Quicklet on Albert Camus' The Stranger

by Scott Charles

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About the Book
    • Introducing the Author
    • Overall Summary
    • Character List or List of Important People
    • Major Themes and Symbols
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Sources and Additional Reading

Description

ABOUT THE BOOK

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is not a terribly complicated book.  It has only a few characters, and a simple plot.  A determined reader could finish it in a single evening.

The essence of the story is that a young Frenchman (“Meursault”) living in Algeria kills a young Arab man, is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.  The homicide occurs near the middle of the book (which is only 123 pages long).  The actual reason for the killing is somewhat obscure; the way the story is told leads one to believe it was mis-adventure.

 The coast of Algiers as seen from the basilica of Our Lady of Africa. Photo by Nilfanion. Used here under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Meursault is revealed to be a somewhat dissolute man, not particularly ambitious, not particularly talented or interesting; in fact he is not particularly anything except self-indulgent, callous and aloof.  He is intelligent and likable in a superficial way, but his lack of appreciation for other people renders him shallow.

All in all the book reads like a well-written pulp fiction novel.

One might conclude that for some existentialists (as Camus is often said to be), the world is dreary and dangerous, populated only by the characters from Mad Men, Seinfeld, and a few zombies (i.e., bureaucrats).  A fearsome place. But happiness is, after all, a choice.  A hard choice sometimes, but a choice. Which is to say a discipline; it is a challenge one must rise to.

From that perspective of “happiness,” the book is not so much a study of a person, or humanity, or even “existence,” as it is a study of a pathological condition.  Meursault suffers from “alienation” in the most extreme sense.  He has no particular connection to anyone or anything.  He isn’t merely “detached” or “aloof” or “stoic” or even “centered” -- he is not part of society and he’s just too lazy to care.  

The book fails as a morality play because it gets us in, but does not provide a way out, except for death.  If life is meaningless and absurd, and death is the only way out, why not get out sooner rather than later?  That’s not much of a lesson.  The moral of The Stranger may very well be to accept life as it is and choose to live it to the fullest, but Camus doesn’t seem to advocate that (at least not directly; if all we had to judge him by is this book, we would have to force ourselves to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK

Albert Camus (1913-1960)  was born in Algeria to French parents.  His life was devoted to writing and the arts; he was a journalist, editor, playwright, author, essayist, actor, and a French partisan working with the French resistance during WWII.

Albert Camus, Nobel prize winner, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing left, smoking cigarette.  New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, see http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/130_nyw.html, where the New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection considers all of its photographs public domain.

Although Camus became one of France’s most famous writers, he was raised in poverty.  He was born to what is known as “pied-noir” parents, which is a way of saying Camus was part of a lower-caste family.  His father was a farm laborer. Camus’ mother,  Catherine Hélène Sintés, a factory worker and cleaning lady, was illiterate and deaf. She was of Spanish descent, thus the “pied-noir” designation.  His father, Lucien Auguste Camus, was in 1914 killed during WWI at the Battle of the Marne when Albert was a year old.  

In spite of his lack of family money, Camus excelled in school and caught the attention of one of his teachers, Louis Germain, who helped Camus win a high-school scholarship. Another early influence was Jean Grenier, who encouraged him to study philosophy.  While in college Camus suffered from tuberculosis and stayed with his uncle during his recuperation. His uncle, Gustave Acault, a butcher with a love of education, encouraged Camus to study literature.  Camus graduated from the University of Algiers in 1936 with a degree in philosophy.  

In 1938 Camus worked as a reporter, was active in theater, and in 1940 went to Paris to continue his journalism career.  That same year Germany invaded France and Camus decided to leave and go back to Algiers.  However, he was forced to leave Algiers because his left-wing politics made him a target for the right-wing forces that were dominating the country at that time.

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