The Stranger

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Author: Colin Wells
Date: 2003
Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
From: Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them(Vol. 2: The Great Depression and the New Deal to Future Times (1930s -). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: November 07, 1913 in Mondovi, Algeria
Died: January 04, 1960 in Paris, France
Nationality: French
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Mathe, Albert; Bauchart; Saetone
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The Stranger

by Albert Camus

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A novel set in Algeria in the late 1930s; first published in French (as L’Etranger) in 1942, in English in 1946.


A young man commits an inexplicable murder for which he is tried and sentenced to death.

Albert Camus (1913-60) was born and raised in French colonial Algeria. After publishing two books of essays on Algeria, Betwixt and Between (1937) and Nuptials (1938), he became a journalist for the newspaper Alger-Républicain. In 1940, the year after the onset of World War II, the writer moved to France, where he contributed to Combat, the leading newspaper of the French Resistance. In 1942 the success of The Stranger catapulted the 29-year-old Camus to immediate fame. That same year, he also published an influential philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Camus would go on to author two more novels, The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956), as well as several plays and further philosophical works, including The Rebel (1951). In 1957 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature at the unusually early age of 44; less than three years later he met sudden and tragic death from a road accident in France. The Stranger remains Camus’ most widely read work. The novel focuses on his lifelong concerns—individual freedom and the quest for meaning in the face of inevitable death. Though set in French colonial Algeria, the novel responds as well to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe and to important developments in European philosophy.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Historical background: French colonial Algeria

The French colonial presence in Algeria dates from 1830, when France invaded the northern coastal part of the African land, which up to then had been part of the Ottoman Empire. First wresting Algiers, the largest city, from the Ottoman dey, or regent, the French then stamped out other Algerian resistance in a war of conquest that lasted until 1847. Over the next half century, the French extended their rule southward, and in 1902 French surveyors drew up the borders that still define the nation’s territory today. Amidst vigorous nineteenth-century imperial expansion by European nations in continents around the globe, Algeria took a leading role as the heart of French West Africa. In fact, after 1848 Algeria was legally and politically regarded as not a colony at all, but an integral part of France.

This unusual arrangement arose from the large numbers of Europeans who began settling in Algeria almost immediately after the occupation of Algiers in 1830. These land-hungry working-class farmers and laborers came from poverty-stricken areas along the southern coasts

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The French made sporadic and generally unsuccessful efforts to integrate Muslims into the French educational system. In the end, the efforts backfired. By the early nineteenth century, an elite class of French-educated Muslims had emerged in Algeria, the évoiués or“evolved ones.” It was largely from this class that a group of Muslim leaders arose in Algeria by the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the early groups (for example, Young Algerians, formed in 1908) promoted the integration of Muslims into French society. But there was a contrary trend too. In 1926 the Muslim socialist Ahmed Messali Hadj formed the first group to call for Algerian independence. Called Star of North Africa, his group was outlawed by the French in 1929. The group operated underground until 1934. In 1937 Hadj organized a new group, the Party of the Algerian People, which attempted to combine socialist ideas with Islamic values. Rejecting such European influences as socialism, in 1931 the Muslim cleric Shaykh Abd al Hamid Ben Badis founded the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama (religious teachers), which appealed more broadly to poor and working-class Muslims. While Algerian nationalism is not alluded to in The Stranger, it forms an important element of the novel’s background, in which Arabs comprise a vague but sullen and threatening presence to the Europeans on whom the novel focuses. Tensions mounted during the years the novel was written, erupting the following decade. In 1954 the Algerian independence movement undertook a long and bloody war against French rule, finally winning independence in 1962. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Algerians are descended from colons, nearly all of whom fled to France before or during the war.

not just of France, but of Italy and Spain as well. Called colons (colonists) or more commonly pieds noirs (literally, black feet), they melded into a uniform group that was fundamentally French in language and culture. At the top of their society were the wealthy landowning or business families known as grands colons (great colonists), while those in the lower ranks were called petits blancs (little whites).

