Strangely Existential: Existentialism Ideals in Camus’ The Stranger
Many would argue that Albert Camus isn’t an Existentialist. When asked, Camus himself even denied it (Simon Lea). One reason that Camus might be excluded as an Existentialist is that Camus never really fights the idea of alienation. In fact, he gives it a very positive connotation in The Stranger. David E. Cooper, the author of Existentialism, states that “in the attitude of Meursault, The Outsider, we find a defiant pleasure taken in our alienated condition,” (Simon Lea).
To understand if Albert Camus was an existentialist or not, one must first know what Existentialism is. Existentialism is defined in the Webster dictionary as “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.” There are many various properties that make up the ideas of Existentialism: philosophy as a way of life, anxiety and authenticity, freedom, existence, absurdity, and the crowd.
Existentialists believe in this idea of immanence, or that philosophy should be integrated into each individual’s life, not hover outside it. They also believe that a man “lives rather than is,” (Bigelow), meaning essentially that every human being is unique and different and has unique and different experiences that can only be understood in terms of their involvement in their own lives. Some of these ideas originated with old philosophers like Socrates, Stoics, and Epicureans (Burnham).
Anxiety and authenticity is the next property Existentialists are interested in. Douglas Burnham and George Papandreopoulos of Staffordshire University define anxiety as the reaction to the idea that human existence is somehow, “on its own.” We are in charge of all the decisions to be made in our life and must deal with the responsibility of whatever we choose. Along with this idea of anxiety is this idea of authenticity, or living honestly in sync with nature. However, this does not mean just acknowledging that, yes, nature is present. It means living in accordance with it and letting it be firmly a part of and within your life, like the idea of immanence.
Freedom is the next idea Existentialists touch on. Freedom closely relates to anxiety because it also deals with the idea that we must make decisions that affect our lives and those decisions are our responsibility. Freedom also means that, rather than be random, we live by laws that are given, “by the self in recognition of its responsibility,” (Gordan and Papandreopoulos). We have the freedom and ability to give ourselves our own set of rules and as we are free to action, we are also free not to act.
Existence, of course, plays a large role in Existentialism. Existentialists of all minds agree on the idea that we should be focused specifically on human existence and not just on any existent thing. There is also a belief in living in a state of, “I am,” and that existence is not rooted in nature or culture because “to ‘exist’ is precisely to constitute such an identity,” (Crowell).
Absurdity is a property of Existentialism that is most referred to in Camus’ case. Absurdity centers basically around the idea that nature and humans have no real reason for existing, and that humans should not attempt to understand this lack of reason for existence. It is also the idea that the only real reason and order in the universe is the reason and order that humanity makes for itself. Morality only holds value at what prices we, as human beings, put on it. In other words, “the only order in a disordered world is the one we create for ourselves” (Moser). Absurdity has a bit of relation to the idea of freedom. According to Gordan and Papandreopoulos, “a free action, once done, is no longer free; it has become an aspect of the world, a thing.” This brings about their next idea that, “in becoming myself (a free existence), I must become what I am not (a thing).” Some would even find this idea comforting because, especially in modern day, human beings and individuals do not like to think of themselves as “things,” but rather as people with ideas and thoughts and feelings.
Lastly is the idea of, “the crowd.” This property centers on the concept that the crowd represents untruth (Crowell). The crowd destroys the idea of individualism and the importance of uniqueness in man by representing the standard or comfortable way of living. To be a part of the crowd you take away the responsibility of being oneself. In modern terms, it means that by band-wagoning and following society in its way of living without thought, you are conforming to the lifestyle needed for social life and, in turn, are not being individual and are living in untruth.
After becoming familiar with Existentialism, it can now be pondered on whether Camus can be considered one himself. Though he denies that he is, there are many existentialist qualities within his novel that beg to differ. Beginning with the character of Meursault himself.
“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” (Camus 3). This would be the sentence that marked Meursault as a character for years afterward. It can be considered a summary of his personality. Meursault has a disconnection with his world that one might find off-putting, and yet the characters in the novel seem to accept him fully as a person and he even seems to be a sought-after companion. Raymond makes it clear that he wants Meursault as a close friend, while Marie even wants to marry him despite his lack of enthusiasm in response to her. “That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to” (Camus 41). He is very direct in this quote and readers come to discover that Meursault simply refuses to pretend to have feeling that he does not possess (Carter).
Nature plays a heavy role in Camus’ novel and is described in great detail throughout the story. From the beginning we are greeted by imagery such as, “The room was filled with beautiful late-afternoon sunlight. Two hornets were buzzing against the glass roof. I could feel myself getting sleepy,” (Camus 7) and “Above the hills that separate Marengo from the sea, the sky was streaked with red. And the wind coming over the hills brought the smell of salt with it. It was going to be a beautiful day,” (Camus 12). All of Meursault’s descriptions have a very positive connotation. This all seems to tie in with the idea of living in accordance and authenticity with nature. Interestingly, however, it is nature that ultimately leads Meursault to murder.
