The Outsider was one of those books I always intended to read, but had somehow let it fall to the bottom of my ever-growing “to be read” pile. When I finally got around to it, I was completely blown away by the depth of its meaning.
This is the tale of a man (named Meursault) who commits murder one glorious summer’s day and goes to trial, but not for the crime he has committed.
Meursault is fascinating because he’s not a fully developed protagonist, but one which was created as an experiment. This is evident from the beginning of the novel. When Meursault learns of his mother’s death, he approaches the entire experience in a carefree manner. He acts in a way that’s contrary to what’s considered decent and proper to society; he drinks cafe au lait and smokes cigarettes in the presence of his dead mother, he declines to see his mother’s body before the funeral, and when he returns home he meets his girlfriend Marie and goes swimming, has sex and then watches a comedy with her.
Propriety does not rule his behaviour.
He is purely a sensual being; one of physical pleasure.
A few days later, he and a friend are involved in an altercation on the beach with a group of men. The friend, Raymond, ends up wounded with a knife during the fight. As Meursault wanders down the beach later on, alone, he encounters one of the men. Under the blazing heat of the sun, Meursault sees the flash of a knife. He shoots the man, killing him, but then goes on to shoot the lifeless body four more times.
Meursault is incarcerated for the murder of “the Arab”, but he is not persecuted for the murder of a man, but for the murder of a principle.
Throughout his court trial and hearing, it is continually brought up that he did not weep at his mother’s funeral. The emphasis was laid upon his emotionless state before and during the funeral, as well as his activities later that day. The man he had murdered was rarely brought up, except to lay the charges down; the Arab’s name is never even mentioned during the trial and his associates weren’t brought in as witnesses of the altercation which occurred on the day of the murder.
This deliberate omission shows exactly why Meursault is being judged: church and state are one and the same here, and its judgments deem that Meursault is a destroyer of its morals. He does not act the way they expect people to act and he does not feel the way he is meant to be feeling.
After Meursault is condemned to death, a priest attempts to persuade him of the importance of prayer and belief in the afterlife. He even offers his own prayers, refusing to believe in Meursault’s love of this life and this life alone.
But Meursault realises the benign indifference of the universe.
He experiences a metaphysical revolt.
At that moment Meursault chooses death rather than death in life. He comes to the conclusion that there’s no importance or meaning in life and that every man will die, whether good or bad, religious or not. In his eyes, the priest and everyone who “like him, call themselves my brothers” are all condemned too. In the end, Meursault refuses to sacrifice his life to something that is an imaginary concept, enforced upon society, with no true sense or reason.
He is a man who has chosen to live for the sake of living.
And that’s why this book is such an important read for both students of literature and philosophy. If I could sum it up in three words, they would be:
Thoughtful. Provocative. Absurd.