Like Meursault, the narrator of The Stranger (whose first name is never given), Albert Camus came from a working-class petit blanc family in Algiers, where the novel is set. As the administrative capital of French Algeria and the major city in French West Africa, Algiers in the 1930s was essentially French in look and feel as well as in population, including about 170, 000 European residents and only 55, 000 Arabs. By contrast, in the overall population outside of Algiers, Muslims (Arabs and the nomadic or semino-madic Berbers) heavily outnumbered Europeans by more than six to one (over 6 million Muslims against fewer than one million Europeans).

Despite greater numbers and theoretical equality under French law, Algeria’s indigenous Muslim population in reality comprised a downtrodden underclass. Fewer than half a million Muslims had the right to vote. In the countryside, colons had seized much of the best agricultural land, evicting Muslim farmers. While Muslims made up more than 80 percent of the population, in the straggle to survive, they produced only 20 percent of the nation’s income, and yet they paid well over half the taxes. The colons, who were exempt from many taxes, nevertheless controlled how the taxes were spent, so that colon communities enjoyed public facilities and good schools while Muslim areas had few or none. In politics within the home country of France, the colons made up a powerful political block. Their primary concern was to maintain their supremacy within French Algeria, and historians have characterized their now vanished society as reactionary and racist. In The Stranger, Meursault is put on trial for killing an Arab, but the novel’s colon authorities appear to condemn him less for that act than for his refusal to conform to their social norms.

Responses to European fascism

Algerians became embroiled in a series of mounting economic Page 443  |  Top of Articleand political crises in Europe as its nations drifted towards World War II. In 1931, after a period of seeming resilience, the French economy was sucked into the now two-year-old global depression. France had always suppressed industry in Algeria, viewing the land as a source of raw materials for French industry. Lacking an industrial base, Algerian colons already contended with a lower standard of living than people in mainland France, and the depression hit them even harder. Economic trouble affected Algeria’s Arabs too, many of whom lost their farms. Flooding into Algiers and other cities, they formed a disenfranchised and increasingly angry constituency for the growing Arab protest movements.

At the time, the French faced an even more ominous scene in Europe. The rise of rightwing fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany was leaving France diplomatically isolated and militarily threatened. In 1935 Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, hoping to establish an Italian colony in Africa to rival those of France and Britain. The following year, Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler invaded the Rhineland, a strategically important area along the Rhine river. Under the Treaty of Versailles, which had ended World War I in 1917, the Rhineland was supposed to act as a demilitarized buffer between France and Germany. Violating the treaty’s terms in a way that posed a direct threat to France, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, converting factories to arms production, fortifying strategic points, and installing troops. That same year, 1936, the tensions between the conservative and liberal factions in Spain exploded into civil war, which would give rise to the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-75).

Increasingly demoralized, many of the French struggled to confront the fascist threat—both abroad and at home. In February 1934 righwing riots in Paris left 15 dead and hundreds injured. Shocked into momentary unity, French Communists and Socialists from the left joined with moderates in the center to form a coalition party called the Popular Front, which came to power under Prime Minister Léon Blum in 1936. simular Popular Front, coalitions had formed in other European countries, but only in Spain had another come to power. It was this Spanish Popular Front government that was now in the process of being defeated by Franco’s fascist forces.

In Algeria, Blum’s Popular Front government attempted to implement the Blum Viollette plan, which would have gradually extended greater political representation to the Arabs. Camus strongly supported the Popular Front. Like many young, left-wing intellectuals, he joined the French Communist Party in 1935. Camus left the party two years later, by which time the Blum-Viollette Plan had failed and the Popular Front had been voted from power in France. In 1938 Camus took an editorial job at a newspaper called Alger-Républicain, newly founded to promote the now imperiled ideals of the Popular Front. War with Nazi Germany seemed certain. At this bleak time in history, Camus began work on the novel that would become The Stranger.