He mentions the sun multiple times when he describes the weather in particular scenes, such as the procession at his mother’s funeral: “But today, with the sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimmer with heat, it was inhumane and oppressive,” (Camus 15), and then, more importantly, at the spring with the Arab: “But the beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back,” (Camus 58), “The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows,” (Camus 58) and “All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me,” (Camus 59). This sun seems to be a motif and along with it is Meursault’s feeling of dizziness and confusion. This also seems to connect with Meursault’s relationship with immediate physical things around him. Meursault seems to be much more interested in things correlating directly to him physically rather than the world around him and its emotional aspects.
Absurdity plays the largest existentialist role in Camus’ novel. There are many absurd situations which arise in The Stranger. Remembering that absurdity means the idea that nature and humans have no real reason for existing, we see thoughts from Meursault that align with existentialist views. Meursault is not necessarily looking for meaning in anything he does. He simply goes about life, completely, “unaware of his mortality” (Carter). This ties into absurdity because Meursault understands that, “since death is both arbitrary and inevitable and since there is nothing beyond death, life only has importance in here and now” (Moser). We see an example of this when Meursault is at his mother’s casket. He wants a smoke but doesn’t know if he can do it with his Maman right there. In the end he decided “it didn’t matter” (Camus 8). In Meursault’s mind, his mother is already dead and whether he smoked or not, she would still be dead.
This thought process is expressed multiple times throughout the novel, such as when Marie asks Meursault about his tie and she gives a start when she finds out his mother died yesterday. Meursault wants to explain that it wasn’t his fault but stops himself because “I’d already said that to my boss. It didn’t mean anything” (Camus 20). Again, he expresses similar “it doesn’t matter” attitudes when Marie asks him if he’d like to marry her and he says “it didn’t make any difference to me and we could if she wanted to,” (Camus 41). It can be agreed essentially that Meursault shows very little passion for anything in the novel and that he lives very much in a state of “here and now.”
Camus expresses absurdity in a second way. The second aspect of absurdity centers on the idea that we, as humans, set rules for ourselves because there are no real rules set in place. Morality is an idea created and used by human beings. This is also the grey area where freedom is heavily involved as well. The largest tie into these ideas is the entirety of the court scene. Laws are set in place by human beings, but who decides these rules ultimately? Still human beings. Humans make rules for humans. Ultimately, this scene displays man’s inhumanity to man. Meursault is being tried for the murder of the Arab man, and yet most of the questions and evidence are pulled from his lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral. Meursault’s lawyer questions this outright: “Come now, is my client on trial for burying his mother or for killing a man?” but spectators just laugh (Camus 96). Ron Carter states it most effectively: “When society condemns him, Meursault realizes he is not being condemned for taking a human life, but refusing to accept the illusions society promotes to protect itself from having to acknowledge the absurdity of the human condition. In effect, Meursault is being condemned for not crying at his mother’s funeral.” Everything about Meursault and the way his mind works and operates ties into alienation and society viewing him as an “outsider.” Because society rules say that when someone close to you dies you mourn, Meursault is an outsider because he is brutally honest and refuses to cry if he does not feel remorse or sadness.
The first point in the novel where Meursault shows real emotion and passion is when he faces death in his cell. A priest visits Meursault and his forcefulness about God and life after death forces an outburst from Meursault that is completely out of character for him, “I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy,” (Camus 120). Meursault then goes on to say, “What did other people’s death or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate…” (Camus 121). These thoughts are extremely along existentialist lines in terms of absurdity and the idea that death is inescapable. Meursault is connected to all other beings through death and once “death, or the inevitable cessation of existence, is recognized as the single inescapable condition of existence, life, however meaningless it might ultimately be, becomes valuable” (Carter).
At the end of the novel and after his outburst with the priest, Meursault finally comes to terms with the sentence he has been given. He realizes that the universe is just as indifferent to him as he is to it. Normally this idea would overwhelm an individual but it is after this realization that Meursault actually feels happiness because he knows that he is going to die no matter what happens so it really makes no difference whether he dies then and there by guillotine or later on of old age.
Camus denied being an existentialist, and while he may not be, it is hard to ignore the existentialist qualities within the novel. Moser states that “Camus’ preoccupation with the nature of being and his rejection of reason and order in the universe are both existential concerns.” Despite Camus’ denials, many can and do view Meursault as a huge representation of existentialism. Camus described his own character as, “not a piece of social wreckage, but a poor and naked man enamored of a sun that leaves no shadows. Far from being bereft of all feeling, he is animated by a passion that is deep because it is stubborn, a passion for the absolute and for truth” (Kellman).
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