My close friend, Arend, gave me a copy of this novella for my 20th birthday. It was the Penguin Classics translation by Sandra Smith. It’s a very short read with a succinct, dense story told from a first person perspective of a man by the name of Mersault. Every thought within the novella is as concise as the story itself with Camus opting to use very short sentences which read like staccato. The staccato nature of these sentences are reflective of Mersault’s approach to interacting with the world; his responses to questions are always curt, his interpretation of the world is critical and devoid of extraneous musings, and his character is pragmatic with an aversion to ritual. Mersault appears to live his life through a philosophy devoid of empathy which leads to him becoming an outsider from society and ultimately seals his fate at the hands of the justice system.
The novella opens with the words “My mother died today.” Mersault has arrived at the old peoples’ home after receiving news of his mother’s death. He sits through the wake near the sealed coffin before the watchful, strange faces of the other residents. No tears are shed by Mersault throughout the entire ceremony. The following day, he appears more concerned with the heat of the sun and his exhaustion during the funeral procession rather than the death of his closest loved one. He does not grieve in the days after her death, opting to continue life as per usual by making friends with his neighbours, getting a girlfriend, and eventually organising to get married. He assists one of his new friends, Raymond Sintès, in seeking emotional revenge against the other man’s cheating girlfriend and feels no remorse for the abuse she suffers as a result. The abuse causes the girl’s brother and Arab friends to intervene. They start trailing Raymond, eventually resulting in a confrontation at the beach with Mersault present. Raymond is injured in the altercation. Later that same day, Mersault returns to the beach where he finds one of the Arab’s and murders him. The second act depicts Mersault’s experiences in prison and the events of his trial before a jury. He is sentenced to death on the grounds of being guilty of murder without mitigating circumstances. The prosecution denounces him as a soulless monster incapable of feeling remorse. His lack of emotion shown during his mother’s funeral is cited as evidence against his character. Prior to his execution, Mersault refuses to see a chaplain and becomes annoyed when the chaplain visits nonetheless. The novella closes with Mersault understanding that he is still happy in the face of his imminent death within a world that is as indifferent towards humanity as himself.
The character of Mersault is the single most fascinating element of the novel. It is important to note that, although Mersault could be considered an outsider from society, he still maintains friendships and cares about what people think about him. He wants to impress his boss, he wants to marry his girlfriend for the sole purpose of making her happy, and he feels like crying when faced with the judgemental faces of everyone within the courtroom during his trial. He clearly feels emotion, but his approach to life is almost entirely apathetic and nihilistic. Thus, it is ironic that most readers will find him relatable in many ways. The faux pas committed by Mersault are often things that we wish we could get away with, but know would be met with derision and evolution into a societal outcast. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain a fake smile for an entire workday in order to please your colleagues. Perhaps death is not a sad event according to the philosophy by which you live your life. Often we crave being harshly honest and critical of other people’s decisions, opinions, or creative works. Unfortunately, society has a set of unspoken rules that deem it rude to live our lives according to the apathetic and critical philosophy that Mersault practices. It is important to express empathy lest we offend our peers and put ourselves in danger of being the target of their hatred. It is still possible to make friends with this philosophy, but the greater whole of society will view the apathetic individual as alien. Mersault eventually faces this reality in court when he discovers that the prosecution and jury have labelled him as a soulless monster, dehumanising him because of his apparent lack of emotion.
The crux of the problem within the novella is that Mersault was sentenced to death on the grounds of lacking a soul. The murder was merely the mechanism by which his death sentence was allowed to be carried out. In 1955, Camus wrote:
“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.“
We are all required to play the game and obey social norms if we are to be accepted as trustworthy human beings within society. We must shed tears at the funerals we attend. When someone close to us passes, we must mourn their loss for the accepted period of time. Any form of violence is expected to be met with repulsion. We say our pleases and thank yous and tell little white lies on occasion in order to avoid offending our acquaintances. Although it is becoming less relevant nowadays, there is still the general expectation that we believe we are beholden to a higher power who will judge us in an afterlife. These are the rules of the game that we all play and breaking them will ostracise the offending individual from society; they will become an outsider.
