Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on September 27, 2009

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know”, starts Albert Camus’s The Outsider, as translated by Joseph Laredo. You know that. It’s one of the most famous first lines in books. When I first read it, I thought it was supposed to show the apathy of the narrator, Meursault. However, the next few lines make it clear that it is merely a lack of information; he has got a telegram telling him only that his mother’s funeral is the next day. The next hundred or so pages make it clear that Camus put that line in to show that Meursault does not bother himself with such trifling details and probably didn’t realize that it could be explained in as simple a way as lack of information. Or, maybe he did, and didn’t care. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what’s wrong with this novel.

Meursault has no idea of his mother’s age, but he can tell you most of the advice his mother gave him as a child. This is what makes him an outsider. He has ‘nothing more to say to mother’- presumably having learnt everything she has to teach him -, so he sends her to an old age home; an act frowned upon by his neighbours. At the old age home she spends a presumably happy three years, having struck up a relationship with a man the inmates – that is how they are referred to in the book – call her fiancé. He goes to her funeral, and isn’t particularly sad. He comes back home and realises that “after all, nothing had changed.”

The next day, he strikes up a relationship of his own with a woman whom he knows from long before. We also meet two of his next-door neighbours – these aren’t the ones who frowned upon his sending his mother away – the shady Raymond and the old Salamano with his dog. Salamano loses his dog, Raymond has all sorts of trouble. . . Meursault just keeps on helping simply because he is a genial chap and sees no reason not to. He goes with Raymond to a beach where there’s a face-off at a spring between a pair of Arabs and Meursault, Raymond and their host. Meursault and Raymond go back and there’s the palpable lack of a (physical) face-off in which Meursault ends up with a gun. When they are about to go back to the host’s chateau, Meursault figures that the effort it’s going to take to climb up the stairs in the glaring sun is not any more than going back to the spring, or something like that. In other words, he’s probably got a minor stroke.

So, Part I of the book ends with him killing one of the Arabs, after he, pretty clearly, sees the other draw his knife, firing one shot and then four more, “like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.” This whole part, he seems to have written each chapter just before going to bed that day (in the case of the first chapter, the next day, because he doesn’t actually go to bed the first day of the narrative), which gives us an idea of his state of mind after having done it.

The second part is his life in prison and his trial. As far as I can tell, this part is narrated from after the trial, just before the execution (spoiler alert?).

He starts off saying that he used to not like to talk about it, but he doesn’t see the point anymore. First, he finds it hard because he keeps on thinking like a free man. Soon, however, he comes to the conclusion that

even if I’d been made to live in a hollow tree trunk, with nothing to do but look at the sky overhead, I’d gradually have got used to it. I’d have looked forward to seeing birds fly past or clouds run together just as here I looked forward to my lawyer’s curious ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait for Sundays to embrace Marie’s body.

The Dalai Lama has said, years after this was written, that no matter what happens to you, in the end you return to an average level of happiness. Meursault is someone he might refer to as the truly happy man.

Then, there’s an extended courtroom set of scenes, which is the whole problem with the novel. He’s being persecuted for not crying at his mother’s funeral as much as for the murder: he is a criminal who felt no sadness at his mother’s death and no regret for his crime. Around thirty years before this novel is set, Freud’s ideas had come into acceptance; bottled-up emotion, among many others. For the whole part, I was wondering how out of league with the times Camus was, or whether he didn’t care enough to make a better, more plausible, case – in a set of scenes which take up nearly a fifth of the book. The second problem is that of the Arab’s knife; in the killing scene Meursault clearly recorded ‘the knife in front of me’, but it never appears again in the book. If he had just told them about the knife, it would have been a case of self-defence, but Camus obviously doesn’t want that. So why was the knife there in the first place? To justify, in the moment, the killing to the reader.

After this seriously idiotic bit comes the good chapter, where we get under the skin of Meursault. I refuse to spoil this part, except to say that Meursault is shown to be good in every way Ayn Rand’s characters are, but without any of the irritatingly extreme hate for the rest of the human race. Just this chapter would make a great short story, and without all the ‘philosophy’ which is supposed to be there in the book.

