Trevor's Reviews > The Stranger

The Stranger by Albert Camus
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really liked it
bookshelves: literature

I don’t know what to do with these stars anymore. I give stars to books and then I think, ‘god, you give five stars to everything, people will think you are terribly undiscriminating’ – so then I give four stars or even three stars to some books. Then I look back and it turns out that that I’ve given four stars to Of Human Bondage and honestly, how could I possibly have thought it was a good idea to give that book less than five stars? It is the absurdity of human conventions that has us doing such things.

Now, that is what is called a segue, from the Italian ‘seguire’ – to follow.

For the last thirty years I have studiously avoided reading this book. I have done that because for the last thirty years I have known exactly what this book is about and there just didn’t seem any point in reading it. In high school friends (one of them even became my ex-wife) told me it was a great book about a man condemned to die because he was an outsider.

Later I was told that this book was a story about something much like the Azaria Chamberlain case. A case where someone does not react in a way that is considered to be ‘socially appropriate’ and is therefore condemned.

But after 30 years of avoiding reading this book I have finally relented and read it. At first I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it. It didn’t really get off to the raciest of starts and the character's voice – it is told in first person – was a bit dull. He is a man who lives entirely in the present, how terribly Buddhist of him – although, really there doesn’t seem to be all that much to him.

My opinion of the book began to change at his mother’s funeral. I particularly liked the man who kept falling behind in the march to the cemetery and would take short cuts. Okay, so it is black humour, but Camus was more or less French – so black humour is more or less obligatory.

I really hadn’t expected this book to be nearly so funny as it turned out. I’d always been told it was a ponderous philosophical text – and so, to be honest, I was expecting to be bored out of my skull. I wasn’t in the least bit bored.

A constant theme in my life at present is that I read ‘classics’ expecting them to be about something and they end up being about something completely different. And given I’ve called this a ‘constant’ theme then you might think I would be less than surprised when a read a new ‘classic’ and it turns out to be completely different to my expectations. I’m a little more upset about this one than some of the others, as I’ve been told about this one before, repeatedly, and by people I’d have taken as ‘reputable sources’ – although, frankly, how well one should trust one’s ex-wife in such matters is moot.

I had gotten the distinct impression from all of my previous discussions about this book that the guy ends up dead. In fact, this is not the case – he ends up at the point in his life where he has no idea if he will be freed or not. The Priest who comes to him at the end is actually quite certain that he will be freed. Let’s face it, he is only guilty of having murdered an Arab, and as we have daily evidence, Westerners can murder Arabs with complete impunity.

The main point of the book to me is when he realises he is no longer ‘free’. He needs this explained to him – because life up until then had been about ‘getting used to things’ and one can 'get used to just about anything'. But the prison guard helpfully informs him that he is being ‘punished’ and the manifestation of that punishment is the removal of his ‘freedom’. Interestingly, he didn’t notice the difference between his past ‘free’ life and his current ‘unfree’ one.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the very end, the conversation with the priest. The religious often make the mistake of thinking that Atheists are one thing – I’ve no idea how they ever came to make this mistake, but make it they do. Given that there are thousands upon thousands of different shades of Christians – from Jesuit Catholics to Anti-Disney Episcopalians – it should be fairly obvious that something like Atheism (without any ‘organised’ church or even system of beliefs) could not be in anyway ‘homogeneous’.

I am definitely not the same kind of Atheist as Camus. To Camus there is no truth, the world is essentially absurd and all that exists is the relative truth an individual places on events and ideas. This makes the conversation with the priest fascinatingly interesting. To the priest the prisoner who is facing death is – by necessity – someone who is interested in God. You can play around with ideas like the non-existence of God when it doesn’t seem to matter (life is long and blasphemy can seem fun) – but surely when confronted with the stark truth of the human condition any man would turn away from their disbelief and see the shining light.

Not this little black duck. Now, if I was in that cell I would have argued with the priest too – but I would not have argued in the same way that Meursault argues. No, I do not believe in God, but I do believe in truth, and so Camus’ arguments are barred to me.

Meursault essentially says, “Look, I’m bored, I’m totally uninterested in the rubbish you are talking – now go away”. Now, this is a reasonable response. What is very interesting is that the priest cannot accept this as an answer. The world is not allowed to have such a person in it – if such a person really did exist then it would be a fundamental challenge to the core beliefs of the priest. So, he has to assume Meursault is either lying to him or is trying to taunt him. But it is much worse – he is absolutely sincere, he is not interested in this ‘truth’.

