Some Critical Approaches

The Outsider

was a landmark novel in the exposition of 1940s’ French thought: Sartre describes Meursault as "one of those terrible innocents who shock society by not accepting the rules of its game". He maintains that Camus did not wish to prove anything but instead for us to realize that there was no necessity for the ‘Outsider’ to exist at all. Our understanding of it depends on our accepting that it makes no effort to be understandable.

Cyril Connolly called Meursault a "negative, destructive force" even though he did stress that Meursault was "profoundly in love with life". Notions of the absurd swept across Europe throughout the 1940s. In 1946 the novel was translated into English and important new analyses came from abroad. Germaine Bree and Carlos Lynes share Sartre’s view of the novel but they focus fresh attention on the ending and blame society for much of Meursault’s plight. Whilst he is naturally responsible for his crime, he is also a victim of a valueless society.

Recent criticism deals with its language, structure and narrative technique. Nathalie Sarraute’s thesis is that Camus innovates while reassuring the reader. She stresses the literary qualities of Meursault’s discourse and notes that Camus does not imitate the American novelists in depicting his characters from the outside. For Sarraute then, the novel strikes a balance between traditional fiction and the bolder experiments he is undertaking.

Post-structuralist analyses have focused on the ways in which the text is about itself. The novel dramatizes the problems of representation, communication and interpretation. Meursault’s failure to explain his actions is seen as a failure of language, not of the judicial system or the moral code of society. Besides, language must fail; it can never capture a reality that is radically outside it, but can only refer constantly to other linguistic structures. Meursault is a sensual man who is ensnared in the realm of language by his murder; eventually he is compelled to verbalize his pure subjectivity.

Other recent critics argue that whatever sense the story has is generated by the reading process as much as by the text. The Outsider both depicts the act of reading, as when Meursault receives the telegram and thematizes reading – when the judges compare Meursault to a book they can then read and interpret for the jury. Also, much depends on the reader’s identity; depending on whether one is female or Arabian one will most certainly react to Raymond and Marie differently from Meursault. In this way The Outsider is a brilliant portrayal of the inherent problems of colonialism and masculine pride.

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