Albert Camus’ French novel “L'Étranger,” published in 1942, has been translated into English as “The Stranger” or “The Outsider.” The narrative is a famous example of absurdist literature, which explores the contrast between human desire for meaning and purpose and the universe’s indifference to humanity. The novel’s first-person perspective reinforces some of its main themes.
Narrative and Point of View
A narrative is any story that includes events, characters and the characters’ actions. The term “point of view” describes the primary perspective of the story’s narrator. Third-person narration describes characters by their names or titles, not with the pronouns “I” or “you.” Third-person narrators can either know everything about the action and characters -- a point of view called third-person omniscient -- or their knowledge can be limited to the experiences of one character -- third-person limited. Second-person narration, which tells a story using the pronoun “you,” is seldom seen in literature. First-person narration speaks from a single character’s perspective using the pronoun “I.” Some works switch among several narrators and points of view.
First-Person Narration in "The Stranger"
First-person narration is immediately apparent in “The Stranger.” The story begins, “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” The “I” in the second sentence signals the first-person point of view, which “The Stranger” sustains throughout the narrative. Readers learn about the narrator from his own perspective of himself, as well as from the speech he reports. For example, his name emerges in his conversation with the warden, who calls him “Monsieur Meursault.” All speech and action in “The Stranger” is channeled to readers through Meursault. The mode thus tells readers that they aren’t getting “the whole story,” as they might feel they do with a third-person omniscient narrator.
Writers generally select the point (or points) of view that will most strongly communicate and reinforce their work’s main themes. For example, Camus’ choice to use first-person narration excludes other perspectives, so it emphasizes the sense of isolation that Meursault feels, as well as his suspicion that life is purposeless rather than meaningful. As Meursault expresses when speaking to the chaplain toward the end, “Surely, surely he must see” that nothing anyone else does can possibly make a difference in his life -- but the chaplain cannot commiserate, only leave.
Effect on Readers
Because the first-person limited perspective constrains readers as well as the narrator, “The Stranger” forces readers to experience the same uncertainties as Meursault does throughout the story, since they’re reading as “I.” The point of view becomes particularly unsettling when the narrator finally finds certainty and happiness in “the benign indifference of the universe” while awaiting his execution, a perspective that could alienate many readers. In addition, just as the first-person viewpoint shapes a whole narrative from a single perspective, it mirrors the reader’s ability to shape reality after embracing the absurdity of the human condition. The reader who accepts that the world is indeed meaningless, as Meursault decides, has the freedom to become “the master of his days,” as Camus writes in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”