The Stranger (novel)

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The Stranger/The Outsider  
Author Albert Camus
Cover artist Jack Walser
Country France
Language Translated from French
Genre(s) Absurdist, Existentialist
Publisher Libraire Gallimard
Publication date 1943, French 1942
Media type print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 117 p. (UK Penguin Classics paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-14-118250-4 (UK Penguin Classics paperback)

The Stranger, The Outsider, (L’Étranger) (1942), by Albert Camus, is one of the most famous French novels of the twentieth century and is among the best literary expositions of the absurdity of human existence in an indifferent universe. Philosophically, it is an existential novel, despite Camus not considering himself an existentialist. The Stranger is Meursault, an alienated, anomic French man who kills a native Arab man in French Algiers. At his trial for murder, the prosecution describes him as a remorseless killer; he is convicted and awaits execution. In prison, Meursault accepts his fate, because it is his only true option; neither suicide, nor faith in God are options once he fully grasps the absurdity of the world in which he lives. Mersault realizes that Death is the permanent end and that the events and actions in one's life are meaningless. The story occurs in Algiers, before the Second World War, a locale from Camus's life.


[edit] Plot

Notified of his mother's death, Meursault attends her funeral, yet expresses none of the emotion typical and expected in such a circumstance. At her wake, when asked if he wishes to view the body, he declines, and, instead, smokes a cigarette and drinks coffee before the unviewed body. Afterwards, in the next few days, he helps his best friend and neighbour, Raymond Sintès, rid himself of a Moorish girlfriend suspected of infidelity. For Raymond, Meursault agrees to write a break-up letter, because, as an emotionally detached man, he cannot see any reason not to emotionally torture the Arab ex-girlfriend of his fellow Frenchman; he notes only the physical possibility of the situation.

Subsequently, on a beach, they encounter the spurned girlfriend's brother and an Arab friend; they confront Raymond and wound him with a knife during a fist fight. Later, walking on the beach alone, Meursault, now armed with a pistol, encounters the Arab friend and shoots him dead; the shooting being provoked by the sun's glare and the Arab drawing his knife. Despite killing the Arab man with the first gun shot, he shoots the cadaver four more times; later, the police easily deduce who committed the murder, and arrest Meursault.

At the trial, because they find Meursault's remorselessness offensive, the prosecuting attorneys concentrate more upon his inability or unwillingness to cry at his mother's funeral, than on Mersault's provoked killing. They posit: if Meursault is incapable of remorse, he must be considered a dangerous misanthrope who must be executed with the guillotine. Meursault is convicted, principally for not feeling emotions and not conforming to societal norms, rather than having killed a man in self-defense. (There is absolutely nothing in the work, however, to suggest that this murder had anything to do with self-defense.)

In prison, whilst awaiting the execution of his death sentence by decapitation, Meursault meets with a chaplain, but rejects his proffered opportunity of turning to God. Yet, Meursault grasps the universe's indifference towards mankind:

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.[1]

[edit] Philosophy

Like Meursault, Albert Camus was a Pied-Noir (black foot) — a Frenchman born in the Maghreb, the northernmost crescent of Mediterranean Africa, the heart of France's African colonies. Literarily classed as an existential novel, The Stranger exposits his theory of the absurd. In the story's first half, Meursault is an unperceptive man, existing only via sensory experience (the funeral procession, swimming in the sea, copulating with his girlfriend, et cetera): the only absolute Truth being death, with many relative truths — and, in particular, the truths of religion and science (empiricism, rationality, et cetera) are, ultimately, meaningless.

Meursault is unaware of the absurdity of human existence, yet it colours his actions, the only real and true things are his physical experiences, thus, he kills the Arab man as his response to the sun's physical effects upon him, as he moves toward his adversary on the brightly over-lighted beach. In itself, his killing of the Arab man is meaningless — merely another occurrence that happens to Meursault. The episode's significance is in his forced introspection about his life — and its meaning — while contemplating his impending death by formal execution; only in formal trial and death does he acknowledge his mortality and responsibility for his own life.

Per Existentialism: Destiny is responsibility for one's actions and their consequences, because one has free will; Truth is in being consistently honest and direct; despite being judged amoral. Throughout the book, Mersault lives passively and accepts the destiny that comes to him. While Mersault takes "responsibility" for his actions by accepting the consequences, the motivating philosophy alters the actual intent. In the end, Mersault realizes that everyone's life ends with death. By accepting this, he also deduces that the life one leads and the manner of one's death are completely irrelevant. Death is the permanent end. Illustrating this, Meursault never displays emotions he does not feel, nor participates in social conventions requiring emotional dishonesty. Although grief is the normal, socially acceptable response, he does not openly grieve at his mother's funeral, but his incorruptible honesty assumes a naïve dimension in his murder trial when he questions the need for a defense lawyer, claiming that the truth should speak for itself.

The story's second half examines the arbitrariness of Justice: the public official compiling the details of the murder case tells him repentance and turning to Christianity will save him, but Meursault refuses to pretend he has found religion; emotional honesty overrides self-preservation, and he accepts punishment for the consequence of his actions.

