The Outsider (Book Review)

“Given that you’ve got to die, it obviously doesn’t matter exactly how or when.” The Outsider is a novella which addresses the problem of the nihilist. Given that we all cease to exist one day, as far as Meursault, the protagonist, can see, it doesn’t make a difference when or how that time comes, because afterwards there is only nothingness. And so Meursault embraces nothingness while alive, within the context of what he keeps repeating throughout the novel: “It didn’t really matter.” To him, even getting his head decapitated in his youth doesn’t make a difference in the long run, since he will not be able to dwell on or remember it (or create any new thoughts or ideas, for that matter) immediately after his cranium hits the ground. “Everyone was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others too would be condemned one day,” he says. Indeed, he enjoyed life for all the aesthetics and sensuality it had to offer him, and he knew it was a privilege to be able to experience existing at all. But, to him, in the end, nothing mattered, because we would all eventually be condemned – to death.

Except, as cold and distant as Meursault may seem much of the time, he is sincere. He is a genuine character. He will not miss his mother, as he didn’t even miss her while she was alive, is quite indifferent about never being able to see or talk to her again, and, at the vigil and funeral, is not going to pretend otherwise. When his lawyer asks him if he can say while on the stand at trial that he controlled his “natural feelings that day” of his mother’s wake, he replies, “No, because it’s not true.” He is a man who will accept nothing but the truth at its most ferocious face-value: “Yes, that was all I had. But at least it was a truth which I had hold of just as it had hold of me.” He even wants with all his heart that the spectators at his execution be sincere and genuine in expressing themselves fully by shouting at him “with cries of hatred.” A true existentialist right till the very end, you could say (at least where authenticity is concerned), even if he is a nihilistic one. And, to be sure, Camus did, in fact, despise nihilism, waging war on it just as fervently as Nietzsche did. I always suspected that this short novel could have very well influenced Freddy Mercury in writing the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. The similarities are uncanny. Meursault doesn’t “put a gun against” anyone’s head, however. He kills him from a distance.

The bottom line is that the trial of Meursault is a sham and vendetta of the mob against someone they deemed frightening, and, hence – an outsider (a Nietzschean theme of the herd against the daring individualist). There was no justice being demanded in that fervid courtroom that hot, stuffy day. It was a lynching. It is the story of a man condemned to death for his inexorable honesty and solemn sincerity. The hypocrisy of the majority – the rabble – cannot handle the genuine, for they are pitifully ostentatious. That is the point. The trial is a farce, like mankind itself. The prosecutor put on a show of fine words and grand gestures and the jury ate it up. A case of murder turned into the trial of a young man’s indifference and impropriety at his mother’s funeral, and the fact that he dared have sex the very next day. Existential satire and social commentary at its finest. My favourite part of the book is near the end, when a priest tries to convert him before his untimely demise. Meursault resists the clergyman and his ostentatious claims with every fibre of his being, and tells him off like the good, little, worldly realist that he is. He then lies down, looks up at the starry night sky from his jail cell and accepts his final end as being part of the unravelling of the universe, and it makes him feel whole. Amor fati, as Nietzsche called it: the love of fate.