An Explication of The Stranger

by Jean-Paul Sartre

“An Explication of The Stranger.” (Originally titled “Camus’s The Outsider.”) First published in Situations I (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1947). From Literary and Philosophical Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre (New York, 1955). Translated by Annette Michelson. Copyright 1955 by Criterion Books, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author, Librairie Gallimard, Rider & Co., and Criterion Books, Inc.

Camus’s The Stranger was barely off the press when it began to arouse the widest interest. People told each other that it was “the best book since the end of the war.” Amidst the literary productions of its time, this novel was, itself, a stranger. It came to us from the other side of the Equator, from across the sea. In that bitter spring of the coal shortage, it spoke to us of the sun, not as of an exotic marvel, but with the weary familiarity of those who have had too much of it. It was not concerned with re-burying the old regime with its own hands, nor with filling us with a sense of our own unworthiness.

We remembered, while reading this novel, that there had once been works which had not tried to prove anything, but had been content to stand on their own merits. But hand in hand with its gratuitousness went a certain ambiguity. How were we to interpret this character who, the day after his mother's death, “went swimming, started a liaison with a girl and went to see a comic film,” who killed an Arab “because of the sun,” who claimed, on the eve of his execution, that he “had been happy and still was," and hoped there would be a lot of spectators at the scaffold “to welcome him with cries of hate.” “He’s a poor fool, an idiot," some people said; others, with greater insight, said, “He's innocent." The meaning of this innocence still remained to be understood.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, which appeared a few months later, Camus provided us with a precise commentary upon his work. His hero was neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. These categories "do not apply to him. He belongs to a very particular species for which the anther reserves the word “absurd.” But in Camus’s work this word takes on two very different meanings. The absurd is both a state of fact and the lucid awareness which certain people acquire of this state of fact. The “absurd” man is the man who does not hesitate to draw the inevitable conclusions from a fundamental absurdity.

There is the same displacement of meaning as when we give the name “swing” to the youthful generation that dances to “swing” music. What is meant by the absurd as a state of fact, as primary situation? It means nothing less than man’s relation to the world. Primary absurdity manifests a cleavage, the cleavage between man’s aspirations to unity and the insurmountable dualism of mind and nature, between man's drive toward the eternal and the finite character of his existence, between the “concern” which constitutes his very essence and the vanity of his efforts. Chance, death, the irreducible pluralism of life and of truth, the unintelligibility of the real—all these are extremes of the absurd.

These are not really very new themes, and Camus does not present them as such. They had been sounded as early as the seventeenth century by a certain kind of dry, plain, contemplative rationalism, which is typically French and they served as the commonplaces of classical pessimism.

Was it not Pascal who emphasized “the natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition, so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us”? Was it not he who put reason in its place? Would he not have wholeheartedly approved the following remark of Camus: “The world is neither (completely) rational, nor quite irrational either”? Does he not show us that “custom” and “diversion” conceal man’s “nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness” from himself? By virtue of the cool style of The Myth of Sisyphus and the subject of his essays, Albert Camus takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists whom Andler has rightly termed the precursors of Nietzsche.

As to the doubts raised by Camus about the scope of our reasoning powers, these are in the most recent tradition of French epistemology. If we think of scientific nominalism, of Poincaré, Duhem and Meyerson, we are better able to understand the reproach our author addresses to modern science. “You tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons revolve about a nucleus. You explain the world to me by means of an image. I then realize that you have ended in poetry . . .” (The Myth of Sisyphus). This idea was likewise expressed, and at just about the same time, by another writer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who draws on the same material when he says, “Physics uses mechanical, dynamic and even psychological models without any preference, as if, freed of ontological aspirations, it were becoming indifferent to the classical antimonies of the mechanism or dynamism which presupposes a nature-in-itself” (La Structure du Comportement). Camus shows off a bit by quoting passages from Jaspers, Heidegger and Kierkegaard, whom, by the way, he does not always seem to have quite understood. But his real masters are to be found elsewhere.

