The Outsider by Albert Camus

by Lily Wren

The Outsider (L’Etranger) by Albert Camus
Publication: 1943, French 1942


This is my second outing with Camus and, as with The Plague, The Outsider hasn’t disappointed. My Camus journey will certainly continue. Camus has a minimal and uncomplicated style of writing which is certainly refreshing. He manages to produce simple sentences with a simple use of words which nonetheless convey so much meaning and atmosphere. I find his work extremely accessible and direct. He is not a man to waste words and compose sentences which end up being a paragraph long. You know, the ones where you need oxygen to complete them. The ones where you need the Oxford English Dictionary at hand before discovering the sentence really didn’t mean a thing although it sounded good as you were reaching for the Oxygen once again *and breathe* Or maybe that’s just me. To each ones own.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday. (p.13)

The Outsider is a simple story with the main protagonist, Meursault, narrating a short time in his life. Here we see him tell of his life, working, sitting by his window watching the world go by, the funeral of his mother, finding a girlfriend, making love and finally going through a personal tragedy which would have most people climbing the walls with fear. Meursault presents this with all the excitement and emotion of a rock. It’s all the same to him. He is matter of fact, descriptive and emotionless.  He gives no reasons for his actions and offers no feelings or insight. That is left up to the reader to assume. Things are as they are. In ‘normal’ mainstream society, he could be described as detached, emotionless and apathetic. They’d probably call him a sociopath these days.

Early in the story, Meursault tells us about the time when his girlfriend broached the subject of marriage. He provides a typical response to her request, one of indifference, which runs throughout the book.

Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; If she was keen on it, we’d get married. Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing – but I supposed I didn’t.
“If that’s how you feel’ she said, “why marry me?” I explained that it had no importance really but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away.(p.48)

Meursault’s indifferent acceptance to whatever comes his way is intentional. It is a wonderful portrayal of the ‘Absurdist’ philosophy which Camus held and which is presented brilliantly with the character of Meursault.

Reading books by Camus is an adventure where one can’t help but look at what lies behind the story in order to give it greater meaning. Without going into a full discourse on philosophy and Absurdism (of which I am sure I would fail), this school of thought describes the conflict between our need to find rational meaning to life where it is impossible to do so. It is in effect ‘absurd’ to think we can possibly know the meaning of life in a universe where there are so many unknowns. As a consequence, the answer to the fundamental question we always seek ‘why are we here?’ is impossible to discover. The Absurdist school of thought would say that there are three ways in which we react to and cope with this conflict. We either comment suicide and thus evade it or we take on religion or spirituality and thus deny the conflict exists by assuming a higher purpose or, finally, we accept this conflict and continue to live life with this knowledge.

The world seems absurd because we are part of nature and yet able to take a step back from nature and rationalize our place in the world. We become aware of what we call the Absurd when we cannot reconcile the two experiences: what we instinctively feel to be true and what we rationally believe to be true. (Simon Lea,The Camus Society)

Meursault accepts everything which happens and comes his way. He attributes no meaning to his actions and offers no explanations. It’s an extreme example which creates this motive less, detached, emotionless character.  He isn’t particularly realistic or likeable nor does he invite empathy from the reader. However, he does generate interest and intrigue and that, I believe, is one of the points being made. As humans we always want to find rationality and answers where there may be none. Where we don’t have the full information and facts we make judgements, stereotypes and ideologies to make sense of our world in order to ease the conflict the Absurd brings. With the creation of Meursault, Camus has provoked us to try to provide our own analysis to his actions and words with the very little information we have.

The Outsider is a quick read (at 120 pages) which nonetheless packs a punch. I find it encourages an interesting discourse and further reading. Yet again, I am astounded at how Camus is able to write about what could be complex theories in such an accessible and simple way. More Camus will be coming my way…..

If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. (An Absurd Reasoning, Camus)