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Albert Camus and The Outsider

Garry Gillard, 1975

H121 Introduction to World Literature
Lecture 12: Albert Camus and The Outsider
This was the first lecture I gave at a university.

Most people would agree that Albert Camus's The Outsider is a philosophical novel. And, as Maurice Natanson says: 'A philosophical novel is about itself, it is a meta-literary performance which reveals the triple bond that compels author, characters and reader to come to terms with each other.' (1962: 141) Thus it is essential, to achieve a full understanding of such a work, to have some knowledge of the life and ideas of the author, and their relationship to the world in which he and his readers live.

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in a small village in Algeria; and though he was to spend most of his working life in France, in some important senses he always remained an Algerian. When he returned, in 1953, to the North African city of his youth, he remembered an essential part of himself:

I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the daylight that escapes injustice and return to the fight having won that light. Here once more I found the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my good fortune, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of this sky had never left me. It was this which in the end had saved me from despair ... In the middle of winter, I at last learned that there was in me an invincible summer. (1970: 152)

It is this 'invincible summer' in Camus which may be seen as the essence of his youth in the North African sun, despite his experience of material poverty.

This poverty was mainly due to the death of his father, who, being intensely patriotic to the French cause, had enlisted as soon as war broke out in 1914, and was killed at the battle of the Marne. His mother Cathérine, whose maiden name was Sintès, brought her young family to live with her own widowed mother in the working-class district of Belcourt in Algiers. Thus the young Albert was brought up by two women, of whom the elder was the dominating tyrant; especially as Cathérine went out to work as a charwoman to provide for her two small sons, leaving them in her mother's care. In an early 'lyrical essay' called 'Irony', published in 1937, Camus draws an unlovely picture of a tyrannical grandmother, who is probably based on his recollection of Madame Sintès. (I draw attention to the family name in this way because it is identical with that of Raymond, the unpleasant character in The Outsider.) In this short excerpt from the essay, one is probably justified in seeing the 'child' as the young Albert.

The old woman would wait until there were visitors and would then ask, looking at him severely, 'Whom do you like best? Your mother or your grandmother?' She enjoyed it more when her daughter herself was there. For in every case the child would always reply, 'My grandmother', with a great upsurge of love in his heart for his ever silent mother. Then, when the visitors were surprised at this preference, the mother would says: 'It's because she was the one who brought him up.' (1970: 35)

Significant in this passage is the inability of the boy to express honestly his love for his submissive mother. The problematic nature of familial ties, for this fatherless, dominated boy, becomes a theme which runs through the imaginative works. The mother-son relationship, for example, is essential to The Outsider.

Despite these circumstances, and the poverty already mentioned, Camus did not become bitter or resentful, and in fact led a full and happy life. He was a successful student and was very keen on sports, especially swimming and football, and kept goal for a leading team from 1928 to 1930. He devoted much of his time and energy during these two years to football, and later wrote in a letter that it was on the football field that he had taken his only lessons in ethics. However, in 1930 something occurred which brought an end to this intensely physical existence and also effectively prevented Camus's studies from reaching their logical conclusion of admitting him to a career in university teaching: he had an attach of tuberculosis which nearly killed him. This had an effect which we may conjecture was as profound on his thinking as on the conduct of his daily life. It was a confrontation with the ultimate boundary situation - death.

It was no longer possible unreflectingly to lead the idyllic existence which Camus evokes, in an essay published nine years after this first illness, in the most lyrical terms:

At the hour when the sun overflows from every corner of the sky, the orange canoe loaded with brown bodies brings us back in a mad race. And when suddenly ceasing the rhythmic beat of the fruit-coloured double paddle, we glide slowly into the calm water of the inner harbour, how can I not be sure that I am piloting through the smooth waters a savage cargo of gods in whom I recognise my brothers. (1970: 83-4)

Only the intense memory of the experience was now permitted. But if he was forced to become a spectator, as far as games were concerned, Albert was a passionate one. And there was one area in which he could still be an actor - the theatre. In 1934, Camus joined the Communist Party, but left it again in the following year as a protest at the foreign policy of the USSR with regard to the natives Algerians. It was, however, during this brief period with the Party that he was instrumental in founding what was initially called the Théâtre du Travail, or Workers Theatre, in Algiers. The theatre and acting were to be central interests throughout Camus's life, both in a practical sense, and in a philosophical one, as we shall see.

