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Cononial Inplications in Albert Camus’s The Outsider

Name and address of the corresponding author:

Ashraful Hasan

Senior Lecturer, Department of English, Sylhet International University, Bangladesh.
E-mail: ashrabusan@gnail.com


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Research original paper

With Thanks

Ashraful Hasan

Colonial Implications in Albert Camus’s The Outsider

Ashraful Hasan complete his M.A. in Applied Linguistics and ELT from University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has been working as a faculty in Department of English in Sylhet International University, Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Albert Camus’s colonialist sympathies and prejudices disguise under his absurdist philosophy of life expressed in The Outsider. Zeroing in on philosophical or psychoanalytical aspects of this novel obscures the political implications of the novel. Multi-racial tension and absurd claim of cultural assimilation in colonized Algeria play a vital role in the novel and are not less important issues than the Meursault’s strangeness and his war against the set values of society. The relationship between the pied-noir and the Arabs reveals a Eurocentric attitude. Camus as a pretending anti-colonialist stands against the French but defends the pied-noir attitude of treating the Arabs as the other. Being himself a pied-noir his pied noir protagonist questions capitalistic values of the colonizer but the same Meursault becomes a colonial apologist when he neglects the Arab identity, suppresses their language of expression and consider their women and property as his own. So the stranger should better be analyzed as a pied-noir writing rather than an existentialist one.
Key Words: Pied-noir, cultural assimilation, colonialism


Camus’ the Outsider was primarily considered as the philosophical translation of his The Myth of Sisyphus where he explained his concept of absurdism. In other words, in the Outsider readers feel the notion of absurdism put forward in The Myth of Sisyphus. Jean-Paul Sartre also in his essay “An explication of the Stranger” (1947) illustrates the strangeness of Meursault in the light of existentialism. Meursault was unmoved at his mother’s death, did not show sorrow his society expects of a son or daughter, went on swimming, watched a comic film together on the very next day to his mother’s funeral, killed an Arab ‘because of the sun’, wished to be executed in public place only to be greeted by the crowd ‘with cries of hatred’. Even then Meursault is claimed to be innocent or in Camus’s word an absurd here. Sartre goes one step ahead when he positions the absurd man as a humanist who knows only the good things of the world. Meursault is also a humanist to him. He did not dwell well that the murder had political dimension. The legal systyem depicted in the novel and the pied-noirs’ attitude towards the indigenous Arabs are also questionable. But Camus tries to connect alieanation or individualism with humanism to validate his stance as a sympathesizer to pied-noir colonialist outlook. So many of Camus crticits like to treat him more as a colonislit than an existentialist writer.

Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970) argues that underneath the mask of the progressive, antiracist, European humanist, and defender of the oppressed can be found Camus’s true face of a partisan colonialist. He further accuses Camus of accepting the myth of and chief justification for colonialism and establishing the superiority of the colonizer over the colonized. Edward Said (1993) characterizes Camus’ work as a determined defense of colonialism in Algeria. According to him Camus novel, short stories narrate the result of a victory over a pacified, decimated Muslim population whose right to the land was severely curtailed. Both of them labelled the Outsider as a deeply colonized novel where Meursault, the stranger, is the embodiment of the colonizer, and his situation and actions represent the attitude and desire of the entire pied-noir community. In Memmi’s discourse the Outsider is an example of the colonial relation or a hierarchical relation of oppression. This oppression faces dependency and violence which at one level determines everyday relationship between a colonizers and colonized and in broader level the political, economic and cultural domination of the colonizers over the colonized. In The Outsider Pierre Nora (1961) finds the revelation of the hidden desires of entire pied-noir community. On the other hand, Michael Welzer (2002) safeguards Camus as a good man who in a bad time did better than most of his fellows. Tony Judt take a dubious position alleging Camus as a sympathizer to the colonialist and at the same time praising Camus for his repeated attacks on French policy. Jean Gassin asserts that Meursault strangeness are psychoanalytical but not political. McCarthy rejects Gassin by claiming The Outsider as less the expression of a colonial society than an insight into it. Meursault is the embodiment of the colonizer and his situations and action are total representation of the pied-noir community.

