Is Albert Camus' novel, The Outsider an existential piece of work and if so what does this mean? In
the book, the protagonist can't/won't grieve for his dead mother, has a meaningless affair, and then
murders a man (but blames his actions on the sun). He never repents or feels any remorse, what are
we meant to make of all this?
Camus' novel The Outsideris definitely an existential piece of work. Such a description doesn't
explain much however! Existentialism is a philosophy which has often found expression in literary
works: I think there is probably a reason why this type of philosophy is particularly suited to literature.
Existentialist philosophy stresses the primacy of the existence of the individual over and above any
supposed natural essence of what it is to be human. The fact that one exists entails one's absolute
freedom to makes oneself into whatever one wants. We also have the terrible burden and
responsibility of having to use that freedom in a responsible manner however. At the same time, one
must not live in 'bad faith' as the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, which seems to mean
deceiving oneself into what is appropriate because of conventional morality, or one's conditioning or
received rules. Another important strand (which is especially important in Camus' novel) is that
existentialists think that life is meaningless or absurd. Reality is indifferent to the hopes and projects
of human beings and seeing this nauseating absurdity is inevitable once you try and face up to the
indifference of things.
I'm not a literary critic but here is my take on the book. The reader is meant to create her own
meanings for Meursault's actions. Meursault, without much of a memory or any imagination at all,
refuses to spend time connecting events and contemplating essences. It is up to the reader to do this
for herself. This perhaps brings out a crucial existentialist point: the confrontation between our
demands for rationality and justice and the indifference to rationality of the world itself. So I suppose
that Camus is trying to create a character in The Outsiderwho is utterly innocent, even though he has
violated most of the moral conventions of society. The idea of the absurdity of things is best
exemplified by Camus' own portrayal of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, whom the gods
condemned to the eternal and futile task of rolling a rock up a hill only to watch it fall down the other
side. Camus' Sisyphus is happy because he accepts his pointless existence and because he is
rebelling by scorning the gods. In The Stranger,by contrast, the protagonist has simply accepted the
absurdity of life. So I suppose that if the book seems pointless then that is probably the point of it.
In reading the novel we are required to try to make sense of the protagonists actions and leave with
exactly the question you ask. Many people (though I am not one of them) think that this makes the
reader question his own relationship with society. So perhaps that was the point of what Camus was
up to when he wrote it!