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“L'Etranger”: a study in the ordinary

Solomon continues his series of reviews of classic novels, the most recent of which was his take on The Fountainhead.

By Solomon Wakeling

The Outsider is usually billed as a disturbing work about, well, an outsider. Meursault is nothing of the sort. He is a normal person. He could be one of Howard's battlers. His attitude to life is one that ignores social stigmas. Most people do.

The first sign that Camus shows of Mersault's alleged abnormality is when he says he finds it interesting to be told about the length of time a body takes to decay in different climates, in regards to his dead Mother. Whilst it may seem normal for a person to recoil from such a topic, Meursault is able to stomach it and accept the natural processes of the environment. His calm acceptance of the messy realities of life is a sign of good sense, rather than something to be looked on with horror.

Meursault reacts to the elaborate religious rituals surrounding his Mother's burial with the intelligent observation that she never gave a thought to religion in her life. This shows a critical mind at work, someone that can question authority and think for themselves. A rejection of religious rituals is not a sign of peculiarity, rather, it is a sign of intelligence. He recognises the meaninglessness of the ritual when applied to a non-believer.

The third sign is when he chooses to smoke a cigarette in the presence of his dead Mother. He feels at first that he should show respect for the dead. He concludes, correctly, that it doesn't really matter. He is conscious of social norms but he chooses to ignore them. This is what a normal person would do in the situation, if they even thought about it at all. It is a sign of sanity that Meursault is able to make a rational choice when faced with this situation. It would have been equally normal if he had chosen not to smoke the cigarette, out of respect for his dead Mother. The important point is that there is a rationale for his actions.

Unlike most outsiders, Meursault has normal relations with women. He is comfortable placing his head in the lap of a woman he knows and doesn't hesitate to ask her to the movies. He is confident and relaxed around her. He kisses her towards the end of the show, admitting that he did it "clumsily". He is neither over nor under confident. As Margaret Thatcher once said, there is no community, only the individual. Most people live in varying degrees of alienation. This is a normal characteristic, not to be feared. Yet Meursault is not totally alienated - like most people, he has normal relationships, friendships and lovers, not shying away from social contact like a true outsider.

Rather than feeling oppressed or like a slave in his work, Meursault accepts it as natural and works quietly and efficiently. He knows why he does it and why it must be done. Yet he also enjoys his leisure time, going for walks and swimming, loving nature and the outdoors. He describes staring at the sky for a long time, giving him a touch of the poetic spirit. He enjoys wine and smoking and doesn't shy away from pleasure.

The first truly unusual action that Meursault gets up to is when he goes to the house of a local pimp, his friend, and agrees to help him get revenge on a woman who had betrayed him. All he required was that Meursault draft a letter to her, which would make her feel guilty, so that he could sleep with her and then spit in her face. Meursault agrees, perhaps under the influence of wine. This is a callous act but one that is not beyond the realms of normal human behaviour. When placed in a situation with someone you know and asked to do something that will harm someone you don't know, an ordinary person may feel that they owe nothing to the stranger. When a victim is remote from us, it is natural to feel little sympathy for them. We care about our kin but not for others. Think of Australia's reaction to the Iraq war.

Towards the novel's close, Meursault is convicted for killing an Arab. You might argue that normal people don't kill other people. My answer to that is: Why not? There is nothing fundamentally different about a murderer than anybody else. Most killers and their victims are known to one another. Most killers are not abnormal, they are perfectly ordinary people that make an unfortunate decision at the spur of the moment. In the right situation anyone is capable of taking the life of another. Again I ask you to think of Australia's reaction to the Iraq war, where we killed not one Arab, but many.

Meursault argues at the end of the novel that essentially, none of his decisions matter. He says he passed his life in one way, when he might have passed it in another and that it doesn't matter either way. He correctly points out that other people have tried to foist ideas upon him. What he rebels against, and what most people rebel against, is socialisation. Society tries to coerce you in to thinking in a certain way, or at least, pretending that you do. There are differing levels of socialisation. Most people are less conflicted about the choices they make than Meursault and choose to live in peace with society because it is in their interests to do so. They accept the social contract to differing degrees. The point Meursault misses, marking him as different from his fellow men, is that whilst society may be oppressive, it often has good reasons for being so. Murder disrupts social harmony and it is in our collective interests that those who perpetrate it be punished for it.

