Albert Camus first novel starts off simply enough. The writing is simple, with short direct sentences. You immediately wonder, (assuming you have not read Camus before) what is all the excitement about. This is no writer extraordinaire. But after a bit, you will see that you are very wrong.
Classed usually as a piece of literature dealing with existentialism, Camus begged to differ, declaring that he was of that genre of philosopher. However, the main character, Meursault, tells a tale that brings forth a laundry list of questions about the meaning of life, nihilism, the absurdity of life.
Meursault is a man who seems to live “outside” of reality in the sense that he participates in life but seems separated from it. He watches others, properly categorizes their feelings, objectively denotes the proper response to stimulus in others, yet he himself seems above it all, vaguely untouched.
The opening is his mother’s death and funeral. He observes the behaviors of the mourners, but is not mourning himself. He is not hateful or vengeful at all. His mother has died. It’s a fact. Nothing much more to it.
He reflects on events that occur in his life on how they impact him. His mother’s death means his apartment is somehow too big now, unnecessary. His girlfriend wants to get married. He is agreeable but admits he probably doesn’t love her. He sees nothing untoward in that. He reacts to situations because they have occurred. They have no independent meaning to him. The sun causes him to kill the Arab, for he freely admits there was no reason for doing so.
The second portion of the book concerns Meursault’s time in prison awaiting trial and the verdict. He continues to be separated, commenting on the proceedings with sometimes interest, sometimes amusement, sometimes irritation, but it’s never personal. What is personal is how the trial itself interferes with his immediate desires. It is too hot in the room, he would rather be in his cell.
One gets the sense that the character would have been rather okay with a long sentence in solitary. He has manages to make his “life” in the prison cell quite adequate, almost as adequate as his life had been in his apartment.
With the verdict of death, he confronts again the meaninglessness of life and of the death. He toys with possibilities: can he escape? will his appeal be granted? Will he be pardoned? He games himself into acceptance, deciding that he must root for the execution because to go on living another ten or twenty years, merely prolongs the inevitable. It will happen to everyone. Better to end it now.
Death now offers the ultimate relief. Meursault no longer needs to conform to society, a society he never related to. He is free at last to be who he is.
Meursault maintains that all is meaningless, and the most meaningless aspect of it is societies attempt to create some rationality to his crime. It remains in the end what it always was, without reason, and as Camus would say, absurd.
Full of symbolism and metaphor, this is a book that bears much thinking. It is quite obvious why Camus was given the Nobel in Literature.