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Albert Camus
The Stranger

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji “ Richard Bowring
Aeschylus: The Oresteia “ Simon Goldhill
Virgil: The Aeneid “ K. W. Gransden, new edition edited by
S. J. Harrison
Homer: The Odyssey “ Jasper Grif¬n
Dante: The Divine Comedy “ Robin Kirkpatrick
Milton: Paradise Lost “ David Loewenstein
Camus: The Stranger “ Patrick McCarthy
Joyce: Ulysses “ Vincent Sherry
Homer: The Iliad “ Michael Silk
Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales “ Winthrop Wetherbee

The Stranger

cambridge university press
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Cambridge University Press
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Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
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© Cambridge University Press 1988, 2004

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Preface page vii
Chronology ix

1 Contexts 1
1 Biographical sketch 1
2 Historical contexts 5
3 The Stranger and the war 11

2 The Stranger 14
4 Meursault™s languages 14
5 A mother unmourned? 29
6 Class and race 37
7 An Arab is somehow murdered 45
8 An Arab forgotten and a mother appeased 52
9 Meursault judges the judges 57
10 God is dead and Existentialism is born 66

3 Early Camus and Sartre 72
11 The cycle of the absurd 72
12 Different views of freedom 79

4 Camus and the Algerian war 87

vi Contents
5 Why and how we read The Stranger: a guide to
further reading 96
13 Contemporaries, precursors and followers 96
14 Suggestions for further reading 103
15 Translations 106
16 Lo Straniero 108

This book is an examination of Camus™s The Stranger, a work
that is regarded as a twentieth-century classic. The main section,
Chapter 2, begins with an analysis of the language of the novel, and
then deals with the many problems posed by the narrative struc-
ture, the relationship between Part 1 and Part 2, and so on. Much
has been written on The Stranger and this chapter is an attempt to
synthesize existing interpretations. One theme has been singled out,
namely, the treatment of the Arab, because it seems to me to have
been somewhat neglected. But even here no attempt is made to offer
a completely new reading.
The other chapters provide supplementary information. Chapter
1 begins with a biographical sketch of the young Camus and readers
who believe that the link between a man and his work is unimpor-
tant, may prefer to skip it. The remainder of the chapter deals with
the historical context “ or more precisely the con¬‚icting contexts “
in which The Stranger may be set. Chapter 3 examines the parallels
and contrasts between the novel and some of Camus™s other early
books; it also discusses the young Sartre. Chapter 4 offers perspec-
tives on Camus™ complex relation to Algeria and its troubled history.
Chapter 5 summarizes the reasons why The Stranger is regarded as a
classic, sets some of the criticism written on it in a historical context
and makes suggestions for further reading.
An attempt has been made to write simply and without unneces-
sary jargon. All quotations have been translated into English by me
and such translations have been kept as literal as possible. References
to The Stranger are to the most accessible edition: L™Etranger (Paris:
Gallimard, Folio, 1984). Other references to Camus™s writing are to
the two-volume Pl´ iade edition (Paris: Gallimard, 1972 and 1974)
of his Collected Works. Titles are given in English wherever possible,

viii Preface
except in Chapter 5 where precise bibliographical information is
provided. In Chapter 2 references to other critical works have been
kept as concise as possible in order not to burden the text. Complete
references to all these works are given in Chapter 4.
L™Etranger is translated as The Outsider in the British version and
as The Stranger in the US. The latter title has been adopted in this
book because the term ˜Outsider™ has acquired cultural connotations
that have nothing to do with Camus, whereas the term ˜Stranger™ is
I wish to express my gratitude to Valentin Mudimb´ for reading
Chapter 2 and to James Grieve for his comments on the Stuart Gilbert
translation of the novel.

Washington DC Patrick McCarthy
Camus™s life and work Literary events Historical events

1902 Gide, The Immoralist.
1912 Claudel, Tidings Brought to Mary.
1913 C. born at Mondovi, Algeria. Proust, Swann™s Way.
1914 Father mortally wounded in Outbreak of First World War.
Battle of the Marne.
1919 Treaty of Versailles.
1926 Hemingway, The Sun also Rises.
1930 First attack of tuberculosis. Centenary of conquest of Algeria.
1932 C´ line, Journey to the End of the Night.
1933 Attends University of Algiers. Malraux, Man™s Fate. Hitler becomes Chancellor of
1934 Marriage to Simone Hi´ .
e James M. Cain, The Postman always February riots by right-wing Leagues.
Rings Twice.
1935 Joins Communist Party. Mussolini invades Abyssinia.
1936 Leaves university. C´ line, Death on the Instalment Plan.
e Remilitarization of the Rhineland.
Travels in Central Europe. Popular Front to power.
Marriage breaks up. Spanish Civil War.
Starts theatre group.
Chronology (cont.)
Camus™s life and work Literary events Historical events

1937 Leaves Communist Party. Arab nationalist protest organized in
Travels in Italy. Algeria by Messali.
Refuses teaching post in
Sidi-Bel-Abb` s.
Betwixt and Between.
1938 Journalist at Alger-R´publicain.
e Malraux, Man™s Hope. Failure of Blum-Viollette plan to
Sartre, Nausea. expand Arab franchise.
Nizan, The Conspiracy. Daladier forms government. Munich
1939 Nuptials. Sartre, The Wall. Germany occupies Czechoslovakia.
Articles on Kabylia. Franco™s victory in Spain.
Nazi-Soviet pact.
Invasion of Poland.
1940 Alger-R´publicain banned.
e German occupation of France.
Moves to Paris and works at Vichy government established.
Evacuation to Lyon.
Marriage to Francine Faure.
1941 Loses Paris-Soir post. Hitler invades Soviet Union.
Returns to Oran.
1942 Illness forces C. to return to Ponge, The Voice of Things. Allied invasion of North Africa.
France and convalesce in German occupation of Southern
Massif Central. France.
The Stranger and The Myth of
1943 Moves to Paris. Sartre, Being and Nothingness and The Italian surrender.
Reader at Gallimard. Flies. Growth of Resistance.
Meeting with Sartre. Malraux joins Resistance.
Winter 1943/4: journalist at
resistance newspaper, Combat.
Meeting with Maria Casar` s.
1944 Cross Purpose. C´ line ¬‚ees France to avoid trial as
e Allied landings in Normandy.
C. and Pia run the now legal collaborator. Liberation of Paris.
Combat. Sartre, No Exit. Ho Chi Minh proclaims independence
of Vietnam.
1945 C. visits Algeria. Sartre, The Age of Reason. Armistice.
Articles attacking French S´ tif massacre in Algeria.
policy. Bombing of Hiroshima.
Birth of twins “ Jean and
First performance of Caligula.
1946 Visit to United States. De Gaulle resigns.
1947 Leaves Combat. Malraux joins Gaullists. Communists leave government.
The Plague. Marshall Aid.
Rebellion in Madagascar.
Chronology (cont.)
Camus™s life and work Literary events Historical events

1948 State of Siege. Sartre, What is Literature? and Dirty Prague Communist coup.
Resumes love affair with Maria Hands.
Casar` s.
1949 Visit to South America. Signing of North Atlantic Treaty.
Renewed tuberculosis.
The Just.
1950 Convalescence at Grasse. Korean War.
1951 The Rebel. Gide™s death.
1952 Quarrel with Sartre. Sartre, Communists and Peace. Ridgway riots/Cold War worsens.
C´ line, Fairytale for Another Time.
1953 Wife ill, C. depressed and Barthes, Writing, Zero Degree.
unable to write. Robbe-Grilliet, Erasers.
Director at Angers theatres
1954 Summer. Fall of Dien Bien Phu.
Mend` s France government.
Algerian War breaks out.
1955 Visit to Greece.
Articles for Express.
1956 Visit to Algiers and appeal for Sarraute, The Age of Suspicion. Independence of Morocco and
truce. C´line, Castle to Castle.
e Tunisia recognized.
Withdrawal from Express. Suez invasion.
Illness and depression. Intensi¬ed ¬ghting in Algeria.
Separation from wife. Budapest uprising.
The Fall.
1957 Exile and Kingdom. Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy.
Caligula performed at Angers.
Nobel prize.
Controversy over Algerian War.
1958 Actuelles III : C™s articles on Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Revolt of army and French-Algerians.
Algeria. Dutiful Daughter. De Gaulle returns to power.
Buys house at Lourmarin in Fifth Republic established.
Southern France.
1959 Adapts and directs Malraux becomes Minister of
Dostoyevsky™s The Possessed. Culture.
Working on novel, The First
1960 4 January: killed in car Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason. French-Algerian revolt against De
accident at Villeblevin. Gaulle.
Chapter 1

