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The Stranger | Context

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Atheism and Alienation

The novel's protagonist, Meursault, presents the atheist view that God does not exist. This view had strong support historically among some of France's leading thinkers. During the 18th century, some French priests and philosophers both secretly and publicly began challenging traditional religious beliefs as they explored ideas regarding civil rights. During the French Revolution, an atheist state ruled briefly. By the 19th century, the work of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck influenced the work of scientist Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary ideas inspired many atheists. Camus's character of Meursault does not believe in God. Because of his atheism, he views any attempt to discover an overall meaning for life as ridiculous because it contradicts the basic meaninglessness and chaos of the universe. However, Camus himself did not accept the label atheist, at one point declaring, "I do not believe in God and I am not atheist."

Camus's philosophical influence and one-time friend Jean-Paul Sartre, an avowed atheist, believed that, in the absence of God, humans alone are responsible for finding meaning in their lives; they alone must accept the praise or blame for successes and failures. He argued that alienation, a sense of feeling isolated from others, occurs when humans experience existential angst (a fear or dread of this responsibility). This sense of alienation is overcome only when humans view themselves and live their lives as their own creators.

Relevant Philosophies

Existentialism

The philosophy of existentialism dates from the beginning of the 20th century. It asserts that the universe is meaningless, and, because of this lack of meaning, people must take responsibility for choosing what is right and wrong based on personal, rather than absolute, standards. In this light Meursault can be seen as a champion of existentialist thinking. He understands that any attempt to apply meaning to the universe is ridiculous. By fully accepting this truth, Meursault achieves freedom by staying true to his convictions, even in the face of death. He evades all attempts by legal and religious authorities to force him to accept traditional moral values.

Although The Stranger has been considered an existential work because of the protagonist's world view, Camus denied being an existentialist. He considered himself a writer and a humanist, not a philosopher, and resisted the attempts of many critics to label him as a supporter of any ideology. He also believed in the dignity and value of human life, unlike existentialists such as Sartre.

Absurdism

Camus did embrace the basic beliefs of absurdism: humans will always fail to find meaning or logic in the universe because meaning and logic do not exist. Nevertheless, humans continue on their quest for them— resulting in frustration until that moment at which a person faces death and "the indifference of the universe" finally becomes clear.

Meursault lives in this absurdist space, and his responses to the world reflect it. This is why, for example, he is unaffected by the death of his mother. Her life had no meaning for him, no real effect on him. Similarly, he is indifferent to friendship and marriage. Even his great pleasure in sleeping, his regular desire to sleep, derives from the absurdist viewpoint, since there is no reason to fear missing out on anything that matters, and sleeping alleviates frustration.

Nihilism

Camus believed that nihilism was the most challenging problem facing people in the 20th century. Nihilism has come to mean the rejection of moral or religious principles because life is meaningless. As a philosophy, it is associated with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that humans understand the world through interpretations, or perspectives, in order to give it meaning. Nihilism places humans in a world where they must strive for meaning, even though they know they will never find it despite religious or political attempts to establish meaning. In a preface to a compilation of his essays, Camus offers the hopeful comment, "even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism." However, Camus struggled to create evidence to support this argument. At the end of The Stranger, just as Meursault is about to be executed, he breaks through his nihilistic world view and chooses to be happy by embracing the meaninglessness of life. Meursault's resolution illustrates the nihilist problem Camus laments: how to exist without meaning. His reclamation of happiness and the feeling of being "less alone" at the novel's end may reflect this idea of self-creation, which in Camus's view is the only way to combat alienation.

Fascism

Camus's observation of the hatred, destruction, violence, and death of 20th-century totalitarian governments contributed to his view of nihilism. During the 1930s fascists established totalitarian governments in Spain and in Germany, regimes in which there were no limits to the authority of the state. In 1936 a civil war broke out in Spain between the democratic government and fascist rebels led by Francisco Franco. After three years of bloody conflict, the fascists emerged victorious and set up a totalitarian government. During the war, scholars estimated that 600,000 to 800,000 people were killed. In addition, the fascist Nazis under Adolf Hitler took control of Germany in 1933 (and Germany later occupied France in 1940).

During the time Camus was writing The Stranger, the Nazis took control in Austria and Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland, starting World War II. The widespread destruction caused by these totalitarian governments and their oppression of outcasts, including Jews, caused Camus to view the 20th century as being dominated by a spirit of nihilism. This view appears in The Stranger through his characterization of Meursault, who sees nothing relevant in the world and refuses to pretend otherwise.

French Colonialism

The French began to exert control over Algeria in 1830. By 1914, France controlled the entire country, using a system in which a small minority of colons, or French citizens, dominated the Arab majority. Because of this situation, the colons enjoyed much better medical services and education than the Arab citizens, who suffered widespread unemployment and poverty. A lack of effective communication between the French citizens and the Arab population characterized relations between the two groups. The Europeans did not understand Arab customs and religion; they often viewed Arab culture with suspicion and an air of superiority.

Since Camus's family was at the lowest economic position of the colons, Camus was strongly sympathetic to the suffering of the Arab people. In The Stranger, however, racist attitudes toward Arab people can be seen in the court's focus on Meursault's behavior rather than his crime of killing an Arab man.

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