Camus’s reputation is the thing that baffled me most about the book. The Outsider was nothing like Nausea – the other ‘existentialist’ book that I’ve read -, except that in the courtroom scene, Meursault imagines the room to be a train and Nausea’s hero has his seminal ‘realisation’ in a train. It compares more closely to Ayn Rand, and only in terms of characters. Point 2: this didn’t seem a statement of philosophy like Ayn Rand’s books or Nausea are. It seems to be mainly a critique of society.

A critique of a society that persecutes, for having come to terms with the ideas of life and mortality, one of the best of men. A man who understands that it is okay to die if you die at the right time, a man who understands that it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as you like her enough, a man who is virtually guaranteed to never divorce after marrying on that principle because he’s so amiable in the face of trouble, a man who is so at peace with his own death, and lust for life, that he doesn’t need religion to provide him with it, a man who – for both himself and his voice – is the only reason I like this book.

14 Responses to “The Outsider by Albert Camus”

  1. Vivek said

    Thanks for dropping by my blog, Ronak.
    Nice post this, though haven’t read Camus. The one reference I can remember for the Outsider was in a newspaper article about Zinedine Zidane. Don’t remember the details, but.

  2. I think there is philosophy here, existentialist philosophy at that, but it all revolves around why Meursault acts as he does and why it doesn’t matter what he does or what happens to him.

    As you note, he’s really on trial for not crying over his mother, the murder is really more an excuse for punishing his lack of appropriate conduct – his failure to act as expected. I suspect that’s why the knife doesn’t matter, self-defence is no defence to not crying over your mother (good spot though).

    The thing is, Meursault decides to live without hypocricy, to live as he feels and not as he should feel. That’s unforgiveable to those around him (well, that’s the novel’s conceit anyway, it doesn’t work as a wholly naturalistic piece for the reasons you bring out).

    The other element though is that in the face of mortality, of the inevitability of death, nothing he does really matters. At the end of the day, it’s all lost anyway. Killing the arab, not killing him, crying or not, none of it makes any difference, whether he lives or dies makes no difference. I may misremember, but I don’t think it ends with his execution, I thought it ended before his sentence was declared – so we don’t know if he’s to be executed or set free. It doesn’t matter, everything is equally meaningless and in the face of that meaninglessness all that matters is to live with honesty, which is the one thing society cannot abide (as to do so is to face the meaninglessness of existence).

    Does that make sense? I think that’s where the philosophy lies, in the problem of meaninglessness.

    • First: actually, it does end after his sentence is declared but not quite just before his execution; he’s just waiting for it at the time.

      So, here’s the thing: what you say makes sense, but not as much sense, to me at least, as ‘critique of society’. I first thought of something similar to what you are saying, but it didn’t seem to ring true to my experience of the book. I liked Meursault, but preferred the reasons behind his actions to be simple, human ‘having come to terms with’. Then, I thought ‘character study’? Didn’t feel like he was delved into deep enough (notice the fact that both our explanations for his actions seem to make quite a bit of sense). That’s why I figured ‘critique of society’ made the most sense(I now realise that I should have explained this in the essay itself; anyway, now I know).

      Also, thanks for the exhaustive reply. Nice to see this stuff.

  3. Interesting that I misremember the ending, I wonder how much my interpretation shapes my memory?

    Critique of society is definitely part of it, I agree. I think he’s contrasted with his society, he is an honest man, one who chooses not to pretend. Society cannot abide that, and so wishes to destroy him, the arab being merely an excuse.

    But I think it’s also about meaning, about the consequences of living in a godless universe. As you say, he’s come to terms with life and mortality, and for that he’s persecuted.

    But then, I think it’s about many things, that’s part of why it’s lasted so long. I’ve seen it, interestingly enough, called the first noir novel. That has some truth too I think, noir fiction is typically fiction that holds an unflattering mirror up to society, it wasn’t written in that tradition (it predates it) but it may have helped start it.

    Blast, I’ll have to reread it clearly. Ah well.

    • Don’t worry, it’s a short enough book. 🙂
      Seriously, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference, except in that it makes the existentialism more prominent, and that one mistake, I think is more or less settled.

