Albert Camus: Inside the Outsider
Source: BBC, Matthew Selwyn
A Radio 3 Sunday Feature, somewhat redundant being available for free and in better quality through this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03g2r5j but for your youtube pleasure here we are.
Analysis: The Outsider by Albert Camus
The Outsider (1942) (previously translated from the French, L’Étranger, as The Stranger) is Albert Camus’s most widely known work, and expounds his early understanding of Absurdism, as well as a variety of other philosophical concepts. I discussed the novel on a superficial level in my recent review, and this will provide an overview of the work and its significance to those who are unfamiliar with it. In this analysis I will attempt to offer a more detailed introduction to The Outsider, discuss a broader range of topics relating to the work, and try to present the philosophy contained within it in a manageable form. For those not familiar with some of the philosophical terms, I have included links to explanations in the ‘useful links’ section at the bottom.
The Outsider is best read in the context of its companion piece, The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay which was released months after The Outsider’s publication, and which set out, in a less abstract form, Camus’s comprehension of the absurd. Camus wrote the two works at the same time, as well as his play, Caligula. Together they represent his Absurd canon.
There are a number of elements that are of interest in The Outsider, but most significant is the issue of the protagonist, Meursault, and how he, and his story, represent the underlying philosophies that are expounded in the novel. I will also discuss the writing and symbolism, and how they relate to the higher concepts discussed.
Meursault lives a quiet life of routine, content with his simple office job and uncomplicated way of living. He is a man without a past, without definable motivations; a blank canvas upon whom the reader is forced to project their own self, their own experiences, and identify with intimately, provided they acknowledge their own inherent comradeship with him. But in a more perverse sense neither Meursault, nor we, have any history until we realise it in the face of our own mortality.
Meursault, arguably, has two defining characteristics. Significantly, he does not lie – adhering very strictly to his objective view of truth – and refusing to alleviate the discomfort this causes others by joining in the small lies that hold society together. This dogmatic honesty is not born from a firmly held moral position, rather it grows out of his indifference; as he reminds the reader constantly, he “doesn’t mind”. Indeed, this indifference is Meursault’s second defining characteristic; he feels no grief for his dead mother, has no romantic or career aspirations, and makes no moral judgement of others. He simply is, and is content with that.
In maintaining the highest levels of honesty, Meursault embodies many of the ideals that society is so keen to promote but, just as Kierkegaard exploded the aesthetic sphere of existence from within, Camus demonstrates the impossibility of living a life of principled sincerity, of honesty without compromise. Meursault is shunned by society for upholding their ideals to an extent that they themselves cannot; there is complete congruence between his emotions, thoughts, and acts, which is unpalatable to those who fall short of these standards. When faced with the realisation of their idealised morality they cannot abide it, and persecute Meursault for the sake of their hypocritical, delusional society as much as for his crimes. Meursault is “a menace to society” only in so much as he undermines society, and it is for this reason that he must be put to death.
Meursault’s behaviour and ethos are entirely in line with the ideals of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and yet the result is a mechanical, sub-human existence. As the novel progresses Meursault begins to see the hypocrisy of those moral arbiters of society, who are charged with upholding the ideals of such an ethos, and balks at the hollowness of their rhetoric. As he waits for death in prison, Meursault turns inwards for morality and develops an informed pathos, not about his own death, but about the absurdity of the life that surrounds him.
There is some disagreement about Meursault’s awareness of the absurd. For some commentators he is conscious of it before the book begins, for others though, the novel charts Meursault’s transformation through experience, and his realisation of the absurdity of life. Camus himself has said that Meursault was intended to be a character that was aware of the absurd throughout the novel, and it seems likely that, on some level, this is the case.
