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Thoughts on The Outsider by Albert Camus

the outsider camus Thoughts on The Outsider by Albert Camus

I always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fascinating. All art and literature is informed by that which comes before it and, likewise, my own reading is informed in the same way. Its curious, because at some subconscious level I seem to select my reading in waves, and Ill find that when writing my reviews the previous few books that Ive read vie for a place within my latest review (or perhaps I simply notice in those instances when this happens, and otherwise not so much!).

Reading Albert Camuss classic existentialist work The Stranger (alternatively rendered as The Outsider) was one of these experiences. Having studied The Plague extensively a few years ago, Im not entirely unfamiliar with the authors work, but this was my first encounter with this particular novel. As I read it, however, I couldnt help but find myself slotting it in amongst recently read novels such as The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee, and Philip K Dicks The Man in the High Castle. All feature those who are in some way lost or deficient; all are about the role of the individual within society, and how that role is simultaneously (and conflictingly) created by and created for that individual; all feature condemnation of this individual; and all a sort of phoenix-like redemption or self-renaissance through the arts or through introspection. Fascinatingly, though, while similar themes are touched upon in each of these books in each case the take and perspective of the author is different. As such, we get a series of books that intersect but that dont necessarily overlap, and which inform each other without deriving from each other.

The protagonist of The Outsider is Mersault, an ambiguous character who, like Coetzees K, is rarely named and who as a result (as Foucault, who emphasises the importance of names in modern society, might argue) seems to float, inchoate, at the periphery of the readers awareness despite being forefronted by the author. Unlike K, however, whose laconic, socially distant ways stem from his imbecilic innocence, Mersaults antisocial ways are painted in more of a nihilistic light. Where K functions adequately and largely unquestioningly within the bounds of society until the exigencies of civil war, Mersault has spent his life struggling with societal norms, seeing himself as beyond their artificially negotiated bounds. There is a sense of acceptance (or perhaps resignation) within K that is not evident within Mersault, whose self-imposed sense of alienation has an air of the cynical and hostile to it. Moreover, throughout Coetzees novel, Ks deficiencies are accepted by others as being due to his slow-wittedness and his physical weakness, while Mersault, who is physically and intellectually normal, is seen as deliberately transgressing. There are differences, too, in the degree to which they function as part of a wider social circle. K, for example, despite being penniless and without means of transportation, seeks to return his ailing mother to her rural home-placedoing so during shocking conditions and circumstanceswhile Mersaults treatment of his own mother is used to position him as amoral and heartless, and is eventually the cause of his downfall. In contrast, K is always depicted as benign and to a degree beatific, although one could argue that the torment his mother suffered during the trek was far more cruel than Mersaults actions, which involved placing his own ailing mother in a nursing home when he is unable to accommodate her in his own residence. Both believes he is doing the right thing, and while both are punished eventually, it is for very different reasons and very different ways.

Where The Outsider linked in to The Man in the High Castle for me was largely to do with lived realities and the seeming powerlessness one has over fate. Dick in his classic dystopian novel has his characters realise that they are living in one of many possible realities, and that there are indeed worlds where the United States has not come under combined German and Japanese rule. However, Dicks point is that despite this realisation that what seems real is not what is necessarily real, it is still real to those living within those circumstances. That is, while there are indeed realities in which the Allies won World War II, this is practically little more than a hypothesis, as Dicks characters have no choice but to continue living the narrative that has been ascribed to them. Similarly, Mersault, eventually condemned for murder less on the actual facts of the crime and more on his murky character, reflects on both his current reality as well as other possible outcomes and the points from which they have sprung. Like Dicks characters, however, after reflecting on these possibilities and seeking solace within, he eventually grimly yields to his one and only lived reality, which in his case ends a long, painful march to the scaffold. Curiously, however, where Dicks characters arguably always act in moral ways regardless of the extenuating circumstances in which they find themselves, Mersault seeks to absolve himself by arguing that he has done no wrong. He has, of course, wronged, but like the jury who tries him, fixates on the wrong circumstances and acts when trying to assert his innocence.

The notion of absolution through art is a strong theme of The Man in the High Castle, The Other Side of You, and The Outsider. In Dicks novel, art is used as a way of finding the chung fu, the inner truth, of the world, and the book within the book that is so central to its final outcome is also a means to existential enlightenment. In The Other Side of You art, in the form of Renaissance painter Caravaggios famous Supper at Emmaus and through more traditional spoken-word narratives, is used to allow Vickerss two main characters to embark upon a journey of self-discovery and to finally assuage their guilt and ambivalence over past wrongs. Similarly, in The Outsider Mersault pointedly assesses a women whose only interaction with culture is in circling indiscriminately the radio programmes on offer that week; and indeed, later, he seeks to find himself not through the spiritual absolution offered by the prison chaplain, but through throwing himself into his memory and seeking self-realisation through this means.

Curiously, the absurdity of life and the arbitrariness of societal rules is touched upon in all four novels, despite their largely stoic approaches. In each, the novels characters manage to transcend themselves by a self-realisation that largely stems from rationalising society as absurd.

Purchase The Outsider.

Other books by Camus you might like:

the plage camus Thoughts on The Outsider by Albert Camusmyth of sisyphus camus Thoughts on The Outsider by Albert Camusfall camus Thoughts on The Outsider by Albert Camus


  1. I cant help comparing books Ive read recently to each other as well, even though they might be wildly different

    I think The Man in the High Castle must be the only dystopian book I didnt read in my uber-emo late teens/early twenties. I should give it a read from what youve said here, it sounds great.

    • Stephanie /

      I think youd love itits a great read. The ending seems to come out of nowhere, but works well in the context of the rest of Dicks work and also the way the work was written. Its an ending that works more thematically than narratively, though, so depending on what youre like as a reader, you might throw the book across the room!

  2. I dont mind weird endings, as long as they suit the rest of the book. Ill have to give it a read it wouldnt be the first book Ive thrown across a room, and it most certainly wouldnt be the last (not that I condone cruelty to books, of course. Just the ones that deserve it!)

    Eep. Your blog is expanding my reading list beyond belief. Were already well and truly out of shelf space! (c:

  3. Stephanie /

    I know what you meanmy shelves are stacked so high that books keep tumbling down at night. Either we have too many books, or we have a poltergeist!