1 Biographical sketch
When The Stranger was published in 1942 Albert Camus was
29 years old. He was born a year before the outbreak of the First
World War and his father was killed in the early battles. A semi-
autobiographical essay recounts that Camus™s mother kept a piece of
the shell that had been taken from her husband™s body and exhibited
his medals in their living-room. Unsurprisingly, Camus grew up
with a horror of war that led him to oppose French re-armament
throughout the 1930s. The psychological effects of his father™s death
are harder to explain, but in his life Camus sought the friendship of
older men like Jean Grenier and Pascal Pia, while in The Stranger the
father makes one intriguing appearance.
The young Camus was drawn all the closer to his mother who
brought him up in the working-class Algiers district of Belcourt
where she earned her living cleaning houses. Uneducated, over-
worked and withdrawn, Catherine Sint` s was a complex in¬‚uence
on her son. In his public statements Camus insisted on his attach-
ment to her, declaring that he wished to place at the centre of his
writing her ˜admirable silence™ (Preface to Betwixt and Between, OC
2,13). This silence was a sign of stoicism, a rudimentary form of
the indifference that is a key concept in his writing, and a warning
against the falsity inherent in literary discourse.
The same essay calls the silence of the mother ˜animal™ and depicts
her as cold: ˜she never caressed her son because she wouldn™t know
how to™ (Betwixt and Between, OC 2,25). The denial of affection
haunts the narrator who tells a disturbing anecdote about a mother
cat eating her kitten. Conversely, the essay depicts an assault on


the mother by an intruder, after which the narrator-son spends the
night next to her on her bed.
A simple psychoanalytic reading would lead one to conclude that
Camus was torn between an incestuous love for his mother and a
hostility towards her coldness. Neither feeling could be avowed and
each could inspire guilt. The mother is a problematic ¬gure in his
writing: in The Stranger she is, at least super¬cially, spurned, while
in The Plague Rieux™s mother replaces his wife. Camus™s dealings
with women were shaped by his mother and, although he moved
out of their Belcourt ¬‚at before he left grammar school, the bond
they shared endured until his death.
Poverty was associated with her and constituted another in¬‚u-
ence. Camus™s family belonged to the poorer segment of the working
class and most of his relatives were labourers or artisans. He was able
to attend grammar school and university only because he obtained
scholarships, and he did not need to read Marx in order to appre-
ciate the importance of class. As a student, and later, he supported
himself by giving lessons or by tedious of¬ce jobs. When he travelled
he had to eat in the cheapest restaurants and buy excursion tickets
that could not be used on the most convenient trains.
This too is re¬‚ected in his books. He has moments of tearful sen-
timentality when he depicts Salamano™s dog in The Stranger or the
¬gure of Grand in The Plague. But more frequently his working-class
background inspires him with a caustic view of the universe: jobs
are hard work rather than careers, while ideals are hypocrisy or
veiled forms of oppression. The Stranger strips the legal system and
the French state of their legitimacy.
Yet working-class life was also a source of happiness to Camus.
It was carefree, and in Belcourt there was a comradeship which he
missed years later when he was a Parisian celebrity. He loved Algiers
streetlife: the swagger of the boys and the unashamed sexuality of the
girls. In The Stranger Marie is very much the working-class woman
in her enjoyment of her own body. Moreover, Camus saw a moral
code in Belcourt: honesty, loyalty and pride were values that were
lived rather than imposed.
In 1930 Camus had his ¬rst attack of tuberculosis. He never fully
recovered and the disease returned regularly throughout his life.
Characteristically, he rarely spoke of it, although it was all the graver
Contexts 3
because it was badly understood at the time. Treatment consisted
of injecting air into the damaged lung in order to collapse it and
give it time to heal; Camus endured this as well as ¬ts of coughing
and spitting up blood. Tuberculosis must surely have sharpened his
sense of death and, conversely, his appreciation of the human body
as a fountain of strength and grace. It put an end to a promising
career as a soccer player, although Camus continued to love sport
and to spend long hours on the Algiers beaches.
One cannot help feeling that, despite the huge success he would
enjoy after the publication of The Stranger and The Plague, Camus™s
life was a bleak one, and it was rendered still bleaker by his marriage
while still a university student to Simone Hi´ . Beautiful, intelligent
and from an unconventional family, Simone, whom Camus loved
deeply, was a hopeless drug addict. During the two years of their
married life together “ 1934 to 1936 “ she battled against her ad-
diction and Camus, drawing on the courage he deployed against
tuberculosis, helped her. It was to no avail and their separation
caused him much distress.
Here again one must not exaggerate for, if Camus™s life was a
struggle, he won many victories. He emerged from the university
with his degree and an additional ˜diplˆ me d™´ tudes sup´ rieures™;
o e e
he had as mentor Jean Grenier, his philosophy teacher, who was an
accomplished writer published by the house of Gallimard, and he
had a wide circle of friends. Young people, mostly from the university
of Algiers, usually interested in painting, sculpture or the theatre,
¬‚ocked to him and were almost unanimous in accepting him as a
leader. Women were drawn by his good looks as well as his blend of
moral integrity and irony. Camus had a ¬‚air for being happy, and
the reader recalls how memories of happiness come ¬‚ooding over
Meursault while he is in prison.
Aware from his adolescence that he wanted to be a writer, Camus
tried his hand at philosophy, essays, ¬ction and the theatre. From
1936 on he had his own theatre group which put on plays that
he directed. Like many mainland French artists, he felt that the
French theatre was in the doldrums, ruined by bedroom comedies
and well-made plays that left the audience amused but otherwise
unmoved. Camus™s productions were designed to jolt the spectator,
alternatively drawing him into the work and isolating him from it.

In an adaptation of Andr´ Malraux™s book The Time of Scorn the
audience became the spectators at the trial of the German Com-
munist Th¨ lmann and at the end they were persuaded to join in
the singing of the Internationale. In Asturian Revolt, co-authored
by Camus but never performed in full because it was banned by
the right-wing municipality of Algiers, the audience became the
crowds on the street during an uprising by Spanish miners. Con-
versely, during Aeschylus™s Prometheus in Chains the actors wore
masks to prevent the audience from identifying with them, while a
loudspeaker poured forth philosophical discourse. This time the
break with theatrical convention made the spectators brood on the
concept of revolt.
It is possible to detect in this an echo of Bert Brecht™s theatre with
its emphasis on what is often called ˜alienation effect™. Camus was
fascinated by the edge of distance that the actor brings to his role and,
when he played Ivan in a production of Dostoyevsky™s Karamazov, he
was remote and silent while the other actors scampered frenetically
around him. In general, however, Camus did not think highly of
Brecht™s methods and preferred the opposite pole of greater audience
involvement. The scenery for his productions was stylized to create
a mood, while the lighting and sound effects were over- rather than
It is nonetheless intriguing that Jean Grenier, who had seen these
productions, should recognize in The Stranger a ˜distance™ which he
had perceived in Camus™s theatrical experiments (Jean Grenier, ˜A
work, a man™, Cahiers du Sud, February 1943, p. 228). Moreover,
the chapter on acting in The Myth of Sisyphus deals with the actor™s
awareness that he is pretending to be what he is not. Camus™s ¬rst
and best play, Caligula, was ¬rst drafted for his group, and its hero
displays both a frenzy of emotion and the knowledge that he is acting
out a part for the city of Rome.
Asturian Revolt had a political dimension because Camus was
an energetic left-wing militant who was active in the anti-Fascist
struggle. In 1935 he joined the Communist Party, which was then
expanding and moving towards the policy of the Popular Front. His
task was to organize cultural activities with a political slant: at the
Algiers House of Culture he showed Russian ¬lms, ran debates and
supported Arab protest movements. He found an audience drawn
Contexts 5
from students, trade union supporters and the left-wing segments
of the middle classes.
In 1937 Camus left the Communist Party for several reasons, the
chief of which was the party™s failure to defend Arab nationalists
who had been jailed by the French government. This should not,
however, lead one to suppose that Camus “ or any other French-
Algerian “ supported Algerian independence. His criticism of the
party was more moral than political: it had not extended a hand to
friends who needed help. Camus remained an active left-winger and
in October 1938 he started work as a journalist for Alger-R´publicain,
a newspaper that was founded to support the Popular Front and that
had as editor the ¬ercely independent Pascal Pia.
By now he had begun writing The Stranger, but before discussing
the development of the novel one might turn to the history of the
period, which would shape both the book and the way it was received.
One must glance at French literary and political history and then
at the very different situation of Algeria. Indeed the special traits of
The Stranger emerge from the contradictions between the two sets of

