My first reading of The Stranger was unimpressed. I’ll admit that I was only 18 when I had read it during my summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college and my initial impression was distracted because The Stranger was handed to me by an enthusiastic friend that had proclaimed this book’s originality and importance as the quintessential existential treatise. Reflecting on my initial impression I recognize that one element of my character that has been unchanged through the years is that I am often subject to a self-inflicted criticism susceptible to deflated expectations. The great blockbuster is typically a flop to my overtly sensitive sentimentalities and the buildup of the The Stranger‘s importance affected my initial impression. Now, on a second visit through more mature and experienced eyes I was engrossed by Camus’ narrative as the unrecognized masterpiece read by my younger mind.
What captivated me in this second reading was the concise and direct narrative voice. The abrupt and direct sentences spoken by the indifferent narrator, Meursault, portray a man that lives among but separate from his surroundings. He is a blank slate that floats through the circumstances that surround him. His simplicity may seem off-putting or unsettling to conservative sentimentalities, yet his openness and malleability represents the modern man disjointed from tradition or history. Though his actions are far from perfect, his separateness from the expectations of the society that surrounds him ultimately serves as his condemnation.
The book opens with the death of his mother and Meursault attends her funeral because that is what is expected of him. He declines the offer to look upon her deposed body and sits through a long night of funerary viewing unemotional and appearing disinterred. The day after her funeral he begins a relationship with a sometime acquaintance simply because the opportunity presented itself and he only shared his mother’s passing with the lover interest after he had slept her. His neighbor asks him to be his close friend and confident and Meursault accepts not out of friendship but simply because it appears as though what is expected of him.
These apparently indifferent choices are later perceived by the social order as indications of a corrupt moral character but the astute reader is better informed and will not so easily be seduced by the social expectation to judge and convict. Meursault isn’t necessarily evil or morally corrupt. Neither is he heroic or a representation of the ideal. Meursault simply is. Meursault exists as a man with only one motivation, to be. When faced with a morally challenging scenario, to defend his friend’s honor, he acts not out of anger or brutality, he simply acts. When imprisoned and put to trial for his action, he does not cry the victim or plead his defense, he simply accepts the consequences of his actions as the expectation of his social surrounding.
The plot scenario that failed to impress my young mind succeeds to impress my older mind primarily due to the economy of narrative and the believability of the scenarios depicted. The circumstances of the plot are simple and the narrative voice is direct. The scenario may not yield a universal portrayal of circumstances, but the perspective of Meursault, the narrator, is universal. His voice portrays a man that is aware of the falsity of the expectations of morality and social order for he lives apart from the learned and expected behaviors of society’s mores. He lives so not out of choice, but simply because he lives. Ultimately this simplicity is unacceptable within society’s expectations and his simplicity must end to appease the judgement of his surroundings.
The question posed to the reader extends beyond the plot scenario – how can society judge the strangers among us who live apart from our understanding. Are we moral in exacting such judgement and if not, what is the basis for any moral judgement?