The turn of his reasoning, the clarity of his ideas, the cut of his expository style and a certain kind of solar, ceremonious, and sad sombreness, all indicate a classic temperament, a man of the Mediterranean. His very method (“only through a balance of evidence and lyricism shall we attain a combination of emotion and lucidity.”) recalls the old “passionate geometries” of Pascal and Rousseau and relate him, for example, not to a German phenomenologist or a Danish existentialist, but rather to Maurras, that other Mediterranean from whom, however, he differs in many respects.

But Camus would probably be willing to grant all this. To him, originality means pursuing one’s ideas to the limit; it certainly does not mean making a collection of pessimistic maxims. The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man's dominant characteristic is “being-in-the-world,” the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition. Thus, the absurd is not, to begin with, the object of a mere idea; it is revealed to us in a doleful illumination. “Getting up, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, in the same routine” (Sisyphus), and then, suddenly, “the setting collapses,” and we find ourselves in a state of hopeless lucidity.

If we are able to refuse the misleading aid of religion or of existential philosophies, we then possess certain basic, obvious facts: the world is chaos, a “divine equivalence born of anarchy”; tomorrow does not exist, since we all die. “In a universe suddenly deprived of light and illusions, man feels himself a stranger. This exile is irrevocable, since he has no memories of a lost homeland and no hope of a promised land.” The reason is that man is not the world.

If I were a tree among other trees . . . this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would have none, for I would be part of this world. I would be this world against which I set myself with my entire mind. . . . It is preposterous reason which sets me against all creation.

This explains, in part, the title of our novel; the stranger is man confronting the world. Camus might as well have chosen the title of one of George Gissing’s works, Born in Exile. The stranger is also man among men. “There are days when . . . you find that the person you've loved has become a stranger.” The stranger is, finally, myself in relation to myself, that is, natural man in relation to mind: “The stranger who, at certain moments, confronts us in a mirror” (The Myth of Sisyphus).

But that is not all; there is a passion of the absurd. The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusion, and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the “divine irresponsibility” of the condemned man.

Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible. “The ideal of the absurd man is the present and the succession of present moments before an ever-conscious spirit” (Sisyphus). Confronted with this “quantitative ethic” all values collapse; thrown into this world, the absurd man, rebellious and irresponsible, has “nothing to justify.” He is innocent, innocent as Somerset Maugham’s savages before the arrival of clergyman who teaches them Good and Evil, what is lawful and what is forbidden. For this man, everything is lawful. He is as innocent as Prince Mishkin, who “lives in an everlasting present, lightly tinged with smiles and indifference.” Innocent in every sense of the word, he, too, is, if you like, an “Idiot.”

And now we fully understand the title of Camus’s novel. The stranger he wants to portray is precisely one of those terrible innocents who shock society by not accepting the rules of its game. He lives among outsiders, but to them, too, he is a stranger. That is why some people like him—for example, his mistress, Marie, who is fond of him “because he’s odd.” Others, like the courtroom crowd whose hatred he suddenly feels mounting towards him, hate him for the same reason. And we ourselves, who, on opening the book are not yet familiar with the feeling of the absurd, vainly try to judge him according to our usual standards. For us, too, he is a stranger.

Thus, the shock you felt when you opened the book and read, “I thought that here was another Sunday over with, that Mama was buried now, that I would go back to work again and that, on the whole, nothing had changed,” was deliberate. It was the result of your first encounter with the absurd. But you probably hoped that as you progressed your uneasiness would fade, that everything would be slowly clarified, would be given a reasonable justification and explained. Your hopes were disappointed. The Stranger is not an explanatory book. The absurd man does not explain; he describes. Nor is it a book which proves anything.