Meursault himself is often considered ‘The Outsider’, and yet in many ways the novel’s title is ironic; Meursault’s realisation of the absurdity of life gives him a divine knowledge of the world, and it is those who desperately cling to messianic ideologies and religious doctrines, for whom the world is but a transitory stepping stone on the road to eternity, that are the true outsiders. Meursault’s belief that earthly life is one’s only life makes death the ultimate act of nihilism, and with this knowledge Meursault achieves a level of authenticity at the novel’s conclusion that is beyond the grasp of those who subscribe to the framework of morality set out by religion and society.
As an embodiment of humanity Meursault is paradoxically both impenetrably complex and risibly simplistic. There is an interesting interplay between the reader, narrator, and third-person characters, who all perceive Meursault’s character differently. Whilst the reader may view Meursault as emotionally-stunted, there is little evidence that the other characters view him in this way, in fact they treat him as a fully-rounded human being, whose company and companionship is to be sought. However, whilst some characters form relationships with him, they are all one-sided, with Meursault indifferent to their friendship. Marie and Raymond – his closest companions within the novel – take advantage of Meursault’s passivity, ignoring responses they do not like and taking his lack of forceful disagreement as assent. They assume a bond, which Meursault himself does not feel. Indeed, Meursault allows others to define his reactions and shape an identity for him, which proves increasingly tragic as the novel progresses. The reader has a more objective viewpoint and is struck by Meursault’s lack of emotion, and his distance from Marie and Raymond, as well as from themselves. Indeed, Meursault does not endear himself to the reader as one might expect a protagonist to in a first-person narrative, and instead the reader feels as disengaged from Meursault as he does from the world. Where Marie and Raymond fail to see it, the reader recognises the void in Meursault’s life, and identifies him as ‘the stranger’.
Meursault’s unusual approach to human interaction has led some commentators to suggest he is of low-intelligence or mentally deficient in some manner. However, one need only look at the comparisons between Camus’s own life and that of his narrator’s to dispel this idea. Like Camus’s, Meursault’s father died before he was old enough to remember him and, like Camus, Meursault attended college. Characters often comment on Meursault’s intelligence, and Raymond engages him to compose a letter of great emotional importance. Therefore one can conclude that Meursault is not lacking in intelligence, his autistic manner is as a consequence of his strict adherence to objective honesty not, as some critics have suggested, as a result of ignorance.
However, it is true to say that there is nothing extraordinary about Meursault – he is an everyman – a cipher for our own existence, worthy of contemplation only for his unnerving adherence to objective truth. He has no aspirations, other than to be allowed to continue life as he has chosen to live it; he rejects his employer’s offer of promotion, and is apathetic to Marie’s proposal of marriage. Meursault is not disengaged, he is simply not committed to life in the way others are; he exists, and that, for Meursault, is enough.
The death of Meursault’s mother, immediately preceding the novel, is of huge significance. Despite his assertion that “nothing in [his] life had changed” following the death of his mother, on a subconscious level Meursault is never free of her or her funeral. They are the starting point, in both an existential and narrative sense, which leads to Meursault’s eventual demise.
The home where Meursault’s mother lived out the last years of her life, where Meursault placed her, represents earth; a prison filled with men and women condemned to death by old age and infirmity. His mother and her friend Perez dealt with absurdity by forming a true relationship and trusting in hope. There is only one exit from this symbolic prison, and later Meursault is faced with the same situation as his mother, when he is incarcerated. Unlike her he does not repent and fall back upon religion, but there is a nod to the cyclicality, the inevitability, of man’s predicament.
Despite his mother representing the beginning of the end, Meursault’s funeral vigil is symbolic of an existential paradox too – that the knowledge of death, of its inevitability, is the beginning of life in the authentic sense. As Meursault sits with his mother’s coffin he is watched over by twelve people (ten old people, the caretaker and the nurse) who form a symbolic jury, judging him; they foreshadow the jury who will later condemn him. Meursault represents youth and vitality in this scene, the coffin sterility and death, and the onlookers the point of mediation in this antithesis.
