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Albert Camus: L’Etranger (UK: The Outsider; US: The Stranger)

Camus’ first novel and his most famous introduced us to the acte gratuit, a gratuitous act, which shows that the person committing the act is free of normal constraints. It is also an existentialist novel, showing both that the hero, Meursault, is the maker of his own fate and does not have a fate predetermined by God but also that we humans are world-weary, responding, if at all, only to external stimuli.

Meursault, like his creator, lives in Algiers. The (short) novel starts with the funeral of his mother. At the funeral he seems to show no remorse for her death. This will be crucial later. We follow him after the funeral. He befriends Raymond Sintes, a pimp, and helps Sintes in a dispute with one of his (Sintes’) mistresses. (Interestingly, Sintés was his mother’s maiden name.) The result is that Sintes and Meursault get involved in a knife fight with the woman’s brother and Sintes is hurt. Meursault will later go back to the beach where the fight took place and shoot the assailant. Meursault is imprisoned for the shooting and, at his trial, the prosecution makes much of his lack of remorse, not just for this crime but also for his mother’s death. He is sentenced to die and is seemingly indifferent both to his fate and to the offer of help from a priest.

The book made a huge impact, offering a seemingly immoral or, more particularly, amoral philosophy. Meursault is certainly not the first literary character to show this seeming indifference to the world, called variously ennui, Weltschmerz and world-weariness. Moravia is an obvious precursor and also not the first. Nor is he the first to reject the socially conventional response when he does not feel it, be it at his mother’s funeral or his own trial. Nor, indeed, is he the first hero to be motivated purely by the physical. But his indifference to the world and the world’s indifference to him set a novelistic trend which is still valid and make this one of the most important post-war novels.

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Gallimard
First published in English 1946 by Hamilton