Camus is simply presenting something and is not concerned with a justification of what is fundamentally unjustifiable, The Myth of Sisyphus teaches us how to accept our author’s novel. In it, we find the theory of the novel of absurdity. Although the absurdity of the human condition is its sole theme, it is not a novel with a message; it does not come out of a “satisfied” kind of thinking, intent on furnishing formal proofs. It is rather the product of a thinking which is “limited, rebellious, and mortal.” It is a proof in itself of the futility of abstract reasoning. “The fact that certain great novelists have chosen to write in terms of images rather than of arguments reveals a great deal about a certain kind of thinking common to them all, a conviction of the futility of all explanatory principles, and of the instructive message of sensory impressions" (The Myth of Sisyphus).

Thus, the very fact that Camus delivers his message in the form of a novel reveals a proud humility. This is not resignation, but the rebellious recognition of the limitations of human thought. It is true that he felt obliged to make a philosophical translation of his fictional message. The Myth of Sisyphus is just that, and we shall see later on how we are to interpret this parallel commentary. But the existence of the translation does not, in any case, alter the gratuitousness of the novel.

The man who creates in absurdity has lost even the illusion of his work's necessity. He wants us, on the contrary, to be constantly aware of its contingent nature. He would like to see, inscribed below it, “might never have been,” as Gide wanted “could be continued” written at the end of The Counterfeiters. This novel might not have been, like some stone or stream or face. It is a thing in the present that happens, quite simply, like all other happenings in the present. It has not even the subjective necessity that artists pretend to when, speaking of their works, they say, "I had to write it, I had to get it off my chest.” In it we find one of the themes of surrealist terrorism sifted through the classic sun. The work of art is only a leaf torn from a life. It does, of course, express this life. But it need not express it. And besides, everything has the same value, whether it be writing The Possessed or drinking a cup of coffee.

Camus does not require that attentive solicitude that writers who “have sacrificed their lives to art” demand of the reader, The Stranger is a leaf from his life. And since the most absurd life is that which is most sterile, his novel aims at being magnificently sterile. Art is an act of unnecessary generosity. We need not be over-disturbed by this; I find, hidden beneath Camus’s paradoxes, some of Kant’s wise observations on the “endless end” of the beautiful. Such, in any case, is The Stranger, a work detached from a life, unjustified and unjustifiable, sterile, momentary, already forsaken by its author, abandoned for other present things. And that is how we must accept it, as a brief communion between two men, the author and the reader, beyond reason, in the realm of the absurd.

This will give us some idea as to how we are to regard the hero of The Stranger. If Camus had wanted to write a novel with a purpose, he would have had no difficulty in showing a civil servant lording it over his family, and then suddenly struck with the intuition of the absurd, struggling against it for a while and finally resolving to live out the fundamental absurdity of his condition. The reader would have been convinced along with the character, and for the same reasons.

Or else, he might have related the life of one of those saints of the Absurd, so dear to his heart, of whom he speaks in The Myth of Sisyphus: Don Juan, the Actor, the Conqueror, the Creator. But he has not done so, and Meursault, the hero of The Stranger, remains ambiguous, even to the reader who is familiar with theories of the absurd. We are, of course, assured that he is absurd, and his dominant characteristic is a pitiless clarity. Besides, he is, in more ways than one, constructed so as to furnish a concerted illustration of the theories expounded in The Myth of Sisyphus. For example, in the latter work, Camus writes, “A man's virility lies more in what he keeps to himself than in what he says.” And Meursault in an example of this virile silence, of this refusal to indulge in words: “[He was asked] if he had noticed that I was withdrawn, and he admitted only that I didn't waste words.” And two lines before this, the same witness has just declared that Merseault “was a man.” “[He was asked] what he meant by that, and he said that everyone knew what he meant.”