The vigil takes place in a room that is almost oppressively white, to the point where Meursault can barely stand it and has the urge to flee its harsh reality. Still bound by social order, he is unable to physically leave and so closes his eyes to the scene, eventually falling asleep. The bright light of the room represents the overpowering sensation of death and the knowledge of the absurd, something which Meursault refuses to acknowledge, his failure to physically awake symbolic of his failure to metaphorically awake to the full implications of death. This brightness is tied to the symbolism of the sun, a recurring image, and the scene itself is linked with the shooting of the Arab, in which the burning sun plays a large part.
Absurdism and Existentialism
The notion of authenticity and the absurd expounded in The Outsider is evidence of Camus’s early perception of the concept, and draws on Nietzsche’s work, a debt which Camus himself acknowledges. The character of Meursault embodies the nihilistic individualism set out in The Myth of Sisyphus, that which is commonly referred to as absurdity, as fiercely as the spiritual embody their chosen religion.
Meursault’s absolute and unshakeable indifference to life is a result of his inability to find sense in the absurd strictures placed upon human behaviour by society, mechanisms which regulate and limit human existence. Indifference is the expression of ultimate nihilism, it is radical and in this disengagement from life Meursault is left only with death.
Camus said in 1956 that he intended to present Meursault “as a man conscious, from the beginning of the novel, of the absurdity of life,” and that he used the behaviourist technique in the first part of the novel as it suited this purpose. Here there is disagreement. Some critics have argued, to the contrary, that Meursault appears to lack a conscious awareness of the absurd during the first part of the novel, and yet his behaviour implies an awareness, and would be inexplicable without. In light of the character’s behaviour and the assertion from Camus, one if forced to assume that Meursault understands the absurdity of life on a sub-conscious, undefined level during the first half of the novel, and that it’s not until the second half where this idea becomes lucid for him.
Meursault, on full acknowledgement of the absurd, commits to an authentic existence, and the pathos that this entails. Unlike Kierkegaard, Camus takes a position of strict immanence, rejecting transcendence and the possibility of any divine ordering principle and, rather than take an absurd leap of faith, suggests rebellion is to accept our absurd fate and live in accordance with this knowledge, and without consideration of any external force or meaning.
It is during his incarceration that Meursault feels the bond between his feeling of absurdity and the absurdity of the world, and claims it as his own, accepting on a conscious level something which he has known only on a subconscious level to this point. It is this insight that brings happiness to Meursault, just as it did to his philosophical twin Sisyphus.
As already mentioned, Meursault is condemned not for his crime but for his failure to partake in the absurd conventions of society. However, whilst the trial is a surreal projection of society’s inner absurdity, it is also true to say that Meursault irrefutably committed the murder for which he stands accused. Camus’s position here is ambiguous, whether one is permitted to cause death in the pursuit of authenticity is never resolved. Although the trigger “gave way”, demonstrating Meursault’s passivity, even in the decisive act of his life, it is not clear whether this innocence of intention, this clearness of conscience in the face of the absurd, is sufficient to alleviate the guilt from the act itself.
Whatever the moral position one takes, the dynamic of the trial is complex. In presenting the trial as a parody there is an implicit indictment of the judges, and yet they are tied to their position; if Meursault is found innocent the jury and the judges are guilty. There is a freedom that only a condemned man can enjoy, that perhaps affords Meursault the space to become fully aware of the absurd, and yet there is an intense cruelty in sentencing him to death, just as he has begun to change, to move into authentic life.
There is an irony in putting Meursault to death for his acknowledgement of the absurd and his refusal to live by the meaningless rules of society, in that those who cannot endure the absurd themselves surrender to the promises bought by the resurrection/execution of Christ. Meursault is adamant in his rejection of any transcendental ideologies, and accepts his death sentence in both the judicial and existential sense.
If Meursault is guilty of anything, then it is, like all men, of becoming a part of an absurd world.
