Albert Camus, a writer as well as a philosopher, shares his existentialist and absurdist philosophy through the portrayal of the protagonist, Meursault in The Stranger. As the title of the novel suggests, Meursault is an emotionally and morally detached ‘stranger’. A stranger to society’s conventional values, love, religion, life, and friendship. Accordingly, Meursault is depicted as a man with an unorthodox mentality and behavior that challenges the conventional values of society. These characteristics are amplified through the utilization of the literary devices first person point of view, imagery, and symbolism. Hence, from the beginning through to the end of the novel, our conventional values are challenged through the effective use of literary devices point of view, imagery, and symbolism that enhance the existentialist and absurdist characteristics of Meursault in the novel The Stranger by Albert Camus.
Society’s high regard for human life is challenged by Meursault’s existentialist characteristic that is effectively portrayed through the use of first-person point of view. One of the main principles of existentialism state that individuals create their own meaning in life and emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of an individual’s experience. Accordingly, the portrayal of Meursault’s existentialism would not be as effective if the character had been presented from the third-person point of view because the audience would be oblivious to Meursault’s isolated frame of mind. Therefore, the first-person point of view is a perfectly befitting literary device for it exposes the readers to Meursault’s thoughts.
This enables them to understand the reasons behind his behavior and in a way, are placed in Meursault’s shoes, experiencing everything just as he is. So, Meursault killed the Arabic man without any remorse. He explained that he had done it ‘because of the sun’ (p.103). Meaning, Meursault murdered a man and stole his life solely because the sun was bothering him, having no moral or emotional consideration for his action. This behavior is easily identified as existentialism because it is consistent with one of the principles which states that a person has the freedom to choose and the choices they make should be without external assistance and influences, thus, should be committed to and responsible for the consequences that follow the decision and action.
Moreover, this characteristic that challenges society’s conventional value was further emphasized when he ‘admitted that he hadn’t [hired an attorney] and inquired whether it was really necessary to have one’ (p.63), ‘thought his case was pretty simple’ (p.63), and ‘I didn’t feel much remorse for what I’d done’ (p.100). The significance of the first-person point of view is especially evident here because the exposure to Meursault’s own thoughts shows the audience his genuine inability to understand why he would need to defend himself. The case of him murdering another person seems pretty simple to him because of his existentialist characteristic. The philosophy leading him to think that he had decided to murder the Arabic man and is now ready to suffer the consequences. Treating the event like a simple cause and effect, seeing it very objectively and without emotional ties or remorse.
Meursault’s existentialist characteristic further challenges people’s conventional value when he showed an equal amount of disregard for his own life. The setting of the book was in 1942, a time in which execution was legal and an accepted norm. Additionally, when he was just sentenced to death and lies in his new cell, he ‘put my hands behind my head and wait’ (p.108). Thus, Meursault knew that he was going to be executed and still managed to be completely at peace and behaved incredibly calm and unregistered with the events and his fate. Moreover, the two previously mentioned statements were Meursault’s thoughts, so, the clear visibility of his existentialist characteristic is only made possible through the utilization of the first-person point of view. Therefore, helping the audience associate the effect of his existentialist characteristic on society’s conventional value, on how it is challenged by Meursault’s behavior.
The conventional value of deeply loving one’s parents and feeling sorrow when the parent has died, is challenged by Meursault’s absurdist characteristic that is enhanced through the use of imagery. Absurdism is a philosophy which states that searching for and attempting to place meaning into one’s life is meaningless and a waste of time. Consequently, Meursault’s absurdist characteristic is apparent when Meursault was attending his mother’s vigil and funeral where he said that ‘the sun was up’ and that the ‘sky was streaked with red’ (p.12). He then proceeded to say that it was ‘going to be a beautiful day’ (p.12). The imagery of the beautiful sky and day effectively shows what his mind was focused on.
Moreover, it does not seem like an appropriate time to be appreciating nature and saying that it was ‘going to be a beautiful day’. A day which according to conventional values, should be one of the saddest days of one’s life. The imagery effectively portrays Meursault’s absurdist characteristic because it enables him to express how less his mother’s death means to him, a behavior that reflects the absurdist principle. Furthermore, the imagery previously mentioned continues to enhance Meursault’s absurdist characteristic when he explicitly states that he would ‘enjoy going for a walk if it hadn’t been for Maman’ (p.12). It does so because Meursault seems to be quite upset, not that his mother died, but that he can’t go for a walk and enjoy this beautiful day.
The imagery still emphasizes Meursault’s absurdist characteristic because the philosophy states that life is meaningless, hence, his responses to the beautiful day shows that his mother being alive or dead is meaningless either way and what actually matters is the sun and the ‘sky that was streaked with red’ (p.12). Thus, his ability to express such insensitivity and imperviousness to his own mother’s life. Therefore, challenging the conventional value of deep love for one’s parents and feeling sorrow when they passed away.
Symbolism is used to enhance Meursault’s characteristics that challenge society’s conventional value of repenting, having faith, and believing in something bigger than oneself. The basis of Meursault’s existentialist and absurdist characteristics are on the principle that searching for something meaningful and greater than one’s life, trying to give explanation and significance to it is no more than a futile attempt. The crucifix is used to emphasize Meursault’s existentialist and absurdist characteristics because it symbolizes society’s acceptance of believing in something bigger than oneself and in having faith. This is evident when the magistrate was trying to make Meursault repent and start putting his faith in God while ‘waving his crucifix almost directly over my head’ (p.68) and when he was ‘thrusting the crucifix in my face’ (p.69) after he asked Meursault if he wanted ‘my [magistrate’s] life to be meaningless’ (p.69).
So, the crucifix symbolizes exactly what Meursault is characterized to defy. The magistrate’s attempt to place meaning into his own life through the belief in something greater than himself directly opposes the principle that Meursault is characterized on. Moreover, his existentialism and absurdism are further expressed through his response to the crucifix and what it was symbolizing. When confronted, Meursault said that he ‘didn’t believe in God'(p.69), twice. The symbolization of the crucifix, as seen, lead Meursault to behave and think in accordance with the existentialist and absurdist principle stated above. Therefore, Meursault’s consistent dismissal of the crucifix and the magistrate’s futile attempt of having faith, repenting, and believing in something bigger than oneself, challenges society’s conventional value.
In conclusion, it was through the literary devices used to emphasize and enhance Meursault’s portrayal of an existentialist and absurdist that made the effect of Meursault’s characteristics on society’s conventional values possible. Imagery and symbolism were effectively utilized by Albert Camus as a means of expressing Meursault’s absurdism through his behavior, mentality, and responses. The first-person point of view was just as effective in presenting his existentialist characteristic and in enabling the audience to fully grasp the uniqueness and isolation of Meursault’s behavior and mentality. Hence, the literary devices equipped Albert Camus with the means of establishing his protagonist as the perfect representation of the principles of existentialism and absurdism. All of which, when easily identified through the support of the literary devices, challenged the conventional values of society with a series of relatively unorthodox behavior and mentality that ultimately lead to Meursault’s execution.
- Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Random House, 1989, Print