There’s no other way of putting it, I was blown away by this book. I can’t remember the last time a story affected me this way. So much so that I felt I had to write a review. Although saying that, the following may be considered more of an analysis, but without vast research into others’ thoughts and the history of the book, as well as Camus’ philosophies on life, I hesitate to use the word analysis but shall simply give my thoughts on what it got me thinking of.
Depending on the translation, this book is either The Outsider (UK) or The Stranger (US). Not that it really matters for what I’ve got to say.
There’s spoilers here within.
The story is about Meursault, a young man who begins the tale attending his mother’s funeral. He shows no signs of grief and those around him who knew his mother seem shocked at his attitude. Afterwards he returns to normal and reflects that nothing in his life has really changed. He meets a girl, Marie, and begins a relationship with her, but she is definitely more ‘into him’ than he is to her.
His neighbour, Raymond, is disliked by many but not by Meursault. In fact he helps Raymond in taking revenge against his girlfriend. On a short trip away with Marie and Raymond, he shoots the brother of Ray’s girlfriend five times and is subsequently arrested.
He’s sent to prison while he awaits his trial. He is eventually found guilty of murder and is sentenced to death. And that’s pretty much it. On the surface, though at least.
So what makes this story so special and why did I feel the need to write about it? Well, it’s Meursault.
Put simply, he’s a very misanthropic individual who doesn’t care about others’ emotions and is only out for himself. But despite all this, he’s actually pretty likeable, sort of akin to a certain Patrick Bateman. After only 40 pages, or so, into the story, I was thinking how he was totally displaying psychopathic personality traits. To my limited knowledge this could possibly be the first novel with a psychopath as the lead character. However, after completing the book, I realised that there is much more to him than this.
But what do I mean, psychopathic personality traits? Well psychopaths generally (always?) have a certain charm about them while having no empathy or remorse, and display emotional shallowness. Of course there’s more to them than that, but this will do for now.
Meursault isn’t sure when his mother died, and didn’t even know how old she was when she did. He talks about arranging time off work, something most of us wouldn’t consider mentioning if we were describing attending a parents’ funeral. When he arrives at the retirement home where his mother had been living, he doesn’t seem upset and doesn’t want to see her body, instead he just wants to smoke and drink coffee. During the service he doesn’t speak of his emotions at the situation, instead he describes the small details, such as them bringing in the coffin and how the mourners are behaving.
The next day he wonders what he shall do, as he has two days leave from work. He decides to go swimming, something the majority of us wouldn’t look at as ‘normal’ behaviour in such circumstances. Here he meets Marie, and then takes her to the cinema (where they watch a comedy) and later, to his bed. Well, that’s one way to get over grief I suppose. Plus, don’t women find mourning men as attractive as fuck?
He talks about Salamano, a man who lives on the same floor as him, and his dog. The dog, riddled with disease, is regularly beaten by his owner and everyone in the neighbourhood is concerned by the way he is treated. Not Meursault, though, of course. He doesn’t care about the dog’s treatment, why should he?
Even Raymond, another neighbour and rumoured to be a local pimp, feels that the dog is mistreated. He offers Meursault some dinner. He accepts the invitation, but only as it will save him the effort of preparing his own meal, and not because he actually wishes to spend time with him.
Lack of empathy. Emotional shallowness. Selfishness. Check to those three.
While he eats and drinks with Raymond, his neighbour tells him that he suspects his girlfriend is cheating on him. The evidence he provides seems a little inconclusive, to say the least. Raymond tells how he wants to teach her a lesson and needs Meursault’s help to do this. Obviously our star of the show agrees and he writes her a letter inviting her to Raymond’s place, where she ends up on the receiving end of a beating. Again, everyone seems shocked at her treatment, except Meursault. He sticks up for his neighbour when the policeman arrives.
Marie, who appears infatuated with Meursault, asks him if he loves her. He tells her that he doesn’t, and that ‘that sort of question has no meaning.’ This doesn’t put her off, though. She’s probably from the treat them mean… school of relationships, or something.
Meursault and Marie are invited to a beach house with Raymond where, walking along the beach, they encounter the brother of Raymond’s girl, an Arab. Her brother has obviously heard what’s been going on and a fight ensues during which Raymond is stabbed, but not mortally. Later, Meursault goes for a walk with Raymond’s gun in his pocket. He says that he took it to prevent Raymond from using it, but we don’t really know if this is the case. Walking alone, he comes across the Arab once again. Without too much provocation, he shoots him. It’s not really self-defence as he does it five times. Just making sure, I suppose. This whole altercation is explained factually and not emotionally.
So now our hero is arrested and is questioned by a magistrate and a lawyer. They seem more interested in Meursault’s mother than the shooting, and his answers hint that he may not be taking the whole thing too seriously. Sort of like the perennial bad kid at school shrugging his shoulders and smirking when sent to the Head Teacher’s office, again. The magistrate talks to him about God, a notion that Meursault rejects, and has always rejected. The magistrate is saddened by his attitude and as he leaves he calls him ‘Mr Antichrist.’ A pretty cool nickname.
