Even though I read plenty of good books all the time (check me out, eh?) I’ve never seen much of a point in writing a review on WordPress for a book that was:
a) First published many decades ago and,
b) Is already an established classic.
If it checks these two boxes then it should be on everyone’s to read list irrespective of my thoughts on it. That said, yet another review can’t exactly hurt either, can it? And seeing as I can’t be bothered to write creatively tonight, I’ll share my thoughts on the off-chance it will pique someone’s interest.
I starting reading The Plague, also by Camus, a couple of years ago, but lost the book after the first few chapters. It wasn’t until recently that I came across it again while browsing Waterstones, and decided to pick up both another copy of The Plague and also The Outsider, a book I’d heard a little about and knew to be a family favourite.
The Outsider is a rather compact book and with some effort a person could read it in one day. It’s a first person account of what I assume to be an “existentialist” protagonist as he drifts through life. I say assume as I’m not entirely sure what the phrase “existentialist” means, and out of respect for the reader I wont google it and pass off the knowledge as my own, but I feel I have a good enough idea. Suffice to say he “exists” in the moment, and his thoughts lack many of the trappings of conventional ideology. This means he appears stoic in the face of all events, which often makes him appear cold, although it is worth underlining that there is nothing inherently evil in the philosophy itself. It is just “being” or “existing.”
For instance, the book opens with his mother’s death, which he attends with no demonstrable sadness. We understand our protagonist kept his sick mother at his house for as long as possible but eventually lacked the means to financially support her and sent her to a state-run care home. This is understandable, however other characters subtly note that this point does not appear to distress him to the standard that society deems necessary. Even though his actions are perfectly rational, people take umbrage at his casual demeanour, and would instead prefer him to express guilt or show remorse over his decision. Instead his response is the literal truth: he couldn’t afford to support her. If he could have, he would have kept her at his house, but he couldn’t, so he sent her to a care home.
Through this mechanism our Outsider shows the first of many irrational social conventions. On the one hand what he says is true: he can’t control his decision to send his mother away as he couldn’t afford to keep her, and as it so clearly wasn’t his fault, then why should he feel guilt? The answer, we quickly realise, is solely because society accepts it for no other reason than that is how things are done. In this way we see just how the Outsider lives up to the title, although I would argue that not even he realises it until the end of the story, and thus many may come to see the monsters to be the mob who eventually condemn him for his placid refusal to play the social game. That is likely Camus’ point. Our Outsider is a man who tells the truth, who sees things as they are, and that makes him dangerous to a culture based on hypocrisy.
Despite this relatively victimless example (his dead mother doesn’t mind, does she?), the Outsider is party to some more serious offences. I wont exactly tell you what they are, but his responses really will get you thinking over where your allegiance lies, or even if you find yourself indifferent.
In total, this is an excellent book. Readable and liable to have you thinking. I’m currently halfway through The Plague which is a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of accessibility, but this one is a good pocket read to take in on a day off. In fact, if you have any thoughts on it yourself, I’d love to hear them!