2 Historical contexts
Jean Grenier encouraged Camus to immerse himself in the writ-
ing of the Nouvelle Revue Fran¸aise. Proust, Gide and others had
dominated the 1920s, Gallimard had become the leading literary
publishing house and the NRF the leading magazine. In so far as
it is possible to de¬ne in a few lines a complex body of writing,
the NRF group may be said to uphold the integrity of inner life.
Gide maintained that man could liberate himself from family, tra-
dition and a morality of self-interest in order to discover his other,
more sincere self. From Proust™s novel one might draw the lesson
that, if human experience is fragmentary, there are moments when
involuntary memory or intuition creates a totality. Similarly Paul
Claudel™s version of Catholicism emphasized that, if man was mis-
erable and incomplete, he could transcend himself by taking up the
dialogue with a God who was jealous and severe but not absent.
By the 1930s some of these tenets were coming under ¬re. The
slaughter in the trenches had undercut Gide™s view of life as an

adventure, while the depression and the rise of Fascism strength-
ened the mood of pessimism. Individual psychology seemed less
important than the general human condition, the theme of death
took brutal forms, and freedom became an urgent need to act.
Politics entered writing and the debate about commitment was
The two writers who most in¬‚uenced the generation of Ca-
mus and Sartre were Andr´ Malraux and Louis-Ferdinand C´ line.
e e
Malraux™s Man™s Fate (1933) expounded the view that man must
confront his mortality and give meaning to his existence by engag-
ing in political action. The new hero is ˜Bolshevik man™ “ the band
of Chinese revolutionaries in the novel “ who has fewer rights than
duties. His duty lies to the revolution, which is depicted as a strug-
gle that transforms the militant™s life by letting him participate in a
movement that not merely liberates the working class, but assures
him some sort of immortality.
Camus was an admirer of Malraux, who had been friendly with
Jean Grenier and who would be one of the readers when The Stranger
was submitted to Gallimard. But if Camus drew from Malraux the
concern for values such as courage, lucidity and virility, the differ-
ences between the two men are also great. The chapter on conquest
in The Myth of Sisyphus may be read as a critique of the mystique of
revolution that is found in Man™s Fate.
C´ line exerted no in¬‚uence on Camus and one may note only that,
while his attempt to construct a new language based on Parisian
slang, obscenities and lyricism is light-years from the concision of
The Stranger, it is a very different solution to the same problem.
Where the NRF had believed “ albeit not simplistically “ in language
and in the integrity of the work of art, C´ line and Camus criticize
traditional literary discourse and the notion that the novel creates
a harmonious universe.
Diverse foreign in¬‚uences were present in the 1930s. Nietzsche
remained important as he had been since the turn of the century,
and so did Dostoyevsky. German phenomenology was a more recent
import and Sartre studied Husserl “ who is also discussed in The Myth
of Sisyphus “ in an attempt to combat what he perceived as the shal-
low rationalism of the Cartesian tradition. This was the period when
American novelists such as Faulkner, Dos Passos and Hemingway
Contexts 7
were translated, although the question of their direct in¬‚uence is
complex, and attempts to link The Stranger with Hemingway may
be misleading.
So the concepts of the absurd and of Existentialism, which came
into French writing in the late 1930s and which are associated with
the names of Camus and Sartre, draw on a mood of nihilism. The
parallels and “ more importantly “ the differences between the two
men are discussed in Chapter 3, but here one may note that coming
from very different backgrounds they arrived at a similar critique
of traditional values. Sartre was in ¬‚ight from his middle-class, ed-
ucated family and excoriated pretension. As Simone de Beauvoir
puts it, he and his friends ˜derided every in¬‚ated idealism, laughed
to scorn delicate souls, noble souls, all souls and any kind of souls,
inner life itself . . . they af¬rmed that men were not spirits but bodies
exposed to physical needs™ (Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful
Daughter (Paris: Gallimard 1958), p. 335).
From his working-class upbringing Camus learned to be similarly
suspicious of ideals, to be sceptical of reason and introspection, and
to believe that the coherent self and the coherent work of art were
fabrications. Along with this went the realization that life was to
be lived rather than dreamed about or mulled over. Man existed,
so Existentialism maintained, among or against others in a brutal
adventure, to which he must by his actions give meaning.
Camus and Sartre would not have exerted such in¬‚uence if they
had not been ¬‚anked by other writers, each different but sharing
common themes. Francis Ponge™s poetry offers parallels with Sartre
in its treatment of objects; Maurice Blanchot™s concept of anguish
may be compared and contrasted with Camus™s sense of the absurd;
the arguments about language were foreshadowed in the work of
Jean Paulhan, the editor of the NRF, and would soon be taken up
by Roland Barthes.
The mood of pessimism was encouraged by political develop-
ments. Camus was not 20 when Hitler came to power in Germany; he
then lived through Mussolini™s invasion of Abyssinia (1935), Hitler™s
remilitarization of the Rhineland (1936) and Franco™s rebellion in
Spain (1936). If these were good enough causes for gloom, they also
galvanized the Left. The riots of February 1934, when right-wing
extremists seemed to be attempting a coup d™´ tat in France, helped