Now he is a prisoner awaiting trial, something he accepts quite readily. He quickly adapts to the situation and finds that being deprived of his liberty is not his major gripe, it’s his boredom.
So back to my thoughts of Meursault’s psychopathic personality. One thing that psychopaths are supposed to display, but he doesn’t really seem to, is a grandiose sense of self-worth. During his time in prison, he doesn’t speak of how he’s much more important than the other prisoners, although it is hinted at, but simply tells of the mundanity of his life. It’s not that he doesn’t feel like he deserves more, he’s just a little put out that he’s in this situation.
So is he a psychopath? I wasn’t sure yet.
His trial arrives, during which he is again asked more about his mother’s funeral than the killing of the Arab. Witnesses are brought forward to give evidence against his character, except Raymond who bigs him up as best he can. He should do really, though after everything Meursault did for him, although did he really do it all for him?
As witness after witness is questioned and they tell the court how he’s almost inhuman, his narration sort of backs up their sentiments by not describing any of his emotions, he just simply tells of the details of what is happening. Obviously he wants to be found innocent of premeditated homicide, but this is only described superficially. More importantly, he offers no regret over any of his previous actions of the story.
He also sounds slightly psycho during the summing up, where he says it is ‘always interesting… to hear oneself being talked about’.
He is eventually (but it doesn’t take very long) sentenced to death by decapitation, which is never a great way to go, I’d guess. He doesn’t seem to care that much, but obviously would prefer not to die.
A psychopath, I’m sure, would care a little more than this, they do have a grandiose sense of self-worth, remember? But when back in his cell he ponders what he remembers about the guillotine which is set to kill him. He recalls that they are large, grand structures that soar over the onlookers, almost like a giant stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. But as he thinks harder he realises that this isn’t really the case at all and he will be ‘killed discreetly’. This displeases him.
So it’s all over for Meursault. The chaplain visits him, even though he’s declined the offer to see him before. The chaplain feels that he must surely turn to God now as he is definitely out of options. But he does us proud, he stands his ground and rejects him once more, and now feels more alive than ever before. He is the one in control of his own life and this knowledge makes him feel empowered. He opens his mind to the benign indifference of the universe to him. He realises he was happy with his existence, and still is happy.
It was at this point in the story that my mindset towards Meursault changed. Here was not a man so full of himself that he would, if you will, shit on others to get what he wanted and feel no remorse at his actions. Here was a man in control of his own destiny, and to the very end he would make himself, his flesh, the definitive centre of his own universe.
This way of thinking brought to mind the words of Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. The Satanic Bible, although very Nietzsche-esque but written in a way that the layman (LaVeyman?) like me can understand is, simply put, all about making yourself your own God and rejecting the ideas of organised religion and giving yourself over to any deity. Now I’m not a Satanist, but I do find the whole idea very interesting, especially all the imagery with inverted crosses and pentagrams and shit, but that’s for another place.
So is Meursault, in fact, one of the original Satanists, before the term meant anything other than demon worshipping silly people? Well his rejection of God and satisfaction with his own place in the cosmos would certainly hint at this.
The novel ends with Meursault grabbing the chaplain and ‘explaining’ to him his thoughts on life and existence, and that it doesn’t matter what he did, it would all end up like this anyway. Not very psychopathic when you think about it. I say ‘explained’ when I’m sure he was doing this a little more forcibly, hence the pinning him against the wall, but never once does he show any anger towards the chaplain. His epiphany is enlightening, and why be angry with enlightenment? He says that he’d been shouting so much he lost his breath, but this could be the same as when someone so much in love shouts it from the rooftops, making them breathless. The chaplain leaves with tears in his eyes. Were these tears of fear for his life, or fear that Meursault spoke truths he wished to deny?
So it’s nearly over, I’ve now taken a U-turn on my opinions of my new favourite anti-hero and have rejected the notion he’s a psychopath. He laments how his mother was to begin afresh with life, and how, with this knowledge, he was right to not shed a tear for her. He finally feels the same. To make himself complete he hopes for a crowd of spectators to witness his execution (hang on, he’s gone psycho again), but for them to greet him with howls of execration. Wait, he wants them to curse him. Is this because he wants to be regarded as an enemy, an antagonist, an adversary, an… antichrist?
I’m sure that scholars and even those who’ve just read this a number of times, or people who have grown up with this book will disagree, and may even deride me as a simpleton who just ‘didn’t get it’. But who cares? To make this seldom-reviewer of books feel the need to type away his thoughts, it must have evoked something inside me.
Perhaps I don’t get it and my rambling thoughts are here because I’m an outsider. If so, great!