Last Look: The Stranger

Editors’ Note: For more on Commending the Classics, read Ryken on “Why Christians Should Read Camus” and his introduction to The Stranger. See also:

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Throughout my chapter-by-chapter guide through The Stranger, I have espoused the view that stories are literary wholes and that we must resist the urge to reach closure on what a book is saying until we have finished it. This is not to say that we cannot profitably raise worldview and moral vision questions along the way. If stories must be read as wholes, it is important to go one more step after we have read the last sentence. This last posting on The Stranger is a putting-it-all-together venture. Without taking this step, our experience of the story is incomplete.

In this retrospective on our analysis and discussion of The Stranger, I will pose ten clusters of questions accompanied by prompts. Then I will present catchy quotations from secular critics and Christian critics.

Question 1

In The Stranger, Camus is a storyteller first and a philosopher second. This is not a comment on the relative importance of those two but on the chronology by which we experience them. Whatever the novel says philosophically is embodied in the story. This means that we first need to absorb the story. My preferred entry point for getting a class to unify its experience of a literary author is to ask, What do you think this author is best at? With The Stranger as our example, what does Camus do best as a novelist?

Question 2

We then need to narrow the field slightly and focus on the genre of a work, in this case narrative or story. The question by which we can unfold this aspect of The Stranger is, What makes this work a triumph of storytelling? This, in turn, leads to questions about the three main ingredients of a story, starting with plot. A plot must be based on what I call “good story material,” and it must be striking, suspenseful, and gripping. What makes the plot of The Stranger successful in these and other ways? Second, the unjustifiably slighted topic in many readers’ analysis of stories is setting and atmosphere (a quality that C. S. Lewis praised in his classic essay “On Stories”). As you cast a retrospective look on The Stranger, what scenes come alive in your imagination? Third, the characters are often the central element in a story. Meursault is one of the great character creations on record, but the supporting cast in this novel turns out to be more memorable than we might have guessed. What evidence do we have in this novel for Camus’s skill at character creation?

Question 3

When I first conceptualized my guide to The Stranger, I planned to wax eloquent about the styl. I am surprised that I have not gotten to the topic until this last posting, but it is an appropriate place to raise the subject. Camus’s confidant in making The Stranger famous in its own day, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, was an enthusiast for the book’s style.  n particular, Sartre praised the spare, chiseled, often aphoristic quality of Camus’s sentences. More generally, and taking into account Camus’s way with words, descriptive flair, and simple rather than embellished style, what makes The Stranger a triumph of prose style?

Question 4

I am enthusiast for the archetypal approach to literary analysis. Archetypes are the recurrent plot motifs, character types, and images/symbols/settings of literature and life. I might have introduced archetypes more aggressively into my running commentary, but they are equally useful as a way of unifying our experience of a work as we look back. What archetypes unify The Stranger and help to give it universality? Some examples are crime and punishment, murder story, anti-hero, and trial/courtroom story. The pay-off with archetypal criticism is partly that it allows us to relate the specific instance of an archetype in the work that we are reading to other literary experiences.

Question 5

For all the narrative excellence of The Stranger, we sense that Camus composed this novel as the means of disseminating his view of the world and getting readers to agree with that vision. I have stressed three philosophic of ideational traditions at work in The Stranger: (1) naturalism, with its pessimism, emphasis on what is ugly and marginalized in society, determinism, and focus on the isolation and vicitimization of the individual; (2) absurdism, with its denial of meaning in life; and (3) existentialism, with its elevation of individual consciousness, obsession with death, rejection of Christianity, and belief that individuals must authenticate themselves in action.

Reading each of these traditions, we can profitably ask three questions: (1) What aspects of the novel embody each tradition? (2) How does Camus work out his rhetorical or argumentative or persuasive strategies for getting readers to share his commitments? How does he invent details that commend the three traditions I have named? (3) How might a Christian reader assess Camus’s philosophic positions?

