Albert Camus’s The Stranger was published in France in 1942. Although it is a slender and seemingly simply novel, the underlying philosophical message is quite complex. Camus was one of the leading proponents of existentialist and absurdist philosophy. This was a mode of thinking which arose during and immediately following the Second World War in which philosophers came doubt the idea that there was anything beyond the material and immediate fact of life itself.
This is to say the notions like a fate, destiny, and even God came into doubt. What this leaves us with is the stark fact that there is no real purpose to life and that even the greatest lives end only in death as a final and meaningless fact.
Camus wrote directly on these ideas in The Myth of Sisyphus. In this cornerstone text to existentialist philosophy, the myth of the man condemned by the gods to push a stone up a hill for eternity became a metaphor for the human condition. We are all laboring away for nothing other than to be relieved of this labor by the inevitability of death.
In The Stranger, we are presented with a character named Meursault who appears to be largely indifferent to everything other than his immediate experiences. He shows no grief for the death of his mother. HE seems indifferent to the love of a woman. In the end, he kills a man for no real reason. Facing the guillotine, he finally recognizes that the only certainty in life is death. With this recognition, he finds some measure of happiness.
These ideas, and the character of Meursault may be unpleasant. We may even reject everything about this. But the reader is asked to consider this way of thinking. How do we approach our lives if these are the facts? How do we derive meaning in our lives in the absence of something transcendent? These are worthy questions no matter where we end up in the debate.