Theme is a pervasive idea presented in a literary piece. Themes in The Stranger, a masterpiece of Albert Camus. The novel presents the dilemma of absurdity and also demonstrates the dark sides of human nature such as indifference and insensitivity toward relationships. We discuss some of the major themes in The Stranger below.
Themes in The Stranger
The irrationality of human actions and decisions is one of the major themes of The Stranger. Camus presents the character of Meursault to show this irrationality in human actions, decisions, life, and relationships. For example, Meursault does not take his mother’s death to heart and, aside from a brief leave of absence to bury her, continues his routine work. It is irrational from a societal standpoint that a person does not experience sorrow as they bury their mother. On the other hand, it seems irrational to Meursault that he should weep when the old lady’s death was inevitably to come one day.
In the same way, whether Meursault speaks during his trial or not, he is to be condemned to death as the world is entirely indifferent to his plight. Therefore, it seems irrational to him to explain his position. The trial and its sequence seem a social attempt to give a rational order to the things that seem meaningless. Meursault’s reaction and his sham trial prove that irrationality is at the very heart of human affairs.
The meaninglessness of human life, human relations and life on earth is another major theme of The Stranger. Meursault, the mouthpiece of Camus, shows this meaninglessness when his mother dies and, rather than being sorrowful, he leaves for the office the next day as usual and enjoys life with Marie. Interestingly, Meursault does not love Marie, either. He would, nonetheless, marry her, for neither marriage nor love matter for him. They are meaningless and his seeming penchant for meaninglessness drives his life. Even when it comes to killing a person, he shows no emotion; life is meaningless, so there are no meanings in killing or not killing the Arab. His main aim has been to ward him off.
Even about legal and religious authorities, Meursault’s leanings toward meaninglessness continue. Because of his indifference, he does meaninglessness acts. Also, he is termed a monster, as he continues believing that life and the world as meaningless. Marie and Raymond, both inclined toward the passions of life, intensify his sense of meaninglessness.
Significance of the Physical World
The physical world and its significance as a part of human life is another major theme of the novel. Meursault seems to be interested in the physical aspects of his life more than its emotional side. He is interested in finding meaning, but when he finds nothing, it tortures him. His attention to his own physical pleasures and indifference to the passions of others makes him detached from human emotions. His indifferent performance of rituals over the death of his mother and the displays indifference toward his own marriage. Marie’s emotions show that he is interested in only his own existence and its physicality. Perhaps his killing of the Arab is a sense that he does not tolerate physical assault from others. At the same time, his reflection on his existence makes this sense of physicality more acute than before.
Lack of communication or miscommunication is another significant aspect of The Stranger. Whether it is the communication of human passions, sorrow or love, there is a general lack of misunderstanding among the characters of the intended meanings. The most misinterpreted character is Meursault, whose indifference comes across as inhumanity. Raymond, too, misinterprets him despite his close friendship. Although he kills the Arab for brandishing a knife at him, Raymond believes that killing the Arab was a kind act. Even his lawyer and the chaplain fail to understand his communication, his passions, and his final words.
Absurdity of Life
Meursault feels at the very beginning of the story that he is condemned to live his life as it is. Therefore, it seems to him absurd to carry on living in this way. He doesn’t like working in the office and carrying out orders of his boss because he is financially dependent on this job. The death of his mother further alienates him from life. Even Marie’s attempts to convince him to marry her seem absurd to him. He merely acts upon common sense that everybody dies and that everybody marries; what so new and interesting about it?
Indifference toward Human Passions
Indifference toward humanity and human passions is another crucial theme explored in The Stranger. This indifference results in an extreme and cruel form of apathy. Meursault is branded as a monster. At the end of the novel, he does not follow the instructions of his lawyer. As he has not shed any tears and has not shown any remorse for leaving her alone, he is a monster and therefore does not deserve to be shown sympathy. Even in the narration, it appears at some point that Meursault is showing an extreme form of indifference toward others, including his own mother and girlfriend. That is why he faces the indifference of the world when he is incarcerated for killing the Arab.
Difficulty in Relationships
Difficulty in forming relationships is another minor theme of the novel. Albert Camus shows through Meursault that it is very difficult to form relationships with a person who cannot feel sympathy toward his own mother. Even with Raymond and Marie, his relations are mostly emotionless. He is deeply indifferent to deeper relations. Most of the time, his attitude toward relationships is superficial. He does not feel that marriage is such an emotional attachment and only agrees to make Marie happy. He simply refuses to admit that he loves her. Even the killing incident is just incidental and not linked to him in any way.
Passivity is another theme that recurs in the novel. Meursault is the first example of this passivity: he only wants to observe life passing before his very eyes. He feels himself alienated and detached from the stream of life as if he exists only to watch. He watches his mother pass away and even watches his girlfriend asking him to marry her. Even his own reaction to his would-be hanging is a passive one. He just reflects upon the mob looking at his execution.
Alienation is another minor theme of the novel shown through Meursault. Not only does Meursault feel alienated from himself, but he also feels alienated from others and the whole social fabric. He feels alienated as he is a Frenchman living in Algeria. He feels alienated from others as his mother has left him, and he has no sadness about the event. He is so alienated from society that others consider him to be a monster.
Detachment is another minor theme of the novel. Meursault shows a detachment from society as well as in relationships. He demonstrates that he is not attached to his mother by performing her funeral rites coldly. He does not react to his death sentence and leaves it to see how the crowd is going to react.