‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

One of the great novels of existential philosophy, Camus is seen as the conscience of existentialism (a view he personally rejected).

In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.

An ordinary man, Meursault, an indifferent French settler in Algeria, takes time off work to travel to his mother’s funeral. Elderly, she has lived in a care home, a place Mersault has only occasionally visited. At the overnight vigil, he drinks a coffee and takes a cigarette with the janitor of the home. There are no tears or expected signs of grief.

A few weeks later he murders a man. It is almost irrelevant as to the man’s identity (a local Arab and the brother of a friend’s girlfriend): the emotional detachment to the world around him creates a sense of purposelessness. Not even the relationship with Marie, a former secretary at his place of work and who he bumped into the day he arrived back in Algeirs after his mother’s funeral, ignites any emotional response. It’s the existential view that we’re born without purpose into a world that makes no sense: whilst Mersault has the ability to create his own sense of meaning, it’s ultimately meaningless. A chance of being transferred to Paris or marry Marie are both met with equal indifference. Mersault agrees if it makes the other party happy.

Part two of Camus’ short novel sees Mersault imprisoned – awaiting trial and, denounced at trial for his lack of empathy and remorse, awaiting his execution.

The Outsider (L’Etranger) is a deceptively simple novella, told in matter-of-fact prose but which is ultimately rich in its hidden values and meanings. Frequently compared to/with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Meursault is indifferent to both his actions and their consequences, whilst Raskalnikov is riddled with remorse and guilt.