Question 6

Writers work from a worldview (as just noted), but so do readers. If writers make truth claims, readers also have their standards of truth. How truthful is The Stranger? I will recall a framework that I introduced long the way: modern literature repeatedly tells us the truth (small t) without telling us the Truth (capital T, meaning the gospel and the doctrines of the Christian faith). I encourage my students not to press for a single answer to the question, Does this work tell the truth? but instead to use a flexible framework that allows us to discern potential levels of truth in literature.

At least three levels of truth are evident in The Stranger: (1) truthfulness to life and human experience (the reality principle); (2) general truth—-ideas expressed at a sufficiently general level that most people would assent to them; (3) ultimate truth, based on a worldview and moral vision. How does The Stranger present these levels of truth? I would encourage a sense of balance on the truth question: we do not need to completely reject a work whose worldview and moral vision we find deficient, and conversely we can find much common ground with works at the first two levels that I have named even if we find the worldview abhorrent. We can also affirm works with which we find ourselves in ideational conflict at the level of literary form, technique, and beauty.

Question 7

What theological doctrines of the Christian faith are most relevant to The Stranger? What doctrines provide good glosses on The Stranger, even though Camus does not signal his awareness of those doctrines?

Question 8

Is The Stranger pre-evangelistic? Is it an implied or unintended apologetic for the Christian faith? Is the book a Christ-shaped vacuum (as one commentator calls the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes)?

Question Nine

In my classes dealing with modern literature, I sometimes use the following quotation from T. S. Eliot’s essay “Religion and Literature” as a springboard for discussion: “So far as we [Christian readers] are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from what good it has to offer us.” Eliot’s statement is nicely balanced and speaks of (a) the gulf between Christians and the literature of unbelief, (b) the potential harms of such literature, and (c) the potential good that such literature stands read to offer us. What forms do these three take in The Stranger?

Question 10

We cannot make final sense of Camus and his novel without exploring what Camus meant in his own interpretation of his protagonist. The statement (one more time) is this:

The hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this respect he is foreign to the society in which he lives. . . .  He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened. . . .  One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth (Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. Philip Thody, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Alfred A. Knop, 1968, pp. 335-337).

Meursault as hero? As Christ figure? As martyr for the truth? What truth? Camus’s statement of intention tells us as much as the novel does about what Camus endorsed at this early stage (age 29) of his literary career. Left to my own designs, I would interpret The Stranger as a satire and novel of protest in which the author creates a protagonist whom we are intended to repudiate. What do we make of the fact that Camus instead offered this anti-hero as a hero?

Concluding Epigraphs

I am a devotee of catchy quotations and epigraphs, so I have collected some that can foster reflection or discussion. Because I offer them as epigraphs, I have included author and work without further documentation.

  • “Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible. . . .  Confronted with this ‘quantitative ethic’ all values collapse; thrown into this world, the absurd man, rebellious and irresponsible, has ‘nothing to justify.’”  Jean-Paul Sartre, “Camus’s The Outsider
  • “What the first readers noticed about L’Etranger . . . was its simplicity and directness. It hardly seemed to be literature, because its style was so plain, so natural, so ordinary.”  English Showalter, Jr., The Stranger: Humanitiy and the Absurd
  • “Reduced to its simplest expression, Camus’s thought is contained in a single question: What value abides in the eyes of the man condemned to death who refuses the consolation of the superantural? Camus cannot take his mind off this question.” Rachel Bespaloff, “The World of the Man Condemned to Death”
  • “Those who have read only the literary works of Albert Camus have surely been struck by the essential role which the Christian faith plays in these works. In both his novels and his plays there emerges at some point an element of Christianity, either in the form of an idea or in a person or both. . . .  It is a curious thing about the thought of Albert Camus that he has not estranged himself from Christian readers.” Thomas L. Hanna, “Albert Camus and the Christian Faith”
  • “Albert Camus: The Dark Night before the Coming of Grace?” Title of an essay by Bernard C. Murchland
  • “Christianity runs entirely contrary to any negation of the world and man; but Camus never came to know this ‘versant’ of joy and hope, illuminated by the love of God.” Jean Onimus, Albert Camus and Christianity
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