The Outsider

Written in the first person Monsieur Meursault a Parisian living in Algiers lets us into his very ordinary life. He lives in an apartment where his neighbours include Raymond who brutally assaults his mistress and Salamano a widower who lives with his dog. His girlfriend Marie stays over sometimes. He goes to work, drinks wine, smokes a lot, swims and endures the heat.

‘My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.’ This first line captures Meursault’s state of anomie brilliantly, however ordinary his life this is no ordinary character and I was hooked immediately by his simple straightforward prose.

Split into two parts, part one is the crime which starts with his mothers funeral and moves on to his relationship with Marie, his work in an office and his neighbours. As we move through the days with him it’s Meursault’s inability to conform to conventional behaviour or to show emotions just to satisfy expectations that I found so refreshingly honest. His mother has died but it’s a certainty of life and he can accept it. Or when Marie suggests they get married:

‘That evening Marie came to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said that it was all the same to me and that we could get married if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. . . ‘

I don’t think its indifference, I think he just sees situations for what they are and mostly they seem to be empty conventions that he doesn’t find necessary to get involved in. It’s not always so easy to understand though, when the police arrest Raymond for beating his mistress he asks Meursault to vouch for his character:

‘He told me that I had to be a witness for him. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter in the least but I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. According to Raymond,all I had to do was say that the girl had cheated on him. So I agreed to be a witness for him.”

that makes it a much more complicated – surely we need to take some responsibility for each other?

But Raymond’s behaviour leads to the brother of the assaulted women seeking revenge, and ends with Meursault firing the gun that kills the Arab on a scorching hot beach.

Part two is the punishment. There’s his lawyer, the prosecutor, the judge and a priest. And they all become increasingly irate as they interrogate him, largely over his lack of emotion at his mothers’ death and funeral. They ask him if he could say he ‘kept his emotions under control that day’, ‘No’ he says ‘because it isn’t true’. The resentment they build up towards him is almost comical, the judge is furious that he will not agree to believe in God ‘do you want my life to have no meaning? he shouted!

As the days go on more is said about his character than the crime he is on trial for and Meursault begins to feel that his actually being there is superfluous. He cannot bring himself to go along with their expectations, they are uninterested in his own moral truth, preferring the conventional values of society and so is ultimately condemned for being honest, for not fitting in or playing the game.

‘Punishment is taking away your freedom’ Meursault is told but over the long (and yet strangely short) days in prison he finds an acceptance for his life that gives him freedom and he rejoices in what he has

‘I think I fell asleep because when I woke up, the stars were shining on my face. The sounds of the countryside drifted towards me. The scent of the night, the earth and the salt air cooled my temples. The wonderful peacefulness of this sleepy summer flowed through me in great waves,’

Although I didn’t always agree with his actions I found Meursault charming and likeable. I loved his consciousness of the world around him, he is always able to describe the minutiae of a particular light or colour of dress that makes this an oddly uplifting book. The Outsider is only 110 pages but there is room for endless discussion that I think would take you in endless directions.

‘I was overwhelmed by memories of a life that I could no longer claim as mine, a life which had offered me the most subtle but most persistent of joys: the scent of summer, the neighbourhood that I loved, a certain type of sky at night, Marie’s laughter and her dresses.’

16 thoughts on “The Outsider

  1. Thank you for the review! I read this ages ago as an undergraduate and it’s high time I revisit it. I love the opening sentences. I was wondering if you thought this book was overhyped or whether it is a genuinely brilliant piece of literature.

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    1. I think it’s a genuinely brilliant piece of literature – I was amazed at the level of emotions in 110 pages! This was a translation by Sandra Smith, it would be interesting to read a comparison of translations (over to you!)

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  2. Taking ‘responsibility for each other’ is, I suppose, what Meursault objects to: it’s hard enough to take responsibility for oneself. Translation is a famous problem with this novel – even the title: Outsider, Stranger? And that opening: ‘maman’ in French is more intimate than ‘mother’, which is how some translations have it; your version’s ‘my mother’ is closer – but it’s more or less impossible to render exactly in English without resorting to something like ‘mummy’, which sounds absurd. Which, come to think of it, Camus might have liked. I’m another who read this as an undergraduate many years ago: must revisit it.

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    1. That’s why I found him such an interesting character, every time I found myself in a new situation with him it’s time to reassess my opinion! In her introduction Sandra Smith talks about the difficulty of translation and makes a point of using ‘my mother’ in the opening line to convey the shock at receiving the telegram in such a terse, formal manner. After this ‘maman’ is translated as ‘Mama’ to indicate a closer more affectionate relationship. She agrees with you that ‘mummy’ would sound too ‘juvenile’!

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    1. I wonder what you did make of him?, he’s outside of society but not in the disdainful way of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, which I thought had a very ‘teenage’ ring to it. Interesting thought, you’ll have to re read!

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  3. I agree, there’s a lot to discuss here, particularly from a psychological perspective. Have you read Georges Simenon’s The Widow? if not, you might find it an interesting comparison. It was published at around the same time as the Camus, and I believe some writers/critics (e.g. Andre Gide) considered it to be the better book…

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      1. References to ‘isms’ leave me feeling as if I don’t know anything… However, I’ve just looked up the definitions of both and can see how they relate to the character and his behaviour/lack of emotion. I wonder what the author had to say about the meaning of his book?

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  4. he says Meursault is the only christ we need and I think that’s an interesting point with all the focus on truth, and there’s a lot of religious imagery which the translation I had was keen to follow; for example she translates a final line as ‘So that it might be finished’ following the formality of the King James Bible where Jesus says ‘ It is finished’. 110 pages that gives so much to discuss – I had to do some reading around ‘isms’ as well!

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  5. I didn’t realize until reading your review that it’s the same book as The Stranger, which I read a few years ago. I found it odd – I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to make of it – definitely a good one for discussion!

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