“The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural movement–of a time, feeling, and a place...” – Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)“, “Thesis I: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body”
While approaching the middle of the twentieth century, the entire world had adopted the trenches as their new ‘home’–forcibly occupying these spaces with angst and fear, but slowly learning to become accustomed to the chaos of it all; this span of time and the years of 1939-1945 adopted the infamous name of World War II. With this seemingly everlasting bloodshed and destruction, the culture and views all around began to shift into the ‘darker’ end of the spectrum, as “human fate was bound to be stranded between atheistic influence of the predecessors and the consequence of two world wars along with domestic conflicts” (Uddin 1). After constantly being bombarded with devastating news–whether it be in the form of a family member or friend enlisting and/or dying at battle, their homeland being destroyed and now in ruins, or that the anti-semitic mindset and genocide was still present and deadly, people began to start questioning religion (the existence of God) and the meaning of life itself. As a result, many people were accepting the idea that there was a lack of God, life didn’t have any intrinsic meaning, and one was able to assign their own meaning through awareness, free will, and personal responsibility. This philosophical movement, existentialism, ended up lasting the majority of the twentieth century as wars, hate movements, and other social issues were as prevalent as ever and continued onward. An additional philosophy that was adopted in this era, as displayed throughout any form of speech was a branch of existentialism–absurdism. This branch specifically addresses the absurdity in the continuance of living in a world that is seemingly indifferent or hostile in return, which is further explored though the question: “But if killing is not like death in that it is not universally necessarily connected to existence, and if killing is not like other activities in that we cannot just choose to take it up without radically redefining ourselves, then how it it to be understood?” (Gertz 14). One of the most prominent absurdist philosophers that aided in the initiation of the rise and adoption of this philosophy, along with existentialism, is Albert Camus. Camus created multiple works with absurdism and existentialism being the fluent undertones and themes carried across his works, but the book that was made most famous for this being a large culture shock, in the past and present, is The Stranger.
In The Stranger, the main character, Meursault, was ironically displayed as a ‘monster’ in the eyes of society, despite him actually being symbolic of the overall feeling of indifference and apathy, during that specific era. Throughout the story, Meursault, due to his lack of emotions and constant state of impassivity. Right at the beginning of the story, Meursault is faced with the devastating news of his mother passing away; however, he doesn’t act as a ‘normal’ person does–making him appear as a ‘monster’. He doesn’t have any sort of response, and actually forgets the day that she passed away, as shown within the quote, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday” (Camus 1). After receiving this telegram, Meursault later goes to her funeral, only to fall asleep during the process of it all and awakes to all of his mother’s friends staring at him in disbelief. During this time, Meursault still doesn’t understand the reasoning behind them being perplexed by his emotionless approach, making the reader question further if he has a mental disability or disorder of some sort for not understanding simple, social etiquette. Then the day following the funeral, Meursault goes back home, only to rekindle and have an affair with a past coworker, whose name is Marie. Marie later faces the shocking news that his mother had passed the previous day, and doesn’t know how to react to his detachment from the situation; however, Meursault still remains a blank slate. During this process, the introduction of the character, Raymond, takes place. Raymond, a man who lives in the same apartment complex as Meursault is trying to seek revenge on a former mistress by sending a letter, written by Meursault, in efforts to lure her back to his apartment. Shortly after, the mistress arrives at Raymond’s apartment, and gets physically abused by Raymond. Although her cries are to be heard by Meursault and Marie from the apartment of Meursault, Meursault chooses to ignore the pleas for help because it ‘isn’t his business’. This displays even more the lack of morals that Meursault has, and again presenting the question if he has a disorder or not. After a short amount of time and more time spent later together, Marie falls deeply in love with Meursault, only to be crushed when she asks if he loves her and his response being,”I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so” (Camus 35). At a later point in the story, Meursault also eventually agrees to marry her, only to please her. However, the official consolidation of this never ends up happening because Meursault ends up going to jail for shooting an unarmed Arab man, the brother of Raymond’s mistress. The explanation of this monstrous act was the sensory overload that he was subjected to during that moment, along with the immediate pleasure that came along with it. Made seemingly obvious by his other actions, Meursault in no fashion felt remorse or had thought about the possible repercussions of his actions before committing the crime–deeming him a ‘monster’. As a repercussion of killing the man, Meursault was sentenced to time in jail and given the death sentence, based solely off fact that there’s something wrong with him for not reacting to his mother’s death. Even though this usually comes as an obvious shock and produces the feeling of devastation to most, he actually reacted in quite the contrary. Meursault began to become accustomed to jail, enjoyed the alone time, along with the structure. Furthermore, Meursault didn’t give any care at all when finding out that he was going to be killed. Rather, he stated, “…I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” on the very last page of the book. The ending of this book sparked confusion and outrage amongst the readers even more because it didn’t offer any traditional ending with clarity, but instead ended the book by creating more questions on the character and the way he represented absurdism.
