Famously, Camus used his novel The Stranger to explore the concept of absurdity. However, the events of the novel are far from absurd. Rather, it is a story of colonial brutality known all too intimately in Algeria.

The Stranger follows Meursault, a white French man, living in Algiers in the 1940s. The story is split into two parts and told from Meursault’s perspective through a first-person narrative. The first section begins with Meursault’s indifferent account of his mother’s death. It then follows his return to life in Algiers and the events which led him to shoot and kill an unnamed man who is referred to only as “the Arab.” In the second part, Meursault faces his trial and it unfolds that the court is more interested in his emotionless response to his mother’s death than the murder itself. Ultimately, it seems as though Meursault is sentenced to death for the fault in his character rather than for the crime he committed.

Moving to France for my year abroad, I read the original French version, L’Étranger, in an attempt to understand the French literary and philosophical moment it has come to represent. Why is The Stranger seen as one of the most important existentialist texts? And why did Camus spend so long trying to reject this interpretation of his novel?

The most well-recognised line to come from the book (other than its opening sentence) is possibly: “In our society any man who does not cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.” This is often said to encapsulate the overall message of the novel and to represent Camus’ general philosophy. See, I understand why this quote has become an extended metaphor for the absurdity of life and the social codes we must abide by, however, I feel that those who revere this particular story as the height of existentialist philosophy seem to have missed the important plot point when Meursault kills a man. Whilst I have some qualms with the judicial system, even I can admit it is not absurd that Meursault was punished for committing murder. 

The Stranger is not just a philosophical debate, it is also a piece of literary fiction and Camus’ use of unreliable narration is often overlooked. We are reading the story from Meursault’s perspective, so the trial most likely did not, in reality, go as it was told by the accused. So, for me, what is most absurd about the popular literary commentary on The Stranger is that the geopolitical context of the book is often abandoned in search of a deeper philosophical meaning plucked from the ramblings of a murder.

The book is set in Algeria in the 1940’s whilst under French colonial rule. It follows a white Frenchman who kills an Arab man, and his only defence is that, overcome by the heat of the sun, he was compelled to shoot. Clearly, colonisation and racial power dynamics are central to this story. What’s more, the topic of France’s colonial power in Algeria is not unique to The Stranger; it is central throughout most of Camus’ literary and journalistic work. Camus was born and raised in Algeria and, whilst maintaining a somewhat critical stance, he consistently expressed his support for France’s colonial hold on the country throughout his career as a political journalist. Camus was not certainly neutral on the topic of colonialism. With this in mind, it seems more fitting today to read The Stranger from a postcolonial perspective than the existentialist one that has been so over laboured. Yet, the colonial context of Camus’ novel has been almost completely lost to the interest in existentialism. 

Our disinterest in the book’s colonial context is demonstrated quite literally in the translation of its title into English. The original French title of the book is L’Étranger — for me, a perfect title. Within the word étranger, we find étrange meaning strange, bizarre, or absurd. The word étranger also refers to something or someone unfamiliar or that doesn’t belong. But probably the most common use of the word is an étranger — someone from another country. In its English translation, Camus’s work has been published under two different titles: The Outsider and The Stranger. Today, The Stranger is by far the more popular title and whilst the word is derived from the French Étranger, it simply does not have the same semantic meaning. The connotations of absurdity and unfamiliarity remain but the question of nationality is lost almost completely. The title of the novel describes Meursault and what his character represents and as he is a white Frenchman living in Algeria under colonial rule — he is not just a stranger, he is a foreigner, a coloniser.

One author however, Kamel Daoud, has provided a post-colonial response to Camus. His novel Meursault: Contre Enquete, or The Meursault Inquiry in English has to be the most meaningful literary critique of The Stranger. Daoud turns The Stranger on its head by retelling the story from the perspective of “The Arab’s” brother, Harun Uld el-Assas. His book gives Meursault’s victim a name: Musa, and with it, a story, a family, complexity, and dignity. Naming the victim removes the reader from the absurd and places us back into reality. Musa’s murder is not just a philosophical thought experiment, it is an example of very real colonial violence in Algeria. Daoud’s book explores Algeria’s geopolitical situation pre- and post-independence with nuance and complexity. He takes on themes explored in The Stranger such as religion from a new perspective. And he touches on issues neglected by Camus like the generational trauma of colonial violence. 

There is no denying the philosophical debate created by Camus is a poignant one and because of its influence on 20th century French philosophical thought, The Stranger is certainly an important read. However, this book is active in and victim to the erasure of colonialism in western thought. Just as every book is, The Stranger is a product of its historical context and to fully understand it we must read it with this in mind. So much meaning is lost when  we ignore the real social, political, and historical dynamics at play behind the story and behind the writing of a book. The conversation Daoud has created between himself and Camus has brought this context back to light. His novel demonstrates just how much more there is to be gained when The Stranger is read from a post-colonial perspective than when it is treated as a philosophical thought experiment. 









Other posts that may interest you: