A man commits murder on a beach, and is tried by a murderous jury.
In Camus’ own words, this is “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” The new translation from French by Matthew Ward holds nothing back: with the lean macho pen of Hemingway, Camus’ voice is given pointed flesh in English, the language I read it in. But if you’re confused by the novella, you’re not alone. I found it rewarding to read it with my English class, and discover the madness with my peers. The premise is clean--a man, Monsieur Meursault, finds himself at his mother’s funeral, for whom he feels no grief for, indeed, just a bit of impatience. He comes across various neighbors, for whose vices he feels no guilt, and in the first half of the novella, you might find yourself villainizing the man, for all his aimlessness and apathy.
Then five bullets are fired into a man’s body, and Meursault is put on trial. Yes, he did it and the man is dead, but he can’t understand what they’re all mad at him for. The judgment of the masses turns out to be more warping than the inherently spoiled nature of man; namely, this everyman. Meursault finds himself in a room of condemning eyes and ears who downright “hate” him. The tables are flipped with startling motion sickness. You realize the ridiculousness of his trial may very well outweigh his murder, which was senseless enough.
Camus’ novella is profound because it’s simple. You are in Meursault’s heavy boots for the entirety of the book, even as he is estranged by society, and find yourself revolted, sympathetic, and confused again. It’s about deep themes that weave in and out of simple events, and after reading it once, you feel like you’re only scratching the surface. What is the voice of one man against a deaf crowd? Meursault’s crippling loneliness is as isolated as the black and white circus stripes on the cover. The novella is dead serious until it’s not, and words start to curl at the edges. And in the end, his trial is the sentence of man. He is the stranger--though the title, L’étranger, also translates to “the foreigner” from French--after all.