Fate features in The Outsider, not in the sense of pre-determined paths laid out by a transcendental force, but in the sense that fate, as Camus held, is simply the notion that we all die. There is a suggestion that, in relation to The Outsider, one might take the notion of fate and apply it to anything that negates freedom; the everyday forces that restrict one’s existence and represent death. There is no scope for religious determinism here; Meursault’s fate is his simply by virtue of his own existence; he, like all men, are confined to death, the ultimate pre-determined conclusion.
In his final revelation, Meursault comes to the conclusion that death is the ultimate canceller of freedom, that the way one chooses to exist ultimately has no impact on this one universal truth. Death creeps slowly towards us all, and for Meursault his imminent execution represents the final victory of fate over freedom.
Fate is most prominent in the scenes that lead to the Arab’s murder. When Raymond is eager to shoot the Arab, Meursault stops him, claiming “It would be a low-down trick to shoot him like that, in cold blood”. It could be argued, however, that Meursault is simply acting, on a subconscious level, to preserve the alignment of fate, protecting the object of his own fate. Meursault does not intend to kill the Arab himself, the trigger “gives way”, but in his deliberation he reasons that to shoot or not to shoot is not an issue, the outcome is inevitable in either case. At the moment he fires the gun he condemns himself to the judgement of man, but the Arab’s and his own death were always inescapable, he has simply determining their form.
The sun plays a large role in the murder scene and, in The Outsider, the sun is nearly always oppressive, directly in opposition to freedom, and so comes to symbolise fate. It intrudes at crucial points in the novel; at the funeral, on the beach, and finally during the trial, in which Meursault’s right to freedom is finally revoked.
Throughout the novel, as in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the sun acts as symbol of life and death; it, not God, is the sustainer of life, but it is also the decomposer of life, and it will take Meursault’s life in time too. He kills, because of the sun. Like the bright room at Meursault’s mother’s funeral, the sun lights the ultimate truth; death, and also represents the overpowering effect that the awareness of authenticity can have.
The sun recurs throughout the key scenes of the novel. In the murder scene, the sun’s rays glint across the Arabs head, as if a guillotine waiting to fall and, as he stands, staring at the Arab, Meursault recognises that the sun is the same warm sensation he had at his mother’s funeral. As Meursault contemplates the scene he recognises that the Arab stands between himself and the shade, a symbolic divide that Meursault crosses when the sun’s glare hits his eyes, and the gun’s trigger gives way, the sun symbolic of his awakening to the absurdity of life.
In the funeral procession, the sun is hot and inescapable. Meursault is warned that moving too fast will make him unwell, but that lingering in the heat will have the same effect. He is forced to walk a fine line, but is always at the sun’s mercy.
The violence of the light that signals consciousness suggests the mental shock of the realisation of the absurd, but the reader is left to wonder whether the sun of authenticity shines selectively on the isolated individuals who realise the truth.
Camus is first and foremost an essayist, and his novels are written more as extended essays than creative pieces of writing. In the case of The Outsider, Camus believed that authenticity, being an abstract concept that goes beyond the rational, could be best relayed through the medium of literature rather than exposition. However, the novel should be read in relation to its companion piece, The Myth of Sisyphus, an explanatory essay that was published months after The Outsider, which provides the reader with a more structured discussion of the absurd, in comparison to the abstract vision of The Outsider.
The novel is an exercise in abstract thought and carries no abiding message, and yet it is wonderfully constructed; the conclusion set in motion during the opening lines, it moves inexorably towards Meursault as his life is carried away from him. Neither he, nor the reader, appreciates the significance of each nail in the coffin before it is too late.
Set in Algiers during the 1920s, when Algeria was still a French colony, the novel is told predominantly in the past tense, as a reflection and meditation on the actions that resulted in Meursault’s acceptance of the absurdity of life and his acceptance of authenticity. The narrative occasionally slips in the present tense, emphasising the immediacy of the action, and the evolving nature of Meursault’s consciousness.
