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Facing the universe courageously and alone
Aug 30, 2003 05:28 PM 70052 Views
(Updated Sep 01, 2003 03:13 PM)

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“Probably no European writer of his time left so deep a mark on the imagination.” – Conor Cruise O’Brien.


First published in French as L’Etranger in 1942, Albert Camus’ The Outsider addresses the constrictive nature of society and what happens when an individual tries to break free from the conformity forced upon him by staying true to himself, and following his own ideal of absolute truth and sincerity in every action. Propelled more by the philosophy of existentialism and the notion of the absurd than plot and characters, Camus’ novel raises many questions about life, and answers them in a final chilling climax.


The plot of The Outsider revolves around a central act of unmeditated violence on a beach, proving that “the darkest moments can happen in the brightest sunlight”. Meursault, Camus’ protagonist, leads a simple life working as an office clerk in Algiers. He lives as a bachelor, who, as we learn from the first paragraph, has just lost his mother and is preparing to leave for the seaside town of Morengo where she lived in an old-people’s home. The rest of the first section of the novel reads as a diary of Meursault’s life until he murders an Arab whilst away for the weekend with some friends. Part Two deals with the time after Meursault’s arrest for the crime, including his court case in which he is condemned more for not grieving at his mother’s funeral than the actual count of homicide brought against him. It has been said that the plot takes a secondary role in The Outsider to Camus’ expression of his views on existentialism and the absurd.


In the character of Meursault, Camus tells the story of a “man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth”. Meursault has an absolute value of honesty in that he simply refuses to lie. This, as Camus pointed out himself in the afterword added to the text in January 1955, does not extend merely to abnegating to state a fact that is false, but to not fabricating a degree of emotion that is not felt by an individual. Meursault is asked to tell the court that he regrets his actions, but says instead that he feels more annoyance with what he did than true regret, and, as Camus says, “it is this nuance that condemns him”. His refusal to adhere to society’s strict regime and its expectancy paired with his allowance of events to occur as if he were an observer rather than a participant is what deems Meursault an “outsider”, and ultimately his freedom is taken from him because it is felt that he does not use it in an acceptable fashion.


It is easy to draw parallels between Camus and his protagonist, and similarly for the book’s immediate contemporary audience to find common ground with their lives and that of Meursault. Camus’ main character appears to be of the same ethnic status as the author himself: a pied noir – a Frenchman born and raised in Algeria. Camus was born in 1913 and wrote The Outsider, his first proper novel, in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The novel is set in the 1930’s, a fact never made explicit, but some pop culture references given lead to this assumption. The descriptions given of Meursault’s surroundings carry a detailed air only possible to give from the perspective of a native. The Outsider was received in 1942 with critical acclaim, and with the addition of other novels such as The Plague and The Fall, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. The publication of his seminal existentialist novel coincided with the occupation of France by Hitler’s troops. Camus’ focus through Meursault on the meaning of life resonated profoundly with his war-stricken audience, and the unsurity of his fate run by prison warders reminded them strongly of their own situation: their lives run by a dictator and an unstable future. Some of his readership were experiencing war for the second time along with the Great Depression some ten years before. These three events and their effects on people were fantastic examples of the absurdity of life for Camus.


One of the main reasons for writing The Outsider was for Camus to explore the ideas raised by existentialism and those pertaining to the absurd. Existentialism refers to the philosophy that questions life which exists in a hostile environment. Camus, along with his friend, fellow writer, and French Resistance leader Jean-Paul Sartre pushed this train of thought into mainstream culture. In the extended essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus realises the only philosophical question worth asking is whether or not to commit suicide. The absurd nature of life referred to is the incompatibility of incomprehensible circumstances such as impending death, cruelty, violence, genocide and racism, and the overwhelming desire for, and expectation of a happy life and the principles of optimism. One primary example of the absurd given in the text is the co-existence of the suffering and joy in life. This view of absurdity is shared with the existentialist Simone de Beauvoir who contends that the suffering in death is a “scandal”. The hostile environment, or constant, harsh circumstances are represented in the text by the oppressive heat of the sun which is ever-present at the side of Meursault’s consciousness. He feels it as he walks to his mother’s funeral service through the French countryside; He feels it beating down on him when he’s out swimming with a girl, Marie; he feels its uncomfortable, abrasive fire inescapably as he fires the bullets into the Arab’s body. Meursault becomes aware of the absurdity of life on the eve of his death as he realises that he’s “happy”, and always has been, no matter the circumstances.


When The Outsider was first published it confused people as to what genre it should be classified as. It contains aspects of a confessional novel, in which the central character goes through a change which brings self-awareness or enlightenment, and in this way Camus’ novel has been compared to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The attempt to pigeon-hole it as journal/diary form was also made: Part One can conform to this genre as each chapter tells the previous or present day’s events. There is a certain irony in that a book about an “outsider” unwilling to conform to society’s demands defies conformity to a particular literary genre itself.


“Literature is about trying to capture the one or two moments in your life when your heart opened up” – Albert Camus.


In The Outsider, Camus uses his protagonist and the opening of his heart throughout the novel to explore the nature of the absurd and existentialism. The novel, though written with a specific purpose in mind, has been widely popular throughout the twentieth – and twenty-first centuries proving Camus’ ability to leave a “deep mark on the imagination” and to provide a thought provoking text that defies the constraints of time.


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