Then in 1937 he became a journalist, joining 'the finest profession that I know' as he later called it. He actually began work as a literary critic, reviewing, among other books, Sartre's La Nausée, but it is significant that it was the left-wing paper Alger-Républicain that he joined, and he also wrote articles of political content. These tend however to indicate a belief in a justice which might be achieved within existing democratic institutions, rather than a desire to see radical changes. Camus was always a moral philosopher, rather than a social one, and adopted a position of personal revolt rather than social revolution.

1937 brings us to the period of Camus' life in which we are particularly interested. In the few years before this year, Camus travelled a good deal, and began to think about The Outsider, and The Myth of Sisyphus, although he actually wrote them in 1939-1940, and they were not published until 1942. The Myth of Sisyphus is a long essay and a major statement of Camus's moral position, which ought therefore to shed some light on the philosophical novel which was being written at the same time. Although it would be naive to assume that the tale The Outsider was merely a putting-into-practice of the ideas in the philosophical essays, it would be just as naive to go to the other extreme and make out that there was no connexion between the two. Let us, therefore, examine The Myth of Sisyphus.

The book opens provocatively with: 'There is only one really serious philosophical problem: that of suicide.' But it soon becomes clear that the true subject is not suicide as an achieved act, but as the hypothetical consequence of a particular world-view: that the world is absurd. As Camus says: 'The subject of this essay is precisely the relation between the absurd and suicide, the exact measure in which suicide is a solution to the absurd.'

What is the absurd? For Camus, it is the 'divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting' which 'is precisely the feeling of absurdity.' Or, at more length: 'It happens that the stage-sets collapse. Get up, tram, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday in the same rhythm, this road is easily followed most of the time. But one day the why appears and
everything begins in that weariness tinged with astonishment.' This sense of the absurd, this question which suddenly poses itself may arise in a number of ways. Firstly, one may become aware of the passing of time: 'We live in the future: 'tomorrow'; 'later on'; 'when you get a job'; 'when you're older, you'll understand it'. This inconsequence is admirable, since after all it is a question of dying. This awareness of the passing of time, which implies the finitude of our time, the death which awaits all of us, forces reconsideration of all morality: 'No ethics, no effort are a priori justifiable in the face of the bloody mathematics that order our condition.' (The implied absurdity of all moral absolutes, in the face of death, tends to create problems
for those readers of The Outsider who want to see it as an 'immoral' work.)

Secondly, one may come to have a sense of alienation - from the world, from the people in it, even from oneself: '... the stranger who, at certain brief moments, comes towards us in a mirror, the familiar yet disquieting brother we recognize in our own photographs, that too is the absurd.' I may point out here that the translation 'outsider' is a rather clever attempt to encompass several of the meanings of the original 'étranger', which could also be rendered 'stranger', 'foreigner', or 'alien'. Perhaps the mere use of this word in the title of the English version goes some way towards accounting for some peculiarly obsessive interpretations of the book, of which Colin Wilson's in his book of the same name is an example.

It is not, however, Camus's business in The Myth of Sisyphus to delineate the absurd as a philosophy. It is perhaps for this reason that he specifically says he is not an existentialist although in an overall view he certainly occupies a significant position in existentialist thought. In fact, as he said in an interview in 1945, 'the only book concerned with ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, the essay consisted in an attempt to discover whether 'within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.'