      I think it’s about many things
      True, but I find that on first reading one of these things generally seems to be the central subject, and everything else seems somewhat subsidiary. (Or maybe that’s just the western tradition of reductionism speaking through me.) Obviously this is differs from reader to reader.

      But I think it’s also about meaning, about the consequences of living in a godless universe.
      Interesting you should say this, because existentialism itself is often viewed as a reaction to the then-newfound doubt in God, though a rather unsophisticated one.

      Interesting thing about noir, that, and I guess you can’t actually call it that because noir, in general, is expected to have certain stylistic elements. It would be interesting to know how many of the early noir writers were influenced by this book.(Pity I can’t guess by experience; my experience with noir is limited to movies.)

  4. S M Rana said

    Remarkable. Just 18.
    I’ve read Outsider but most lately it was his essays which have remained at the surface of the mind. They are unique in terms of math like clarity and philosophical depth.

    • Thanks for the compliment.(Think of guy jumping around the room)

      They are unique in terms of math like clarity and philosophical depth
      I haven’t read Camus’s essays, but for the qualities you mention, I heavily recommend Karl Popper. This guy also did things like create his own models of probability to make himself clear. He has the additional advantage of having disdained every traditional school of philosophy.

  5. […] you would think, isn’t very hard to do. Take, for counter-example, Albert Camus’s The Outsider, a review of which was my first post on this blog. My primary complaint with it was that it felt as if Camus wasn’t […]

  6. Wendy Brinson said

    I enjoyed this book a great deal and my thought at the time was because I lived with a man for seven years who was so like the fictional Mersault. He was most concerned with his physical comfort that it was the most important thing over all others. This man, and Mersault too I believe, is so wrapped up in satisfying the immediate issue (being to hot for example)that anything that may get in the way of that goal (cooling off in a spring) is meaningless, irrelevant and frankly, at risk (Arab). The man I lived with was criminally minded and getting what he needed to satisfy himself was put over and above following the rules of society. Mersault may have been lucky not to have crossed serious moral and legal lines earlier in life. My point really is simply that I’ve known this character and so understand him and therefore, sympathize with him as I did with the man I knew personally.
    One major thing I think you missed in your analysis of the book, and the reason for the knife being pointed out and then ignored, is the absurdity. The entire scenario is meant to be ridiculous. The human race and it’s beliefs and behaviors often are. The knife not being mentioned shows how easily we lose sight of the facts. Its true that in a trial today, how a man behaves at his mother’s funeral would be irrelevant. No lawyer would allow other people to determine how that man may be feeling. But in a novel meant to show how absurd we can be, these things are vital.
    I hope you take a moment to reconsider this novel on that basis. As I said, I really enjoyed it. My daughter was asked to choose a topic of discussion. I was nearly disappointed that she had chosen religion as the topic because its existentialism and absurdity were so very obvious and rather enjoyable in this novel. However, since I have spent a bit of time considering the novel from that angle, I have found a whole new reason to enjoy it. I hope you take the opportunity to do the same.

    • Thanks, Wendy, for visiting and commenting. And it was an enjoyable comment too.

      I have a question: if you knew such a man, and he was according to your own description ‘criminally-minded’, shouoldn’t you have hated a book that so blatantly glorified him?

      About the absurdity, I just felt there are better ways to show absurdity than come this close to naturalism and stopping there. Take the movie Un Chien Andalou, for example, which shows the utter absurdity of life (too) without making any half-hearted pretensions to naturalism, or another movie Love and Death which is utterly absurd but never offends my sense of naturalism. Finally, I’m reading J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is utterly naturalistic but shows absurdity anyway, and more effectively than any full-time existentialist I’ve read (Sartre and Camus).

      Hope you continue the discussion. They’re always enjoyable.

  7. Vivek said

    I finally read Outsider. And I can in some way understand the Zidane connection. It would have been more affecting had I read a lot earlier maybe.
    About the idiocy of some parts, because it was more a philosophy than story Camus was writing, the pieces don’t seem to fit in. I didn’t quite bother with the details though.
    It was the heat of the moment, but just literally.

    • Nice that you read the book.

      I remember your comment here was the first I ever got.

      I’m starting to feel like I’m sounding defensive now, but I do feel that a writer of fiction has a duty first and foremost to tell his story.

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