I don’t know that the world is completely meaningless, it is conventional rather than meaningless. That those conventions are arbitrary (decided by the culture we grew up in) doesn’t make them meaningless, it makes them conventional. I don’t think I would like to live in a world where people go up and kill Arabs pretty much at random and with impunity, but then again, we have already established this is precisely the world I do live in. My point is that it would be better if we did adhere to some sort of moral principles and that these should be better principles than ‘he should be killed because he didn’t cry at his mum’s funeral’.

Camus is seeking to say that all of our ‘moral principles’ in the end come to be as meaningless as that – we judge on the basis of what we see from the framework of our own limited experience. And look, yes, there is much to this – but this ends up being too easy.

The thing I like most about Existentialism, though it isn’t really as evident in this book as it is in the actual philosophy – although this is something that Meursault is supposed to have grown to understand (sorry, just one more sub-clause) even though this wasn’t something I noticed at all while reading the book, was the notion of responsibility. I didn’t think in the end Meursault was all that much more ‘responsible’ for his actions than he had been at the start. But I do think that ‘responsibility’ is a key concept in morality and one that seems increasingly to be ignored.

Better by far that we feel responsible for too much in our lives than too little – better by far that we take responsibility for the actions of our governments (say) than to call these governments ‘them’.

I’m not advocating believing in The Secret - but that if one must err, better to err on the side of believing you have too much responsibility for how your life has turned out, rather than too little.

So, what can I say? I enjoyed this much more than I expected – but I’m still glad I waited before reading it, I really don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much out of it at 15 as I did now.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 28, 2008 – Shelved
June 25, 2010 – Shelved as: literature

Comments Showing 1-50 of 144 (144 new)

message 1: by Tyler (last edited Jun 28, 2008 06:34PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tyler I have the same problem with classics. They never read quite the way I expect them to.

If Mersault has no awareness of his freedom, then he has no awareness of his responsibilty. The wrong here would have to be mauvaise foi if Camus intended a message, because the protagonist is in an implicit state of denial about his freedom.

I was struck by the concept of alienation as the driving theme, more so than the question of right and wrong. I read the final passage as a comment about the priest's own disconnectedness from the human condition; I thought that because Mersault's alienation runs through the book, the meeting with the priest was more about the priest's bad faith than Mersault's.

The scene with the priest surely could have been argued differently. The book has the potential to give a bad impression of atheists and how they reason. But I don't blame Camus, because people will look for anything to reinforce whatever they already think about atheism.

Existentialism is considered passé. Even so, it remains the best, maybe the only, alternative to post-modernism. As long as fans of existentialism advocate that point of view, it will have an inevitable resurgence.

message 2: by Krishan (new)

Krishan I have to recommend The Plague.
Camus' best IMO. A small Algerian town is afflicted with the bubonic plague. This serves as a microcosm in which Camus examines terrible moral and political plagues that swept through Europe and led to WWII.

Trevor Yes, I think I preferred The Plague too. Oh, isn't that an odd sentence.

My problem with existentialism is the obsessive focus on the individual - but notions that freedom is more about responsibility than 'choice' are going to get me in.

message 4: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Trevor, I find helpful your comment about the world's being conventional rather than meaningless. I agree. I don't, however, equate conventional with arbitrary, perhaps because for me the connotations of arbitrary include capriciousness or randomness. By contrast, I think convention can be based on understanding and experience (no doubt often culturally specific), which can be more systematic than arbitrariness implies.

"Conventional" seems sometimes to have been given a bad name, implying "merely conventional." I've always been impressed by Nagarjuna's distinction between conventional reality vs ultimate reality. The former is not somehow suspect, something to be sneered at, but rather is essential to functioning in this world. It is simply not the only way of viewing reality nor necessarily the most valid.

I too find much to value in Existentialism. The indictment I have of Meursault is his apparent passivity (other than when he commits the murder). Passivity is certainly not central to existentialism (any more than it is to Buddhism, as is sometimes falsely claimed). Rather, both Existentialism and Buddhism are perfectly compatible with a passionate engagement with the world. Perhaps that is why I too prefer Camus' The Plague to The Stranger.