The next year, 1939, brought further troubles. In March, Franco’s fascists won the Spanish Civil War and Franco came to power. This was especially painful for Camus, not just because of his political ideals but also because his mother’s family was Spanish. While his feelings for his mother were deeply ambivalent—as suggested by his treatment of motherhood in the novel—Camus valued his Spanish heritage. Other disturbing developments wracked Europe at the time too:

  • March 15, 1939 Germany occupies Czechoslovakia.
  • September 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland after signing a mutual nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union.
  • September 3, 1939 Bound by treaty obligations to Poland, Britain and France declare war on Germany, and World War II begins.
  • June 5, 1940 German forces invade mainland France, defeat the mighty French army with shocking ease, and occupy the country. To rule France and Algeria, the Germans install a puppet government, the Vichy regime, named after the French city that serves as its capital.


At about the time he began writing The Stranger in the fall of 1938, Camus reviewed a new novel entitled Nausea by a then unknown French author named Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus had read the novel the previous summer. In his review of Nausea for Alger-Républicain, Camus related fiction to the science of ideas:“A novel is only philosophy put into images, and in a good novel, all the philosophy goes into the images” (Camus in Todd, p. 84). Though he found much to praise in the work, one problem with Nausea, Camus decided, was that the images and the philosophy were not unified.“That bothers me,” he had written earlier in a letter to a friend,“because I agree with the philosophy, and it pains me to see it lose its power as one reads” (Camus in Todd, p. 85).

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Central to Camus’s thought is the concept of the absurd, which is associated with existentialism and which arose largely from the ideas of Soren Kierkegaard. For Camus, the absurd springs from the realization that hitman existence is ultimately pointless. Like the existentialists, he rejects the existence of any fixed source of meaning outside the individual. But for Camus, there is no source of meaning, even inside the individual. (Here he diverges from the existentialists, who believe even’ action and choice creates meaning, not only for the individual who makes it but also as a claim about universal value) In Camus’ the universe offers no ultímate meaning or value, just the fleeting tact of our existence. The tradilinrul attempt to impose meaning from without (for example., by invoking the idea of God gives the comforting illusion of ultimate meaning, but it is only that—an illusion. This idea is essential to understanding The Stranger, and it helps to explain what Camus means by the novel’s title. In his philosophical work Tne Myth of Sisyphus (1942), often seen as complementary to The Stranger, Camus writes that grasping the absurd shatters our comforting illusion of outside meaning, creating a feeling of separation and alienation. Anyone who sees the true pomtlessness of existence is potentially a“stranger”;

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions five his, man feels .in alien. a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope oí .ι promised land [outside meaning, founded on illusions). This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is property the feeling of absurdity.

(Camus in Sprintzen, p. 32]

Yet the absurdity of human existente, the stripping away of one’s illusions and the resulting sense of alienation, argues Camus, should not be viewed as a cause for despair. On the contrary, only by acknowledging the absurdity of life does one find true liberation and then happiness, even in the face of death, which is precisely Meursault’s situation at the end of the novel.

Sartre would call his philosophy existentialism. The public has linked it not only with the name of Sartre, its founder, but also with that of Camus and especially with The Stranger, which has gone down in popular imagination as the classic existentialist novel. Camus would later object that he was not an existentialist. Indeed, in his reviews of both Nausea and Sartre’s next book, The Wall (1939), Camus disagreed with much of the philosophy he found in them. Scholars have cautioned against simplistically labeling The Stranger an existentialist work. Nevertheless, while differing in some important ways, Sartre and Camus shared a common outlook, one based on developments in European philosophy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Both Camus and Sartre studied the European philosophers who are generally viewed as forerunners of existentialism—Soren Kierkegaard (Danish, 1813-55), Friedrich Nietzsche (German, 1844-1900), Edmund Husserl (German, 1859-1938), and Martin Heidegger (German, 1889-1976). These philosophers contributed to some of the ideas that surface in The Stranger.

  • Alienation. The novel’s Meursault fails to conform to society’s expectations because he sees no meaning in those expectations (though often he feels embarrassed for diverging from them).
  • Existence as a concrete phenomenon. Meursault’s narrative focuses on his bodily sensations; it is not a spiritual or metaphysical phenomenon. Page 445  |  Top of Article
  • Lack of absolute moral values. Meursault does not give any moral weight to the fact that he has killed a man; he regrets that it happened but feels no remorse for killing a human being.
  • Absence of external meaning. In keeping with the idea that no meaning comes from outside the individual, Meursault angrily rejects a Catholic priest’s attempts to absolve him; he denies the existence of God or of an afterlife.

