, The Stranger is one of the great books of the 20th century. Though Meursault and his dispassionate mode of living may be confusing to the average reader, it is rightfully so. Camus’ commentary on post-modern life strikes at the heart of a number of issues, becoming only more pertinent as technology further alienates humanity from itself. A sparse tone infused with ideas universally philosophical, The Stranger is literature for the ages.