Review: The Outsider by Albert Camus

6 comments

The Outsider by Albert Camus book cover
The Outsider (1942) is one of the best known existential novels, and Albert Camus's early attempt to grapple with absurdism, and relay it in an abstract, accessible form. The philosophical ruminations are embodied by Meursault, a French office worker, who appears as a blank canvas, devoid of any true emotions; existing in, but not embracing life. The novel opens with the news that Meursault's mother has died – something that he greets with his usual apathy – and goes on to describe his lack of grief at the funeral, and his subsequent fling with Marie, a young woman he takes to the pictures the day after the funeral. Later, when he is befriended by Raymond, a man of dubious character, Meursault is drawn into unpleasantness, which ends with his murdering an Arab. The second half of the novel is concerned with Meursault's subsequent trial and incarceration and, more significantly, his awakening to the absurdity of life, and his passage, in the full knowledge of death, into authentic existence.

The Outsider touches on a number of philosophical schools of thought, and Camus borrows from his forbearers, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Although Camus claimed not to be an existentialist, Meursault undoubtedly embodies the existential spirit; he recognises that life is limited to this world and that death, the fate common to all men, is inevitable and final – he embraces this and, in so doing, offers hope that a life of strict immanence may still have, albeit limited, meaning. By embracing authentic existence, Meursault sets himself apart as the outsider. Meursault’s most striking characteristic is his strict adherence to truth; he lives without motive, with a complete congruence between his thoughts and actions. In perfectly embodying one of society's moral ideals, he causes friction between himself and a hypocritical society who cannot themselves attain the standards they set. That Meursault will not make concessions, will not bring comfort to others by buying into the illusion, is the true cause of his condemnation. At the murder trial – a surreal experience – Meursault is condemned by a jury who seek to preserve their own absurd existence.

Camus was an essayist first and foremost, and his prose can appear simple, with limited descriptions or metaphors, reading more as an extended essay. However, this is hugely deceptive - there is method in the style, and indeed in the overall construction of the novel. The plot itself is perfectly balanced, split into two sections, with the decisive murder sitting right at its centre. The narrative, written in the first person, slips between past and present tense, simultaneously emphasising distance from the events, and suggesting the lack of a future from where the event might be relayed. The sentence structure is inconsistent, but generally speaking sentences are short and sharp, each existing as a solitary entity, self-contained with no future, suggesting the discontinuity of time and the idea that life, much like the novel, is a series of present moments, not a complete, coherent experience.

There are philosophical works that offer a deeper and fuller discussion of the human condition, and in comparison to these The Outsider can feel a little lightweight. However, the novel is so brilliantly constructed, the ideas presented in such an accessible and neat form, that it is undoubtedly one of the very best introductions to existentialism and the ideas surrounding absurdism and authenticity. The world that Meursault inhabits is a strange version of our own, and his attitude, his disconnect from society, strikes a chord with many, perhaps feeling most relevant to younger readers who are still developing their own perception of the world. As an introduction to the philosophical novel, The Outsider has an enduring quality, and is one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

The first time I read this it grabbed my attention. I love the simplicity of it, mixed with its relatively light philosophy. I imagine it appeals most to young men, and would thoroughly recommend it as a book that will make you think without your getting bogged down in intellectual discourse.


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6 comments:

colesk said...

The pedant in me would like to ask why it appeals to young men over young women, but then I do enjoy being difficult.

Mostly, though, I feel that this is a book I ought to have read by now, so I may have to do something about that. Your fault again! You and your 'spreading literacy'...

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Do ask. Someone's got to keep this rampant sexism in check :P Really though, I think it appeals to the rebel in young men, the desire not to conform and to be one's own man. I know plenty of free-spirited young women too, but there is a particular disconnect that is specific to young men, and I think this novel probably captures that (just as I'd say something like The Bell Jar speaks more to the disconnect that young women feel/felt).

You should definitely read it, you'll get through it in 2 hours tops. Promise.

Tara said...

Having read this and your excellent analysis, I understand a little more about why The Outsider is considered important. I think that my own dislike of all things philosophical (my head just doesn't work in that way) probably colours my impression of the novel!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for stopping by Tara - I'm glad if my review and analysis of The Outsider has led you to appreciate it a little more. I can quite see that it's not everyone's cup of tea though. There are some philosophical novels that work when they're read purely as ficiton but I don't think this is one of them.

Grace A. said...

10 out of 10, Matthew - excellent review! It's such a powerful book and the novel only appears to be simple. It's actually very well constructed where every sentence matters and some descriptions are piercingly moving e.g. the moments just before the killing.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thank you Grace :)

Completely agree with your comments about The Outsider.