In weighing these ideas, remember that Camus and Sartre studied philosophy while coming of age in the political environment of 1930s France, which is outlined above. They took up the ideas that shaped existentialism in the context of a larger, more general mood of pessimism that grew partly out of that discouraging political atmosphere. At its most extreme, this pessimism gave rise to nihilism, a philosophy according to which there is no value or meaning in human life. To many in the 1930s, the ominous atmosphere seemed to stretch endlessly; finally, in September 1939, it broke into open war. It is the sense of impending catastrophe that gives Meursault’s narrative a quality critics have seen as resembling a snapshot—a frozen moment out of time, in the long decade before the French world was shattered by war.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

The Stranger is narrated by Meursault, a young French Algerian who works in a shipping office in Algiers. In two parts of equal length, Meursault tells his story in an emotionless, matter-of-fact style exemplified by The Stranger’s famous opening lines;

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

(Camus, The Stranger, p. 1)

The old people’s home where she lived is in Marengo, about 50 miles outside Algiers, where Meursault lives in the large apartment that he once shared with his mother. Taking two days off work, Meursault goes by an afternoon bus to Marengo. On the bus the glare from the hot sun and the gas fumes make him sleepy. At the home, he meets with the warden of the establishment, who has arranged for Meursault to spend the customary night’s vigil by his mother’s coffin (customary for Catholics, although Meursault’s mother professed not to believe in God). His conversation with the warden makes Meursault feel embarrassed that he did not visit his mother more often, but it would have meant giving up part of his weekend and enduring the long, unpleasant bus journey.

The warden takes him to the mortuary, where he meets the mortuary keeper and the keeper’s assistant, an Arab nurse whose face is bandaged as the result of a tumor that has eaten away part of her nose. Meursault declines to view his mother’s body, though he again feels embarrassed at the keeper’s reaction to this violation of custom. The keeper brings him coffee, and they smoke a cigarette together by the coffin. Waiting for his mother’s friends from the home to join him for the vigil, Meursault dozes, waking as they begin to file into the room. After the night-long vigil, Meursault once again declines to view the body. During the long procession to the funeral the next day, the glare and heat from the sun seem oppressive. By the time he catches the bus back to Algiers, Meursault’s head is throbbing and he feels dazed and exhausted. He goes straight to bed.

The next day is Saturday, and Meursault still feels exhausted, so he decides to go swimming. At the pool he meets Marie Cardona, a pretty former co-worker, and that night they go to a movie together, a comedy. They begin having an affair; Marie spends the night at Meursault’s apartment. On Monday, after coming home from work, Meursault sees his neighbor Salamano, an old man who constantly beats his dog. He also runs into Raymond Simes, who lives on Meursault’s floor. A shady, uneducated character reputed to be a pimp, Raymond claims to work in a warehouse. He invites Meursault to dinner in his apartment, and tells Meursault about problems he is having with his girlfriend, an Arab. Believing that she has been unfaithful, Raymond beat her. He now asks Meursault to write a letter for him telling her off, and Meursault does so before going back to his own apartment.

The following Saturday, Meursault and Marie go swimming at a beach outside Algiers. The next day the police are called to his building after a fight between Raymond and his girlfriend disturbs the occupants. Later that week, Raymond tells Meursault that he has been“shadowed” by “some Arabs,” one of whom is the brother of his girlfriend (The Stranger, p. 51). He thinks the Arabs want revenge on him for beating the girl. He also invites Meursault and Marie to spend the following Sunday with him and a friend, Mas-son, at Masson’s beach house outside Algiers.

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Shortly after that, Marie asks Meursault to marry her, and he casually agrees. She is bothered by his casualness, but he tells her that marriage means nothing, and if it would make her happy, he is willing. A while earlier, offered a promotion that involved more interesting work and a move out of Algiers to Paris, Meursault displayed a similarly nonchalant attitude, his lack of ambition surprising his boss. He seems to float along, not caring about things to which others attach value.

That weekend as they are leaving for the beach, they notice the Arabs following them. After lunch at the beach, a fight erupts in which one of the Arabs stabs Raymond in the arm. Mas-son and Meursault escort Raymond back to Mas-son’s beach house, and Masson takes Raymond to the doctor. Afterward Raymond produces a revolver and insists on going after the Arabs. A tense confrontation ensues, in which Raymond hands the revolver to Meursault so as to be ready

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Algerian secular courts under French rule continued the court system in effect under the earlier Ottoman Empire, but with adaptations that incorporated French legal principles. French law ultimately goes back to Roman times though it was modified by the Emperor Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The most striking difference between Napoleonic law and the Anglo-Saxon tradition of British and American law is that the person on trial is presumed guilty until proven innocent, rather than the reverse, Camus, who covered a number of trials as a reporter for the newspaper Alger-RépuhHcain, depicts the Algerian legal system wilh technical accuracy in The Stranger, for example, a prisnner tried on a capital offense would have waited outside the courtroom (as Meursault does in the novel) while the jury’s verdict is read, Also Meursault’s death sentence—he is ordered to be beheaded—reflects the historical reality that French executions were carried out by beheading with a guillotine. The guillotine came into use during the French Revolution (1789), and was thought to he more humane than hanging. On the other hand, the Irish critic Conor Cruise O’Brien has argued the trial such as that depicted in The Stranger would never have occurred in the first place. Given the judicial bias in favor of the colons, says O’Brien, no colon would ever have been tried for killing a knife-wielding Arab, much less condemned to death.

for a hand-to-hand fight. As the young men face each other, Meursault reports,“it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire—and it would come to absolutely the same thing” (The Stranger, p. 72).

The Arabs suddenly melt away, however, and the Europeans return to the beach house. Later, feeling overcome by the heat and blinding sunlight, Meursault decides to take a walk. When he comes to the spot where the confrontation occurred, he sees that one of the Arabs, the girl’s brother, has returned. The Arab reaches into his pocket, and Meursault grips the revolver, which he realizes he is still carrying. As he stands in the sun, Meursault feels“just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral” and, unable to take the sun’s stifling pressure, he steps forward (The Stranger, p. 75). The Arab draws his knife and holds it up in the glinting sun:

A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead … my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull… . Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged in my palm.

(The Stranger, pp. 75-76)

Knowing that he has“shattered the balance of the day,” Meursault fires“four more shots into the inert body,” each of which constitutes“a loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing” (The Stranger, p. 76). Exactly what has happened is murky. Certainly the gun has gone off in Meursault’s hand, but little else is completely clear at this point.

Meursault’s shooting of the Arab ends Part 1. Part 2 recounts his imprisonment, trial, and conviction for murder. In the days following the shooting, Meursault’s interrogators gradually focus on his mother’s funeral. They assert that he“showed great callousness” in not viewing the body, in drinking coffee and smoking casually with the keeper, and in not crying at the burial itself (The Stranger, p. 79). Meursault’s state-appointed lawyer is dismayed when Meursault cannot bring himself to state that he felt grief at his mother’s death. When the examining magistrate asks why Meursault fired the shots, Meursault cannot offer a single word of explanation. He further shocks the magistrate, who is a pious man, Page 447  |  Top of Articleby denying that he, Meursault, believes in God. Later, the magistrate’s anger at Meursault’s atheism wears off, and he jokingly calls Meursault “Mr. Antichrist” (The Stranger, p. 88). The expression conveys the magistrate’s view of Meursault as a moral monster. (It is on this view that the prosecutor will build his case against Meursault more than on the crime itself.) Concluding his questioning, the magistrate sends Meursault to prison to await trial.

In prison Meursault finds that his fellow-prisoners are “mostly Arabs” (The Stranger, p. 89). When he tells them he is in prison for killing an Arab, they are silent for a while, but later one shows him how to use the thin mat provided for sleeping on the floor. Later he is moved to a cell by himself, where he occupies his days sleeping, exploring his memories, and weaving an imaginary tapestry around a story told in a scrap of newspaper that he finds in his mattress. Though Meursault spends more than six months in prison waiting for his trial, he “can’t say that those months passed slowly” (The Stranger, p. 102).

