Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?
It is this strange insouciant detachment that characterizes ‘The Outsider’; that makes it such an unsettling and yet morbidly compelling read. It is a story that leaves you with an aching sense of gaping vacuity, a feeling that perhaps life has no meaning, and no worldly importance whatsoever.
The story opens to ‘Mother died today.’ From the first line, it is apparent that the protagonist, Mersault is different – he is utterly indifferent to his mother’s death and completely devoid of any emotional response. He possesses a certain passivity; his lack of emotion is not abhorrent or inhuman, but rather indicative a total abandonment to the workings of ‘life’. Written simply in the most basic form of prose, the lack of flowery literary intricacies reflects Mersault’s take on life – it is what it is. His apathetic observations are just that – observations. He observes what he sees in the world, and that is all.
Truly an outsider.
Would one rather be an disinterestedly alienated or parochially included?
Such characters make one wonder of our own personal prejudices and biases that inadvertently influence how we treat others; how we pass judgement on things that are not for us to judge. Mersault is persecuted not for his crime – which was one undeserving of an execution – but for his lack of emotion. His violations were not of the law, but of society’s accepted conventions of appropriate behavior and thought, whether regarding bereavement or the larger picture of life. It is ironic that his adherence to his ‘truth’ results in his condemnation; is justice not a search for truth?
And yet right to the end, Mersault refuses to stick to conventional morality, and is hesitant to pass any judgment on anything whatsover – he knows that reality is subjective. He also refuses to lie to save his own life; a show of remorse was all that he needed to convince society that he was not a heartless man. But Mersault stayed true to himself, and the refusal to be another thread in the fabric of society leads to his execution. It did not matter what he thought; the judge, the people in the courtroom, and society had already cast their decision. Mersault was simply swept along, helpless in his lack of power and yet courageous in his refusal to speak a ‘lie’. That’s all that Mersault had – his truth.
Even in the face of death, Mersault sticks to his philosophy – or lack of a philosophy. He realizes that he was happy, and that he is still happy. Mersault’s only outburst of intense emotion is when the priest tries to make him obey the conventions of society and admit to a God. He is happy because he has nothing to be unhappy about – there really is nothing to fear in death.
Death is the fate of all people.
And in that manner, death is the ultimate freedom – the ultimate liberation, and the ultimate equalizer. Men are mortal; it is an inevitable fate. The struggle does not lie in death, but in the responsibility of life.
And so, quite strangely, Mersault appears most alive in this last chapter of his execution – he faces his end in an almost comparatively elated state, celebrating (in his own strange, detached way) his life.
When it comes to our own lives, what choice do we have? Are we really the choosers of our fate, or are we simply victims of circumstance, subject to the actions and wishes of the people around us?
Our one true power lies in what we choose to do with what we have.
And that makes all the difference, in the life before death.