There is no doubt that Meursault is the main character in this novel but the then Algeria and its political situation are not less involved in this novel. To explain the picture of Algeria the readers have to see through the pied-nor eyes of Meursault. Algeria had been ruled by France since 1830. So in Algeria there was co-existence of French, Indigenous Algerian, Arabs and another significant group, the pied-noirs. The pied-noir, literally meaning black foot, was the French man born in Algeria. They were given more privilege than the other indigenous people and obviously than the Arabs. They themselves also considered the Arabs as a threat to them as they were very doubtful to hold their position competing with the cheap Arab labour. Interestingly, though the number of the Arabs was much greater than that of the Europeans, they were treated like conquered people. Democratic rights were denied to the overwhelming majority of native Arab in the name of democracy itself. They were given only vague and unfulfilled promises of assimilation into French culture and awarding full citizenship in unknown future. To the pied-noirs they were second class citizens. Pierre Nora (1961) called the pied-noir “profoundly racist’. Nora in his study found the pied-noirs as a strange, exotic and extremely dangerous tribe. They are jovial on face but murderous at heart. Their outward generosity, hospitality, openness are not what they seem at all but a hidden motive and latent hostility to win over all the external and internal outsiders, the indigenous Arabs and even over the French of mainland France.

When the Stranger was being written the Arabs were venturing to establish their own political and social identity. The number of the Arabs in Algeria was overwhelmingly huge but the pied-noirs did not like to recognize the existence of the Arabs. The pied-noirs fancied that they are the exclusive inhabitants of Algeria. So the feelings of violence, atrocity with the Arabs run in their blood. Not only that, they misrepresent the Arabs as barber, uncultured and dangerous tribe and their presence in Algeria is a threat to the peace there. The Outsider is a true reflection of colonial Algeria. All of the groups of people, French, Pied-noirs, Arabs, are resent in this novel. Meursault is the representative pied-noir here. Among the Arabs are Arab nurse in the Nursing Home, Raymond’s mistress, mistress’s brother and his friends. Caretaker in the old home, Merusault’s boss, Magistrate in the court are some of the french character. They have individual work to do. Their places of work are also different. Sometimes people of all the three groups get together and arise tension. Along with pied-noir Meursault, Parisian caretaker and Arab Nurse were present before Meursault’s mother’s coffin. On the beach Meursault, Masson’s Parisian wife and the Arab brothers got together which ensues conflict.

The pied-noir is the key group in the Stranger. Meursault himself belongs to this group. His individual attitude towards the Arabs and French mirrors the collective attitudes of pied-noirs in Algeria as evident in Nora’s study. One example can be his friendship with his neighbour Raymond who purports to be a warehouse guard but rumored to be a pimp, lives off the earning of the prostitutes. This friendship is a sign of solidarity with a man of ruthless hostility towards the Arabs. Raymond accuses his Arab girlfriend of cheating him and beats her. Raymond got no punishment except mild warning for beating the Arab woman. The police smacks on his face for defiantly smoking before him, not for beating the woman. Does not it mean beating a woman is much less offence than smoking in front of a police man just because the woman is an Arab? Raymond later on requested Meursault to write to his allegedly unfaithful mistress to entice her to meet Raymond again so that Raymond can take revenge. At first Meursault declines to write to the woman but as soon as he comes to know that she is an Arab woman, he agrees to write without any reluctance. The duty of the Arab nurse in the Nursing Home is to watch over the Algerian-French. No other Arabs are present there to get her service. The nurse there is a symbol of slave to the pied-noirs. Her face is also deformed by an abscess.

There are a good number of Arab characters in the novel but all of them have been depersonalized and reduced to featureless creatures. They live namelessly in Meursault’s world and even die without a name or identity. So O’Brien says Meursault does not kill a man with a name and identity rather he kills ‘an Arab. Even in the court proceedings where victim’s name and address are very essential, the identity of the murdered Arab is not revealed. Like the other pied-noirs of the Algerian Meursault does not see the Arab as individuals but as anonymous who are interchangeable component of ‘the Arab’ or “the Muslims”. Meursault’s perceiving of the Arab as non-entities is analogous with Kurtz’s treating the natives as non-humans in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz believes that the native are brutes to be exterminated. Likewise, this anonymity of the Arab in The Stranger is symptomatic of Meursault, Camus or in general all the pied-noirs hatred to the colonized others, the Arab. This nameless presentation of the Arabs also screens an even more violent, genocidal hatred whose proof is Meursault’s killing the Arab just for the sun.