To become aware of the absurd is to become aware of 'walls'. There is no escape from the meaninglessness of our human lives. Any philosophical explanation is a projection of the 'nostalgia' of the human mind in search of a lost unity. Nor is suicide an escape, because to commit suicide is to admit tacitly that death has meaning, and it is precisely the absurdity of death which overwhelms us with the feeling of the absurd. Revolt against death is the only possible human attitude.

And it is 'absurd man' in Camus's terms who takes up this attitude. He is a man without nostalgia, who has accepted his prison walls, and is passionately involved in life; he is the enemy of death. 'Walls' may suggest a joyless, hopeless attitude to life. This is not the case. Within the walls of his limited life, 'absurd man' finds inexhaustible possibilities, which, within the limits of his mortality, he is free to accept.

Camus gives us four examples in The Myth of Sisyphus of heroes of the absurd, though he suggests that even the most humble person - Meursault perhaps - can live la vie absurde - the absurd life. Don Juan, the actor, the adventurer and the creator are the heroes. Since 'no ethics ... are justifiable' it is impossible for absurd man to live qualitatively a life dedicated to a particular moral excellence; all that he can do is, like the actor, like Don Juan, like an adventurer, or explorer live quantitatively as many roles, as many life-experiences as he can. The creator and Camus is thinking here of the creative writer similarly re-enacts his life over and over again - in his writings - as a protest, a revolt against his human fate.

Sisyphus is the mythic hero of the absurd. 'The gods', recounts Camus, 'had condemned Sisyphus ceaselessly to roll a rock to the top of the mountain from which the rock rolled back by its own weight. They had thought, with some reason, that no punishment is worse than a task that is useless and without hope.' Sisyphus was punished because, having been permitted to return to life for a short period, he found it so desirable that he failed to keep his word to return, voluntarily, to Hades. Camus saw Sisyphus as an allegory (used in a loose sense) of the absurd life 'as much because of his passions as because of his torment. His disdain for the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life caused the ineffable torment in which all one's being is utilized to achieve nothing. This is the price one must pay for the passions of the earth.'

Before going on to say something about The Outsider, I should first like to refer to Karl Jaspers (author of Existenzphilosophie, published in 1938), who has already been mentioned in an earlier lecture in this course. Albert Camus mentions him too, in The Myth of Sisyphus, in these terms: '... he is evoking ... those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. ... At the last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. ... The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions.' Camus is here describing in the particular context of suicide what Jaspers calls Grenzsituationen, or 'border' or 'boundary situations'. Man experiences his finitude as boundaries, which are similar to Camus's 'absurd walls'. Authentic experience will push back these limits, of which death is one of the most dramatic, and then accept and bear them. The thought of death is a source of anxiety, but it also elevates the spirit because it emphasizes the urgency of living authentically without postponement. Consciousness of the inevitable presence of death gives man courage and integrity: it gives him an authentic perspective on the things that matter most. Perhaps I might point out here that Meursault's name contains 'meure' perhaps from 'je meure' - 'I die' and 'sault' or 'saut' - a leap'. The name might thus contain the idea of radical change of direction in the face of death.

It is heavily ironical, for one who thought so deeply about the absurdity of life as confronted by death, that Camus's own death should have been absurdly futile. Having survived tuberculosis and work in the Résistance during the war, Camus died in 1960, not by his own hand, but in a car accident. In his clothing after his death was found a valid train ticket for the same journey. Evidently he had decided at the last moment to go by car.

Perhaps the best introduction to the central idea of The Outsider is that actually written by Camus himself for the American edition of 1955. As it is quite succinct, I shall give it in full.

