Camus’s The Stranger: An Analysis and Review

By Claire Wilson

October 16, 2023

This article contains spoilers 

The plot of The Stranger by Albert Camus is relatively simple. Meursault, the main character, lives a quiet life. His mother passes away, and he attends her funeral. The next day, he reconnects with an old coworker and they start dating. He becomes friends with his neighbor, Raymond, who is known to be a pimp, and defends him to the police when he beats his girlfriend. One day, he goes to the house of his neighbor's friend, where, on the shore of an Algerian beach, he kills the brother of Raymond’s girlfriend. He is brought to jail, and in the following trial, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death by guillotine. The philosophical ideology presented by Camus, however, is anything but simple. 

The book is often analyzed as an existentialist text, a characterization which was rejected by Camus himself, and dismissed in Louis Hudon’s 1960 analysis of The Stranger

“The most clearly false, and at the same time the most widely accepted, of the barriers between the reader and the text of L'Etranger is the idea that Camus is an existentialist and his book an existentialist document… Not all anguish is existential, and certainly very few stomach disorders need be classified as such; yet Meursault's feeling of nausea due to lack of cigarettes has been called “both existential, and lyric." Meursault… has already attained maturity before the beginning of the book, without crisis, effortlessly, as one breathes, and his taciturnity, which is of the essence of his character, results from the instinctive knowledge that any true communication with others is impossible.”

The Stranger explores absurdism, an ideology developed by Albert Camus. Absurdism contends that the universe is irrational and meaningless, an ideology very similar to nihilism, but different in that it focuses more on the conflict caused by humans’ innate desire for meaning and order and the universe’s indifference towards us. This concept is reflected in The Stranger through Camus’s characterization of Meursault, the main character. 

Untitled, (Meursault at the Window), Syed Sadequain, 1966

Meursault’s attitude throughout the book is largely indifferent. He doesn’t try very hard to defend himself in his trial and doesn’t cooperate with his lawyer. His stream of consciousness is unemotional and he seems distant from the events in his life; an outsider watching his life go by with little to say about it. When someone asks his opinion or when he is faced with a decision, he frequently responds with something along the lines of, “it made no difference”, or “none of it really mattered.” This attitude of indifference extends to his personal relationships as well. At his mother’s funeral, he does not cry. In fact, he feels little to no emotion, and smokes cigarettes and drinks coffee throughout her vigil, which is considered disrespectful. When his girlfriend Marie asks if he will marry her, Meursault says, “I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to… I explained to her that it didn't really matter.” 

Not only is Meursault’s inner monologue unemotional, it is also strangely calm. When he is arrested, his thoughts are not those of a panicked criminal caught in the act; they simply reflect the things happening around him. This is not to say that he doesn’t understand his situation or have feelings about it, but that his feelings about anything are never very strong. He feels only mildly happy when he experiences “the smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie's dresses and the way she laughed.” He feels a little upset and confused when he is sentenced to death, but these feelings are never strong or passionate. His unemotional and detached perspective of society and the world around him establishes him as an outsider, as someone who either does not care about or does not understand the conventions of society, thus condemning him to his fate, the death penalty. This is, at least, the opinion of many analyses of The Stranger

"I noticed then that everyone was waving and exchanging greetings and talking, as if they were in a club where people are glad to find themselves among others from the same world. That is how I explained to myself the strange impression I had of being an odd man out, a kind of intruder."

However, I disagree with this view because it removes responsibility from Meursault, placing it instead on the uncertainty and conflict between an absurdist universe and humanity’s attempt to establish rational society. I do not fault Meursault for his feelings of  disconnect with society or for his indifference to the expectations placed upon him, rather, I believe that his disregard for human life and for the people who he directly and indirectly harms through his lack of empathy, is legitimate cause for his ultimate condemnation (although I would not go so far as to prescribe the death penalty). 

Throughout his trial, Meursault is often confused by the way the judge, his lawyer, the jury, and the audience act. He is frustrated by the prosecution’s questions about his mother’s death because he feels that it has nothing to do with the case. Through this scene Camus presents the question: should a man be condemned because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral? Does Meursault’s lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral prove that he is cold-blooded enough to kill a man? 

Untitled (Meursault in Prison), 1966 Syed Sadequain 

“Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter.”

Meursault's biggest flaw is not that he is immoral, it is that he is amoral. He understands the law to an extent, but either is unable to make a clear distinction between right and wrong, or disregards this distinction. This dangerous character flaw leads him to defend his neighbor, a violent domestic abuser, to the police, simply because he “didn’t have any reason not to.” When asked about his motives for killing the man on the beach, Meursault responds that, “it was because of the sun.” This explanation is, of course, absurd, and can be seen as a connection between Meursault’s reasoning and the absurdist view of an irrational universe. 

In the last chapter of The Stranger, Meursault contemplates the guillotine. He feels that because the prisoner will always hope it works the first time, death by guillotine forces the condemned into “moral collaboration” with his executioners. He thinks that a poison that works only nine out of ten times would be a much better punishment because it allows for the prisoner to hope he will not die. He is visited by the chaplain, which causes him to lash out in anger. When he calms down, the way he thinks about his impending death changes. Meursault says “for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself-so like a brother, really-! I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” Meursault has finally come to understand the meaninglessness of the universe and finds a sense of comfort and relief in it. 

When reviewed through a philosophical lens, one must also take into consideration the time period. The Stranger was published in Nazi occupied France in 1942. During a time of death and turmoil, the book presented a new way of thinking about life and death as inevitable experiences that do not hold very much meaning. It was also published just two years before the Algerian War, and many interpret the murder of the Arab as a metaphor for the mistreatment of Muslims under French rule. 

When it comes down to the entertainment value of the book, The Stranger ranks pretty poorly. The plot is unpleasant and depressing. It’s a book made up of unlikeable characters and unemotional, almost frustratingly dull first person narration. But that’s not to say that the writing style detracts from its overall value. On the contrary, Camus’s use of an emotionless stream of consciousness more strongly emphasizes Meurasult’s apathy towards his circumstances and society’s expectations of him.