The Solitary Dystopia in Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’
Written by Tathagata Banerjee
What struck me the most from the get go of The Stranger is how unblinkingly lonely Camus’ magnum opus makes you feel. The author vocally denied the label of existentialism offered to this work, but it very much feels like one- especially in the closing lines of the novel. But first things first – the beginning.
Camus begins with a death, a death that looms large throughout the novel and comes back to haunt like ghosts usually do in the narrative’s controlled descent depicting the downward spiral of its central character. The novelist has never been famous for depicting storylines of sunshines, and The Stranger is in the same league, whispering the everyday dystopia of people who are the hollow human beings that Eliot unmistakably recognised. And yet, Camus flirts with a possible happy ending, which reminded me of Bond’s extraordinary ‘Saved’, another masterwork of day-to-day dystopia of lived nightmares which just becomes practices. Like Bond, Camus too, it seems to me, leaves the narrative open to a happy ending, open to the possibility of redemption. Like Bond, Camus (probably) hopes and believes.
The Stranger is also known as The Outsider, which to me feels apt. The narrator character of the novel is a fish out of water, never fitting in the society he lives in. Camus introduces you to him, leads you to follow him around everywhere and puts you in his shoes in a claustrophobic way. The mundaneness of everyday conversation, the banality of day-to-day play pretend become staggeringly clear throughout the narrative. It’s something the dramatists of the Theatre of The Absurd picked up in their works, with maestros like Ionesco or Beckett pointing out the rotten society that we’re too comfortable to notice. The extraordinary Badal Sarkar, whose work comes pretty close to the Absurdist theatre, brilliantly paints a similar picture in his classic, ‘Ebong Indrajit’.
The word unputdownable was introduced to me by the writings of Satyajit Ray, defining a literary work that you’re so immersed in that you literally can put it down. Camus’ novel felt the same to me as I kept going from page to page. The novel depicts a death in the beginning, and the depiction of the following funeral is unblinkingly somber. It’s the loneliness that haunted me page after page. Things fall apart, wrote Yeats, centre cannot hold. Camus talks of this fall-apart civilization which leaves everyone, at some point, alone. The existential overtones could not be more clearer, despite Camus’ own misgivings. Maybe Barthesean reading is all we have. The absurdism of the novel is quite clear too.
Camus’ narrator is the man out of touch with this reality, a hyper realist at best, a pessimist at worst. Maybe a sociopath, as it would be argued against him during the novel’s nightmarish turn of events in the second half of the narrative. The novelist, for better or worse, doesn’t take a stand. The narrator exists on his own, and the narrative remains his – quite literally. It’s all his story and his point of view; Camus doesn’t prominently offer a peak behind the curtain like the postmodernist works of Calvino or Pirandello do. The narrator’s questionable attitudes and beliefs remain unchallenged, which raises questions about authorial intentions. More on that later.
The solitariness haunts throughout. In old age homes where sons and mothers have said farewells; in a man who breaks down after loosing a pet with whom he had a hostile relation; in deaths that lead the dead and the alive both to personal journeys, alone. A sense of loss from which the novel never recovers lingers page after page, not letting you recover either. And yet, despite Camus’ insistence, there lives on a belief in company; company of humanity and divinity. The narrator denies basic emotional connections with fellow human even a bit more than it’s necessary. He denies every norm, he denies God. But even after, there are stories of old souls finding something akin to a romance in old age homes, there’s an old man loving a pet dog despite the hostility, of friends and lovers standing by people behind bars or waiting for a death penalty, of people sentenced to death finding God and redemption. Even the narrator in the closing lines of the novel – believes.
Camus’ work is also vehemently Foucaultian. A large part of the novel takes place in a jail, and moves around the circles of the judiciary. The narrative keenly observes the claim on – to borrow Foucault’s phrase – the body of the convict. The scope of the scaffold is tremendous – and justice is a slippery slope in this bleak world that the author paints. The murder is in broad daylight – literally – it’s what leads up to it that the novel deals with ; and how things come down crashing afterwards. Camus doesn’t provide his prerogative about the crime – neither condoning nor condemning – and let’s the narrative play out. For better or worse, yet again. The Foucaultian arcs are prominent, with Camus painstakingly pointing out how prison remains one striking reminder of things lived past in before times of freedom. Prison, the narrative tells you, predominantly takes away your comfort of freedom, of being able to do what you want. Justice is served beyond the sentencing, Foucault told us. Camus echoes the same.
And yet, Camus’ ambivalence towards the narrator’s words and actions are uncomfortable blindspots that can not be ignored. The narrator’s observations about womankind throughout the novel are brazenly misogynistic, and the novel’s narrative treats the woman characters with far less sympathy than its male ones, even when the aforementioned male characters are literal abusers. The Stranger’s portrayal and treatment of the Arab characters are highly problematic. Camus the man had been criticized for his Islamophobia; his fallout with Jean-Paul Sartre might have been caused in parts because of the said issue. There remains such numerous drawbacks throughout the novel.
The Stranger, in the end, is an epic of tale-tell hearts of lived nightmares. It’s a relentless dystopia which ends with hope and believe, whether Camus intends so… or not.