In The Stranger, as in all Camus’ works, Camus’ views on freedom and death – one dependent on the other – are major themes. For Camus, freedom arises in awareness of one’s life, the every-moment life, an intense glorious life that needs no redeeming, no regrets, no tears. Death is unjustifiable, absurd; it is but a reintegration into the cosmos for a “free” man. Until a person reaches this awareness, life, like death, is absurd, and indeed, generically, life remains absurd, though each individual’s life can be valuable and meaningful to him.
In a sense, The Stranger is a parable of Camus’ philosophy, with emphasis on that which is required for freedom. Meursault, hero of The Stranger, is not a person one would be apt to meet in reality in this respect; Meursault does not achieve the awakening of consciousness, so essential to freedom and to living Camus’ philosophy until the very end of the book, yet he has lived his entire life in according with the morality of Camus’ philosophy. His equivalent in the Christian philosophy would be an irreligious person whose homeland has never encountered
upon having it explained by a missionary, realizes he has never sinned.
What is the morality, the qualities necessary for freedom, which Meursault manifested? First, the ruling trait of his character is his passion for the absolute truth. While in Meursault this takes the form of a truth of being and feeling, it is still the truth necessary to the conquest of the self or of the world. This passion is so profound that it obtains even when denying it might save his life.
Second, and not unrelated to the first, is Meursault’s acceptance of nature as what it is and nothing more, his rejection of the supernatural, including any god. Actually, “rejection” of God is not accurate until later when he is challenged to accept the concept; Meursault simply has never considered God and religion worthwhile pursuing. The natural makes sense; the supernatural doesn’t. It follows that death to Meursault also is what it is naturally; the end of life, cessation, and that is all.
Third, and logically following, Meursault lives entirely in the present. The past is past and dwelling upon it in any mood is simply a waste of the present. As to the future, the ultimate future is death; to sacrifice the present to the future is equivalent to sacrificing life to death.
Finally and obviously, since the present is his sole milieu, Meursault takes note of each moment of life; since there is no outside value system, no complex future plan, to measure against, and as a result of his passion for truth and consequently justice, he grants every moment equal importance. One moment may be more pleasurable than another, one boring, one mundane, each receives “equal time” in his narration of his life.
Meursault has one failing trait, a direct and logical result of his unconsciousness of his own view of life and philosophy of living, indifference. Perhaps because his way of life and thinking seem so natural to him, he has never considered their roots, has never confronted the absurdity of death, with the consequent recognition of the value of his life.
Out of indifference he fails to question and thereby errs out of indifference he links forces with violence and death, rather than with love and life. As a result of indifference, he kills a man.
Meursault kills a man and is brought to trial. But in truth he is not tried for murder, nor for his error, he is tried for his virtue. Here Camus shows how many men fear the absurd, refuse – not to accept it – to confront it at all. Instead they make compromises with it, grant it importance and supernatural meaning, and live for it. The result is lives built on sham, hypocrisy, paper scaffolding. The natural man, the man of truth and reality, can only threaten their authority, the very fragile web of their lives, that is, his very existence may force them to see through themselves. It is for this that they condemn Meursault to death.
Faced with the guillotine, Meursault is forced to confront death, his own death. Through the horror and desperation, he discovers absurdity, the inevitability and injustice of death, the meaninglessness of it, the unimportance. All this has been implicit in
Meursault. Now it is conscious. Now Meursault is on the verge of true freedom.
The intrusion into his cell of the prison chaplain precipitates Meursault’s achievement of total freedom. By the time the chaplain enters, Meursault has confronted death, and is aware of its universal inevitability and of its meaninglessness. In the face of the chaplain’s incessant attempt to push on Meursault, his God, his guilt, his hypocrisy, Meursault finally revolts – against the chaplain, against hypocrisy, against death. In an instant, “all thoughts that had been simmering in my brain” explode into consciousness and Meursault is finally aware.
At last fully conscious of himself, of death, and of his life, Meursault can measure fully the values present at every moment of life. Time, always the present to him, now in awareness becomes a miraculous present, rich in beauty, friendship, and love. He feels the “absurd” and simultaneously his innocence. Knowing now the indifference of the universe, facing death full of love of life, full of the joy of knowing that he had been happy and is happy still. Meursault
understands that the guillotine provides his ultimate justification; for in death alone man accomplishes his human destiny.
If we consider The Stranger as a parable, its lesson is evident, Cling passionately to life as the only positive value existing in a form we can recognize. As soon as we rebel and protest against the absurd, we become in full possession of the life here and now that is ours, that is the only one we have. It is a “gospel of happiness.”
For the revolt against the absurd so central to Camus’ concepts of freedom and life is no hopeless struggle, no flailing at windmills. Camus’ revolt seeks no hope, no reward, but to prove human splendor.