unite the French Left and led to the Popular Front victory in the
elections of April 1936.
As the decade wore on, the Left™s defeats grew more numerous:
L´ on Blum, the Popular Front™s prime minister, fell from power in
June 1937; in September 1938 came the Munich agreement, and
the next year the Republicans were defeated in Spain. This was a
painful blow to Camus, who was proud that his mother™s family was
Spanish. By now the drift towards war was apparent, even if Camus
fought stubbornly against it.
The mood of malaise and drifting, as well as the sense of having no
guidelines except those one could invent for oneself, ¬nds its way into
Camus™s early writing, which has usually been read as a re¬‚ection
of the con¬‚icts in France and in Europe. But the other context was
making itself felt: French-Algeria was going through torments of its
When Camus was 17 French-Algeria celebrated its centenary
and it seemed to everyone, including Camus, that the conquest
was safe for ever. Certainly there were only 900,000 Europeans
alongside 6 million Arabs, but open Arab revolt had ended in the
previous century and the military parades for the centenary empha-
sized French power. However, economic dif¬culties increased in the
1930s because of the agricultural slump, and many Arab farmers
lost their land. They came ¬‚ooding into the cities and Camus noted
an increase of them in his own Belcourt.
This was a source of tension, and Arab protest grew. Islam was a
rallying point, and the ulemas or Moslem doctors offered a stricter,
puri¬ed version of their religion. Arab politicians pressed for reforms
within the context of French rule and of the ideology of assimilation.
The absurdity of assimilation was apparent: of¬cially Arabs were
equal and were eventually to enjoy all the rights of French citizen-
ship; however, in the meantime they were treated like a conquered
population. Yet the Popular Front included in its platform the Blum “
Viollette plan to widen “ very moderately “ the Arab franchise. After
the Front™s failure to enact the plan, a radical group of Arabs led
by Messali Hadj edged towards nationalism. An ex-Communist
who had believed the party line that the colonial struggle was part
of the international struggle of the proletariat, Messali was making
a change of great signi¬cance.
Contexts 9
The depression did not spare the French-Algerian or pied-noir
community and heightened its contradictory view of France. French
interests lay less in developing industry in Algeria than in exporting
raw materials to be processed in France. Standards of living were
lower in Algeria than in France, so the pied-noir™s need for the pro-
tection of the French army jostled with his economic recriminations.
This mixture of dislike and admiration is a theme in The Stranger,
where Meursault and Marie have sharply differing attitudes towards
Paris. The con¬‚ict between mother country and colony overlapped
with a tension within the colony between the wealthy businessmen
and farmers and the mass of the population.
In all this the crucial element was the pied-noir working class
which was most threatened by cheap Arab labour and hence in
greatest need of French protection, but which also suffered most
from the existing economic order. This is the key group in The
Stranger, the group to which Meursault belongs and from whose
viewpoint he undermines the legitimacy of French institutions. At
the same time the incident where he kills the Arab without under-
standing what he is doing is surely an expression of the violence that
lay beneath the surface of assimilation.
Similarly The Stranger, which may be read in the context of the
absurd and of Existentialism, is also a piece of pied-noir writing.
Camus drew on the ways in which the French-Algerians depicted
themselves; the myths they invented recur and are scrutinized in
his novel.
Through French-Algerian writing and popular culture runs the
motif of the pieds-noirs as a new nation. Half-European and half-
African, they are a frontier people; they are pagans as well as unin-
tellectual barbarians; the men are virile and the women sexy; they
live through their bodies and are devoted to sport; temperamentally
they oscillate between indolence and frenzied emotion. Camus elab-
orates on this view in the essays, Nuptials (1939), where he writes
of Algeria: ˜There is nothing here for the man who wishes to learn,
get an education or improve. This country offers no lessons. It does
not promise or hint. It is content to give in abundance . . . you know
it as soon as you start to enjoy it™ (OC 2,67).
In this it is easy to recognize the ¬gure of Meursault, who shuns in-
trospection and is devoted to sensuous experience. Equally obviously

Camus has deepened the concept of indifference, which in Meursault
is an unexplained mixture of inability to feel and protest against in-
authentic emotion.
The murder of the Arab may also be placed in this context. French-
Algerian portrayals of the Arab dissolve the colonial relationship
into the brotherhood of pied-noir and Arab as fellow frontiersmen,
or into the Mediterranean medley of French, Spanish, Maltese and
Arabs living together on the fringes of Europe and Africa. The Arab
intrigues the colonizer: he is nomadic, steeped in Islamic fatalism,
different from the European and hence akin to the pied-noir. Once
more Camus draws on previous depictions in Betwixt and Between,
where the re¬‚ections on the mother, which have been quoted al-
ready, take place in an Arab caf´ while the narrator sits alone with
the owner. Silent, crouched in a corner and ˜seeming to look at my
now empty glass™ (OC 2,24), the Arab incarnates indifference. He
is thus linked with the mother, whose special indifference haunts
Camus and is the origin of Meursault™s indifference in The Stranger.
In the novel Camus criticizes the pied-noir view by showing how vio-
lence can emerge from the kinship that the French-Algerian chooses
to discover between himself and the Arab. Meursault and the Arab
are rivals as well as brothers.
Camus dealt with Arab issues in the pages of Alger-R´publicain.
He campaigned for a French civil servant who had got into trouble
for protecting Arab farmers, and he defended an Arab spokesman
accused of murder. His best-known articles depicted the agricul-
tural crisis in the Kabylia mountains and attacked the inadequacy
of French social policy: the lack of schools and medical care. Camus
called for government spending to build roads and provide water;
then, entering the dangerous political arena, he demanded more
self-government for local Arab communities. At this point he could
go no further, because the next question would be why the French
authorities did so little to help Kabylia and the only answer would
be that, to the government and especially to French-Algerians, local
self-government for Arabs interfered with colonial exploitation. The
striking feature of Camus™s articles is that they lead so clearly to this
conclusion, which he does not draw.
For those who believe that biography is of any use in interpreting
a novel, it is hard to imagine that the author of these pieces could
Contexts 11
have chosen to write a novel where an Arab is murdered, without
brooding on his choice of victim. For those “ a larger group “ who
believe a work must be set in its historical context or contexts, it is
dif¬cult to divorce the murder of the Arab from the deepening crisis
of French-Algeria. Not that Camus could speak openly of colonial
violence but, unlike a newspaper article, a work of ¬ction can hint “
in spite of itself “ at forbidden topics.
By 1939, however, the other set of contexts was reasserting itself.
Alger-R´publicain conducted a vigorous campaign against the war,
even after it had begun. While refusing to accept the Nazi occupation
of Poland, Camus argued that concessions could be made in the
corridor; he repeated that the Treaty of Versailles was unjust, he
called on the Allies to offer peace, and he placed hope in Neville
Chamberlain. The newspaper ran into troubles with the military
censorship and it appeared with blanks, which amused Camus and
Pia. Finally in January 1940 it was banned.

3 The Stranger and the war
Having no job, Camus left Algeria in March. He went to Paris,
where Pia had found him a job on a sensational paper, Paris-Soir,
not as a journalist but doing lay-out and copy-editing. It was a
lonely, dreary time and he moved from one cheap hotel to another,
homesick for Algeria. In June the staff of Paris-Soir ¬‚ed just before
the Germans entered Paris, Camus carrying the manuscript of The
Stranger which he had provisionally ¬nished in May.
The novel was only one of the projects at which he worked
during these years. His earliest published works were the essays
of Betwixt and Between and Nuptials (1937 and 1939). He also
wrote a novel called A Happy Death, which he did not attempt
to get published and which did not appear until long after his
death. The relationship between A Happy Death and The Stranger
is complex, and critics have wondered whether the former might
be considered a trial run for the latter. For some time in 1937
and 1938 Camus worked at both novels, but by 1939 he had
left A Happy Death and was pushing ahead with The Stranger. He
also had a ¬rst draft of Caligula and was working on The Myth of

In his mind these three works constituted the cycle of the absurd
and went together, although Caligula, which he rewrote in 1939,
went through further redrafting after The Stranger and The Myth
were completed. Camus carried all three works around with him
during the peregrinations of 1940; he ¬nished the ¬rst half of The
Myth in September and the second half in February 1941.
By then his life had changed again. Paris-Soir set up operations in
Clermont-Ferrand and then in Lyon. On 3 December 1940 Camus
was married to Francine Faure whom he had known in Algiers.
Almost immediately he lost his job as Paris-Soir reduced its staff,
and he decided to return to Algeria. Francine™s family had a house
in Oran where Camus could hope to get some part-time teaching.
It was a dif¬cult period: the Germans still appeared to have won the
war and Camus had few career prospects, but at least he was going
back to Algeria.
Although supposedly completed, The Stranger seems to have un-
dergone a revision during this year. At all events a version was sent
by Camus in Oran to Pia in Lyon in April 1941 (Herbert Lottman,
Albert Camus, a Biography (New York: Doubleday 1979), p. 249).
Pia sent it to Malraux, and on his and other recommendations the
book was accepted for publication by Gallimard.
Since French publishers were working under an agreement be-
tween their federation and the German Propaganda-Staffel, the is-
sue of censorship arose. Gaston Gallimard showed The Stranger to a
representative of the Occupation authorities, who felt it contained
nothing damaging to the German cause. When the book appeared
in June 1942 two copies were sent “ as with each new book “ to the
Propaganda-Staffel. When it was The Myth™s turn, it did not escape
unscathed, for the chapter on Kafka was taken out: presumably
Camus and/or Gallimard felt the Germans might not tolerate the
study of a Jewish writer. Only then was the essay submitted to the
authorities and published in December 1942.
Since The Stranger™s ¬rst edition consisted of a mere 4,400 copies,
it could not become a best-seller. But it was well-received “ the
Propaganda-Staffel had made a mistake “ in anti-Nazi circles, and
Sartre™s article, which is discussed later, helped launch Camus. In
August 1942 he returned to France because his tuberculosis had
¬‚ared up, and he was obliged to spend time in the Massif Central
Contexts 13
mountains at a village called Le Panelier. When the Allies invaded
North Africa he was cut off from his wife and had to remain in France.
He had little money, his health was bad and his diaries record his
These are the contexts which helped shape The Stranger™s suc-
cess. A historical contradiction is involved because the novel, which
springs from pre-war Algeria, was read during the dreary days of
the Occupation. One should not exaggerate the contradiction be-
cause, as has already been argued, it was Camus™s working-class
and Algerian background which led him to the themes that struck
a chord in the Paris of 1942, namely, the illegitimacy of authority
and the primacy of concrete, individual experience. Yet the specif-
ically Algerian features “ the depiction of a pied-noir hero and the
Arab problem “ were generally overlooked, while The Stranger was
read in a supposedly universal but in fact Western European con-
text, as a manual of how an individual may live in a world without
authentic values.
The Myth reinforced this and Camus became “ quite deservedly “
a great French and European writer of the 1940s. The language of
The Stranger, which is suspicious of abstractions, exaggerations and
itself, was a welcome antidote to the ¬‚owery rhetoric of the Vichy
government, as well as a recognizable landmark in contemporary
French prose.
Chapter 2
The Stranger

