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Reflections of a working writer and reader



(L’Étranger) The Outsider by Albert Camus – a review

The famous opening lines in the Joseph Laredo translation, go like this:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

First published in 1942, The Outsider traces a few days in the life of a man known as Meursault. The reader has access to Meursault’s inner thoughts and experiences and watches him at his mother’s funeral and, during the following days, we follow him as he meets a girl and becomes involved with his neighbours and acquaintances. The setting is Algiers and Meursault appears to be, like Camus, a Frenchman born and raised in the city.

The first part of the novel concludes when Meursault shoots and kills an Arab after being out in the sun for most of the day.

Part II of this short novel is concerned with Meursault’s trial, imprisonment, and encroaching execution. But throughout Camus is less interested in plot and more in using character and the sequence of events to elaborate his own theory of existentialism and the absurdity of man’s position in relation to a universe of indifference.

Meursault never tells a lie. At all times he adheres to his own version of the truth. He even refuses to fabricate the ‘white’ social lies with which all societies maintain their existence. And because of this disparity, the nuance between his own version of the truth and the collective truth to which we are expected to conform, he is condemned.

In the preface to the American University Edition of The Outsider, published in 1955, Camus said:

‘A long time ago I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realize is extremely paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game.’

. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .

‘So one wouldn’t be far wrong in seeing The Outsider as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth.’

It is many years since I first read this novel, and I can say that it has never really left me. To revisit it now has been to confirm its place in my imagination and altogether in our time.

This post also concerns the writer, Albert Camus

27 Responses to “(L’Étranger) The Outsider by Albert Camus – a review”

  1. Camus was and still is my favorite existentialist philosopher, and I remember the time when I first read The Stranger. But even more, I liked that he played football ( I used to play midfield) and when he wrote in his essays about Algiers, I could easily translate the weather to the Caribbean.
    The Myth of Sisyphus was the book that remained with me and especially when I am writing longer works, the thought of Sisyphus being happy keeps me going.

    jb says: Hi Geoffrey. I never connected with the football, but Camus’ books and imaginations have also been close to me.

  2. marydell says:

    Back in my angst-filled younger days, I loved the existentialists and gobbled up books by Camus, Sartre, Kafka, etc. It’s been years since I read L’etranger, but the opening lines you quote above remind of another line in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” If birth takes place over a grave, it stands to reason–for an existentialist–that a child wouldn’t make much note of a mother’s death.

    Your post has reminded me of books I had once loved, and now I want to go back and reread them. I’m much happier with myself and my place in society these days, so it would be an interesting exercise to see what impact they have on me now.

    jb says: Sounds like a good time coming on, Marydell. Oh, and thanks for the quote.

  3. Thomas says:

    I think it has something to do with a quote that you have on your quotes section. Originality and imitations.
    Original ideas even if they are logical and truthful are as ugly as our own pine knots. The white social lies that people try to imitate are easy to stomach, even if they are as fragrant as our armpits.

    jb says: I don’t want to follow this metaphor, Tom. Makes me think of deodorant.

  4. Dick says:

    Very much as Geoffrey puts it. It was ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, read in youth, that gave form & substance to the shocked sense of having stumbled upon something of great moment on reading ‘The Outsider’ as an adolescent. Both are still very much part of my personal landscape all these decades later.

    jb says: Hi Dick. We share aspects of the same glimpsed landscape.

  5. pluto says:

    > It is many years since I first read this novel, and I can say that it has never really left me.

    Same here. It’s certainly never left me. I was heavily influenced by, and depressed by, his philosophy when I was in my early twenties. Especially by The Myth of Sisyphus. (It’s not an inherently depressing philosophy but that was my interpretation at the time). Later I read The Outsider again and just loved it. And I still do.

    jb says: It’s good that we change, isn’t it?

  6. May says:

    “Mother died today” and “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” sound quite different.

    jb says: I’m at the Hay festival at the moment, May, surrounded by language.

