Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Albert Camus, The Outsider (1942)

Albert Camus’ The Outsider (1942) is philosophical text presented in the form of a novel that is meant to articulate an existentialist philosophy and credo. 

Existentialism argues that we live in an unpredictable or ‘absurd’ universe, with the only thing that is predictable being mortality.  It therefore tends to draw attention to the prevalence of chance.  In addition, existentialists mistrust all philosophies and religions, believing that the only ideas that you can trust, or that matter, are those experienced directly through your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). 

The attitude to life, or credo, which stems from this philosophy, is that: life is all that you have, and it can end at any moment, so make the most of it while you can.  This credo can be summarised as ‘live for the moment’ rather than for the future.  It argues that you should make the most of your life by experiencing things, especially through your senses.  In this context, the novel also promotes an attitude of accepting facts without pretence and expressing oneself with a blunt honesty or realism, including in matters of love, sex and relationships.  The novel also makes a case for the non-judgmental acceptance of people, even if they are deemed by those in mainstream society to be undesirable.  The novel also argues for the acceptance of the finality of death, and for appreciating the life of an individual, not their death, as what truly matters. The novel also argues for the rejection of religion (Christianity), depicting it as a false consciousness and as unnecessary mental clutter. 

Another dimension of the existentialist credo is acknowledging the likelihood that those who live by the existentialist credo will experience a sense of alienation from mainstream society as consequence of being misunderstood by others.  Since existentialists can expect to find themselves misunderstood, they may find that they gravitate towards the social fringe and associate with others who do not live by mainstream values. 

In addition, existentialists believe that life has no meaning except that which you give it.  Therefore it is up to each individual to define his or her life or existence.  Existentialism promotes the idea that each individual is a free agent who can and should determine what is important to them and the morality by which they should live, regardless of whether or not they are understood by others.  Existentialist ideas can be used to promote a kind of left-wing libertarianism. 

Set in the French colony of Algeria, the novel features the character Meursault, a distinctive individual who lives according to his own concepts of what is right and according to his own set of rules that he believes are reasonable, decent and right for him regardless of what others think of his attitudes and behaviours.  Since he lives by an existentialist credo, the novel depicts him as frequently misunderstood by most people in his society because he does not conform to mainstream norms and ritualised behaviours.  He does not ‘play the game’.  For example, he is held in suspicion by others because he did not grieve the death of his mother in the standard fashion.  Yet Meursault felt that his mother’s life was more important than her death and he saw no need to follow the standard rituals of mourning.  Later in the novel, due to the prevalence of chance in an absurd universe, he ends up killing an Arab and is sentenced to death.  Yet, even in his jail cell, he can make the most of his limited existence, just as the existentialist credo urges all individuals to make the most of their limited existence regardless of their circumstances. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Outsider meaning, The Outsider themes, The Outsider analysis, The Outsider notes