Commending the Classics: Introducing The Stranger
Quick fact sheet on The Stranger:
Author: Albert Camus, a French Algerian (1913-1960)
- First publication: Paris, 1942, in French
- First American translation: 1946 by Stuart Gilbert (the translation that made the book famous to English-language readers)
- Approximate number of pages: 150 (varies slightly by edition)
- Genres: novel with first-person narrator; absurdist fiction; realistic fiction
- Setting: French Algeria, mainly the city of Algiers, in the 1930s
- Protagonist: Meursault, an ordinary middle-class person without external claim to prominence
- Plot summary: The novel falls into two parts, each with multiple chapters. Part 1 is a description of the protagonist's life until his murder of an Arab on a beach. Part 2 is the story of Meursault's imprisonment and trial. At a more interpretive level, Part 1 depicts Meursault's acceptance of immediate sensation as truth, while Part 2 portrays society's need to impose a pattern of abstract explanation on the actions that Meursault experienced only as physical events.
The Stranger appeared at a most inauspicious time for the publication of a novel---just as World War II was beginning. Not surprisingly, when the novel first appeared in a small print run of 4,000 copies, it was read primarily by the literati of Paris. By 1950 The Stranger had become a work of immense popularity and influence, perhaps even a cultural icon among young people and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. Fifteen years after its first publication, Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature. The author who wrote the Twayne's Masterwork Study on The Stranger provides a good summary of the book's importance:
To read The Stranger is to encounter one of the enduring literary masterpieces of the twentieth century, to relive a critical moment of our cultural heritage, and to engage in a living discourse on central moral issues of our times (English Showalter Jr, The Stranger: Humanity and the Absurd, Twayne Publishers, 1989, p. 9).
The Stranger is a novel of social protest, a statement of radical dissent from the youthful Camus (who was a mere 29 when the novel was published). Camus wished to show that society would inevitably persecute someone who refuses to play the game of conventional social behavior. The literary imagination always heightens the issues and experiences that an author portrays, and Camus went "over the top" by having his unconventional, individualistic protagonist condemned to death in a court of law not for what he did but for who he is.
Of course that premise is preposterous (the more so because Meursault is a French Algerian who murdered an Arab). No jury would have even heard about Meursault solely on the basis of his inner life. Camus's solution was ingenious: he made his protagonist commit an "innocent" murder that bears no explanation or motivation. In other words, the murder is a pretext to get the protagonist into court. Of course all of this will receive its appropriate analysis as our chapter-by-chapter analysis and discussion unfold. I trust that I have said enough to show the inventiveness of Camus in composing one of the most memorable stories on record.
Wide Gamut of Responses
Our responses to the protagonist Meursault inevitably run a wide gamut. We cannot avoid feeling a bond with him in his rejection of his society's decadence. Mainly we are repelled by him even as we find him intriguing. I personally find this repulsion so continuous that I would find it easy to believe that Camus intended his novel to be read as a satire in which the protagonist is held up to rebuke.
However, we have Camus's own statement about how he himself regarded his protagonist in his preface to an American translation of the novel: "One would . . . not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth. . . . I have tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve" (Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage, 1970, p. 337). In turn, we need to "be ourselves" as Christian readers. Camus's own verdict on his protagonist simply signals that our response to Meursault is not exactly the response that Camus intended.
In the chapter devoted to The Stranger in my book Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective, I claim that on the surface The Stranger is a calculated setup to offend Christian sensibilities. The writer chooses depravity as his story material and then offers for approval such alien philosophies as hedonism, naturalism, existentialism, and absurdism. What claim does such a book have on a Christian reader? I can think of several answers to that question and hope the readers of this introductory piece will find the prospect of exploring those answers inviting.
To begin, The Stranger covers so much of the modern cultural "waterfront" that I do not hesitate to call it a primer on modern and contemporary culture and thought. I named the main ones in the preceding paragraph. While there are many other avenues toward an encounter with these forces, The Stranger has claims to being one of the best ones. Its concentrated brevity surely commends it to any busy person, and this is not merely a matter of available time. A compact expression of content is likely to be the product of greater thoughtfulness than a diffuse expression.
A second thing that commends The Stranger as a primer on what our culture is like is the beauty and artistry with which Camus orchestrates his masterpiece. The stylistic brilliance of the book is self-rewarding---a kind of bonus to a reader who might go to the book in the first place because it is a barometer of modern thought and culture. Greatness of style enhances the effect of what an author says. While this should not beguile us into acquiescence with Camus's worldview and moral vision, it does open the door to enjoying the artistic achievement of Camus.
If we put my first two claims together---that The Stranger is compact and stylistically superior---we can see that it commends itself as a work that silhouettes our own world with unusual clarity. Paging around in a secular magazine gives us a vague impression regarding what our culture is like, but it is just that---vague and impressionistic. A book dealing with contemporary cultural trends would be an avenue to getting a grip on our culture, but it leaves us only with a head full of generalizations and statistics. A work of literature, being the product of the imagination, allows us to vicariously live in the modern world. As Henry Zylstra wrote long ago:
If you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that age and that time. In the novels and stories and poems and plays of a period you have a good indication of what, deep down, that period was about (Testament of Vision, Eerdmans, 1961, p. 5).
In addition to being a great piece of writing, The Stranger is a novel of ideas. One of the byproducts of this is that we have a case study in the premise that ideas have consequences. We know this with our minds, but we often lose sight of the reality. The story of Meursault shows us in concrete terms how such ideas as hedonism, existentialism, and absurdism work themselves out in actual living.
How to Read a Novel
I want to branch out from my reasons for reading The Stranger to say something about how to read a novel. A lot of readers, secular as well as Christian, begin from the stance of a judge. These readers know what they believe and are waiting to pounce on an author who deviates from their personal convictions. But this is an act of self-defeating foreclosure. Before we assess, we need to listen.
C. S. Lewis is the best guide in the matter. In the only book of literary theory he ever wrote, Lewis famously differentiates between using a work of art and receiving a work of art. "The first demand any work of any art makes upon is surrender," Lewis writes. "Look. Listen. Get yourself out of the way" (An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 19). The ideal recipient of art "seems passive at first because he is making sure of his orders."
As The Gospel Coalition book discussion venture unfolds, I fully expect that the ideas embodied in the works under discussion will occupy us most. I am not opposed to this, because ideas are more open to discussion than enjoyment of an author's artistry. Still, I would urge readers not to slight an author's artistry and the truthfulness of human experience that a work of literature embodies and clarifies. As I once asserted in the title of an address, literature is more than ideas.