I summed up The Outsider a long time ago by a remark which I agree was highly paradoxical: 'In our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.' All I meant was that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not stick to the rules. In this respect he is foreign to the society in which he lives, he wanders about on the fringe, in the suburbs of private, solitary, sensual life. And this is why readers have been tempted to look upon him as a piece of social wreckage. A much more accurate idea of the character, or at least one much closer to the author's intentions, will emerge if it is asked just how Meursault refuses to conform. The reply is a simple one: he refuses to lie. To lie is not only to say what is not the case. It also, above all, means saying more than is the case, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, more than we feel. It is what we all do, every day, to simplify life. Meursault, contrary to appearances, does not want to simplify life. He says what he is, he refuses to exaggerate his feelings, and immediately society feels itself threatened. He is asked, for example, to say that he regrets his crime in the approved manner. He replies that what he feels is not so much true regret as a certain boredom. And this shade of meaning condemns him.

Meursault, for me, is thus not a piece of social wreckage, but a man who is naked and poor, in love with the sun that leaves no shadows. Far from being empty of all feelings, he is inspired by a passion which is deep because it is stubborn, a passion for the absolute and for truth. This truth is still a negative one, the truth of what we are and what we feel, but without it no conquest of ourselves or of the world will ever be possible.

One would therefore not be much mistaken in reading The Outsider as the story of a man who, with no heroics, accepts to die for truth. I have also happened to say, still paradoxically, that I had tried to present in my character the only Christ whom we deserve. It will be understood after my explanations that I said this with no blasphemous intent, and solely with the slightly ironic affection which an artist has the right to feel for the characters he has created. (1982: 118-9)

These then are some of the idea of which Albert Camus was thinking at the time at which he wrote The Outsider, and what he thought of it at a later date. But a novel is, before anything else, narrative. It is not primarily, nor even necessarily, a vehicle for ideas. In what ways can a novel convey ideas, and how does this one in particular? I should like to offer one or two indications.

Firstly, and most obviously, the novel may contain statements of ideas made by a narrator or by a presented character. In this context, the reader is directed to look closely at the tirade which Meursault pours out at the prison chaplain near the end of the book. As Camus himself points out, this is 'the sole moment when this character talks about himself and entrusts something of his secret to the reader...'

However, the reader is directed not only by such remarks as these, but by certain features of the novel itself. Let us briefly examine some features of the novel's form.

The narrative situation firstly, plays a large part in influencing the kind of meaning available to the reader. That the narration throughout is given in the first-person by Meursault himself tends to make the reader sympathetic to his point of view, thus creating at least a suitable emotional climate favourable to the acceptance of the viability of his way of being in the world. Thus the points of view of such people as the examining magistrate and the prison chaplain, which in another context might be seen as normal, conventional views, here seem perverse and deceitful. Many readers of course, particularly those Anglo-Saxons who are used to a character in a fiction being a recognisable human being first and an idea second, may resist this tendentiousness, and the resulting tension may result in their rejecting the book out of hand as a nihilistic counsel of despair. However, many readers will allow the book's rhetoric to work in the way its author intended.

The place of the narrator in relation to the time of the action, his temporal locus, is also interesting. The beginning of the book is like an entry in a journal written in the evening and recording the events of the day: 'Aujourd'hui ... j'ai reçu un telegramme de l'asile...' The tense used in the French supports this initial reading: it is the present perfect tense, not the tense conventionally used in the writing of fiction and history, but that used to convey the relatively recent past, in conversations, letters and journals. However, although the second paragraph speaks of the funeral in the future tense, in the next one it is already in the past. This indicates that it is not a question of a journal, but of an interior monologue which sets the author free to vary the temporal locus, not only to suit his aesthetic sense, but also to draw the response of the reader in closer at significant moments. In the first part of the book a relatively close temporal locus is maintained. Each of the first four chapters begins with a reference to 'today', and a fairly detailed account is given of those days. In the fifth chapter, the pace quickens a little, consistent with the temporal locus of the narrator drawing away. This prepares for a crescendo effect at the end of the first part when tone, atmospheric details and a slowing of pace achieve the effect of a closeness in space and time of the narrator to the experience. I refer of course to the scene of the shooting.

