Existentialist Themes and the Society’s Definition of
In Albert Camus’s first novel, The Outsider, his thoughts as an
existentialist is demonstrated. The underlying plot of the novel is about the
protagonist, Mersault, who commits a murder and then receives a death sentence.
As the novel approaches the climax, more ideas of existentialism are revealed,
and more is learned about the character. This novel shows how Mersault acts as
an outsider to the society, and is then “condemned because he doesn’t play
the game” (Camus 118). In Albert Camus’s The Outsider, the
existentialist themes of anxiety and a meaningless existence characterizes the
existentialist hero, Mersault.
Albert Camus first develops Mersault as an existentialist hero by using
the notion of anxiety. Mersault
rejects many feelings which non-existentialists thrive on, and only get pleasure
only from physical sensations. He rejects the feeling of love and friendship,
and enjoys smoking, swimming, and having sex.
When Mersault says, “As for me, I didn’t want anyone to help me and
time was the very thing I didn’t have for taking an interest in what didn’t
interest me” (Camus 112), he shows his lack of interest and his self-centred
nature. When he is aware how Raymond abuses his girlfriend and how Salamano
abuses his dog, he does not show any interest in it. Mersault is shown as being
indifferent to human emotions, shaping his character as an existentialist.
When the novel begins with the famous lines, “Mother died today. Or
maybe yesterday, I don’t know” (Camus 9), his reactions to his mother’s
death show he lacks the emotion of love. Other than being detached from human
characteristics, Mersault also opposes the belief in religion.
Because Mersault rejects religion, he believes in himself and denies the
existence of a higher power. He questions the purpose to believe in a God by
saying, “What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me,
what did his God or the lives people chose or the destinies they selected matter
to me” (Camus 115). By asking these questions, it shows how Mersault devalues
religion and implies that religion is of no concern to him. This side of
Mersault contributes to the theme of nothingness where he rejects religion to
reflect his existence. Mersault views human existence as pain and suffer, where
sin, guilt, and anxiety all contribute to his belief.
Albert Camus creates Mersault as an existentialist by pointing out his
belief in irrelevance. In a meaningless universe, Mersault succeeds in creating
his own destiny. Because he has no goal and no ambition in his life, he lives
his life dully where things just happen the way they do. When Mersault says,
“I felt a bit lost, with the blue and white sky overhead and these monotonous
colours all around me” (Camus 21), it has the function of a symbol where the
sky represents his life, being lifeless and monotonous. He states a
generalization about his life, “Everything is true and yet nothing is true”
(Camus 88), which is a paradox suggesting how life can be alive and dead at the
Mersault sees neither a future nor a past in his life; he is only
concerned in the present moment. He is indifferent towards the social structure
in society and does not follow the rules set by the general public. When
Mersault says, “I realized then that a man who’d only lived for a day could
easily live for a hundred years in a prison” (Camus 77), it shows his belief
that life is irrelevant. By stating that a man living in a jail is no different
than a man living outside of jail, Mersault shows his lack of understanding for
the structure of society.
Mersault is an existentialist for he lacks a sense of right and wrong.
Mersault’s disbelief in human theories helps him to cope with death. When he
thinks to himself, “I even had the impression that this dead body, lying there
among them, didn’t mean anything to them” (Camus 16), it shows how he avoids
any emotions or deep thought because he thinks that his mother’s body is just
an object. Mersault, as an existentialist, does not believe that any part or
memory of an individual exists after death. While looking at his mother’s
coffin, Mersault thinks to himself, “I didn’t know if I could smoke in front
of mother. I thought it over, it really didn’t matter” (Camus 14). He
considers whether his mother would mind if he smokes in front of her, but then
realizes that she is dead and has stopped existing already. However, rather than
being judged by his mother, he is judged by the people at the funeral for his
lack of illustration of sadness.
Mersault believes that the application of knowledge in making decisions
is irrelevant. He does not think about the importance of a situation unless it
directly concerns himself. For example, when Mersault is approached by
Raymond’s request to act as a witness for him, he accepts and thinks, “I
didn’t mind, only I didn’t know what I was supposed to say” (Camus 40).
This shows that Mersault does not apply his conscience when making a decision
that may result in hurting other people. Later on in the novel, Mersault
describes life as, “It all seemed like a game” (Camus 64). By thinking this
way, Mersault believes that there are no real purposes to life other than the
manipulation of society. Mersault’s impartial viewpoint for the rituals of
society makes him an outsider. Society sets a standard for which moral conduct
and anticipated emotions must be present. Mersault thinks, “I stupidly felt
like crying because I could tell how much all these people hated me (Camus 87),
this shows that his reactions do not agree with the expected actions of society.
Mersault is condemned for the lack of respect he shows towards society’s
rituals. In his trial, witnesses were brought in and begin to comment on his
lack of emotions at his mother’s funeral. Nevertheless, Mersault never
attempts to lie about his feelings to lessen his punishment; he chooses to be
honest to himself and to tell the truth. Mersault
is honoured as a hero in the respect that he does not behave to the standards of
In The Outsider, Albert Camus manages to create the existentialist
hero, Mersault, by contrasting his character with the ideas and values of
society. The fact that Mersault is an outsider because he does not play the game
caused his death at the end. Mersault is characterized as a hero because he
stands up for his own beliefs, and died because he did not conform to the
Camus, Albert. The Outsider. Trans. Joseph Laredo. London: Penguin, 1983.
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