Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Plague/The Stranger by Albert Camus

Much like last year's Cormac McCarthy duo, I've decided to review The Plague and The Stranger, both by Albert Camus, together. Partly because I'm so far behind on reviews, but also because both books cover almost the exact same idealogical ground in different contexts.

In The Stranger, Mersault, a young Frenchman, attends his mother's funeral, spends some time with a girl, and accidentally kills an Arab on the beach. The second part of the book is more philosophical, delving into Mersualt's thought processes while he's in prison, awaiting death. The Plague chronicles the escalation of the bubonic Plague in a small French town, following the efforts of several townfolk as they do their best to save those afflicted.

While the plots of the two books aren't very similar, the points they make are similar. At first glance, both appear to be nihilistic, and there is a hint of nihilism in Camus' philosophy. Mersualt, in The Stranger, doesn't care if he lives or dies. He is not angry at the injustice of being executed for a murder he didn't intend to commit; he does not mourn at his mother's funeral; he is uninterested in confessing his sins before he dies. He is interested in life only to the extent that it interests him--when he begins getting bored, he goes along with whatever comes up.

The protagonists in The Plague are mostly Mersault's opposites. Dr. Rieux, the narrator, spends a year caring for people dying of a plague he can't even slow down, much less stop. Even as those around him die, or give up, he continues on selflesslessly, even though he, like Mersault, doesn't believe in a God or an eternal reward. He presses on because it is the best thing to do, because it is the only thing he can live with.

In both these novels, the protagonists ultimately find a tenuous fulfillment, when they decide that nothing is significant, and, if nothing they do matters, all that matters is what they do (Thanks, Angel). In some ways, it makes existentialism as I understand it is either the most pessimistic or the most optimistic of systems. There is no ultimate reward, no ultimate justice, but there is what we do right here, right now.

In The Stranger, Mersault claims a person who lived only one day would have enough memories to last a lifetime. That's what stuck with me the most. That's the end of this review.


Carlton said...

I didn't say anything the first time, but these double reviews should really be against the rules. I am reporting you to the Reverend Don Spitz.

Christopher said...


Nihil Novum said...

If nothing I write matters, then all that matters is what I write.

Carlton said...

If you do not learn to master your rage, your rage will become your master.

Christopher said...

Neither of those makes sense.