Have you ever felt like you go through the motions of life without intention, focusing on the future, but not the things happening in the present? Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, tells the story of the life of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria in the early 1940s. Scholars say Meursault “sleepwalks” through his life, living without much meaning or emotion. One blistering hot day at the beach, he shoots and kills an Arab for no apparent reason. Throughout the second part of the book, Meursault goes through his trial and after eleven months he receives a sentence of death by guillotine. While awaiting his execution, Meursault awakens and finds meaning in what he once viewed as meaningless. Even though Meursault lives an unintentional life, he learns to find value and hope in the absurdities of the world that he did not previously have feelings about.
Through Meursault’s haphazard lifestyle, Camus reveals his philosophy of existentialism: a way of life in which one lives in a meaningless universe and focuses solely on oneself. In the novel, Camus begins the story with an absolute lack of emotion: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything” (3). Beginning the novel with such a horrible experience such as death and approaching it with such dispassionate feeling surprises the reader and establishes Camus’s existential views in a thought-provoking way. In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, a work written by Camus shortly after The Stranger, Camus himself illustrates the basis of his existential philosophy: “There is thus a lower key of feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume. It is clear that in this way I am defining a method. But it is also evident that that method is one of analysis and not of knowledge” (11). This explanation of existentialism from Camus provides evidence of Meursault’s character living out Camus’s philosophy as Meursault’s meaningless actions carry much meaning in society and its moral values. Camus’s portrayal of Meursault as an existentialist provides the reader with a sense of what it means to live without purpose except for living in the present time.
As an existentialist, Meursault experiences the absurd quite often as he begins to find meaning within the things that he still views as meaningless. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, relates both Sisyphus and Meursault in their seemingly irrational ways of finding happiness: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days” (123). Camus describes the odd way of the existential world that because of death, life must contain some happiness and meaning, even in a meaningless world. Similarly, Camus illustrates in The Stranger this idea that one can either comprehend life or he or she cannot when Meursault keeps vigil for his mother: “I asked him if he could turn off one of the lights. The glare on the white walls was making me drowsy. He said he couldn’t. That was how they’d been wired: it was all or nothing” (9). Camus conveys that no in-between exists in the light and the dark of the funeral home. Just as in life, one either comprehends the importance of birth and death, and bases his or her life on those ideas, or one simply goes through the motions like Meursault does for much of his life. Meursault does not yet understand that he must learn to find meaning in the absurdities of the world to obtain some level of satisfaction in his life. Even throughout the novel, the meaning and its awakening powers consume his