But then again, Camus always denied being an existentialist.

message 5: by John (last edited Jul 01, 2008 09:31AM) (new)

John I just finished The Plague and its study guide today. Thanks, Krishan, for your strong recommendation. Hopefully I can remember the lessons that Camus was hoping to impart throughout the rest of my life. I am considering Guns, Germs & Steel next.

message 6: by Bruce (new)

Bruce This is a terrific review, thanks, Trevor! Definitely read Guns, Germs & Steel! It's a fabulous book that's tremendously fulfilling. Weird as it is to recommend, it goes extremely well with Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of the Universe" Parts I-III and "History of the Modern World." Between these 4 books, you really get a sense of the full warp and woof (and probable future trends) of human history. Then all you need do is read the Conclusion chapter of Jared Diamond's overlong and insufficiently edited follow-up "Collapse" and you'll know all there is to know!

But back to Camus. When we purged our library to salvage space (via donation to our local library for shelving/used-book sale), we dumped the existentialist, though thanks to Trevor I'm almost tempted to try him again.

I thought Camus was a master of mood (very claustrophobic and oppressive, especially in "The Plague") and compared well with Philip K. Dick from the vantage point of using a story format as a means of exploring and laying out his philosophic ideas. Unlike Dick, though (and this is why I shallowly disliked Camus), I found his protagonists completely unsympathetic and his narrative, therefore, uncompelling. I either wasn't moved enough by the philosophy to care about the story, or vice-versa. Don't know which. In any case, I agree that "Plague" is better than "Stranger," but frankly couldn't stand either... Doesn't Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" carry a similar theme and greater impact in far fewer words?

Paul Bryant Just stumbled over this review & thought I'd record my thanks. This is what Goodreads is for.

Meen better by far that we take responsibility for the actions of our governments (say) than to call these governments ‘them’

Gah, Trevor, I'm gonna start using pieces of your reviews in my favorite quotes!

The conversation with the priest was my favorite part, too.

Trevor Now, that would be very odd - The Quotable McCandless - I can see it all already in horrible detail. I'll need to start smoking a pipe and wearing Harris Tweed. Resist Mindy, resist. If not for your own sake then for mine. As you can see, I'm far too chuffed already even at the suggestion, but if you persist you'll find all of my reviews will end up a series of not-so-nifty aphorisms written in the vain hope of being favourite quote-ized. You know what we boys are when it comes to praise...

message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant It seems this is false modesty - I see you are already the No 1 reviewer in Australia by a mile. You have officially been outed. Only one thing to do now - bask.

message 11: by Meen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meen Ooh, I better watch out. There'll be tons of other Trevor's Reviews groupies out there now!

Trevor I've always loved the phrase 'I've much to be modest about' which is obscure enough to be either self-deprecating in the extreme or the height of immodesty. Australia is not really the most bookish of nations - so...

And Mindy - I'll always think of you with great affection as my first groupie.

message 13: by Meen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meen Oh, now I've truly so much to be modest about!


Christina I read The Stranger when I was 16 and when I was 20 and I didn't really understand it either time. I am an atheist and half French, I use dark humor and I was taught that The Stranger is not an Existential work, by my lit teacher. I am 25 and since I own the book I am inspired to get back to it. I didn't understand the points the book was trying to make because the narrator is so similar to myself. At the moment I am forgetting why the narrator was put in jail, wasn't it because they thought he stabbed someone and he was in an Arab country that doesn't provide people with the same freedoms/rights?

Trevor HI Christina - he shoots the Arab who is trying to stab him, but really it seems like he shoots the Arab because he is feeling a bit sick from being affected by the heat. Camus makes it almost impossible to see what his motivation is and the killing is almost as meaningful as eating a sandwich. I think it is important that he shoots rather than stabs him - distance is important in this book.

I know Camus probably shouldn't be called an existentialist, but to me existentialism is shorthand for an obsession with the individual and the total absence of any form of non-subjective truth. On that definition I think even Camus would say he was an existentialist.

message 16: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Dancer I tend to like most books I read. Mostly, I give 4-5 stars, otherwise, I would not continue reading the book!!

The book has to peak a particular interest or I can't get past the first chapter.

message 17: by Anil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anil I read the book a few days ago and this review enlightened me about some parts of it. I appreciate for the review.

