“The Stranger”

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This classic of French existentialism is a surprisingly short read. It comes in two parts; the first part sets the stage, the second part contains most of the philosophical action.

The protagonist commits murder in an inexplicable act. There is no reason given; the reader knows the events leading up to the shooting, but we are shielded from the protagonist’s inner feelings. Later in the book, the protagonist blames the sun itself.

Existentialism in The Stranger reminded me too much of Stoicism and not enough of Bhuddism. I know that sounds strange; I wanted Camus’ hero to have more depth and subtly. Instead – and as much as I might agree with Camus – I felt that the basic, root idea of existentialism was a sort of hard-headed “this is what we know: we had better get on with it”. Fine: I do think that there are a lot of people out there that need to hear this. But I craved more; more of a system, less of a gruff admonition.

The Stranger is also interesting because of its depiction of race, law and order in French Algeria, right before the Algerian War of Independence got started in earnest. It is an Arab that the protagonist shoots after all.

Second, the protagonist to a certain extent – a very small extent – could be read as processor to the alienated, angry young men that our society churns out by the thousands. He’s distant and cold; on one level a very rational person, but on the other fairly emotional. He does what he wants to do and accepts the consequences.

My feeling is that there are probably better works on existentialism out there somewhere.

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