The trial begins on a bright sunny day in June. As he is led into the hot, crowded courtroom, Meursault sees a row of people on the other side, staring hard at him. He guesses that they are the jury. Meursault also spots a reporter, who says that his newspaper has given extensive coverage to Meursault’s case. The paper has also covered a more sensational case, one of parricide (the killing of one’s father), which is due to come up right after Meursault’s trial concludes.

The witnesses called to testify include not only Raymond, Masson, and Marie, but also several of Meursault’s friends and acquaintances, as well as people from the home where Meursault’s mother died. The crowd is especially indignant on hearing that Meursault had declined to view the body, had fallen asleep, and had then smoked cigarettes and drunk coffee. After Marie’s testimony, the prosecutor further characterizes Meursault as a cold-hearted monster “for visiting the swimming pool, starting a liaison with a girl, and going to see a comic film” the day after his mother’s funeral (The Stranger, p. 118). When Meursault’s lawyer asks if Meursault is“on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man,” the prosecutor responds that Meursault’s behavior at his mother’s funeral shows that“he was already a criminal at heart” (The Stranger, pp. 121-22). Meursault himself does not testify; as he puts it,“I nal athear t” (The Stranger, pp. 124). In his closing speech, the prosecutor stresses that Meursault has shown no remorse whatsoever, and Meursault has to agree that he is right. In fact, Meursault realizes he has never really regretted much of anything, and that he lives entirely in the present moment.

After a brief recess, Meursault remains outside the courtroom while the jury reads its verdict. As he is led back in for sentencing, he notices that the reporter no longer meets his eyes. He hears the presiding judge“pronouncing a rigmarole to the effect that ‘in the name of the French people’ I was to be decapitated in some public place” (The Stranger, p. 135). As he waits for the sentence to be carried out, Meursault remains calm until visited by the prison chaplain, who hopes to absolve him of his sins before he dies and passes into the afterlife. Denying the existence of any afterlife and rejecting the idea of sin, Meursault grows enraged at the priest’s certainty. He shouts that all he can be certain of is his present life and his impending death. After the priest leaves, the tide of anger that washed over Meursault recedes, leaving him calm and serene. Empty of hope, he lays his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe” (The Stranger, p. 154). He realizes that he is happy. He hopes only that“on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators, and that they should greet me with howls of execration” (The Stranger, p. 153).

The Arabs as seen by the French

As Meursault, Marie, and Raymond are leaving for Masson’s beach house on the Sunday of the murder, Meursault spots the Arabs outside his and Raymond’s apartment building:“I saw some Arabs lounging against the tobacconist’s window. They

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By the end or The Stranger, Meursault recognizes his existence, all existence, as being absurd, and the recognition becomes the source of his happiness. Everyone dies, so why should he not die by execution and why not now? Will the crowd curse him at the execution? Well, as the world turns, they should. Caught up in the prevailing system of justice, they will just be playing their role in a public display, as will he. Meursault feels content to perform his part in the hand that life has deal! him, to see it through. After all, as he comes to understand tite and death, neither one nor the other means anything anyway.

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were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have—as if we were blocks of stone or dead trees” (The Stranger, p. 61). In the passage are some revealing aspects of the way The Stranger presents the Arabs. First, it leaves them nameless; no Arab in the novel is given a name. Second, they remain mute; no Arab in the novel is given dialogue either. Finally, the Arabs themselves are portrayed as seeing the French in the very way that the French see them, as anonymous, voiceless, dehumanized “blocks of stone.” Just as Meursault is a stranger in his own society, so are Algeria’s two societies—the colonizers and the colonized—strangers to each other in the world of the novel.

Critical responses to the novel’s portrayal of Arabs have varied widely. Some have viewed it as betraying racist attitudes on the part of Camus, while others have regarded it as Camus’ way of indirectly condemning colonialism and racism. In his other writings, Camus condemns racism, and his daughter Catherine has stated that her father was strict in rebuking his children if they made comments that might be construed as racist. While stopping short of supporting political independence for Algeria’s Muslims, Camus was concerned with the plight of native peoples in Algeria. In fact, his most widely read work before The Stranger was a series of articles for Alger-Républicaín exposing the harsh conditions endured by villagers in Algeria’s mountainous Kabyle region.

