Considered one of the best pieces of absurdist and existentialist literature, Albert Camus’ The Outsider, which was published in 1942, deals with the life of Meursault, a French man in Algeria, and the eventual consequences of his murder of an Arab man. Throughout the novel, Camus emphasizes the inauthenticity and ridiculousness of societal traditions and values, encouraging the reader to live a more authentic life. This critique of social constructs is especially evident in the estrangement of the character of Meursault from the reader, which challenges and questions the reader’s preconceived notions of humanity and human behavior.
The role of Meursault as the narrator in The Outsider is paramount for the estrangement of the reader from the protagonist, as, through his passive and indifferent accounting of the narrative, the absurdity of life is revealed. The usage of the first person limited point of view throughout the entire novel can almost be considered ironic, as the first person narrative is usually characterized by its close and intimate portrayal of the narrator. This is subverted in The Outsider however, as the reader does not reach an intimate understanding of Meursault by the end of the novel. In fact, Meursault’s narration at times is reminiscent of a very superficial form of stream of conscious. He captures the events in his life as they go by, yet fails to react emotionally to them or comment on what is happening.
This is especially evident in the court scene. “[The prosecutor] declared that I had no place in society whose most essential principals I disregarded and that I could not appeal for sympathy when I did not understand the hearts most basic instincts. (…) I was dazed by the heat and sheer astonishment” (93). The prosecutor essentially declares that Meursault has no humanity, yet Meursault does not react to this statement at all. Rather, he reacts to the heat in the room. This focus on the physical and not the emotional in Meursault is present throughout the entire novel, as Meursault places a lot of emphasis on experiencing simple, primal pleasures, effectively bewildering the reader. Meursault’s role as passive narrator oftentimes also ridicules the behavior of those around him.
A very serious murder trial is held in his name and yet he begins thinking of “the sound of an ice-cream seller’s horn” (p. 95), thus serving to undermine the grim judgment of Meursault’s role as a human being. Through Meursaults non-sequiturs, the reader is led to question the moral rules under which the people in the court and society at large operats. It becomes questionable that Meursault is punished merely for not conforming to societies expectations of behavior, and essentially, the trial becomes meaningless – Meursault does not understand the people assembled, the people assembled do not understand him and truly the murder trial is just a pretense to judge Meursault for his failure to conform to societies standards.
This goes hand in hand with the themes of absurdism and existentialism, as the entire scene, as illustrated through Meursault’s narrative, is ridiculous and pointless. Meursaults style of narration shifts towards the end of the novel, when he reaches his epiphany. He begins actively questioning the circumstances of his life instead of being a mere passive observer. “What difference did it make? […] Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why” (p. 109). The usage of interrogative sentences and superlatives marks Meursaults shift from a passive to an active narrator. His sudden philosophical monologue appears manic to the reader, further alienating them from his character.
Furthermore, the fact that the novel ends within the next pages forbids any connection to be formed between the new, transformed Meursault and the reader. In the end, the reader is left just as clueless about Meursault’s behavior as in the beginning. Had The Outsider perhaps been written in third person, the reader could have speculated with the reason for Meursaults behavior, but through the usage of Meursalt as a first person narrator, the reader is directly confronted with the fact that there is no deeper motivation behind Meursaults actions, effectively ridiculing him as well as the plot of the novel, and signifying the absurd nature of societal expectations and constructs.
The opening of a novel always holds a special significance; it usually functions as an orientation for the reader, giving background info, first descriptions of the characters and a hint at the main conflict of the narrative. Structurally, The Outsider follows the typical novel opening, the reader is immediately told that the mother of the protagonist “died today”, that he has a job and that the setting of the story is “Algiers” and its surrounding (p. 1). However, Meursault immediately subverts the reader’s expectation of a typical novel protagonist, as he seemingly does not care about anything. “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” “That doesn’t mean anything. It might have been yesterday” (p.1). The short, almost fragmented sentences serve to emphasize his indifference towards the situation. No further explanation is given for why he does not care for his mother’s death – he simply sees no reason to.
This immediately challenges the reader’s pre-conceived notions of novel protagonists. Due to his passive behavior, he can neither be categorized as hero or antagonist. He merely is. This is further emphasized by Meursault’s focus on the physical, rather than the emotional. Throughout the novel, his interest lie in experiencing physical gratification through “cigarettes” (p. 8), sexual pleasure (p.18) and good food (p. 19). The shooting of the Arab is both the climax of the narrative and the point at which the reader is fully estranged from Meursault’s character. “The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me”(p. 54). The vivid and overly dramatic description, enhanced by the personification of the sky, appears almost like some biblical scene right out the bible, and under Christian belief, which forms the societal standards for most Westerners, what Meursault is doing is considered a great sin.
However, he remains indifferent to it all. Though his accidently setting off the trigger of the gun may still seem understandable to the reader as was an accident, the firing of the four additional bullets is not. “Then I fired four more times into the lifeless body, where the bullets sank without leaving a trace. And it was as if I had rapped sharply, four times, on the fatal door of destiny.” The dramatic and once again biblical-seeming image of the rapping on the doors of destiny represents the reaction of the reader, and thus, society at large.
Through the extra 4 shots, the extra display of inhumanity, he has displayed that he needs to be “punished” in society and the reader definitely wants him to be punished for not conforming to societies standards. The poetical language of the final of part one seems satirical, as it is the four extra shots that somehow ‘seal his fate’ in society, underlining the absurdist nature of human societal constructs. Meursault’s behavior throughout the novel challenges the typical qualities of a protagonist through his indifference, highlighting the absurdity of societal social conventions.
Whilst there is no traditional character development arc in place for Meursault and he remains much the same until almost the very end of the novel, a significant shift occurs in Meursault’s behavior when he reaches his epiphany, yet this only serves to further alienate him from the reader. “Then, I don’t know why, something burst inside me. I started shouting at the top of my lungs and swore at him and told him not to pray for me” (p. 108-109).
This, of course, hugely contrasts to the apathetic Meursault presented up until now and this new Meursault, who wants to “[pour] out all the feelings that surged up from the depths of [his] heart” (p. 109) is still a complete stranger to the reader. The abundant use of metaphors, which is unusual for the narrative of the novel, emphasizes his mania and extreme change of heart, bewildering the reader. “Couldn’t he understand, could he really not understand? Everyone was privileged.
There was no one who wasn’t privileged. All those others, they too would one day be condemned to death” (p.109). Here, Meursault is openly mocking the reader and society for not coming to terms with their inauthentic life, which is full of meaningless social constructs. Whilst this alienates the reader from him, there is also a certain truth to be found in his words as he says “why should the death of other people or a mother’s love matter so much? Why should I care about his god, the lives the destinies we choose when one unique destiny has chosen me” (p. 109). Through the repeated estrangement of the character of Meursault from the reader, Camus has presented society and its rigid social customs through ridiculed lenses- making the reader question their view on social behavior.
The character of Meursault in the Outsider is estranged from the reader through behavior, narration and challenging of preconceived norms of both literature, as his character as atypical for novels and society as large, as no obvious reason is given towards his indifference towards the world. Yet it is through his absurdity that the reader gains true insight into the authenticity of their own lives. Camus is in no way implying that everyone should follow Meursault’s path and murder for no reason whatsoever, but he is encouraging the reader to live a more authentic life, that is to live more freely and becoming true to oneself.