With understanding the background information on the time period, leading to the creation of absurdism and existentialism, one is able to realize the impact that culture has on the mindset and actions of its occupants. In this case, Albert Camus created The Stranger with the intent of representing the mindset of an absurdist, along with the frame of mind during the time portrayed in his own interpretation, “Hope remains only in the most difficult task of all…to reconsider everything from the ground up, so as to shape a living society inside a dying society” (Robinson 2). With this in mind, it is understandable how Camus was able to use this time period as a way to create the monstrous character of Meursault. Despite him going to the extreme and killing someone, he was able to represent the apathetic approach by not showing any form of emotion, caring or thinking about the repercussions of his actions, and also acting solely on immediate pleasure and sensory overload. This plays mainly on theses I, II, III, IV, and VI from the chapter, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen–which all touch on the criteria used to classify someone or something as a monster, reinforcing the idea that Meursault is indeed a monster and the product of society and difference.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.
The Stranger by Albert Camus is my primary text that encapsulates the idea of atheistic existentialism, which aids in displaying the main character as a monster. The main character, Meursault, is a direct representation of society present and post-World War II, displaying the overall attitude of the people–indifferent, stagnant, and very much maintaining an existentialist viewpoint. Due to the war still being in effect, people were accepting ‘fate’ or death and feeling indifferent to the high concentration of deaths–which is also replicated by Meursault when his mother dies and he doesn’t seem to care. The general concept of atheistic existentialism is paired with absurdism, which deals with life being meaningless and humans finding reasons to live by injecting meaning into things–especially through senses. As a result of this way of living, a monster may typically be produced because there is no care or remorse; existentialists live in the moment. This further backs Meursault being a monster because he is outside the ‘norm’, kills and doesn’t feel remorse, and lacks emotions. While this being my main focus, I also choose to use this credible source because Albert Camus is a renowned author who is well-knowledged and equipped to speak on existentialism. Moreso, Camus is able to speak on the mindset of society in the 20th century because he had lived through that time period.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
I utilized “Monster Culture (Seven Theses), a chapter from Monster Theory: Reading Culture by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, as one of my main sources because it offers the basic guidelines and criteria on the creation of a monster and defining the term, monster, itself. In this case, the main character (Meursault) from my main text (The Stranger by Albert Camus) may be defined as a monster through Cohen’s theses: I and IV as elaborated in my work. Throughout these theses, the common threads that I used when pinpointing Meursault as a monster were monsters being a product of culture (World War II producing this overall attitude of indifference, no remorse, and acting on senses and pleasure), monsters always finding a way to come back from the dead and reincarnate (existential crises–found at different points of people’s lives), monsters not following social norms and cues (again, indifference and lack of emotions or reaction to death), and monsters being desirable (wanting to avoid grief and emotional responsibilities). Despite using this source to enhance my standpoint, I have also chosen to use this source because it is clearly credible since Cohen is an English professor and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
Gertz, Nolen. “Just and Unjust Killing.” Journal of Military Ethics, vol. 7, no. 4, Dec. 2008, pp. 247-261. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15027570802573203.
This academic journal is apart of Journal of Military Ethics, which speaks on the mindset of soldiers and their moral codes being similar or exactly the same as civilians. Nolen Gertz makes the connection in his work between these moral codes and existentialism–altogether questioning the meaning of life after killing someone in combat. I used this source because it was able to provide more background evidence on the time period, along with the philosophy that was focused on from my main text, The Stranger by Albert Camus. In addition to this, this source was credible and reliable because it was peer reviewed and the author is a philosophy professor, as well as does social research.
Robinson, Christopher. “Theorizing Politics After Camus.” Human Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 1-18. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10746-008-9105-x.
I chose to use this academic journal from Academic Search Complete because it gave me additional background information that I used for the cause of my character being ‘monstrous’. Christopher Robinson spoke on the political climate present and post-war, along with the philosophical ideas shifting as a result. In addition to this, Robinson also touched on Albert Camus’ view on absurdism, and his impact in the rise of this philosophy. I chose to use this source because it provided me with more knowledge on aburdism and existentialism, while also giving me additional information on the background that influenced Camus and the creation of The Stranger. This source is also viable, as well as credible, because this is published in Human Studies and is peer reviewed, in order to ensure the best form of work and publication. This publication also writes about social sciences, humanities, and philosophy.
Uddin, Mohammad Khabir. “An Absurdist Mind-Set Developed in the 20Th Century Tending to Make Gradually Its Generation Feel an Absurdist World-View.” ASA University Review, vol. 10, no. 1, Jan-Jun2016, pp. 241-249. EBSCOhost, chaffey.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=117565120&site=ehost-live.
I found this source while researching the background that lead to the creation of absurdism. This source not only spoke on the world wars as a main cause of this philosophy, but also touched on Albert Camus and main of his works along with other authors that had common mindsets and publications. This source offered information that described the mindset during and after the war, and why it was still present even after the world wars. This source was credible because the author is in English instructor, meaning that they are very much capable of analyzing The Stranger properly. Furthermore, this source is also a university review, meaning that it is peer reviewed.