The Stranger

Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.

Ever since I read this opening line in an online article about best literature opening lines, I have wanted to read The Stranger. The line is so simple and captivating; in just a few words the author caught my attention and held it. I finally found the book on Kindle and started reading.

The Stranger (Original title L’Etranger) is a book published in 1942 by French-Algerian author Albert Camus. The book follows the protagonist, a French-Algerian man called Meursault as he goes about doing nothing. The story opens with his mother’s funeral, and his seemingly nonchalant attitude about it. He goes through the motions, observing the people around him and the weather, but not displaying any of the usual markers of grief. As the book goes on we realise that this is just who he is; a loner living a routine life that is so dull and uninteresting that it becomes interesting. It is thus surprising that such a person is able to find himself in the circumstances that he did. In the days after his mother’s funeral, he gets a girlfriend, and befriends a local pimp (or rather does not resist when the pimp drags him into his life). This leads to a series of events that ends in him shooting a man and eventually being sentenced to death. Yes, I did not see that coming either.

Another thing I did not see coming was the end of the book; by this I don’t mean the end was a twist or shocking but that the book was short. I literally turned the page and found that I had finished the book. That was when I decided to look at the book details and it is only about 100 pages.

The book is divided into two parts; part one is everything before he shoots the man and the language there is easy breezy. Part two is after the incident and details his thoughts about his stay in prison and the court proceedings. The language in the latter part is more introspective and existential, and you would be more introspective if you were facing a death sentence.

I liked Meursault, and found that I could relate to him sometimes. In part one of the book I found him somewhat similar to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Meursault just exists. It seems that he doesn’t feel much and just makes his way through life without absorbing anything. His answer to everything is “sure”. This is often how I feel.

If I had to summarise Meursault’s personality in one quote, it would be this one:

Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married. Then she
asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing–but I supposed I didn’t.

There is also a scene in the book when his boss offers him the chance to move to a new office in Paris, obviously expecting him to be excited about the opportunity, and he didn’t care either way. His boss was so disgusted which made me laugh.

“I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.”

I am currently experiencing intense dissatisfaction at work (Ion wanna do this anymore y’all!) and in life really, but also not willing to do anything to change it because meh, a job is a job, things could always be worse. So you can see how much I relate to him.

It was interesting to see how a person’s personality and traits influences people’s perception of them. Meursault has been going through his mundane life, not realising that people were watching him and judging him, and all of this spilled out in his court trial. He was criticised for sending his mother to a retirement home, for drinking coffee with milk at his mother’s funeral, for getting a girlfriend and going to see a comedy just days after his mother’s death and so on. Meursault had done these things without thinking, and they became the very things that people used to hang him.

The author himself stated:

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.

Life is a performance, there are so many things that we just have to do because they are things that are to be done. Behaving in a certain way at one’s mother’s funeral is one of them. Those who choose to sit out the performance are judged harshly. Would his story have ended differently is Meursault was not the way he was? If he had thrown himself to the floor at his mother’s funeral would that have made him more sympathetic to the judge? If he had wept silently throughout the trial would he have received a lesser sentence?

All in all, the book was alright. I was a bit disappointed when it ended as I didn’t feel that enough had been written. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I also felt it was unfair that Meursault’s life be cut short in such a manner, and was a little impressed that the author went ahead with it.

I will end it with a poignant quote by Meursault, as he dwells on his time in prison:

After a while you could get used to anything.

A blessing and a curse.

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