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Angela, If I learned nothing else of value today it was that Marcel Proust was, too, a reluctant law student (I submit, however, that under a French civil system with its comprehensive codes and inquisitorial trials, he would have been under a lesser burden than a student of the monstrous behemoth that is the English common law).

I love Proust - he has a gentleness and a softness which reminds me of myself. I see no trace of the intellectual scars that the law leaves on you in his writing - as opposed to say another law graduate, Leo Tolstoy, who seems to adopt its meandering, objectivity in to his prose.

I don't think it is a slur on myself to say that I resemble Proust more than I would, say, Sir Garfield Barwick, or, for that matter, his jurisprudential antithesis, Justice Lionel Murphy.

We can't all be remarkable legal minds; Though of course, pure survival means we must achieve a basic level of competence.


Hi Angela, I caught the great Justice Evatt quoting Tennyson in a wills case the other day, so perhaps there can be a convergence of the two disciplines after all. If I had the luxury of time - which, as a student, I don't - I'd love to tackle the topic of banned literature and its legal implications. From memory, there are provisions in the law (possibly U.S. law) that state that something is not pornographic/obscene if it can be proven that it has scientific, artistic or literary merit. This in effect could just create a high-brow form of obscenity, just as toxic to our moral centre as low-brow obscenity.

I'm familiar with a few authors that I believe have been banned at some point - Joyce, Lawrence, Nabokov, Miller, Nin. All of which have palpable literary merit but risque topics.

Re Huxley, I'm equally gob-smacked. He must rank alongside Beethoven as drawing the well-spring of his talent from a mystifying source.


Hi Angela, there is a bit of wry humour in my assertion that Meursalt is a normal person. I sort of wanted to broaden our idea of what is normal, given the kinds of moral sanctions our society has given to actions such as the Iraq war. This is, as you say, a dehumanising effect. My own personal reaction to the Iraq war was to have my moral universe disrupted; I'd had an image of the basic decency of our society stripped away. In such an environment an outsider like Meursaut really does start to resemble the rest of us.

I would love to study literature, formally, but I'm stuck studying the law, essentially for practical reasons. In reality I study the law with half my heart, and literature with whole of my heart, in an extra-curriculur fashion. Though the likes of Malcolm B. Duncan may perhaps damn me for that (when he's not insisting I read Austen or Boswell), it at least makes me a more balanced personality than some of the legal drones our system produces.

banned literature,now there is a wealth of history

Hi Solomon, I did pick up on the touch of satire, ;). My Epiphany occurred with the East Timor events, but I didn't have the luxury of time then to start digging and re-evaluating conversations, policies, previous statements of friends/colleagues and even my upbringing and the values installed.  I think that is the value of literature, others experiences can be internalised and help one take a journey despite being pinned by the toes in a luxury reality here. Literature can also be a wicked tool of propaganda and some pay and support such manipulations, knowing its value. I find a delight in reading banned books from other times, knowing there is that extra value and insight to be found. How about doing an article looking at all the banned books down the ages and how that was influenced by the LAW (see still on your learning skill) at the time and the elite who benefited by such control of thinking.

I suspect that Malcolm and Fiona are both disciples of literature and its role in total person education, not just fitting the skills for the job, even law...

One thing that gob smacked me the other day was to learn that Aldous Huxley became blind as a teen and yet still went on to learn Braille and take oxfobridge? Literature and then write his gems, like Brave New World.

And yet we have people bouncing around here who are so very much more blinded.

Law gives you wonderful tools to use, and with literature, use more wisely. 

A literature C Amus the master

Hi Solomon, I had thought that this was more about a person with low empathy/emotional attachment to both those he knows (such as mother) and strangers. it is the latter particlularly that is manipulated in the dehumanising techniques used for populations remoted from the conflict but able to influence the methods and limits for it. I am guessing that is what you may be referring to when you refer to the Iraq war.

I had to read this and the Plague in French,so I may have interpreted it differently- hah or even wrongly-at the time. The latter novel has always weighed more upon my psyche,which is a hard thing to manage to do to a socially very active- more than Cher Meursault, but in other ways- Uni student busy with the joys of life. We are so lucky here. The background to much of his work is Algiers and the wars there,intersesting issue in itself.

I don't think murder disrupts social harmony and control, as it is even used to enhance it, but the causes and means and results of such may disrupt social harmony if unauthorised. It is the control of murder that our society requires,hence the words:"Just War".

Nice piece. Have you formally studied it? As literature?



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