Sandwiched between the two parts of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” is the ostensible climax involving the French protagonist, Meursault, who shoots an Arab man to death (in cold blood), yet central to the short narrative – and especially the ensuing trial, to determine his guilt – is not only the passing of his mother in the beginning, but also how he had treated his mother (by sending her to a retirement home), how he behaved or expressed grief at the funeral, and how he went about with his personal life right after. The broader themes of morality, filial piety, and societal condemnation are therefore invoked, and Meursault’s first-person point of view offers an intimate account of events alongside his absurdist state of mind.
As a French philosopher and author, in this vein, Camus contributed to the rise of the philosophical idea of absurdism, which emerges when an individual seeks clarity and meaning in a world which offers neither. Disentangling the other philosophical threads with existentialism (of the human subject as a free and acting agent) or nihilism (of the sceptical belief that life is meaningless, or that life has no intrinsic value or real existence) – and making sense of the philosophical implications – is a tall order, though many point to the opening of the novel as highlighting the absurdity of life and death: “Today mother died. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure”. In a matter-of-fact manner, Meursault expresses no remorse or sadness.
In addition to the more overt rejection of religion towards the end of the novel – as Meursault rejects a chaplain’s offer to turn to God, despite awaiting his death sentence – “The Stranger” the irrationality of the world and of human action (with the progress of the trial against a psychologically detached Meursault, for instance, and him specifying no reason of killing the Arab man or of agreeing to marry Marie Cardona, as well as how his lack of grieving and immediate romantic pursuit of Cardona are seen to be immoral) and the perceived lack of meaning in human life (with Meursault’s honest views on life and death, in particular) are emphasised. As the stranger, Meursault is estranged from human life, and perhaps from those around him too.