In The Stranger, Albert Camus explores the expansive philosophies of existentialism and absurdism, two very similar philosophical approaches to understanding human existence and experiences. Existentialism is a school of thought based on the assumption that individuals are free and responsible for their own choices and actions, that one should pursue one’s true essence independent from social expectations and stigma while absurdism is an idea that nothing in this world has inherent meaning other than the meaning we apply to it ourselves. Camus presents these two complicated philosophies through Meursault’s first-person narration of the various incidents he encounters upon through the few years of his life that the novel covers including the death of his mother and a death sentence. As the book is written in first person, readers are able to explore the inner workings of an individual who believes in the philosophies of existentialism and absurdism. This way, readers are able to garner a deeper understanding of the philosophies of existentialism and absurdism and how these ideologies serve its purpose as a personal philosophy of providing happiness and peace in one’s life.
Naturally, a major theme of this novel is a major idea common in both existentialism and absurdism: the idea that because all humans will eventually die, all human lives are all equally meaningless. This ideology is very well represented in the following quote in which Meursault angrily explains and justifies the rational of his ideology in response to the chaplain’s rather forceful attempt to convert Meursault to Christianity: “All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end?” (75) It is an idea that the details of life including the level of wealth, social position, and the manner of death are all meaningless when faced with death. Paradoxically, it is this depressing realization that ultimately brings Meursault happiness and peace. As Meursault fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death and the meaningless of the form and manner of death one goes through, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death. This understanding enables Meursault to put aside his fantasies of escaping execution, which previously preoccupied his mind as a burden and helps him make the most of his remaining days.
Another major theme of the novel is once again, a major idea common to both existentialism and absurdism: the belief in the irrationality of the universe. The philosophy of absurdism explains that humanity attempts to find rational order where none exists in vain. The lack of rational order in the universe is exemplified through the lack of rational in both the external world and the internal world of Meursault’s thoughts and personal philosophies. Internally, Meursault has no discernable reason for many of his actions. The most notable example of this lack of rational in Meursault’s inner world is Meursault’s decision to murder the Arab. There is no clear and rational reasoning readers can discern from the novel that Meursault followed to arrive at his decision to murder the Arab in such a brutal and cold-blooded manner. The following quote delineates the thought process that Meursault takes to arrive at his decision to take his first shot at the Arab: “Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm” (39). The depiction of Meursault’s thought process is very much is certainly lacking in rationale and is difficult to understand with logic. There is a similar nature of irrationality in Meursault’s decision to marry Marie as well. Meursault claims that he will marry Marie simply because he doesn’t mind marrying, which is certainly not a rational train of thought. Humankind’s futile attempt to impose rationality on an irrational universe is exemplified by the court convened to judge upon Meursault’s guilt. Both the prosecutor and Meursault’s lawyer refuse to accept that things sometimes happen for no rational reason, and attempt to offer explanations for Meursault’s crime that are based on logic, reason, and the concept of cause and effect. However, these explanations and attempts only serve to be fruitless since many of these explanations have no basis in fact.
Although disturbing at first, why one would choose to take up existentialism and absurdism as one’s personal philosophy is understandable after deep reflections over the ideologies. In a sense, existentialism and absurdism are ultimate forms of defense that allow one to be invincible to the various challenges and struggles one may encounter in life. With a belief that nothing in the world has inherent meaning, one can never get hurt from relationships, deaths of loved ones or failure as the ideology allow one to apply no meaning to relationships, love, or socioeconomic position. They are an appropriate ideology to emerge in the tragic and desperate times of the early 20th century saturated with deaths, pains, and world wars.