In like manner Camus expatiates on love in The Myth of Sisyphus. “It is only on the basis of a collective way of seeing, for which books and legends are responsible, that we give the name love to what binds us to certain human beings.” And similarly, we read in The Stranger: “So she wanted to know whether I loved her. I answered . . . that it didn't mean anything, but that I probably didn't love her.” From this point of view, the debate in the courtroom and in the reader's mind as to whether or not Meursault loved his mother is doubly absurd.

First of all, as the lawyer asks, “Is he accused of having buried his mother or of having killed a man?” But above all, the words “to love” are meaningless. Meursault probably put his mother into an old people's home because he hadn't enough money and because “they had nothing more to say to one another.” And he probably did not go to see her often, "because it wasted [his] Sunday—not to speak of the effort involved in getting to the bus, buying tickets and taking a two-hour trip.” But what does this mean? Isn't he living completely in the present, according to his present fancies? What we call a feeling is merely the abstract unity and the meaning of discontinuous impressions.

I am not constantly thinking about the people I love, but I claim to love them even when I am not thinking about them—and I am capable of compromising my well-being in the name of an abstract feeling, in the absence of any real and immediate emotion. Meursault thinks and acts in a different way; he has no desire to know these noble, continuous, completely identical feelings. For him, neither love nor individual loves exist. All that counts is the present and the concrete. He goes to see his mother when he feels like it, and that's that.

If the desire is there, it will be strong enough to make this sluggard run at full speed to jump into a moving truck. But he still calls his mother by the tender, childish name of “Mama,” and he never misses a chance to understand her and identify himself with her. “All I know of love is that mixture of desire, tenderness and intelligence that binds me to someone” (The Myth of Sisyphus). Thus we see that the theoretical side of Meursault’s character is not to be overlooked. In the same way, many of his adventures are intended chiefly to bring out some aspect or other of the basic absurdity of things. The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, extols, as we have seen, the “perfect freedom of the condemned prisoner to whom, some particular daybreak, the prison doors swing open,” and it is in order to make us taste this daybreak and freedom that Camus has condemned his hero to capital punishment. “How could I have failed to see," says Meursault, “that nothing was more important than an execution . . . and that it was even, in a way, the only really interesting thing for a man!” One could multiply the examples and quotations.

Nevertheless, this lucid, indifferent, taciturn man is not entirely constructed to serve a cause. Once the character had been sketched in, he probably completed himself; he certainly had a real weight of his own. Still, his absurdity seems to have been given rather than achieved; that's how he is, and that's that. He does have his revelation on the last page, but he has always lived according to Camus’s standards. If there were a grace of absurdity, we would have to say that he has grace. He does not seem to pose himself any of the questions explored in The Myth of Sisyphus; Meursault is not shown rebelling at his death sentence. He was happy, he has let himself live, and his happiness does not seem to have been marred by that hidden gnawing which Camus frequently mentions in his essay and which is due to the blinding presence of death. His very indifference often seems like indolence, as, for instance, that Sunday when he stays at home out of pure laziness, and when he admits to having been “slightly bored." The character thus retains a real opacity, even to the absurd-conscious observer. He is no Don Juan, no Don Quixote of the absurd; he often even seems like its Sancho Panza. He is there before us, he exists, and we can neither understand nor quite judge him. In a word, he is alive, and all that can justify him to us in his fictional density.

The Stranger is not, however, to be regarded as a completely gratuitous work. Camus distinguishes, as we have mentioned, between the notion and the feeling of the absurd. He says, in this connection, “Deep feelings, like great works, are always more meaningful than they are aware of being. . . . An intense feeling carries with it its own universe, magnificent or wretched, as the case may be” (The Myth of Sisyphus). And he adds, a bit further on, “The feeling of the absurd is not the same as the idea of the absurd. The idea is grounded in the feeling, that is all. It does not exhaust it." The Myth of Sisyphus might be said to aim at giving us this idea, and The Stranger at giving us the feeling.