4 Meursault™s languages
The very ¬rst paragraph of the novel poses the issue of language:

Aujourdhui, maman est morte. Ou peut-ˆ tre hier, je ne sais pas. J™ai recu
e ¸
un t´ l´ gramme de l™asile: ˜M` re d´ c´ d´ e. Enterrement demain. Senti-
ee e eee
ments distingu´ s.™ Cela ne veut rien dire. C™´ tait peut-ˆ tre hier. (Mother
e e e
died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don™t know. I received a telegram
from the home: ˜Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Sincerely
yours.™ That doesn™t mean anything. Perhaps it was yesterday.) (9)

Two different kinds of language are juxtaposed as the narrator, an
unidenti¬ed ˜I™, reads a text sent by ˜the home™ which is, as we later
learn, an organ of the state. The telegram employs a euphemism,
˜passed away™, and ends with a purely formal greeting. It informs
the reader of the event of his mother™s death while concealing the
signi¬cance of that death. It is also a command which the narrator-
character obeys by departing to attend the funeral.
The narrator-reader does not, however, accept the telegram™s
authority without criticism. It ˜doesn™t mean anything™, he notes;
its language is unsatisfactory. By depicting the narrator as a reader,
The Stranger is indicating to us, its own readers, how we should tackle
it: we should be wary of the traps and commands it contains.
As for the narrator™s own language, which surrounds and be-
sieges the telegram, it is less formal, and uses the familiar French
term ˜maman™ for ˜m` re™. It too conceals the reality of death, leav-
ing open the question whether the narrator-character is troubled
or not. But this language broadcasts its own inadequacy by the use
of phrases like ˜perhaps™ and ˜I don™t know™.

The Stranger 15
This enables us to de¬ne the relationship between the telegram™s
language and the narrator™s. The former is authoritative, sure of
itself and closed to outside intervention; it does not tell us when
the mother died, but it does inform us that it was itself composed
˜today™. However, the latter is aware of an imprecision which it seeks
unsuccessfully to correct. The two are in con¬‚ict and, although the
narrator-character obeys the telegram, the narrator-reader ¬ghts
back by turning it into a text written by himself.
One critic has stated that the telegram is ˜the quintessence of
writing™, because it imposes abstract, arbitrary categories on the
¬‚ux of human experience (Eisenzweig, p. 11). Certainly the written
language is an instrument of oppression in The Stranger: the nar-
rator, whom we discover to be a French-Algerian called Meursault
(¬rst name unknown), helps bring about the murder of an Arab by
writing a deceitful letter to his sister. Moreover, Camus emphasizes
that this is writing by omitting the content of the letter but describ-
ing the tools that Meursault uses to compose it: the ˜squared paper™,
the ˜small red wooden penholder™ and the ˜inkpot with purple ink™
Yet the same critic, Uri Eisenzweig, points out that the problem
of language is not to be resolved by a simple distinction between the
written and the spoken. In the second half of the novel the language
of oppression is the rhetoric of the courtroom contained in passages
like this one: ˜Who is the criminal here and what are these meth-
ods which consist of denigrating the prosecution witnesses in order
to belittle their evidence which nonetheless remains overwhelm-
ing?™ (139). The pseudo-question which imposes its own answer, the
facile antithesis between ˜belittle™ (˜minimiser™) and ˜overwhelming™
(˜´ crasants™) and the scarcely veiled assumption that the man in the
dock is a criminal are the signs of a language that seeks to manip-
ulate feelings rather than to reason. This is the spoken language,
albeit linked with a privileged social class.
Conversely the narrator™s language is not presented as conver-
sational French. In the ¬rst paragraph both the ˜ne™ and the ˜pas™
are employed to form the negative, although authors who seek to
present their novels as spoken, working-class French almost always
omit the ˜ne™. Moreover, the language of the Algiers streets can,
where it does occur, be a vehicle of oppression. The incident where

Raymond beats up the Arab man is presented not by the narrator
but by Raymond who uses slangy French. Signi¬cantly, this is the
longest piece of conversational French in the book.
If the written/spoken categories are too simple, it remains true
that there is a language of authority that is associated with the
warden of the home, Meursault™s boss and the law courts, and hence
with the state and with economic and political power. There is,
however, no working-class discourse that offers instant liberation
from them (if there were, The Stranger would be an extremely poor
novel). In the courtroom the working-class characters like Marie
and C´ leste are enmeshed in the language of authority and unable
to make themselves understood. But, even as the court laughs at
them because they cannot express themselves, the reader knows it
is their inability to wield language that is the mark of their honesty.
Similarly, the note of dissidence in the narrator™s language comes
from its wariness. ˜My case was taking its course, to borrow the
judge™s expression™ (˜selon l™expression mˆ me du juge™) (110), notes
Meursault. He will use the language of of¬cialdom, but only while
designating it as such; thus he is reminding us that C´ leste would
have put things differently, and that he himself is not presenting the
statement as true. Indeed there is a minor character called Masson
who adds ˜I shall say more™ to his utterances, so that the reader can
never forget he is dealing with unreliable words rather than with
stable objects.
The con¬‚ict between the languages of authority and dissidence
is present in the ¬rst half of the book and dominates the second half.
There, the true nature of authority is revealed at the end of Part 2,
Chapter 4, when the judge ˜said in a bizarre way that my head
would be cut off in a public place in the name of ˜the French people™
(164). The pompous mention of ˜the French people™ is characteristic
of what one might also call the language of the guillotine but, by
noting it as such “ ˜in a bizarre way™ “ and by mocking it, Meursault
the narrator revenges the defeat of Meursault the character.
These are not the only two languages of The Stranger, for the last
chapter of Part 2 is written differently: one half of it as a rigorous
intellectual meditation and the other half as a cry of revolt. The
latter is the second cry, the ¬rst being the outburst of the Arab
woman whom Raymond beats up. Each of them represents a visceral
The Stranger 17
and partially non-verbal language which cuts through the falsity of
language by its emotional intensity, and stands as a metaphor of true
or total language. One cannot resist drawing the comparison with
the primal scream. Another metaphor of totality is the monologue
which Meursault conducts in prison. This is depicted as a stream
of consciousness that enables him to hold onto an identity even as
prison life is driving him towards schizophrenia. But, while he can
tell the reader about this monologue, he cannot narrate it and its
role is to emphasize the shortcomings of the diary or journal which
constitutes The Stranger.
At the opposite pole from the cry and the monologue stands
an equally impossible solution to the problem of language: silence.
Certain social groups are forced into silence, which is hence asso-
ciated with oppression; the Arabs barely speak at all. Yet since the
Arabs do not themselves oppress, their silence is a mark of authen-
ticity. Meursault the character is frequently silent: when questioned
by the magistrate, he responds that ˜the truth is I never have much to
say. So I keep quiet™ (104). Here again his taciturnity throughout his
trial is presented as a protest against the wordiness of the lawyers.
Although the narrator of a novel can hardly be silent, he can
introduce into his tale the awareness that silence contains authen-
ticity. Meursault does this in the ¬rst paragraph by the brevity of his
sentences and by the absence of subordinate clauses which imply
causality and hierarchy. Not surprisingly, Roland Barthes concluded
that the language of The Stranger ˜exists as a silence™ (Barthes, Degr´
z´ro, p. 110).
We have by now moved from the antithesis authority/dissidence,
which does not furnish convincing explanations of the ¬rst half of the
novel, to the antithesis totality/wariness. At the two key moments
of Part 1 “ the funeral of the mother in Chapter 1 and the killing of
the Arab in Chapter 6 “ the text discards wariness, as the following
passage reveals:

Autour de moi c™´ tait toujours la mˆ me campagne lumineuse gorg´ e de
e e e
´ ´
soleil. L™´ clat du ciel etait insoutenable . . . Le soleil avait fait eclater le
goudron. Les pieds y enfoncaient et laissaient ouverte sa pulpe brillante.
Au-dessus de la voiture le chapeau du cocher, en cuir bouilli, semblait
´e e
avoir et´ p´ tri dans cette boue noire. J™´ tais un peu perdu entre le ciel

bleu et blanc et la monotonie de ces couleurs, noir gluant du goudron
ouvert, noir terne des habits, noir laqu´ de la voiture. (Around me was
always the same countryside gorged with sun. The glare from the sky
was unbearable . . . The sun had burst open the tar on the road. Our
feet sank into it and left its shiny pulp showing. Above the hearse the
coachman™s hat in molten leather seemed to have been moulded out of
this black mud. I was a bit lost between the blue and white sky and the
monotony of this colour, the sticky black of the open tar, the dull black
of the clothes, the polished black of the hearse.) (29)

The words ˜always™ and ˜same™ indicate the suspension of time
whether measured by months and years (as the state usually means
it) or by yesterday and today (as Meursault measures it). The pas-
sage begins with sense impressions “ the heat of the sun and the
colour of the tar “ but these trigger images of a battle. Changes of
shape take place: the sun turns the road into a sticky pulp while the
coachman™s hat is dissolved into tar. This is a violent process and
the real object of the assault by the sun is Meursault, who enters a
hallucination where his sense of external reality and hence of him-
self starts to break down. Colours cease to be merely sensory and
become obsessive: blue, which is associated throughout The Stranger
with happiness, lingers but black, which is the colour of mourning
and of the mother, overwhelms him.
Although Meursault retains a degree of control “ the coachman™s
hat merely ˜seemed™ to be black mud “ this passage shows how he
loses his ability to measure space and time and becomes a part of the
universe “ his feet ˜sank™ into the mud. This is not the scienti¬c uni-
verse but it is coherent in its colour structures, it has its organizing
principle in the sun and it is consistent in its hostility to humans.
Such passages abound in Camus™s work, and how one interprets
them depends largely on which brand of explanations one favours “
religious, psychoanalytical and so on. Several such explanations will
be attempted later in this study. Sometimes these passages relate to
joyous experiences, but in The Stranger they are often terrifying;
nature (which is an elusive concept in Camus) can welcome and
embrace man, but here she seeks to annihilate him.
It is obvious that this language is very different from the language
of dissidence and that it has some of the attributes of poetry. Natural
forces “ the sun, sea, sand and rocks “ are personi¬ed. Physical
The Stranger 19
sensations are at ¬rst noted, but then turn into a ¬‚ood of independent
images. The narrator no longer undercuts himself, and he seems less
to be narrating than to be transcribing a language that is forced upon
To explain the role of this other, lyrical language one might have
recourse to Jean-Paul Sartre™s discussion of the relationship between
poetry and prose. Where the prose-writer is happy to use words as
signs that indicate objects, the poet seizes on them as images or
word-objects. Although we cannot accept Sartre™s view that to the
novelist words are transparent signs, we might follow him to the con-
clusion that ˜the language of poetry rises up on the ruins of prose™
(Jean-Paul Sartre, Situations, vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 86).
Unconvinced that he can ˜make use of™ words and that they are
˜tame™, the writer restores them to their ˜wild™ state in poetry. Aware
that his primary language cannot explain the world, Meursault
decides after all to strive after totality in this ¬‚ood of images. Con-
versely, we might argue that, since the above-quoted passage depicts
the world as a nightmare, Meursault defends himself against such
terror by the wariness of his habitual language.
Traces of lyricism are found elsewhere in The Stranger. Part 1,
Chapter 2, depicts the joy of a day at the beach with Marie: ˜I had
all the sky in my eyes and it was blue and golden™ (34). Man and
universe are fused, brie¬‚y and in ecstasy. More frequent are the pas-
sages where sounds and bodily sensations invade and capture the
narrator™s consciousness. After the decisive evening when he writes
Raymond™s letter, Meursault stands in the darkness: ˜The building
was calm and from the depths of the stairwell rose a dark, dank
breath. I heard nothing but the throb of my blood which was boom-
ing in my ears™ (55). In this we see a prophecy of the language of
Chapter 6 where Meursault will kill the Arab.
Such moments are absent from Part 2, Chapters 1“4, which
depict the imprisonment and trial, although they recur in the ¬nal
chapter. Their absence from the bulk of Part 2 indicates the shift
that has taken place in the novel. There the threat of death comes
from the guillotine, whereas in Part 1 death is caught up with the
mother and the Arab.
But the vagueness of the term ˜caught up™ reveals a dif¬culty in
this argument. Sartre af¬rms that the structures of poetry and prose
are quite different and between them ˜there is nothing in common

but the movement of the hand that traces the letters™ (Sartre, Situa-
tions, vol. 2, p. 70). If one agrees with him, then it is unsatisfactory
to designate the lyrical language of The Stranger as poetry. However,
the problem exists in the text too: if the sun is convincing as a hostile
force in the passage quoted, it seems to the present author virtually
impossible to interpret it in the novel as a whole. We may and we will
furnish explanations but we should not delude ourselves that they
are altogether convincing. There are in Chapters 1 and 6 images of
death that simply do not ¬t coherently into Meursault™s narrative.
We will return to the ˜absence™ or ˜hollowness™ which lies at the cen-
tre of The Stranger, but ¬rst we must describe more fully the primary
language, the language of dissidence.

Camus™s contemporaries, Sartre and Barthes, were struck by the
non-literary appearance of The Stranger. Sentences are short and
consist frequently of one main clause. Often the links among them
are made by ˜and™ and ˜but™ or by a vague temporal conjunction like
˜then™ or ˜after a while™. Some passages consist of enumeration, as
when Meursault shows his irritation at being interrogated by listing
his replies to the magistrate: ˜Raymond, beach, swim, quarrel, beach
again, the little spring, the sun and the ¬ve revolver shots™ (105).
Occasionally the time sequence is not merely vague but incorrect:
on page 10 the reader cannot know precisely when Meursault went
to Emmanuel™s ¬‚at to collect the black armband.
The most obvious break with literary convention is the use “
untranslatable into English “ of the perfect instead of the past his-
toric tense: ˜I have done™ instead of ˜I did™. The past historic is the
standard tense of the French novel while the perfect is usually the
tense of conversation, so by choosing it Camus was refusing one
of the principal signs by which a text declares that it belongs to
Moreover, the past historic is the sign of a particular kind of
narrative. It sets the action it depicts in a chronological sequence
where other actions precede and follow. Although this is a temporal
order, it can masquerade as a causality. So the past historic conveys
to the reader the sense that the events narrated could not have
unfolded in another manner, that their sequence possesses a certain
legitimacy, and that behind the ˜he™ of the main character stands a
The Stranger 21
divine narrator who comprehends the universe. Realist novelists of
the nineteenth century, such as Balzac, use the past historic in this
way which destroys, according to Barthes, ˜the existential roots of
experience™ and constitutes ˜a manifest lie™ (Barthes, pp. 46, 50).
By contrast, the perfect is closer to the present and renders the
action for itself. Each act becomes an event that is being lived rather
than a segment of a greater whole. Indeed the concept of a whole is
thus rendered problematic, because events occur rather than being
created. To Barthes, Balzac™s writing re¬‚ects and con¬rms the hege-
mony of the new capitalist middle class that was convinced of its
power to shape history. Camus, along with other twentieth-century
writers, is endeavouring to shake the ideological presuppositions
upon which the traditional novel rests.
The perfect tense may lend to The Stranger an immediacy
(although the problem of immediacy is complex), but it clearly lends
an uncertainty which con¬rms the reader in his wariness. To com-
plicate his task still further, the reader discovers that there are a
number of past historic tenses in the novel. One of them occurs in a
passage of Part 1, Chapter 1, where the language is growing more
lyrical: ˜La couleur rouge dans ce visage blafard me frappa™ (26).
But others occur in more characteristic passages, and there are also
imperfect subjunctives “ ˜j™aurais pr´ f´ r´ que maman ne mourut
ee e
pas™ (102) “ although this tense too bears the sign of literature and
is almost never used in conversation.
Literature is not easily escaped, and one doubts whether The
Stranger is really seeking to escape it. Another trait of this novel
is the string of deliberately banal adjectives like ˜interesting, odd,
natural, happy™. While they seem the stuff of everyday conversa-
tion, they are frequently deployed in sophisticated ways. In Part 1,
Chapter 3, Meursault is declared by Marie to be ˜odd™ (70); three
pages later he declares that a woman in the restaurant is ˜odd™. It
is left to the reader to decide who is odd and from which point of
view oddness is to be judged, especially since Meursault elsewhere
declares that he is ˜exactly like everyone else™ (103).
Similarly Meursault™s lawyer asks him whether in not weeping
over his mother he was overcoming his ˜natural feelings™ (102).
This is ironic because society™s concept of nature is so clearly false,
but it is also enigmatic because the reader has not been allowed to

