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  • Albert Camus

The Outsider - critical review

I love philosophical novels - and the 'outsider' (or L'etranger) is all about existentialism. This novel was published in 1942. The short novel is about a man who commits a murder, without much reason or guilt, and is sent to court and put on trial, resulting in his condemnation to death.

After reading to the book, I also listened to the BBC world book club podcast on it, which had some great ideas and has influenced some of my own analysis. If you read the book, I really recommend you listen to the podcast on it! (The link is at the bottom of the page)

Something really interesting within the novel was the main character. The main character had little emotion throughout the novel and only began to have more emotion at the very end of the novel. I have read, and at one point thought partly myself, that the protagonist was autistic or even psychopathic, but instead realised that he represented the impossibility of an ideal of human honesty. For me, the novel became an allegory for the ethical system of Kantian ethics, in the way of being honest. Of course, the protagonist didn't follow Kant's philosophy specifically (and obviously broke his 'duty' by murdering someone!) But the idea of the categorical imperative (doing x because of x, not a predicted circumstance) was carried through in the way that the protagonist was consistently honest about his actions, thoughts and emotions, to the point where he admitted his lack of emotion for the death of his mother, which influenced the decision at court because he was labelled as an emotionless man altogether. For me, it became a study of humanity in the impossibility of universal honesty, because it showed to admit certain emotions (or lack of) would lead to condemnation by society. Therefore, not only his killing of the 'Arab man' being performed without thought or consideration of the consequence, but perhaps more notably, his fulfilment of honesty in all situations, disregarding what the result of this would be. Camus may have been suggesting that humanity can not be honest at all times, because society has been formed that this is unexpected and therefore suppressed. The fact he is honest about his lack of emotion at his mothers' funeral led those judging his case to prosecute him to death. The question remains if this is more important in the judgement of his punishment than the crime itself, as although his lack of emotion for his mothers' death was disconnected completely to that of his crime, this was used as an overview of his character and applied to the judgement of the crime.

Furthermore, what struck me dramatically was the lack of description of setting, time and character within the novel. The novel was very short, and the length also echoed the lack of description of the surroundings. After recently attending a lecture from the author T.J Andrews about the importance of setting, this made me think about the lack of setting in the novel and what effect this had on the novel. In one sense, it made the novel lack context and clarity. I knew the novel was set in France, and the contextual influence became more clear after listening to the podcast (specifically the character of the 'Arab Man.') On the first appearance, the novel lacked depth because of this lack of atmosphere within it, making the tone almost neutral. However, after thinking of this further and reflecting on the novel, I think this was a really clever attribute of the novel. The neutral tone and lack of description of surroundings was an echo of the main character's lack of emotion and enjoyment in life throughout the novel. The novel is completely timeless and universal into every situation and country, and this only increased the depth of it. The notable repeated references to the 'sun' was a motif for the overpowering force of nature, and lack of free will humans ultimately have. Since all countries at all times have had and will have access to the same sun, it became representative of the setting of the novel being applicable to anywhere, and for me, represented the overpowering force of nature and reminder of the universal inevitable mortality that all humans shared. Therefore, by having a lack of description of setting, but by including the presence of the sun, which was particularly significant during the murder of the 'Arab Man', it was a reminder of the omnipresent and omnipotent nature, and timeless and universal human nature, which all shared the same ultimate end.

There has been much debate about the tone of the novel, whether it is optimistic about life or pessimistic. Throughout the novel and through the protagonist character of Meursault, it seems a reflection on the pointlessness of life, through his lack of care in his crime and the result of it. However, the critical turning point of the novel is at the end in which the priest enters the Meursaults room of waiting for his execution. The priest asks him questions about his belief in a God, and that he should hope for a life after death in the face of his mortality. However, Meursaults rejection in this belief in religion, but simultaneous joy in life and resistance to death, became significant for the idea of existentialism and purpose in life. His joy in life, and the realisation that living was a privilege, became prevalent as it was a portrayal of the idea that religion doesn't have to be the only source of hope and optimism in life. His sudden realisation of life, and the turning point of his increase in emotion and optimism, was a reflection that life itself is enough, and belief in a religion is not necessary to realise the sacredness of it or provide one with hope. I thought in this way, the novel became really optimistic by the end, because it was a humanist view of the sacredness of life and humanity. Meursaults explains 'everyone was privileged. There was no one who wasn't privileged' merely because of their opportunity to live.

Overall, this universal and timeless novel becomes a study of human nature and life itself. The optimistic rejection of religion is a really interesting approach, and the idea that there is no purpose in life becomes hopeful, as it means that the individual can create their own purpose. The study of morality is also embedded in this lack of purpose, and the idea that society creates but also rejects an ideal, in the way that when expectations of emotions and intentions are not fulfilled it becomes more threatening to other humans than physical acts themselves.

RATING: 4.5/5

link to podcast:

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