The order in which the two works appeared seems to confirm this hypothesis. The Stranger, the first to appear, plunges us without comment into the “climate” of the absurd; the essay then comes and illumines the landscape. Now, absurdity means divorce, discrepancy. The Stranger is to be a novel of discrepancy, divorce and disorientation; hence its skillful construction.

We have, on the one hand, the amorphous, everyday flow of reality as it is experienced, and, on the other, the edifying reconstruction of this reality by speech and human reason. The reader, brought face to face with simple reality, must find it again, without being able to recognize it in its rational transposition. This is the source of the feeling of the absurd, that is, of our inability to think, with our words and concepts, what happens in the world. Meursault buries his mother, takes a mistress, and commits a crime.

These various facts will be related by witnesses at his trial, and they will be put in order and explained by the public prosecutor. Meursault will have the impression that they are talking of someone else. Everything is so arranged as to bring on the sudden outburst of Marie, who, after giving, in the witness box, an account composed according to human rules, bursts into sobs and says “that that wasn’t it, that there was something else, that they were forcing her to say the opposite of what she really thought.” These mirror tricks have been used frequently since The Counterfeiters, and they do not constitute Camus’s originality. But the problem to be solved imposes an original form upon him.

In order to feel the divergence between the prosecutor's conclusions and the actual circumstances of the murder, in order, when we have finished the book, to retain the impression of an absurd justice, incapable of ever understanding or even of making contact with the deeds it intends to punish, we must first have been placed in contact with reality, or with one of these circumstances. But in order to establish this contact, Camus, like the prosecutor, has only words and concepts at his disposal. In assembling thoughts, he is forced to use words to describe a world that precedes words. The first part of The Stranger could have been given the same title as a recent book, Translated from Silence. Here we touch upon a disease common to many contemporary writers and whose first traces I find in Jules Renard. I shall call it “the obsession with silence.” Jean Paulhan would certainly regard it as an effect of literary terrorism.

It has assumed a thousand forms, ranging from the surrealists’ automatic writing to Jean-Jacques Bernard’s “theatre of silence.” The reason is that silence, as Heidegger says, is the authentic mode of speech. Only the man who knows how to talk can be silent. Camus talks a great deal; in The Myth of Sisyphus he is even garrulous. And yet, he reveals his love of silence. He quotes Kierkegaard: “The surest way of being mute is not to hold your tongue, but to talk.”[1] And he himself adds that “a man is more of a man because of what he does not say than what he does say.” Thus, in The Stranger, he has attempted to be silent. But how is one to be silent with words? How is one to convey through concepts the unthinkable and disorderly succession of present instants? This problem involves resorting to a new technique.

1 - Quoted in The Myth of Sisyphus. Note also Brice Parain’s theory of language and his conception of silence.

What is this new technique? “It’s Kafka written by Hemingway," I was told. I confess that I have found no trace of Kafka in it. Camus's views are entirely of this earth, and Kafka is the novelist of impossible transcendence; for him, the universe is full of signs that we cannot understand; there is a reverse side to the décor. For Camus, on the contrary, the tragedy of human existence lies in the absence of any transcendence

I do not know whether this world has a meaning that is beyond me. But I do know that I am unaware of this meaning and that, for the time being, it is impossible for me to know it. What can a meaning beyond my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. I understand the things I touch, things that offer me resistance.

He is not concerned, then, with so ordering words as to suggest an inhuman, undecipherable order; the inhuman is merely the disorderly, the mechanical. There is nothing ambiguous in his work, nothing disquieting, nothing hinted at. The Stranger gives us a succession of luminously clear views. If they bewilder us, it is only because of their number and the absence of any link between them. Camus likes bright mornings, clear evenings, and relentless afternoons. His favorite season is Algiers’ eternal summer. Night has hardly any place in his universe.