In many ways the story is more than a retelling of the past; it is a re-experiencing. But at the same time the narrator is able to pull out the key elements that have led to the novel’s conclusion, and so one must conclude that a degree of hindsight, or distance from the events is needed to describe them. The strange mix of past and present tense in which the narrative is relayed simultaneously implies a reflective stance and an immediacy of action.
There is a sense that the narrative is cathartic for Meursault, that in ruminating on the events described he is attempting to make sense of them in his mind and set them in some sort of order. By picking up the narrative with his mother’s funeral, Meursault implicitly identifies his mother’s death as the action that set in motion his current predicament.
The jarring, atomistic sentences give an impression of disconnect between each moment of the hero’s life, making each a separate entity, neither connected to his past or future self. The reader is provided with no explanation for this stylistic choice and there is no attempt to provide a logic which governs Meursault’s, at times, bizarre behaviour. The sentences simply depict arbitrary facticity.
This style is very similar to that of Hemingway, who used short, sharp sentences, which each existed as solitary entities, and emphasized the discontinuity of time. Although not consistent throughout the novel, Camus takes this idea and applies it to his style. Like Descartes’s instant, each sentence is distinct; individual moments don’t bleed into each other. Each sentence, like life, has no future; they are simply a series of present moments. The present tense emphasises this, denying the possibility of a future from where the story is relayed. With each sentence a form in itself, one might question whether they amount to a whole, whether The Outsider should be considered a coherent novel, or something else entirely.
Marilyn Gaddis Rose has argued that, whilst Meursault may not be aware of the significance of the events of his life, he is aware of what is significant in it, making him a reliable narrator.
Structurally, the novel is beautifully constructed. The story is split into two sections: in the first Meursault witnesses the collapse of the ethos of sincerity which he has bought into to an extent, and begins to feel the absurd on a conscious level rather than a subconscious level. The second part of the story sees Meursault become fully aware of the notion of absurdity and reflect upon his life. He affirms his life and authenticity, and faces his imminent death.
Equally, The Outsider revolves around three deaths: Meursault’s, his mother’s, and the Arab’s. Both the death of his mother and the Arab set in motion the death of Meursault himself, and all three express degrees of encroachment of fate upon Meursault’s existence. As for the judge’s sentence; it has been there all the time, he has merely made it official.
The story is perfectly balanced, with the pivotal event occurring exactly halfway through the book, an indication of the craft that went into writing the novel. The narrative appears to roll inexorably towards its conclusion. The writing is sparse, with few adjectives or descriptive passages outside of those relating to the sun and the murder, everything serves a function; there is no gratuitous art.
The Arab’s death scene features the most flamboyant, and typically creative, writing. Both the Arab and Meursault are used as symbols for Christ. The five shots that kill the Arab suggest the five blows that kill Christ (the four nails used to crucify him, and the spear driven into his side). In the Arab’s death, Meursault finds salvation; the Arab is his personal Christ. Just as humanity and its sins are the cause of Jesus’ death, an act which offers the opportunity of salvation, so too Meursault must kill the Arab to receive his redemption in the form of authenticity. Meursault’s actions are symbolic for all men, there is no imperative for each individual to kill, Meursault has taken that burden from us, and thus he becomes the novel’s second Christ figure.
The Outsider thrives on the ambiguities Camus creates – the strange, intangible aura that surrounds his writing. Unlike Kafka, Camus displays an unnerving comfort in the disorder and oddness of things, and this creates an interesting juxtaposition for the reader, who is presented with a reality out-of-kilter, but which none of the characters question.
Billy Budd is often cited as an interesting comparison piece, but perhaps more comparable are works by Voltaire, notably his philosophical tales, Candide and Zadig. Indeed, Meursault might be considered a similar character to Candide, seen through a different prism.
by Matthew Selwyn