By: Annushka Agarwal (Grade 10)
“Given that you’ve got to die, it obviously doesn’t matter exactly how or when.”
This morning, I had the absurd experience of reading Albert Camus’s acclaimed novel, The Outsider, better known as The Stranger. Set in Algiers, it tells the story of an emotionally and morally apathetic man named Meursault, who is put on trial for murder, and, as the back cover of my paperback would aptly put it, “on trial for being different—an outsider.” It’s only 184 pages long (my copy is in the original French), and the English version clocks in at about 120 pages, so if you have the time, it’s not a long read.
The descriptions and dialogue of most of the book aren’t terribly exciting in and of themselves, so the main appeal is really the commentary on the meaning of human existence, much of which is unveiled in the last forty pages or so, when we get a clear characterisation of the protagonist’s thought process. Meursault’s outlook is that the things most people regard as major events—notably, death—are inevitable and thus arbitrary, that people’s actions often have no rational basis, and that life as a whole has no inherent meaning: essentially, nihilism. This is perhaps influenced by the author’s personal experiences with poverty and loss, his life in post-colonial Algeria, and, of course, the Second World War, which was ongoing at the time of publication. Looking through historical instances of brutality and moral atrocities such as those of WWII, it becomes increasingly unclear as to whether humans even have the capacity to make meaningful moral choices. The chaotic logic of absurdism gains appeal.
To a certain extent, I can agree with parts of Meursault’s worldview. I think it’s true that there are aspects of life which transcend logic and reason, and, as the book suggests, most systems of belief and moral order could be mere attempts to explain the inexplicable. Religious structures and legal codes are potentially both results of our need to understand the world around us in a way that may not truly be possible. Society dislikes Meursault in the novel because they cannot reconcile themselves with the belief that our actions have no impacts and are ultimately meaningless, because if that is true, existence appears to be futile.
That said, just because society is indifferent to us and our surroundings are possibly determined by random variables, it does not mean that we have to respond in turn with indifference. My initial reaction to Meursault’s character was not very sympathetic: his indifference carries him to make choices that are morally ambiguous at best, and at worst, rife with complicity. Early in the novel, he sees a man in his building viciously abuse a woman, and instead of intervening, he stands by and observes, later agreeing with the man’s sentiments when asked. Meursault justifies these kinds of decisions by philosophising that choice is meaningless and thus he is indifferent to the events that take place around him. Here, I think it is reasonable to disagree with his viewpoint. Even if the world around us doesn’t behave rationally and is impossible to predict, I am convinced that we still ought to act in accordance with what we believe are overarching principles. In essence, just because things are arbitrary, it doesn’t mean we have to act arbitrarily in response.
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