Toibaobao Terribly undiscriminating or just really good at picking books you know you'll like ;)

Trevor I think Michelle is right - the fifty page rule kicks in for books that might otherwise have gotten one or two stars and I stop reading or caring enough to even rate them here. And a belated thanks Anil and Toibaobao.

message 20: by Danny (last edited May 03, 2012 11:14PM) (new) - added it

Danny McCaffrey No worries. Personally if one reads a lot then one is bound to experience bad books - and those can be fun to pull out the snark and trash. But as I'm a slow reader, I tend to be very careful about the books I choose. Ergo if you like most if not all the books you read maybe you just choose more carefully.

Ellen You said: "I didn’t think in the end Meursault was all that much more ‘responsible’ for his actions than he had been at the start."

Are you saying that Mersault was not guilty and that he was completely right in shooting the Arab? Or are you talking about the fact that he didn't cry at his mom's funeral?

message 22: by Trevor (last edited Mar 05, 2012 07:58PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Trevor Sorry Ellen - a couple of years since I wrote this so had to go back and check I didn't say something completely obscene. The answer to your question is 'neither'. I was really talking about his sense of moral responsibility for his action in killing the Arab - and he had no sense of such responsibilty. To him it was just something that 'happened' - he no more chose to kill than he would choose to go one breathing. Fortunately, we live in a world where such 'non-responsibility' is not accepted as an excuse for murder.

The fact remains - he does not become 'responsible' for his actions, despite the fact society forces him to be responsible for his actions. The greater point I think Camus is making here is that in having no measure of personal responsibility for any of his actions (up to and including murder), Mersault is also incapable of being free - hence his inability to even recognise his freedom was removed from him until it was pointed out to him.

Ellen All right. I understand what you mean now. I was just slightly confused, the way you first said it really didn't make sense in my mind.
Thank you for expanding on your idea.

I'm still trying to form an opinion on the book even though I finished it a while ago, so I was just reading through the different reviews of the book. You really have thought a lot on the book and your review really did open up some new concepts to me that I hadn't even thought on.
I do agree with you about the conversation he has at the end of the book with the Priest. I loved that part. It really explained what he was really all about.
The book was also very humorous, which surprised me, also.

But, thanks :) I understand what you were saying now!
(and I agree with your statement about the stars at the beginning)

Trevor That's ok - I've almost given up on the stars, but still rate books as if the stars meant something. Probably symptomatic of a long slow decline, but I prefer not to think about that.

Ellen That's usually a good thing not to really focus on....

message 26: by David M. (new)

David M. This happens to me, so many times.

Trevor What does Irinir?

message 28: by David M. (new)

David M. your issue with the stars system, I can't really define books I liked by a random number of stars from 1 to 5. I end up giving 5 to almost all books. =|

Trevor Yes, I've more or less given up and do the same thing. I can't remember if I ever went back and changed Of Human Bondage up to five stars or not now - but it is a book I still find myself thinking about. And then some books I really like when I write the review I can hardly remember six months later and other books I give 3 stars to haunt me for years. It is all very strange.

message 30: by David M. (new)

David M. Trevor wrote: "Yes, I've more or less given up and do the same thing. I can't remember if I ever went back and changed Of Human Bondage up to five stars or not now - but it is a book I still find myself thinking..."

Not really, my biggest problem right now is remembering when I read certain books, and in most cases, have I read this book? I keep forgeting books. =|

Trevor You're only 28 - I hate to tell you this, but it just gets worse and worse as you get older. Calvino explains it well at the start of If On A Winter's Night A Traveller where he describes the books you know you ought to have read and the books you say you have read, but haven't really and so on and so on. It is when you get half way through a book and suddenly something sounds terribly familiar and you aren't sure if they have stolen this bit from someone else or if this bit is the only bit of then entire book you remember and you pray they are a plagiarist...

message 32: by David M. (new)

David M. Trevor wrote: "You're only 28 - I hate to tell you this, but it just gets worse and worse as you get older. Calvino explains it well at the start of If On A Winter's Night A Traveller where he describes the book..."

That does not sound like good news at all. =)

message 33: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted Trevor, I really enjoy reading things you write here on Gr. You certainly give the impression of someone who is totally honest, and doesn't care much about impressing people, besides of course being very insightful about things. So refreshing.