Meursault kills a person. The victim is an Arab. In Meursault perspective or in Camus existentialist explanation the murder is an unplanned, spontaneous and uncontrolled act. But in reality it is not an unplanned murder and the Arab has not become the victim accidentally. The sequence of violent events between the French-Algerian and the Arab prepared the stage for this murdered. Meursault and the other Europeans encountered the Arab thrice on the sea beach. At the first encounter they had scuffle with the Arabs and at one point one Arab attacks Raymond and his arm cut open. The Arabs ran away as winner in the fight. The Arabs were victorious in the second time also but this time not with fight but with taking possession of the land scape. “They were lying down, in their greasy boiler suits. They seemed quite calm and almost contented. …….. One was blowing down a small reed; watching us out of his eye.” (56). The Arab was killed at the third encounter. The questions comes what made Meursault accompany Raymond for the third time when latter’s old friend Masson refused to do so. Not only that, he went there in heavy sun, though he was suffering from heat. Because the Arabs’ dominant presence in the beach became a threat to him as the Arabs were the rival claimant to the land of Algeria. The knife of the Arab is metaphorically compared to the glaring sun which made Meursault shoot the Arab. Meursault fired four more times at the lifeless body of the Arab. These extra shoots on the dead body of the Arab is an outburst of a pied-noir wrath toward the natives. These extra shoots also changes the nature of crime from mere accidental murder to a preplanned violent killing.

In colonial societies vision of the colonizer dominates. He wants the colonized looks how he wants them to look, though sometimes opposite happens. In those moments, the colonized go against the colonizer in compelling him to his gaze. The Arab in the beach turned against the French-Algerian . The excursion in the beach was a happy one. It was a nice morning for all of them. Marie’s body language also spoke of this happiness. She laughed, amused herself by swinging herself by her oilcloth bag about and scattering petals everywhere. Both of them swim together with contentment, sprawled in the little waves. The food was also good; sea fish, bread, meat, potatoes. Surprisingly, Meursault planned about marriage. “For the first time perhaps, I really thought I’d get married.” (52). All of these indicate that it was a pied-noir day. “The values of the body, the lack of reflection, the camaraderie, and the superficial sense of belonging to nature – are ingredients of pied-noir culture.” (McCarthy, 1988:51). The presence of the Arab in this situation is a flaw to this happiness. So it is not the sunshine which made the entire beach alive but the pied-noir hatred towards Arab that propelled Meursault to shoot the Arab dead.

The real spot of the murder of the Arab is not the beach but the court where state and authority join Meursault in the killing. The judgment of Meursault came not for what he did but for what he was. Meursault is not a French. He is not human to the French eyes. He is harmful for the humanity or in other sense for the peaceful existence of the French lords as he does not conform to their moral, social or religious values. He refuses to embrace Christianity and even aggressively attacks a priest in his cell. Thus he rejects French identity and the possibility of assimilating back into French society. That is why his actual crime of murder is not an important issue in the trial. In fact, he is accused for one crime and sentenced for completely different crime. To the prosecutor Meursault’s actions and behavior at the natural death of his French mother was more significant than his killing the Arab victim without any apparent cause. Not a single Arab witness was summoned to give evidence against Meursault. Moreover, some of the witnesses, Perez, celeste, warden, who are summoned to testify against Meursault were not present in the beach during the killing of the Arab. The reality is that Meursault is to die in colonial Algeria for being an indigenous to the colonized French and the Arab is to die for being an indigenous to the pied-noir. So O’Brien said that no French-Algerian court would ever condemn a pied-noir to death for killing an Arab.
Tension exists between the ruling and the working class in any colonialized society. The working class shows a kind of hidden anger to the rulers. The former doses not like the latter’s capitalistic attitude. This ruling and working class feud is evident in The Stranger. The ruling class tends to link them to mainland France and to exercise power over the working class. Warden of the Home is comparatively a milder representation of this authority. He dictates who can attend the funeral and who cannot. Meursault’s boss expresses his values of liberal capitalism – working, making money, ambition etc. That’s why he was unhappy when Meursault asked for leave for his Mother’s funeral. “My boss, quite naturally, thought that I’d be getting four day’s holiday including my Sunday and he couldn’t have been very pleased about that.” The conflict between them is more clear when Meursault’s boss offer him a promotion to Paris. According to the boss Meursault should accept this offer as ‘a change in life’ and a step forward to the fulfillment of high ambition in life. Meursault rejects the offer replying that “you could never change your life”. Meursault also realizes that his boss was not happy as he does not have any ambition- “He looked upset and told me that I always evaded the question and I have no ambition, which was disastrous in the business world.”(44). It is evident that Meursault’s outlook is different from his French boss. He has hatred for France and French people as they once ruled and dominated them. Meursault nurtures the working class sense that concepts of ambition and career are fictions and that work is an unpleasant necessity to which one submits.

