For those of you uninitiated with Camus and his works, reading the novel for the first time may leave you completely baffled about the author’s intentions. The Outsider, a Nobel Prize Literature text, is about a guy called Meursault who kills a man for no apparent reason. But hang on, this book isn’t just about any cold-blooded murder. This book will either prod or confuse you on issues pertaining to the meaning or rather, the meaningless of life. Yup, you’ve got it – a fictional story with a philosophical twist behind it.
Camus, a French thinker and like many other thinkers, was preoccupied with the immediate and personal experience and brooded over questions concerning the meaning of life. He had little faith in rationalism and was known for his philosophy of the absurd which is based on “…the belief that the universe is irrational and meaningless and that the search for order brings the individual into conflict with the universe.” Although some philosophers have regarded this philosophy as part of existentialism, Camus himself had made it quite clear that he disliked it when his musings were pegged as existentialism.
In my opinion, Meursault is an emotionally detached and a socially stunted person who appears to understand relationships only in the physical context. The story opens with the character experiencing annoyance on receiving the news of his mother’s death. This annoyance arises because he has to apply for leave from work to attend the funeral plus the need to travel several hours by bus to the village. At the funeral, he shows no remorse or even sadness but frets over his physical discomfort due to a lack of sleep and the unbearable heat.
When the funeral was over, Meursault goes on as if nothing tragic has happened. Pretty soon, he finds a girlfriend, hooks up with her and agrees to marry her after a few love-making sessions. He tells her that he doesn’t know what love is but will marry her if she likes the idea of getting married. Following this, they went on a beach vacation together with another friend. While they were there, a petty fight with two Arabs takes place that later turns into a senseless murder.
In the end, the court finds Meursault’s lack of grief over his mother’s death more interesting than his criminal act. Soon, Meursault discovers he is being tried not for his crime but for his lack of emotion. He was condemned as heartless and nonconforming and his crime punishable by death. While waiting for his execution in prison, Meursault struggles to come to terms with his impending death. He refuses to seek solace in religion, denounces Christianity and declares that the world is meaningless, and looks forward to his execution.
What made me find Meursault really peculiar is his detachedness towards everything in life. He kills the man for no good reason except that it was a hot day and he was distracted by the heat. He was so focused on his physical state that he couldn’t think clearly:
“At the same time all the sweat that had gathered in my eyebrows suddenly ran down over my eyelids, covering them with a dense layer of warm moisture. My eyes were blinded by this veil of salty tears. All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead and indistinctly, the dazzling spear still leaping up off the knife in front of me. It was like a red-hot blade gnawing at my eyelashes and gouging out my stinging eyes. That was when everything shook. The sea swept ashore a great breath of fire. The sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame. My whole being went tense and I tightened my grip on the gun.”
The character also shows no regret for his actions:
“…I’d never really been able to regret anything. I was always preoccupied by what was about to happen, today or tomorrow.”
What a strange story and yet, an interesting one. Initially, I had difficulty ploughing through the pages as most of the events have been written in indirect speech and this slows down the pace of the story. But I persisted because I find the character an oddball, a misfit in the society his creator (Camus) had made for him.
Although this book has been used as a high school literature text, I don’t think teenagers are actually ready for such deep, philosophical views. I can’t imagine what would happen to the universe if youngsters adopt Meursault’s attitude towards life and grow up to be cold and detached adults. The universe would, then, be truly an absurd place to live in. Having said that, The Outsider is still worth a read for the discerning readers.