“The Stranger” by Albert Camus
A man’s mother dies, and he is indifferent. He is offered a promotion, and he is indifferent. A woman falls in love with the man, and he is indifferent. He shoots a man, and he is indifferent. He is sentenced to death, and he is indifferent. Approach death, he yells at a chaplain that life is absurd and meaningless.
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.— I.1
If the telegram said, “Mother died February 8th,” then perhaps the opening would be “Maman died today. I know because of the telegram.”
I got up. Raymond gave me a very firm handshake and said that men always understand each other. I left his room, closing the door behind me, and paused for a minute in the dark, on the landing. The house was quiet, and a breath of dark, dank air wafted up from deep in the stairwell. All I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears. I stood there, motionless. And in old Salamano’s room, the dog whimpered softly.— I.2
This scene of Meursault standing on the landing, after drinking wine and writing a letter for Raymond, was especially vivid for me.
Then he asked me if I wasn’t interested in a change of life. 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. He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that that was disastrous in business So I went back to work. I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn’t see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn’t unhappy. When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.— I.5
That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t meany anything but that I probably didn’t love her. “So why marry me, then?” she said. I explained to her that it didn’t really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.— I.5
He said he had peered into it and that he had found nothing, gentlemen of the jury. He said the truth was that I didn’t have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men’s hearts, was within my reach. “Of course,” he added, “we cannot blame him for this. We cannot complain that he lacks what is was not in his power to acquire. But here in this court the wholly negative virtue of tolerance must give way to the sterner but loftier virtue of justice.— II.4
I agree with the prosecutor—I don’t think Meursalt had a soul. I also think he was a sociopath.
Then, I don’t know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy. He seemed so certain about everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man. Whereas it looked as if I was the one who’d come up emptyhanded. But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was was offered to me as the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they thing they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also call themselves my brothers? Couldn’t he see, couldn’t he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too. What would it matter if he were accused of murder and then executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral? Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife.— II.6
It seems that Camus follows the reasoning:
- If God doesn’t exist, life is meaningless and there is no moral standard
- God doesn’t exist
- Therefore, life is meaningless and there is no moral standard
While it is unclear to me whether God exists (or, if he does, how he wants us to act), I do not agree with the first premise.
All quotations are taken from Matthew Ward’s 1990 translation.