In the second part the temporal locus is drawn away as several months are covered; until the final chapter, when we are offered a sense of the present again: 'For the third time I have refused to see the chaplain.' The chapter concludes with the most intense writing in the book for the encounter of Meursault with the chaplain, and, as it were, with himself. We leave the narrator, where we must, in a present time that, we are to presume, immediately precedes his death.

But the feature which most specifically directs the reader's attention to the meaning is the variation in the narrator's tone. Most of the narrative is given in a flat, terse manner, with the notable exceptions of several passages where the writing becomes more dense and colourful. Significantly, each of these passages occurs at the moment of the kind of confrontation we may call a 'boundary situation'.

At the end of the description of his mother's funeral, the pace picks up, and it seems to Meursault that, as he says, 'everything went with such a rush and with such natural inevitability that I no longer remember anything about it'. He retains a few impressions however: Perez' 'ruined face', with its 'glazing' of tears; the latter's fainting-fit: 'he crumpled up like a dislocated marionette'; and the 'blood-coloured earth' mixed with the 'white flesh of the roots' which fell on his mother's coffin - death very much in the midst of life (which I might point out are completely absent in the Stuart Gilbert translation).

I have already referred to the passage of writing which ends the First Part and which parallels the ending of the Second. I want now to draw your attention to a passage more easily overlooked. It is the ending of the third chapter of Part Two, where Meursault is being taken back to prison in the interval between two days of the trial. He conveys in a gentle and understated lyricism the impression made upon him, as he says, by hearing 'all the familiar sounds of a town which I used to love and of a certain time of day when I'd always felt happy.' This recalls another parallel passage, that at the end of Chapter Two of Part Two, where Meursault stands on his balcony and describes the changing scene. There is an important difference between these two passages, the same difference as between the other pair of scenes: in the first, Meursault merely relates what he perceives; in the second, he is aware of his perceptions and of the effect which they have on him. In the prison van, he is quite literally in a boundary situation. The freedom which he has lost now becomes tangible, and he becomes aware of the value of that freedom, and of the life which he previously led. I see this as a turning-point in the development of Meursault, and as a preparation for the denouement, both in a psychological sense, in that it becomes more plausible, and in a philosophical sense, in that the new attitude which Meursault discovers in himself is latent in, or embodied in, the way he now experiences life.

Let us now finally attempt to bring together the two figures of Sisyphus and Meursault. Should we regard the latter in the light of Camus's Foreword as a hero of the absurd, as symbolised by the former? Camus at the end of his essay leaves Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. I think this is where we might also leave Meursault, seeing him not as an achieved hero, but as one who has only just become aware of the capacity in himself for heroism.

One must imagine Meursault, like Sisyphus, as being happy.


Camus, Albert 1970 [1937], 'Irony', Selected Essays and Notebooks, ed. tr. Philip Thody, Penguin: 29-37.

Camus, Albert 1970 [1939], 'Summer in Algiers', Selected Essays and Notebooks, ed. tr. Philip Thody, Penguin: 81-91.

Camus, Albert 1983 [1942], The Outsider, Penguin, tr. Joseph Laredo, first publ. 1982, Hamish Hamilton, London.

Camus, Albert 2006 [1943], The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, tr. Justin O'Brien, Penguin [Viking].

Camus, Albert 1970 [1954], 'Return to Tipasa', Selected Essays and Notebooks, ed. tr. Philip Thody, Penguin: 147-154.

Camus, Albert 1955, 'Preface' to The Outsider, American University Edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, republ. as an 'Afterword' to the Penguin edition in the Laredo translation (1982).

Jaspers, Karl 1938, Existenzphilosophie [Philosophy of Existence], tr. 1971.

Natanson, Maurice 1962, 'Albert Camus: Death at the Meridian', Literature Philosophy & the Social Sciences: Essays in Existentialism and Phenomenology, Nijhoff, Hague.

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