The use of existentialism in Albert Camus book “The Stranger” Essay

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The use of existentialism in Albert Camus book “The Stranger”

The novel, “The Stranger” written by Albert Camus is at once a portrayal of both the discovery and the consequences of life’s choices.  In the first case, the discovery, Camus portrays the protagonist as a man vacant of meaning.  Monsieur Meursault works and lives alone. He is notified that his mother, who lives in a rest-home, has died. Meursault appears devoid of an emotional response. He attends the funeral and follows the socially accepted procedure but fails to employ any of the attendant emotional responses normal to the human experience.[1] Further discovery is evidenced by Meursault’s introspection.

As he considers first weather to marry an old acquaintance, Marie Cardona, only because she ask and he likes having sex with her.  Meursault gives consideration to the proposition and agrees. They become engaged, and yet, he still is devoid of the normal set of emotions which usually accompany an engagement.[2]  When he is asked by Marie, his new fiancée, if he would have said yes to a proposal of any other girl, at least one he liked like he liked her, he answered, “Naturally.”

Later in the book, while Meursault is in prison for killing the brother of a girlfriend of Raymond, his friend, he ‘discovers’ his own personal disregard for any meaning of life. The discovery pleases him. It relieves him from the personal struggle he has had in sorting out his behavior and the behavior of others.[3]  The process of discovery is one of the main points of the novel. It, in reality, is an examination of the social set of emotions, commitments and faiths which drive our society, indeed which drive our lives, both individually and collectively.

 The concept of consequences is at first dismissed by Meursault. Both at the funeral when he does not accept the overtures of the priest and later when he accepts the proposal of Raymond, a friend who asks him to write a letter in his defense, he does so without comment or commitment.[4] The act of being drawn into the world of Raymond, a pimp, would normally give one pause, but not so with Meursault.

Camus uses the thoughts of Meursault as a commentary on both society and on the meaning of life in general. In all cases, Meursault does not look forward.  He lacks the interest. Not the ability, nor the intelligence but any interest in producing meaning or values in his life’s experiences.  The consequences issue is further explored as Meursault goes further down the path of complicacy.  He shoots the brother of Raymond’s girlfriend without cause and without emotional involvement. In any case, Meursault does not consider the consequences of his actions. As the story develops, the reader can see that Meursault is devoid or belief in regulations.

He conforms only when it is necessary to meet his needs. For example he agrees to marry because he likes Marie although he admits that he would have accepted a proposal from anyone he ‘liked’.  He worries about disappointing his boss at work but only because he needs the money. When he if put in jail, he at first worries about dying and devises escape plans which include a successful appeal etc. Later on, when he discovers that no such an appeal will prevail, he happily resigns himself to the consequences which have sprung from his behavior.

In fact, the novel is an examination of not only the life of one persons struggle with meaning, but a proposal to all who read it, that we are here, not by plan, not by creation of an all powerful god but by chance, that chance is arbitrary and capricious and without meaning.  The final discovery of the protagonist is in essence the assumption of an existential philosophy by Meursault. It is further a proposition by Camus that perhaps such a position is not only tenable but reality.

In consideration of the Existentialism philosophy as it applies to the writing, I think it should be considered a valid portrayal of both the general concept and the frequent consequences of being without law and belief.  Jean-Paul Sartre addresses the concept of the application of existentialism in our lives.[5]

Sartre believes that one can socially conform and still realize the meaningless of life and still accept the concept of God and religious constraints as necessary for the control of society.  In the Stranger, Camus deviates somewhat from that philosophy. It appears that Meursault has the complication of also being asocial.  His disregard for and in fact absolute refusal to accept the priest who comes to him in prison indicates that he not only has no regard for religious beliefs but that he, in fact, is opposed to their use, even as a social regulator.

His a-sociality appears to compound the societal problem generated by the killing of a man for no apparent reason.

Camus emphasizes both the discovery and the consequences of Meursault’s disregard for any meaning in life by carefully following the events which occur in his life and his response to those events. The character of Meursault develops with the unfolding of those events. At first Meursault is unaware of what makes him different. In fact although he realizes that he had not developed and accepted the normal range of prohibitions and the institutions which both propose and enforce them, but passes it off as a part of his personal evolution.[6]

Meursault’s development is a realization both of himself but also of his relationship to society and others. Jean-Paul Sartre states that this realization can free us from the burdens which restrict and impede our development and success.[7]

The novel in the end leaves one with a sense of the total uselessness of life. In the end, the reader can accept the regard of life expressed by Meursault and instead of acting out of non commitment he or she can direct energy into contributing to society and to the well being of its members. There has been and appears to still be many persons who accept the existentialist philosophy and with it contribute significantly to life and to others. Camus himself has given much to mankind by teaching and interpreting the concept in his writings. Even Jean-Paul Sartre makes reference to him in one of his books.[8]

In conclusion I found the book very interesting, excellent reading and it added a perspective to my understanding both of myself and my world. Many would reject the philosophy for self protection. That is we are comfortable with believing there is a god and that he created us, protects us and we will, by that reasoning, live forever. It seems clear that we all want to continue living even though there is indisputable evidence that our lives will end.

So perhaps that belief motivates us to do good. It clearly has created both gigantic ill, anger, hurt and a diabolical conflict within us. Perhaps too it has motivated the millions of great and good deeds done in the name of a god. In any case The Stranger discounts both the value of any deeds and the hope of internal happiness based on a belief of deity. The book was clearly an excellent portrayal both of the philosophy and the possible consequences of living without the imposition of governing rules which require conformity on us.


[1] Albert Camus, The Stranger: Random House,  Inc. (Translated by Stuart Gilbert, 1946) 21

[2] Camus, 53

[3] Camus, 154

[4] Camus, 40

[5] Jean-Paul Sartre, French Existentialism, Rodopi, Amsterdam-Atlanta, GA, 1999

[6] Camus, 89

[7] Sartre, 191

[8] Sartre, 191

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