Ennui Up The Ying-Yang

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Title: The Stranger

Rating: 4 Stars

Despite large chunks of the book taking place in very bright light (literally), this is a very dark book.

It features Meursault, a person that is completely detached from society. His mother dies, and he takes work off and attends the funeral, not because he feels any great loss, but because it is his accepted duty, and he does his duty, although he gets no feeling or satisfaction out of it.

The day after the funeral, he meets up with a occasional female contact, and starts up a love affair. She showers love upon him and wants to marry him. He refuses to say that he loves her, doesn’t really believe in love, and agrees to marry her pretty much because he sees no reason not to.

He meets with some friends and they vacation on the beach. On the beach, the friend is attacked by an Arab. Later, Meursault takes a gun and accidentally comes upon the Arab again. Without emotion or even thought, he shoots and kills the Arab.

At the trial, much is made of his disconnectedness from social norms. On the basis of that, the prosecutor essentially accuses him of being an animal that is a menace to society and urges him to be put down. The judge agrees and condemns Meursault to death.

While in prison, he just idly wastes his time. He does not seem to particularly miss freedom, just as he doesn’t seem to particularly miss jail. He would prefer to be free, but makes no serious attempt to obtain it.

His only emotional outburst comes when the prison priest comes to try to convince him to follow the path of God. Meursault lashes out at the priest to say that all that he knows is the meaningless of existence, which allows no room for the belief of God. After that outburst, he is again at peace and awaits his execution.

This book left a couple of echoes in my head. The most obvious one is existentialism. That is pretty obvious, since Sartre help popularize The Stranger and wrote a critical analysis of it. Like existentialism, there is a rejection of God and an embracing of the absolute freedom of human life / choice, which instead of being the liberating act that most would think, it is actually a severely depressing, horrifying glimpse into the void. Where this is no God, there is no meaning. Hence the title of Sartre’s seminal work, Nausea.

I also felt an echo back to various writings of Kafka. Clearly he too wrote about the alienation of the human condition in the 20th century. Where he differs from Camus is that his protagonists often try to fit in / make their way through a society that is dead set against letting them in. Think of Joseph K, arrested on the first page of The Trial, trying to wend his way through a justice system that has no rhyme or reason. Think of K, in The Castle, being assigned to be a land surveyor for a castle and, despite multiple attempts, can’t even get inside the Castle to start his job. In both cases (of course, depending upon the edition you get because Kafka didn’t finish either), the men die before reaching their goal.

The Stranger is similar but different. Meursault is also divorced from society. In his case, it is by his choice. If he were to simply change his ways and become more like everyone else, he would get along fine. There is something inside of him that refuses to acquiesce. It is this refusal that ultimately will bring about his death.

The final echo was to Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener. Bartleby is a clerk that initially works hard. He then stops working. When asked to do a task, he replies “I would prefer not to”. His boss, not knowing what to do and not having the courage to fire him, ends up moving his office to escape him. Bartleby stays in the office. The new proprietor moves in and has Bartleby carted off to jail, where he dies.

This is closer in meaning to The Stranger. Bartleby is also someone that essentially removes himself from society. Like Meursault, his protest is passive, not active, but refusing to work is definitely defying a key tenet of a capitalist society. Like Meursault and the Kafka characters, he ultimately pays for his social transgression with his life.

Or, to put it simply, as any number of rock bands can tell you, I fought the law and the law won.

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