Were you in Melbourne when I lived there? (April '72 through early '75)

Trevor Oh no, I'm much like everybody else, pretty keen to be seen as better than I am if at all possible. When I started here on Good Reads there was someone who had been plagiarising book reviews - she was hounded off the site, I was part of the lynch mob, but I've always felt bad about it. All the same - I don't like plagiarism and do what I can to make sure what I write could pretty much only be written by me.

We came out in August '68 to the hostel in Broadmeadows and then slowly made our way down to bounce around the South Eastern suburbs for a while. My father was a painter and decorator and that's where the work was. But I like Melbourne, even if it is getting far too crowded. I went to the Bot Gardens the other week to lie in the sun and read but it was like Bourke Street. I saw a car there with a large sticker that said, "War is NOT the Answer" and I thought, well, he obviously didn't have the same problems I've had in finding a quiet place to sit. Sydney always seems to be up for a war with Melbourne and god knows both cities have far too many people in them. It may not be The answer, but it is certainly An answer.

message 35: by Alyce (new)

Alyce Rocco I am not sure if I read this book; looking for clues among comments. Too bad I did not know this site existed until a few weeks ago. Would have been easier to list books read.

I laughed about what you said about stars. I was marking everything with 5, then read what the stars said and thought "people will think I think every book is amazing" ~ then thought, as if any one is gonna see my stars ~ except maybe the author, oh my.

So, I give my favorite reads 4 stars and unless I know I was not impressed, the rest get three. If I remember a boo I read a zillion years ago, I figure I must have liked it ~ but in the case of a book like The Stranger, I can not say "it was okay" unless, I check it out of the library and find that yes, I read it, or no, I never did. I should be sleeping, not typing. Thanks for listening.

Trevor That's ok Alyce - books tend to all fade into one.

Charles I think that people tend to give stars to the books they liked, but don't always rate the books they didn't. Or perhaps you just have a good method of finding and then reading books you'll like...

message 38: by [deleted user] (new)

i have to agree it's a def for out of college readers

Trevor Thanks Ashutosh - it is actually absurd when you think about putting a number between one and five for a book like this - but then, he was an existentialist (of sorts) and so absurd was pretty much his bread and butter.

message 40: by Aley (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aley Martin Bondage was one of my favorite books of all time!

Trevor It is a while since I wrote this review, Aley - so you sent me on a bit of a journey there. Yes, mine too.

message 42: by Aley (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aley Martin lol...been over 5 years since I read Bondage, am ready to read it again! Stranger is done each semester in my World Lit it as well.

Trevor Have you ever read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - a devastatingly good book. Can't recommend it too highly.

message 44: by Aley (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aley Martin Not yet, thanks! Will check it out!

Trevor It is surprisingly unlike anything you might expect it to be from its title. I think it is possibly my favourite book by an American author. Hard to say.

message 46: by Aley (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aley Martin I am not a huge fan of American authors....but do like Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and "Sister Carrie". Will let you know what I think, it looks like it would be most intriguing. Again, thanks for your recommendation!

Trevor I'm hopeless - you will literally need to let me know - subtlety is wasted on me.

message 48: by Aley (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aley Martin haha! Will do, give me some time, there are about 60 books waiting and school break is nearly over..! Happy to be a new friend!

message 49: by Ulrich (new)

Ulrich Krieghund Trevor, four stars is perfectly acceptable for Of Human Bondage. It's a long, beautiful story that makes you cringe and some of Philip's choices. But Maugham does meander too much. The Great Gatsby says so much more about the human condition in far less pages. I haven't read The Stranger yet, but your four stars and the strange cover of these four men looking like members of the band DEVO beckons me.

message 50: by Ien (last edited Dec 28, 2012 10:26AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ien van Houten Interesting reaction to the rating system. I just started playing with Good Reads. With more than six decades of reading backed up I started handing out 5 stars for every book I came across that I remembered with pleasure. Then I did exactly what you did. Your remark about reading classics firsthand goes double for anything with an element of philosophy. The original is always more nuanced and has more dimensions than the second hand version. As for Camus, I read it as a student in my twenties and it did not appeal to me much. What I do remember was Sisyphus, especially the ending. Il faut s'imaginer Sisyphe heureux. We have to imagine him happy. Your review makes me want to re-read Camus, but on the other hand, there is so much I have not read yet, including Of human bondage, available for free on the blessed Kobo.

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