Flowing through nearly any literary work can be found a set of “universal values”, which help to influence the theme of a work and, to a large degree, alter the plot as a whole. While it is true that many works share these values and qualities, it is also true that these values differ greatly depending on the work at hand. Take, for example, The Stranger, written by Albert Camus. The universal values that appear within the Stranger are somewhat complex, yet they have a tremendous influence on not only the actions of the characters themselves but on the plot as a whole.
To understand the values that lie within The Stranger, it becomes necessary to look within the philosophical beliefs of Camus himself. If one delves into Camus’ essays and other works, his ideas and philosophy regarding the notion of “absurdity” and “irrationality” become quite clear. Note that in his essay, “The Absurd Man”, Camus writes that “I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note everyday that integrity has no need of rules.” It is within the truth of that statement that many of the intricate events, which occur in the The Stranger, can be understood and analyzed. Certainly, the main universal theme running through The Stranger, and indeed, most of Camus’ work is the notion of absurdity, or the irrationality of the universe as a whole. In fact, there are many instances within The Stranger which seek to shed light on the true theme which resides in the novel.
Of especially interesting note, with regard to the theme of absurdity, is the latter half of the book. Beginning with Meursalt’s murder of the Arab, there is a constant attempt to give definition or meaning to that which, quite simply, has no rational order, at least in the perceived manner of sequence or rationality. Early signs, however, come from the lack of grief that Meursalt shows at his mother’s death and subsequent funeral. In his essay, “The Myth of Sysiphus”, Camus explores the notion that in contemplating torment, one “silences all the idols”. Note that certain parallels can also be drawn to Sysisphus, whom Camus calls the “absurd hero”, and to the character of Meursalt. In the same way that Meursalt may be called an “irrational” or perhaps simple character, so is Sysiphus doomed to forever lead a simple existence, rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it fall back down. Yet, for all his struggles, Camus also writes that “one must imagine Sysiphus happy”. Surely this is puzzling. Also of great interest is the happiness that Meursalt finds at the conclusion of the novel. Is not Meursalt doomed in the same manner as Sysiphus? Camus, however, chooses to explore the idea that both of these characters are “happy”. Therein lies the connection to the universal value that runs throughout nearly all of Camus’ work. It is only through the common thread of absurdity that one can hope to explain the feelings of Meursalt.
In his essays, Camus explores to a great degree the notion that “innocence” or “guilt” or even “reason” are meaningless values. It seems that Meursalt, in turn, acts as a vehicle for these ideas, perhaps displaying what comes of one who lives their life based only on the irrationality of the world. The persistent lack of reason or consideration that seems to follow Meursalt’s actions are a direct impact of the idea of “absurdity” on the plot. The idea that Meursalt’s actions are based on the notion of absurdity has substantial evidence to support it. Meursalt fails to show any emotion at his mother’s death, instead, he naps frequently during the opening pages and relishes his time away from work. Such actions would seem curious for any man, yet such behavior falls perfectly within the bounds of the absurd man. Much of the lack of emotion that Meursalt feels throughout the novel can be contributed to the continuation of the absurdity philosophy into the ideals that human life is, essentially, meaningless.
Further support of such an idea can be found in the lack of Meursalt’s regret over killing an innocent man for no apparent reason. Even more interesting is Meursalt’s reaction over Marie’s marriage proposal. Although he accepts, it is clear that he does not do so out of love or any true reason at all. Also, later in the novel, Meursalt blames the death of the Arab simply on the intense heat of the day, he accepts no notion as to the ideas of either “guilt” or “innocence”, the lack of which is an essential part of absurdity or irrationality. Thus, it seems that absurdity is the universal value, which runs throughout this novel.
With deeper regards to the plot itself, it can be argued that these values of absurdity, of which Meursalt seems to fully embody, are the principle motivators of any action or reaction that occurs within the novel. Ironically enough, it is the philosophy of irrationality which gives rationality or at least action to the world of The Stranger. If any further proof is needed of the presence of absurdity within The Stranger, surely it can be found in the realizations that occur to Meursalt as the novel draws to a conclusion. Despite the chaplain’s many attempts to turn Meursalt to religion to give him happiness or meaning, or perhaps even to teach him the idea of regret, it is only when Meursalt comes to the conclusion that all is meaningless and “opened [himself] up to the gentle indifference of the world” that he feels happiness again. He even says that “Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife”. At the very end of the novel, Meursalt continues a constant stream of questions as to why anything, anything at all should matter or why anything even mattered to him in the first place. His questions and rants could easily be conceived as the desperate cries of the condemned, yet, one senses something deeper in his thoughts and actions, within his questions and their subsequent answers lies the philosophy of the absurd laid bare to both the readers and Meursalt at the same time. Perhaps the greatest testament to the idea of irrationally is the realization by Meursalt that “nothing, nothing mattered.”