When he does talk of it, it is in the following terms: “I awakened with stars about my face. Country noises reached my ears. My temples were soothed by odors of night, earth, and salt. The wonderful peace of that sleepy summer invaded me like a tide” (The Stranger). The man who wrote these lines is as far removed as possible from the anguish of a Kafka. He is very much at peace within disorder. Nature's obstinate blindness probably irritates him, but it comforts him as well. Its irrationality is only a negative thing. The absurd man is a humanist; he knows only the good things of this world.

The comparison with Hemingway seems more fruitful. The relationship between the two styles is obvious. Both men write in the same short sentences. Each sentence refuses to exploit the momentum accumulated by preceding ones. Each is a new beginning. Each is like a snapshot of a gesture or object. For each new gesture and word there is a new and corresponding sentence. Nevertheless, I am not quite satisfied. The existence of an “American” narrative technique has certainly been of help to Camus. I doubt whether it has, strictly speaking, influenced him.

Even in Death in the Afternoon, which is not a novel, Hemingway retains that abrupt style of narration that shoots each separate sentence out of the void with a sort of respiratory spasm. His style is himself. We know that Camus has another style, a ceremonious one. But even in The Stranger he occasionally heightens the tone. His sentences then take on a larger, more continuous, movement.

The cry of the news-vendors in the relaxed air, the last birds in the square, the calls of the sandwich-vendors, the wail of the trams on the high curves of the city and the distant murmur in the sky before night began to teeter over the port, all set before me a blind man’s route with which I was familiar long before entering prison.

Through the transparency of Meursault’s breathless account I catch a glimpse of a poetic prose underneath, which is probably Camus’s personal mode of expression. If The Stranger exhibits such visible traces of the American technique, it was deliberate on Camus’s part. He has chosen from among all the instruments at his disposal the one which seemed to serve his purpose best. I doubt whether he will use it again in future works.

Let us examine the plot a little more closely; we shall get a clearer notion of the author's methods. “Men also secrete the inhuman,” writes Camus. “Sometimes, in moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures and their senseless pantomime make everything about them seem stupid” (The Myth of Sisyphus). This quality must be rendered at once. The Stranger must put us right from the start “into a state of uneasiness when confronted with man’s inhumanity.”

But what are the particular occasions that create this uneasiness in us? The Myth of Sisyphus gives us an example. “A man is talking on the telephone. We cannot hear him behind the glass partition, but we can see his senseless mimicry. We wonder why he is alive?” This answers the question almost too well, for the example reveals a certain bias in the author. The gesturing of a man who is telephoning and whom we cannot hear is really only relatively absurd, because it is part of an incomplete circuit. Listen in on an extension, however, and the circuit is completed; human activity recovers its meaning. Therefore, one would have, in all honesty, to admit that there are only relative absurdities and only in relation to “absolute rationalities.”

However, we are not concerned with honesty, but with art. Camus has a method ready to hand. He is going to insert a glass partition between the reader and his characters. Is there really anything sillier than a man behind a glass window? Glass seems to let everything through. It stops only one thing: the meaning of his gestures. The glass remains to be chosen. It will be the Stranger’s mind, which is really transparent, since we see everything it sees. However, it is so constructed as to be transparent to things and opaque to meanings.

From then on, everything went very quickly. The men went up to the coflin with a sheet. The priest, his followers, the director and I, all went outside. In front of the door was a lady I didn’t know. “Monsieur Meursault,” said the director. I didn’t hear the lady’s name, and I gathered only that she was a nurse who'd been ordered to be present. Without smiling, she nodded her long, bony face. Then we stood aside to make room for the body to pass. (The Stranger)

Some men are dancing behind a glass partition. Between them and the reader has been interposed a consciousness, something very slight, a translucent curtain, a pure passivity that merely records all the facts. But it has done the trick. Just because it is passive, this consciousness records only facts. The reader has not noticed this presence. But what is the assumption implied by this kind of narrative technique? To put it briefly, what had once been melodic structure has been transformed into a sum of invariant elements. This succession of movements is supposed to be rigorously identical with the act considered as a complete entity. Are we not dealing here with the analytic assumption that any reality is reducible to a sum total of elements? Now, though analysis may be the instrument of science, it is also the instrument of humor. If in describing a rugby match, I write, “I saw adults in shorts fighting and throwing themselves on the ground in order to send a leather ball between a pair of wooden posts,” I have summed up what I have seen, but I have intentionally missed its meaning. I am merely trying to be humorous. Camus’s story is analytic and humorous. Like all artists, he invents, because he pretends to be reconstituting raw experience and because he slyly eliminates all the significant links which are also part of the experience.