know what Meursault™s natural feelings are. To reinforce the irony,
Meursault himself labels the legal process as ˜natural™ (110) several
pages later.
Still more enigmatic is the adjective ˜interesting™. Everything is in-
teresting to Meursault because he refuses to make judgements about
what is of greater or lesser importance. Yet even while perceiving the
absence of judgement in Meursault™s responses, the reader may de-
cide that the word is justi¬ed. For example, the gruesome tale which
the caretaker tells about burials in France and burials in Algeria
is ˜interesting™ (16), because it underlines the difference between
France and her colony which is a theme in the novel.
In these cases The Stranger culls literature from what seems
˜a-literary™ material. This is sometimes but not always true of
Meursault™s descriptions of people. In the closing pages of Part 1,
Chapter 2, he sits on his balcony, looks down on the Sunday evening
crowds and describes their appearance, gestures and movements.
Of their inner life he tells us nothing, so we note merely the hair
of a young girl, the red ties of the youths and the chants of soccer
Of course none of these details is in fact insigni¬cant because in
The Stranger Marie™s long hair is a mark of female sexuality, the
colour red is associated with aggression and male sexuality, while
sport is linked with happiness. So each detail has its place in the
larger structures of the novel. Yet they could be read as random
physical details and “ more importantly “ Meursault invites us to
do so when he mimics the gestures of the soccer supporters without
knowing or caring which match they have seen.
Elsewhere, however, Meursault™s descriptions are not those of
a man-above-the-street. His language quickly becomes metaphori-
cal and his judgements are evident in his depiction of the Parisian
journalist who attends his trial: ˜a small fellow who looked like a
fattened up weasel with huge black-rimmed spectacles™ (130). Even
if the reader does not delve into the details “ the colour black asso-
ciated with Meursault™s mother or the fact that Meursault cannot
see the man™s eyes “ the pejorative nature of the simile is obvious.
When such passages are juxtaposed with the closing pages of
Part 1, Chapter 2, we realize that Camus is constructing a language
that af¬rms now its literary and now its a-literary identities. This
The Stranger 23
language does not merely register the world like a passer-by nor
does it organize the world like Balzac™s. Aware that traditional lit-
erary discourse is a lie, it offers no new discourse. Hence the game
of contradictions which is illustrated on the surface of the text by
the proliferation of phrases like ˜on the one hand, on the other™.
Tormented by sexual fantasies in prison, Meursault notes: ˜in one
sense that disturbed me. But in another it killed time™ (121). Writers
judge, create hierarchies and proffer ideologies; Camus cannot stop
himself doing it, but he can alert the reader that it is happening.
Often these expressions seem the signs of everyday language
which does not seek to be precise: ˜on thinking it over™ and ˜in a
way™ come into that category. But such expressions may be used
in contexts that give them greater signi¬cance. Paraphrasing the
lawyer for the prosecution, Meursault states that he had ¬red the
last four bullets into the Arab ˜after deliberation as it were™ (153).
Here the ˜as it were™ is Meursault™s way of refuting the logic that the
lawyer is ascribing to him.
Barthes concludes that The Stranger represents the ˜zero degree™ of
writing; it is ˜neutral and inert™ because literature with its mytholo-
gies of omniscience and causality is banished. Camus™s achievement
is to free writing of these forms of servitude, so that it may directly
confront the human condition. Then Barthes adds that such a zero
degree is impossible and that out of the attempt to create it ˜writ-
ing is reborn™ (Barthes, pp. 110“11). The last comment seems to
the present author important because The Stranger does not really
banish the signs of literature but rather it presents them as forms of
authority and order. It reminds us that a banal adjective like ˜natural™
contains judgements by leaving the reader stranded among several
possible judgements. So the term ˜neutral™ does not seem appropri-
ate, and we would prefer to restate our view that The Stranger is
above all a self-aware text, as a glance at its narrative form reveals.

To many contemporary critics narrators, like characters and au-
thors, are of little interest because they are personi¬cations: rhetor-
ical ¬gures that the reader may invent but that are unreal alongside
the reality of the written page. As we have already seen, The Stranger
is a novel that might encourage such a view because Camus has
tried to abolish the traditional author. Although one may decide

that he treats his narrator with similar lack of ceremony, it is useful
for that very reason to consider the question.
One might begin with the topic of the constraints of literature. The
Stranger was a text to be published by the house of Gallimard, which
had a proven interest in avant-garde writing, but which offered its
readers a series of familiar products. So The Stranger had to ¬t the
category called ˜the novel™. Of the many kinds of novels, Camus chose
the ˜I™ form and the journal. But, if it was obvious that he would not
choose the omniscient author, the ˜he™ of a hero and the sprawl of
characters, that did not in itself free him of constraints.
The journal is a form where an ˜I™, who is both character and
narrator, ¬lters events through an awareness. A recognized genre
of French writing, it was favoured by Gide and other NRF writers
because it gives priority to the inner life. The reader becomes a
con¬dant who is seduced into believing what the ˜I™ reveals, while
the character usually develops throughout the book; by the time
he becomes a narrator at the end, he can look back and trace his
evolution. So there is a series of presuppositions: that the inner life
is important and can be discussed with someone else, and that it is
coherent. Camus™s innovation is to criticize this form by using it for a
character-narrator who partially rejects those presuppositions. This
enables him to demonstrate once more that the supposed harmony
of the work of art is an illusion.
One might argue crudely that Meursault would be most unlikely
to keep a journal. Shunning introspection and trusting only the real-
ities of the senses, he would surely not commit his thoughts to paper.
He tells his lawyer in Part 2, Chapter 1, that ˜I had rather lost the
habit of questioning myself ™ (102). When we examine the chrono-
logical sequence, we shall see that Part 1, Chapter 1, is supposedly
written on Friday evening after he returns from the funeral; yet it
is obvious that he is too exhausted to write anything. While such
objections are crude because they presuppose a concept of realism
that The Stranger rejects, it remains true that Camus has selected
the literary form that requires the highest degree of awareness and
has inserted into it a narrator whose very identity consists in the
inadequacy of his awareness.
Or rather, the problem changes as the novel goes on. A glance at
the temporal indications which the text contains and which have
The Stranger 25
been examined by Barrier, Fitch and others reveals this. The Stranger
appears to be a journal written at different moments and in several
chunks. The ¬rst section is made up of the initial two paragraphs
because Meursault uses the future tense “ ˜I shall get the two o™clock
bus™ (9). The rest of the chapter would constitute the second section
which was written on Friday evening. Chapter 2 announces by its
use of ˜yesterday™ and ˜today™ that it is being started on Saturday,
although a reference to ˜the evening™ rather than ˜this evening™
(35) would imply that it was composed on Sunday. The ¬‚aw in the
chronology hints that Camus does not wish to present a temporal
structure that is clear.
The fourth chunk is made up of Chapter 3, which is written on
Monday evening, as the ˜today™ (43) proclaims. Then Chapter 4
would constitute the ¬fth section written on the following Sunday,
since Meursault ˜has worked well all week™ (57) and since ˜yesterday™
is Saturday (57). Yet there is a ¬‚aw here too, because at the end of
the chapter Meursault uses not ˜tomorrow™ but ˜the next day™ (66),
which implies that the chapter was written later.
The rest of the book contains no temporal indicators that would
prevent us from believing that it was written after the trial and
at some point during the events of the last chapter. This segment
is closer to the orthodox journal-novel because, as we shall see,
Meursault grows in awareness in Part 2. Not only would his ap-
proaching death offer him a plausible pretext for writing, but he has
undergone an evolution which he is able to trace.
There remains the problem of Part 1, Chapter 5, whose last para-
graph marks the beginning of such awareness “ ˜I understood that
I had destroyed the balance of the day™ (95). But the lyrical lan-
guage which depicts the murder of the Arab does not ¬t with the
language prevailing in either Part 1 or Part 2, while the early pages
of this chapter grow naturally out of Part 1, Chapter 4. One might
conclude that there are two narrative time-structures: the second
is the orthodox reconstruction of the journal-novel, while the ¬rst
seeks speci¬cally to avoid coherence.
The possible relationship between the two halves of the novel will
be discussed shortly, but we may note here that The Stranger draws
attention to the arti¬ce of its form in other ways. In Part 1, Chapter 1,
Meursault writes of the pensioners: ˜I had the impression that the