Thematically, the Absurd over-rides Responsibility; in fact, despite his physical terror, Meursault is satisfied with his death; his discrete sensory perceptions only physically affect him, and thus are relevant to his self and his being, i.e. in facing death, he finds revelation and happiness in the gentle indifference of the world. Central to that happiness is his pausing after the fatal, first gun shot when killing the Arab man. Interviewed by the magistrate, he mentions it did not matter that he paused and then shot four more times; Meursault is objective, there was no resultant, tangible difference: the Arab man died of one gun shot, and four more gun shots did not render him 'more dead'. The absurdity is in society's creating a justice system to give meaning to his action via capital punishment: The fact that the death sentence had been read at eight o'clock at night and not at five o'clock . . . the fact that it had been handed down in the name of some vague notion called the French (or German, or Chinese) people — all of it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the decision.

The Stranger shows the influence of other existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. To wit, Camus and Sartre, in particular, were of the French resistance against the Nazis; their friendship ultimately differing only in philosophic stance. Albert Camus presents the world as meaningless, therefore, its meaning is rendered by oneself; it is the individual person who gives meaning to a circumstance. Camus deals with this matter and Man's relationship with Man via considerations of suicide in the novels A Happy Death and The Plague and in non-fiction works such as The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.

[edit] English translations from the French

The Libraire Gallimard first published the original French-language novel in 1942. British author Stuart Gilbert first translated L’Étranger to English in 1946; his work became established as the English translation for thirty-odd years. In 1982, the British publisher Hamish Hamilton published a second translation, by Joseph Laredo, that Penguin Books bought in 1983 and reprinted in the Penguin Classics line in 2000. In 1988, a third translation, by the American Matthew Ward, was published, by Random House Inc., in the Vintage International line of Vintage Books. [2]

The three translations differ much in tone; Gilbert's translation is formal, notable in the initiating sentence of the first chapter. The French original is: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier"

  • Gilbert's 1946 translation is: "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."
  • Ward's 1988 translation is: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday." [Maman is informal French for the informal English Mum/Mam/Mom.]
  • Laredo's 1982 translation is: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday."

The critical, literary difference of translation is in the accurate connotation of the original French emotion in the story's key sentence, i.e. He lay his heart open to the benign indifference of the universe versus He lay his heart open to the gentle indifference of the universe.

[edit] The translation(s)

In French, étranger is defined as: foreign, unknown, extraneous, outsider, stranger, alien, unconnected, and irrelevant. Arguably, the title might be translated as The Foreigner, because Meursault, the anti-heroic protagonist is culturally foreign to Algeria; or as The Outsider, because Meursault feels alien to the Arab Muslim society in which he lives as a colonist. As he is oblivious of the motifs he lives, he is unencumbered by any meaning exterior to his sensory experience, a character trait rendering him foreign to his contemporaries; thus, most English translations of the French title L’Étranger are rendered as The Stranger, and infrequently as The Outsider.

[edit] L’Étranger in popular culture

Cinema: The Italian director Luchino Visconti adapted L’Étranger as Lo Straniero (1967); in the film Jacob's Ladder (1990) the protagonist reads the novel in the subway; Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz adapted the novel as Yazgı (Fate) (2001); in the war film Jarhead (2005), the protagonist reads the novel whilst in the latrine; the Japanese film Who's Camus Anyway? refers to Albert Camus, The Stranger, and Meursault; and the comedy film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), shows the French racing car driver, Jean Girard, reading the novel, in the original French, while racing.

Comic books: Writer Steve Gerber cites Albert Camus, and especially The Stranger, as his principal influence, particularly upon Howard the Duck (1974-1978): Howard is Mersault with a sense of humor, an existentialist who screams and quacks as a hedge against sinking into utter despair. [3] He also shows Shanna the She-Devil reading the novel in her treehouse.

Popular music: The novel inspired songs by Blur, Nirvana ("On a Plain"), The Cure ("Killing an Arab"), [4][5] Aria, John Frusciante ("Head"), and Tuxedomoon. The band Titus Andronicus use the novel's last line to conclude the song "No Future, Part Two: The Day After No Future", in The Airing of Grievances album, the final song of which is titled "Albert Camus". The The Lawrence Arms band recite the novel's last lines in the song "Asa Phelps is Dead", in the Ghost Stories album, and "The Return" have based a song upon the novel, entitled "L'Etranger".

Television: In the "Sudden Death" episode of the TNT Television drama The Closer, a young man suspected of murder quotes The Stranger to Brenda Johnson during his interrogation.

Popular literature: In The Perks of Being a Wallflower the protagonist's teacher and close friend gives him The Stranger to read.

Politics: In 2006, the U.S. press reported that U.S. President George W. Bush read The Stranger, while on vacation; he was derided for it, especially in The Daily Show. [1][2]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Camus, Albert. The Stranger, Matthew Ward translation, 1989.
  2. ^ Classic French Novel Is 'Americanized' By Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times, 18 April 1988, retrieved 9 September 2006
  3. ^ Steve Gerber: An Absurd Journey, Darren Schroeder, Silver Bullet Comic Books interview.
  4. ^ Larkin, Colin (1995). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Stockton Press. pp. 1017. ISBN 0851126626. 
  5. ^ Strong, Charles Martin (2004). The Great Rock Discography: Complete Discographies Listing Every Track Recorded By More Than 1200 Artists. Canongate. pp. 369. ISBN 1841956155. 

[edit] External links

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