This weekend I read The Outsider by Albert Camus. While I read the book, the title resonated with me as it reminded me of how people are bounded by the standards and expectations of society, standards that are set by peers and family alike. When people don’t follow certain standards, they are immediately cast aside as ‘outsiders’. The book focuses on the theme of individual vs society, the power struggles between the two for supremacy, a theme that is prevalent in other novels. In my mind, I find the book to be similar to The Great Gatsby where Jay purposely hosts such large parties, just to find Daisy and tempt her to have another life with him – he seems to be courting society not because society is important to him but because he wants to build a life with Daisy away from society. It is also similar to A Clockwork Orange where Alex rapes and kills a woman with his friends without any remorse and refuses to accept the carnal nature of his crimes. His only connection with society or humanity was Beethoven’s music, but eventually, in the psychiatric ward he was placed in, music was taken away from him and that is what devastates him. Another representation of straying away from society’s expectations is Marlow from Heart of Darkness who ventures further into the African heartland towards a more primitive society, where he finally finds himself. However, what is common between all of these characters (except maybe Gatsby) is that by the end of their trials with society, they always find a reason to convince themselves that what they are doing is right – for example, Alex holds onto his music which essentially allows him to think of vulgar deeds just as Meursault at the end consoles himself with the thought, “For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.”
Something I found fascinating in this book is how absurd society really is. I found it threatening that we think of ourselves as members of our society, yet we cannot live in one that behaves absurdly. We find it difficult to live up to the norms because we create these norms in accordance with social standards that are different from our individual preferences. The society is a collective, a sort of cooperative that cannot accommodate the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each individual. Consequently, there is a distance between the individual and society, much like what happens to Meursault.
Just in the first scene, Meursault finds himself to be unresponsive to his mother’s death, “Mother passed away. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” The same insensitivity is at work during one of his dates with his girlfriend, Marie, ” A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad.” He appears even more sadistic in the pivotal scene when he shoots the Arab who abused his friend, Raymond’s mistress, “And fired four more times at a lifeless body and bullets sank in without leaving a mark.” The world that Camus portrays is actually our world, where relationships are meaningless, humanity is dead and society doesn’t hold any standards. Where the only positive is the honesty with which Meursault clings onto his insensitivity. That’s the only trait that redeems this character and the society he lives in.
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