Existentialist Themes and the Society’s Definition of Life


            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 same time.

            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 society.

            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 society’s expectations.


Works Cited


Camus, Albert.  The Outsider.  Trans. Joseph Laredo.  London:  Penguin,  1983.

Thody, Philip.  “Albert Camus: A Study of His Work.”  Contemporary Literary

Criticism   (1959):  151.


Rhein, Philip H.  “Abstract Man.”  Albert Camus.  Rev.  ed.  Boston:  Twayne,

1989.    20-24.


Makari, George J.  “Camus.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism  63  (1988): 1