  7. pluto says:

    May’s comment goes to the heart of the problem of reading literature in translation.

    And it reminds me of a good essay by John Updike in which he compares two English translations of L’Etranger: the one by Stuart Gilbert, which is the version I grew up on, and the one by Joseph Laredo. Updike thinks Laredo’s version is superior, and as it hugs the original more closely than Gilbert’s I’m all in favour of his approach. But the problem is I’ve still got Gilbert’s sentences resonating in my head. So when I read Laredo I flinch at every deviation from them.

    Wikipedia’s got a nice comparative sample: the famous opening lines of L’Etranger in the original French and then as rendered by Gilbert, by Laredo, and by a third translator.

    jb says: Hi Pluto. I knew about the comparative sample on Wikipedia but forgot to mention it, so thanks for the reminder and the link.

  8. May says:

    Thank you for the link, Pluto, by which I realized that I said something obvious. I’ll be able to give a better contribution to posts on applied mathematics…

  9. David says:

    AS a teenager and catholic christian, I love this novel. Though in my own reflections, I find it lovely that despite the existentialist stances, the novel seems to give a catholic perspective. How? For not conforming to the dictates of modern society are after all what christianity requires. Perhaps this is further ehaqnced by the christ figure that Meursault exudes. Love the novel. Peace of JCC.

  10. Chris says:

    I loved reading this book in its original French, unabridged. Although everyone cannot (obviously) read every book in its original language as they would spend more time learning language than reading literature, it’s important (and yet impossible) to ‘cut out the middleman’, that is, the translator, in order to feel what the author was truly feeling with every word. On a more semantic level, it’s important in order to interpret and analyze the author’s nuances, rather than those of a translator. I’m not saying that there isn’t great literature in English, but existentialist (Camus himself resented and even denied the classification) literature is simply best read in French.

    jb says: Hi Chris. I think we recognise what you’re saying. But sometimes crumbs are better than nothing.

  11. Alicia says:

    I’m currently in the 10th grade and have read <>. I didn’t particularly like it, but felt it was somthing to mentally chew on. I also agree that it is better read in its origional french, but I also appreciate the fact that it has been translated for those who cannot read the origional. I really feel that the origional coveys the emotional aspect (from the readers view) better than translation though.

    jb says: Hi Alicia. Thanks for the comment. Something wrong with the code in your first line, but it’s been stripped out so I can only guess it’s the title of the book. I envy your ability to read French but I was raised and stunted in a country that saw anything other than English as a waste of time. Such arrogance has not been obliterated unfortunately.

  12. karine says:

    hi guys!
    interesting comments up there. i am french and red the book a long time ago but now i feel that I MUST go and re-visit it. Don’t fight too much over the translation as the important is that we all find something in a book or a film that we appreciate ghew over / can take away with us or share (and thatis how i could enjoy your comments) .

    jb says: Hi Karine. Good to hear from you. You won’t regret going back. It’s one of those trips that really make sense.

  13. cateyes says:

    i love this book, it is one of my best. i read the outsider version but i want the stranger version as well, if u know how i get it pliz help

  14. Marion says:

    I’m in yr 12 at school and am currently writing an oral presentation on the translation of L’etranger. Pluto, I was wondering what that essay of John Updike’s is called/what book it’s in/ if it’s online?

  15. Reg says:

    i assume it will be practically impossible to find an english version of l’etranger online?
    I’m studying it for my french A-level and could really use the other version, especially since i have absolutely NO money t the moment. Any help would be greatly appreciated 🙂

    jb says: When I’m broke I go to the library, Reg. I even go there when I’m flush. It’s a really cool place.

  16. Emily says:

    Hi, I’m Emily and I’m 13 years old. I starting reading an english translation of this a few months back and now I can’t find the book. Does anyone know of any websites that can let you read it in English? Thanks.