That is what Hume did when he stated that he could find nothing in experience but isolated impressions. That is what the American neorealists still do when they deny the existence of any but external relations between phenomena. Contemporary philosophy has, however, established the fact that meanings are also part of the immediate data. But this would carry us too far afield. We shall simply indicate that the universe of the absurd man is the analytic world of the neo-realists. In literature, this method has proved its worth. It was Voltaire’s method in L’Ingénu and Micromégas, and Swift's in Gulliver's Travels. For the eighteenth century also had its own outsiders, “noble savages,” usually, who, transported to a strange civilization, perceived facts before being able to grasp their meaning. The effect of this discrepancy was to arouse in the reader the feeling of the absurd. Camus seems to have this in mind on several occasions, particularly when he shows his hero reflecting on the reasons for his imprisonment.

It is this analytic process that explains the use of the American technique in The Stranger. The presence of death at the end of our path has made our future go up in smoke; our life has “no future”; it is a series of present moments. What does this mean, if not that the absurd man is applying his analytical spirit to Time? Where Bergson saw an indestructible organization, he sees only a series of instants. It is the plurality of incommunicable moments that will finally account for the plurality of beings. What our author borrows from Hemingway is thus the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time.

We are now in a better position to understand the form of his narrative. Each sentence is a present instant, but not an indecisive one that spreads like a stain to the following one. The sentence is sharp, distinct, and self-contained. It is separated by a void from the following one, just as Descartes’s instant is separated from the one that follows it. The world is destroyed and reborn from sentence to sentence. When the word makes its appearance it is a creation ex nihilo. The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We bounce from sentence to sentence, from void to void. It was in order to emphasize the isolation of each sentence unit that Camus chose to tell his story in the present perfect tense.[2] The simple past is the tense of continuity: “Il se promena longtemps.” These words refer us to a past perfect, to a future. The reality of the sentence is the verb, the act, with its transitive character and its transcendence. “Il s’est promené longtemps” conceals the verbality of the verb. The verb is split and broken in two.

On the one hand, we find a past participle which has lost all transcendence and which is as inert as a thing; and on the other, we find only the verb étre, which has merely a copulative sense and which joins the participle to the substantive as the attribute to the subject. The transitive character of the verb has vanished; the sentence has frozen. Its present reality becomes the noun. Instead of acting as a bridge between past and future, it is merely a small, isolated, self-sufficient substance.

If, in addition, you are careful to reduce it as much as possible to the main proposition, its internal structure attains a perfect simplicity. It gains thereby in cohesiveness. It becomes truly indivisible, an atom of time. The sentences are not, of course, arranged in relation to each other; they are simply juxtaposed. In particular, all causal links are avoided lest they introduce the germ of an explanation and an order other than that of pure succession. Consider the following passage:

She asked me, a moment later, if I loved her. I answered that it didn’t mean anything, but that I probably didn’t love her. She seemed sad. But while preparing lunch, for no reason at all she suddenly laughed in such a way that I kissed her. Just then, the noise of an argument broke out at Raymond's place.

I have cited two sentences which most carefully conceal the causal link under the simple appearance of succession.