dead woman lying in their midst meant nothing in their eyes. Now I
think my impression was false™ (21). When is this ˜now™? If Meursault
is speaking directly after the funeral, one can only respond that he
nowhere else displays such awareness. Could it be the Meursault
who is waiting to be guillotined? He does possess the awareness,
but it would imply that he has written the entire book and that the
˜tomorrows™ are inserted to mislead. The most likely answer is that
Camus is drawing attention to Meursault™s twin roles as mourner
and narrator, and hinting that they do not necessarily ¬t together.
Nor is the doubt limited to the temporal structure. When the
warden tells him that his mother has asked for a religious funeral,
Meursault notes: ˜Although she was not an atheist, mother had
never in her life thought about religion™ (13). This is puzzling since
Meursault elsewhere professes to know nothing of other people™s
feelings and little of his own. If he here slips into the role of the
omniscient author, it is surely a provocation that Camus has inserted
to draw attention to that agnosticism. A trace of agnosticism recurs
in the sentence that begins Part 2, Chapter 2: ˜There are things
I have never liked talking about™ (113). Although these ˜things™
are eventually identi¬ed as ˜the hour without a name™, namely, the
prison evenings, the word ˜never™ casts a restrospective doubt over
the preceding chapters.

The issue of when and how The Stranger is being narrated leads to
the question of what one is supposed to feel towards Meursault. As
a narrator he is an agnostic and as a character he is indifferent. The
concept of indifference will be discussed several times in this study,
but here we would like to suggest that it leads to further hesitation
on the reader™s part and that this too is a criticism of the traditional
novel, where the reader is led to ˜identify™ with the hero.
A famous example of indifference is Meursault™s response when
Marie asks whether he loves her: ˜I replied that that didn™t mean
anything, but that I thought I did not™ (59). The reply is intrigu-
ing (Meursault might say it is ˜interesting™) because it takes Marie™s
question and reformulates it in a more abstract manner; the ¬rst
part of Meursault™s answer is that the entity of love either does not
exist or cannot be embraced by language. This in turn leads back
to Meursault the narrator, who is unable to tell us anything about
The Stranger 27
emotions. The second half may be interpreted in two different ways:
as a protest against Marie™s idealization and as an inability to feel.
Each explanation possesses a certain validity. By confusing sexual
desire and love Marie is indulging in a false romanticism, which
blinds her to her body and her situation as a working-class woman.
Conversely, Meursault reveals that he is incapable of opening to a
woman. The reader, who is probably more tempted by the second in-
terpretation, should not discount either, because the life Meursault
leads contains both ingredients: honesty as well as sterility, protest
as well as alienation.
The theme to be stressed here is that the reader is unable to decide
which of the two is more important and whether any combination
of the two might be considered a full explanation. He is thus unable
to understand the character Meursault and to feel for him the imag-
inative sympathy that he feels for a traditional hero. Indeed the use
of the term ˜hero™ is inappropriate.
Other such examples abound in the ¬rst half of The Stranger. When
Marie asks Meursault to marry her, his reply seems to emphasize
protest rather than alienation. Having declared that ˜it was all the
same to me™ (69), he speci¬cally denies that marriage is a serious
matter. But here again his inability to feel is present in his willingness
to marry or not to marry a woman to whom marriage is important.
A far greater alienation is present in his refusal to intervene when
Raymond beats up the Arab woman. Told by Marie that the woman™s
cries are ˜terrible™, Meursault ˜did not reply™ (60).
One does not wish to imply that there are no reasons for
Meursault™s behaviour. It will be argued later that there are two
kinds of reasons “ psychoanalytical and political “ but neither ren-
ders Meursault a comprehensible, much less a sympathetic, char-
acter. The absence of direct explanations in the narration erects a
barrier between Meursault and the reader, who had expected to be
a con¬dant but ¬nds himself a stranger.
This is, in Sartre™s words, a novel ˜that does not explain™ (Sartre,
˜Explication de L™Etranger™, p. 105). One might go further and say
that it ostentatiously does not explain, because the theme of compre-
hension is stressed. There are three moments of privileged awareness
in Part 1, Chapters 1 and 6, and in Part 2, Chapter 5. All will be dis-
cussed later, but here one may mention that they are linked with the

experience of death and wrapped in the second, lyrical language (al-
beit not completely). At the opposite pole stands the frequent satire of
comprehension. When Raymond tells Meursault that ˜among men
you could always understand one another™ (55), the remark is ironic
because it is the postscript to the puzzling episode where Meursault
writes the letter to the Arab woman. When the head warden of the
prison congratulates Meursault on his ability to understand the pe-
nal system “ ˜you understand things, you do™ (121), the reader is
tempted to laugh.
Most examples in the ¬rst half of the novel come between the two
extremes. On at least two occasions Meursault furnishes explana-
tions: he interprets a ¬lm for Emmanuel, and he informs Salamano
how stray dogs are dealt with by the city of Algiers. This marks Meur-
sault as a man who has greater awareness than his working-class
friends, and yet in the second case he does not know all the details.
It is not, then, that life is a puzzle before which Meursault throws
up his hands and invites the reader to do the same. That would be
reassuring and simple. Certainly Meursault™s use of the adjective
˜interesting™ implies that he does not wish to make judgements, but
even his most agnostic comments contain some. When he hears
Salamano beating his dog he notes: ˜C´ leste always says, “It™s un-
fortunate”, but really no one can know™ (46). At ¬rst his incompre-
hension appears as a kind of intellectual indifference but, as always,
indifference is a complex concept. Meursault™s remark may be read
as a rebuke to C´ leste™s working-class sentimentality and even as
a correct insight. For the reader subsequently learns that the rela-
tionship between Salamano and his dog contains a kind of love and
is not simple brutality.
It appears to me that the language and narrative structure of
The Stranger lead us to two conclusions. The ¬rst is that, as in his
theatre experiments, Camus is af¬rming that art is no different from
the rest of the universe and should not pretend to a harmony or a
perfection which it cannot possess. In a review of Sartre™s Nausea,
Camus criticizes the hope of salvation by literature. It is ˜derisory™,
he states, to believe that writing can provide answers (˜La Naus´e de
J.-P. Sartre™, OC 2,1419). By satirizing the language of authority in

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