  17. Sayantan says:

    Meursault was an outsider. Why? Was he really different from you and me? If yes, what made him different? The answer is apparently satisfactory by critique’s standards: He refused to play the game society asked of him. Despite being a man who knew the value of words, he did not say things he was expected to say, particularly when his life was at stake in the trial. When people burst out into laughter at the courtroom hearing his justification for murder (it was the sun that provoked him to kill, as he testified to), his reaction was like that of a boy who just tried to be agreeable with everyone, if not for making friends, but by all means for not being a target of hatred or enmity. When the examining magistrate was questioning him, at one point he had the strange feeling of ‘being one of the family’. Again, he “stupidly felt like crying” because of the rank hostility and persuasiveness with which the system forced him to express regret for what he had done, so that the machinery could satisfy its own conviction of morality, of what is right and what is wrong. So the most widely circulated interpretation of his nature remains to be his denial to stand up to the society’s anticipations. But I would like to look at his nature from a slightly different perspective. Did he refuse to play the game out of his own accord, or was he just not born to play the game? Reading the novel time and again, I have the impression that Camus’ protagonist did not know how to act or react as he would have really liked to do. There is no reason whatsoever to glorify his existence by claiming that he rejected his salvation by stepping out of his own conscious boundary. He was simply not programmed to understand what dear life means. For me, Meursault was a shallow human being guided only by momentary impulses.

  18. Ganesh Wagh says:

    What I feel is the novel shares the views which are predominantly talks of the man’s existance is being taken away and he himself feels alienated from his self motivations.

  19. Recheal Blankson says:

    Hi, I’m Recheal. I am studying this artistic work of Camus this semester. I find your comments thought-provoking and I have been urged on to interprete the work from the writer’s own perspective. Thanks and keep it up!

    jb says: Thanks, Recheal. I’ll try my best.

  20. cm says:

    wow some of these comments are amazingly thought provoking.
    just wondering im doing an oral presentation for school on the outsider and was wondering if i could get some help on the question

    “what does the text reveal about the culture it presents and how has the writer used literary techniques to convey their views on the culture?”

    any ideas would be greatly appreciated

  21. Harry says:

    Outsider of Albert Camus changed my very perception of observing and concieving things and relations in my life may be it looks bad outside but great feelings generate inside for any human inside is uery crucial and pivotal than outside. Hats off to camus for the life cahnging work

  22. Patrick says:

    I’m reading The Plague now.
    I read L’Etranger when I was fourteen, so it has severely impacted on the way I think. Camus really strikes me as the most rational existential philosopher of the intellectual resistance in the post war years. Moreso than Sartre, who seems to serve for angsty uni students.
    I love this book.

  23. Meg says:

    I know someone just like Mersault. He has aspergers.

  24. Richard says:

    This is one of the books that I have re-visited many times over the course of the last near 40 years since I first read it. In my younger days it was an excercise in French comprehension, as I grew it became a study of literary craft and a burgeoning understanding of philosophical awareness. Now it is a work that I enjoy reading for all the above reasons and because from time to time I have felt as detached from reality as Mearsault particularly at times of great personal loss (passing of father and mother) but by re-reading the book I can usually retrieve my humanity again.

  25. ravi kumar pasala says:

    hi friends please try read this novel called the outsider, its really amazing. its helps all of us in our lives.

  26. It’s really interesting to hear your thoughts after re-reading The Outsider. I’ve just written a review and an analysis, and in researching both I found that a lot of people who revisited the book found it far less profound on second reading, particularly those who read it originally in their younger years, and then agains as a mature reader.

  27. stan grondas says:

    I too read Camus in my angst-filled youth. In those days we all read the same things and we were all were moved in the same way but when Hilton killed Leah, his girlfriend, and he stood in the dock, some forty-five years ago, the judge asked him if he was sorry and it was Meursault who anwered – the only difference was that Hilton let slip a faint hint of ridicule for the question – a tiny twitch of the lips to one side – a classroom impertenance.