The Outsider

is the story of a French Algerian clerk called Meursault whokills an Arab and is tried and condemned to death. Meursault is somewhat passive: never passing judgment on the quality of actions. Instead he wishes to die for the truth as he sees it. As a character he is both fascinating and disturbing, he only seems to care for the most fleeting of sensations and gives no thought to future consequences. The novel is also a scathing attack on capital punishment and the legal system and of men who believe they have the right to judge others.

The novel is divided into two parts. In Part 1, Meursault hears his mother has died so he goes to her nursing home for her funeral. The very next day he goes to the beach, meets Marie Cardona (who works in his office) takes her to the movies and sleeps with her. The following week is routine and uneventful. He helps a neighbour Raymond Sintes in an unpleasant affair with a Moorish woman and offers to compose a letter to her; over this the two men become friends. Meursault defends him against the police when he beats her a few days later. Marie and Meursault are now engaged and go to a party of one of Raymond’s friends by the beach. The Moorish woman’s brother and an Arab friend are on the same beach. A fight breaks out and the brother slashes Raymond’s face with a knife. Meursault returns to the beach alone with Raymond’s gun, finds the Arab by chance fires once and then again four times.

Part 2 concerns the trial for the murder. He talks to his lawyer and an examining magistrate whilst Marie visits him in prison and writes to him. He gradually becomes accustomed to life as a prisoner. His friends try to defend him in the trial but prove inarticulate and inadequate. Meursault loses interest and appears detached from the hearings. The prosecutor portrays him as callous and cruel, attaching great importance to his behaviour at his mother’s funeral. Meursault is condemned to be guillotined. At the end he explodes in rage against the prison chaplain, scorns religion and finds some kind of inner peace in the thought of a large crowd at his death.

Socio-political and historical framework

The bleak years of the 1940s had most certainly produced a readership ready for The Outsider. Conflicting political ideologies had led to war whilst neither art nor religion nor philosophy had deterred violence and barbarism. Worse, in the case of Wagner and others it became an integral part of the violence itself. Indeed certain ‘degenerate’ art was banned in Germany. Art and literature, like philosophy or religion, could now hold a political stance and be drawn into the bloodied waters of World War II and its aftermath. The philosophical absurd was to be a familiar reality to so many individuals who could find no comfort outside of themselves. Confronted by death, survival was to mean the sacrifice of all they had lived for.

Camus is commonly associated with the philosophy of the "absurd": within which we see the true meaningless of existence. His view was not unlike that of the existentialists except he wished to remain true to his vision of the absurd to the very end, and not to use it as a pretext for a leap of faith. He wished to create a way of living within the absurd, to imagine life within the absurd, indeed his very success lies in creating this fictional image of it.

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