Whatever Camus’ own convictions, however, historical consensus suggests that The Stranger accurately if symbolically reflects the basic attitude of many French and French Algerians to the Arabs. In seeing a colonized people as voiceless, nameless, and faceless—the novel’s deformed Arab nurse, for example, is literally so—the French were not alone. Europeans, it has often been observed, rarely attributed fully human status to the peoples they colonized around the globe. Colonized peoples were most frequently viewed as an undifferentiated mass, incapable or undeserving of individual self-expression. As a French Algerian, Camus belonged to a society shaped by the historical experience of colonialism. Much of his literary artistry lies in the way he uses the philosophical idea of existential alienation to portray this cultural and historical context.

Sources and literary context

A similar philosophical outlook to The Stranger’s had helped shape an earlier novel that Camus worked on and then abandoned in his twenties, A Happy Death (published posthumously in 1971). A Happy Death features a hero named Patrice Mersault who, like Meursault in The Stranger, commits a murder that resounds with echoes of the absurd. Though differing in plot details (the murder is committed for money and takes place in Prague), A Happy Death has been seen as a youthful experiment that led to The Stranger. An entry from August 1937 in Camus’ notebooks records his earliest formulation of the themes he would elaborate in The Stranger. “A man who had sought life where most people find it (marriage, work, etc.) and who suddenly notices … how foreign he has been to his own life” (Camus, Notebooks 1935-42, p. 45). Like Patrice Mersault, Meursault was based partly on Camus himself. As Camus’ notebooks reveal, he also based Meursault partly on Pascal Pia, the unconventional publisher of Alger-Républicain, and partly on Yvonne Ducailar, a philosophy student at Algiers University whom Camus met in 1939 and who became one of his lovers.

As noted, the novel’s philosophical background can be traced to Camus’ reading of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and Heidegger. Other, literary influences can be found in the works of diverse writers whom Camus is known to have read and admired. A major idol for Camus—as for his entire literary generation—was the eminent French writer Andre Malraux (1901-76). Camus discusses Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate (1933) at length in The Myth of Sisyphus. Other influences range from Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81) to the terse, spare style of the American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who became popular among French readers in the 1930s (see Dos-toyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises , also in Literature and Its Times.


With the help of Pascal Pia, Camus was able to have a manuscript of The Stranger read by his hero Andre Malraux. Finding the novel“obviously an important thing,” Malraux praised its“power and simplicity” (Malraux in Todd, p. 130). He then recommended it for publication to Gallimard, the leading French publisher, which published it in May 1942. Early reviews were mixed, with many reviewers expressing outrage at the novel’s apparent rejection of conventional morality. Nevertheless, the book enjoyed rapid sales and generated much heated discussion. In February 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre—by now a leading French literary figure—published a lengthy, detailed, and highly positive analysis of The Stranger for the influential journal Cahiers du Sud. Entitled “An Explication of The Stranger,” Page 449  |  Top of ArticleSartre’s 20-page article helped illuminate the puzzling Meursault. Describing Camus’ hero as “neither good nor wicked, neither moral nor immoral,” Sartre wrote that Camus“reveals a proud humility in … his refusal to recognize the limits of human thought,” then characterized the novel as“a classical work … composed about the absurd and against the absurd” (Sartre in Todd, pp. 155-56). Sartre’s review helped establish The Stranger as a fundamental examination of existential alienation. Striking a special chord with young adult readers, the novel has since achieved the status of essential reading for students around the world.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Brée, Germaine, ed. Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Brée, Germaine. Camus. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1946.

_____. Notebooks 1935-1942. Trans. Philip Thody. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Champigny, Robert J. A Pagan Hero: An Interpretation of Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. Trans. Rowe Portis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Cruikshank, John. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Knapp, Bettina L. Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Lottman, Herbert. Albert Camus, A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1979.

McCarthy, Patrick. Camus: The Stranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875200113