In a colonial society a woman is analyzed a prize for the colonizer and the colonizer fight among themselves for the women. Women are nothing but a means of enjoyment to them. Raymond reduces his Arab girl friend to a prostitute. He uses very slangy language in accusing her. When Meursault goes to the police station to give his deposition against the Arab woman the police accept it, though the basis of his evidence lies only in what Raymond tells to him about her. Meursault, Raymond, Masson’s fight with the Arab in the beach issued from gaining control over certain women. Language is also an instrument of oppression in the colonial society. The colonizers want to control the liberty of expression of the colonized people. The language of the colonizer becomes the language of authority and the language of colonized of dissidence. To determine the political state of a colonial society both spoken and written language should be analyzed. In the Outsider written language is a tool of oppression. Meursault writes a deceitful letter to Raymond’s Arab mistress. Meursault wants to compel the Arab woman through his apparently apologizing letter to meet Raymond again and to torture her thereby. The telegram of Meursault’s mother death has an authority to compel Meursault joining his mother’s funeral. The language of authority is also associated with the warden of the old home, Meursault’s boss and the law courts. The rhetoric of the courtroom is the rhetoric of oppression. Working-class characters like Marie and Celeste are ensnared in this language and cannot expressed themselves freely and become a laughing stock to the court. The true nature of the court’s authoritative language is revealed when the judge in a weird way verdicts that Meursault’s head will be cut off in a public place in the name of ‘French People”. Language of Algerian street is also a vehicle of oppression. Raymond uses slangy French about the Arab when he beats up the Arab man. He even describes the Arab woman to Meursault and to the police in indecent language. The social groups which are associated with oppression are kept silence. The Arabs barely speaks in the novel and their silence has authenticity as they themselves never takes part in oppression.


The Outsider is commonly read as a novel where a man is struggling for his individual existence in an absurd world. The protagonist is defined as an absurd here who had to walk to the guillotine as he tried to live life and not to judge or compared it to others. Sartre’s seminal explication of the text in the light of his rigorous existentialist themes dominate the reading of the novel till the advent of decolonization and the furious debates about the Algerian wars. After this the Stranger became politically debatable. Later on, Nora’s (1961) historical study of Pied Noir of Algeria and their symptomatic attitude towards the Arabs, O’Brien (1970) concern about Camus’s handling the murder, Raymond’s beating up the Arab women and depiction of the legal system, and Said’s (1993) accusing Camus of determined defense of French colonialism in Algeria have made it evidential how colonial issues are an important motif of Camus writings. So like most of his other works the Outsider is not simply a precolonial or philosophical novel. At the same time it will be injustice to Camus if he is called an out and out colonial ideologue and the Stranger a pure colonial novel. He shows his distaste against the French Colonialism, hatred for liberal capitalism and social stratification. But these apparent anti-colonial attitudes are overshadowed by his support for establishing pied-noir superiority in Algeria.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, Albert Camus’s “The Stranger”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001

Camus, Albert, The Outsider, Penguin Books, London. 1983.

Caroll, David, Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice, Columbia University Press, New York. 2007.

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, Friends Book, Dhaka, 1993

Judt, Tony, The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, University of Chicago Press, New York, 1998.

McCarthy, Patrick, Albert Camus: “The Stranger”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

O’Brien, Conor Cruise , Albert Camus: Of Europe and Africa, Viking Press, New York, 1970

Said, Edward , Culture and Imperialism, Alfred Knopt, New York, 1993.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, “An Explication of the Stranger”, Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Ed. Germaine Bree, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1962, 108-121, Print.

Thody, Philip, Albert Camus: A Study of his Works, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1957.

Walzer, Michael, The Company of Critics: Social Critics and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, Basic Books, New York,2002.

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