2 - The following passage dealing with Camus’s use of tenses is not intelligible in translation. The simple past tense in French is almost never used in conversation; it is limited almost exclusively to written narration; the usual French equivalent of the English past is the present perfect. (Translator’s note)

When it is absolutely necessary to allude to a preceding sentence, the author uses words like “and,” “but,” “then,” and “just then," which evoke only disjunction, opposition, or mere addition. The relations between these temporal units, like those established between objects by the neo-realists, are external. Reality appears on the scene without being introduced and then disappears without being destroyed. The world dissolves and is reborn with each pulsation of time. But we must not think it is self-generated. Any activity on its part would lead to a substitution by dangerous forces for the reassuring disorder of pure chance.

A nineteenth-century naturalist would have written, “A bridge spanned the river.” Camus will have none of this anthropomorphism. He says “Over the river was a bridge.” This object thus immediately betrays its passiveness. It is there before us, plain and undifferentiated. “There were four negro men in the room . . . in front of the door was a lady I didn’t know. . . . Beside her was the director. . . .” People used to say that Jules Renard would end by writing things like “The hen lays.” Camus and many other contemporary writers would write “There is the hen and she lays.” The reason is that they like things for their own sake and do not want to dilute them in the flux of duration. “There is water.” Here we have a bit of eternity—passive, impenetrable, incommunicable and gleaming! What sensual delight, if only we could touch it! To the absurd man, this is the one and only good. And that is why the novelist prefers these short-lived little sparkles, each of which gives a bit of pleasure, to an organized narrative.

This is what enables Camus to think that in writing The Stranger he remains silent. His sentence does not belong to the universe of discourse. It has neither ramifications nor extensions nor internal structure. It might be defined, like Valéry’s sylph, as

Neither seen nor known:
The time of a bare breast
Between two shifts.

It is very exactly measured by the time of a silent intution. If this is so, can we speak of Camus’s novel as something whole? All the sentences of his book are equal to each other, just as all the absurd man's experiences are equal. Each one sets up for itself and sweeps the others into the void. But, as a result, no single one of them detaches itself from the background of the others, except for the rare moments in which the author, abandoning these principles, becomes poetic.

The very dialogues are integrated into the narrative. Dialogue is the moment of explanation, of meaning, and to give it a place of honor would be to admit that meanings exist. Camus irons out the dialogue, summarizes it, renders it frequently as indirect discourse. He denies it any typographic privileges, so that a spoken phrase seems like any other hap pening. It flashes for an instant and then disappears, like heat lightning. Thus, when you start reading the book you feel as if you were listening to a monotonous, nasal, Arab chant rather than reading a novel. You may think that the novel is going to be like one of those tunes of which Courteline remarked that “they disappear, never to return” and stop all of a sudden. But the work gradually organizes itself before the reader's eyes and reveals its solid substructure.

There is not a single unnecessary detail, not one that is not returned to later on and used in the argument. And when we close the book, we realize that it could not have had any other ending. In this world that has been stripped of its causality and presented as absurd, the smallest incident has weight. There is no single one which does not help to lead the hero to crime and capital punishment. The Stranger is a classical work, an orderly work, composed about the absurd and against the absurd. Is this quite what the author was aiming at? I do not know. I am simply presenting the reader's opinion.

How are we to classify this clear, dry work, so carefully composed beneath its seeming disorder, so “human,” so open, too, once you have the key? It cannot be called a récit, for a récit explains and co-ordinates as it narrates. It substitutes the order of causality for chronological sequence. Camus calls it a “novel.” The novel, however, requires continuous duration, development and the manifest presence of the irreversibility of time. I would hesitate somewhat to use the term “novel” for this succession of inert present moments which allows us to see, from underneath, the mechanical economy of something deliberately staged. Or, if it is a novel, it is so in the sense that Zadig and Candide are novels. It might be regarded as a moralist’s short novel, one with a discreet touch of satire and a series of ironic portraits (those of the pimp, the judge, the prosecuting attorney, etc.), a novel that, for all the influence of the German existentialists and the American novelists, remains, at bottom, very close to the tales of Voltaire.