It is important to keep in mind that these rules all serve a purpose, though. Humans are both rational and emotional creatures. It is often suggested that the ability to show compassion provided the foundation upon which tribes and civilisations were allowed to form. Families are strongest when there is a powerful bond of trust and love between the family members. Empathy and trust are required in order to initiate long lasting friendships. Without the emotional element, there is nothing to bind groups of people together for extended periods of time. Pure rationality and apathy results in these interpersonal bonds breaking apart quickly once the relationship has served its utilitarian purpose. Without compassion, civilisation could not prosper as a cohesive whole since differing opinions would be met with hostility and culture would be cast to the wayside.
Perhaps it is the powerful bond formed by compassion that has led to the establishment of many of the world’s largest religions. The concept of an omniscient God, Karma, or achieving Nirvana serve as a positive emotional influence and bring people together. These religions provide ground rules for building a moral code and seeking virtue that is not present in the ancient pantheons that have returned to mythology. There is no rational basis for the existence of these contemporary belief systems, at least no more than belief in the Roman or Greek gods, yet there is a positive emotional investment in the modern religions. They encourage compassion, preach of deities that unconditionally love their disciples, and bring people together to form powerful interpersonal bonds. Mersault does not believe in an afterlife or a god. He refuses to see the chaplain before his execution and is frustrated by the chaplain’s inane discussion about God when he visits against Mersault’s will. The point that confounds the chaplain the most is that Mersault states he would love for an afterlife of eternal happiness to exist, but he does not believe in one despite the happiness that it would bring him. The world is indifferent, it is neither good nor bad and believing in everloving deities and eternal happiness does not change the rational reality of the situation according to Mersault.
I am an atheist and can relate to the Mersault’s apathy towards religion. There’s no rational reason to believe in one god over another or to believe in any spiritual system at all. No amount of discussion or arguing could convince me otherwise because changing this belief would compromise a fundamental pillar of my understanding of the universe: that everything can be rationally explained, even if we do not understand it yet. Oftentimes, religious people will believe that atheists have no reasonable foundation for a moral system without a higher power defining right from wrong. Perhaps this is the cause of the inexplicable horror experienced by the chaplain upon Mersault’s denouncement of religion. The concept of not believing in a God who offers only compassion to those who serve him is completely alien to the devout believer and the primary explanation for such religious apathy is that the atheist does not value compassion. Although it is most likely the case that Mersault truly does not value empathy in the same way as others, it would be unfair to claim that this is caused by his atheism. There are many secular philosophies that provide the grounds for constructing a moral code that values compassion and empathy. My own philosophy is derived from building a moral code that seeks to maximise both the freedom and happiness of everyone; put simply, treat others how you would like to be treated. Mersault’s moral philosophy, however, is one of indifference. It is his indifference towards humanity that forces him to become an outcast, the same indifference shown by the uncaring universe in which we live.
I am not invested in the same indifference towards the world felt by Mersault. Yet, as I sit here contemplating the novella, I find myself feeling more assured that much of Mersault’s philosophy is the most correct, objective approach to viewing the world. I value rational thought highly because it is the ability to reason and communicate logical thoughts that separates humanity from the other beasts. Rationality is the fundamental concept from which our technology, legal systems, education systems, and government are derived. I strongly hold the opinion that irrational beliefs are toxic and destructive to these systems that act as the pillars of civilisation. If you were to look at Mersault’s philosophy from some objective frame of reference, you could also consider his indifference towards the world to be the most reasonable outlook. There’s no rational reason to worry about dying either tomorrow or in twenty years. Following that same logic, there’s no reason to express distress at the death of another person. Once we’re dead, that is the end of all experience. By his philosophy, it does not matter how much I achieve in my lifetime because at the end of the game, the king and the pawn both end up in the same box. Still, I do not subscribe to the same philosophy as Mersault because I am beholden to the unspoken rules of society that encourage empathy. Although civilisation is built upon the pillar of reason, it is important to recognise that it is empathy that holds it together. I believe that it is of the utmost importance to be critical and rational in all of your beliefs, but sometimes you must play the game, compromise your beliefs, and express compassion and acceptance for those things you are critical towards lest you become the outsider.