Reading against the grain: European narratives and stories of the colony

Post-colonialism becomes an inescapable reality when it comes to understanding the ailments of the contemporary post-colonial world. From global politics, imperial policies, and strategies to the prevalent patriarchal practices, cultures, and norms of society, all are shaped by colonial history leading to oppression which is impossible to be divorced from reality. Here is an attempt to analyze the post-colonial discourse by exploring Albert Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ or ‘The Stranger/ The Outsider’ using themes of identity, gender, hybridity, race, and ethnicity, language, exclusion, and several other complexities.

Albert Camus was a strange yet enigmatic personality. His compelling writings include several journalistic articles, essays, and novels. It won’t be an exaggeration to regard ‘The Stranger’ as the most intricate and controversial work which has always been open to complex interpretations. Camus is widely criticized for being a colonial empathizer, absurdist, and existentialist for writing this novel, however, this article would tend to present an alternate view in this regard by highlighting Camus’ anti-colonial stance and immense disappointment in the treatment of subaltern classes as nonpersons by imperialist rulers.

The plot is set in Algeria under French colonial rule, one of the most valuable colony amongst all. Protagonist Meursault kills an Arab but is instead condemned to death for not appropriately mourning his mother’s death. Arabs are depicted as mere objects subjected to severe brutality and exploitation by colonizers. Edward Said has condemned Camus for the implicit denial of colonial reality by inferring a faith in the French judicial system when, on the contrary, Camus has portrayed the vulnerability and misery of Arabs as victims using an indifferent French colonial attitude.

Representations of Arabs as extremely marginalized, dehumanized ethnic identities implies a vicious colonial realism. They had no names, no speech or dialogue, no distinctive features but just a racial identity witnessing the worthlessness of colonial subjects making this novel a sincere literary criticism of colonialism. Camus has brilliantly highlighted such distortions and deformations in identities.

Roland Barthes and his theory of semiotics becomes relevant here when we observe a substantial part of signifier and signified, the white-gaze, language all summing up as a witness to discriminations. Meursault, being French had the agency to kill and get away with it but the reason for his death sentence was his passiveness towards his mothers’ death. Similarly, the environment, scorching sun, unbearable heat, roaring sea, and the geographical landscape became an inevitable part of the narrative in supporting the indifference of the universe towards suffering of humanity. The colonial agency transcended basic demands of empathy and developed a rather material view of humanity under the rule.

From a gender perspective, the plot finds its major turn when Raymond, a notorious white-French man decides to punish his Arab mistress for cheating on him and seeks Meursault’s favor. Women had a very minor yet fundamental role in the novel. Meursault had a girlfriend of French origins and nothing more than a mere object for sexual pleasure to him. The Arab girl, being mistress of a white man is treated no differently. The only distinction between the two ladies is that the white woman gets a name for herself along with minor details of her features while the Arab woman has no name and is regarded as ‘Moorish’. Identity in terms of gender was reduced to mere ethnicity. Human entitlement to a name was not even a concern and blatant denial to individuality targeted women brutally.Within these circumstances, women and their social status remained most susceptible. In representing women, Camus cannot be defended much since he was notorious for various seductions during his journalistic career and two failed marriages. The colonial impact on the lives of women subjugated them and reduced them to their sexuality depriving themevery other right of existence. Once again, the body of an Arab woman became the ground to establish a narrative with an implicit dehumanization, sexual exploitation, and explicit lack of empathy or condemnation.

Absurdism and existentialism are dominant themes throughout which are necessary to outline inherent features of colonial regimes including alienation, exclusion, and marginalization. Distorted identities imposed a trauma on people, Camus himself was a reflection of this haziness, he was never able to choose a side, he was split between the attachment, not love, for his homeland and his Europeanness. It was this hybridity that led him into a trauma that no man deserves to be in, there is no room for coexistence of French identity and sentimental attachment to Algerian-Muslim land. Camus has also attempted to offer a rather egalitarian response to humanity by drawing parallels between the deaths of both victim and assailant due to unjustifiable reasons.

Apparently ‘The Stranger’ did not discuss the plight of Arabs the way it was expected yet it did. The French justice system, in a deep analysis, denounces the Arabs and forgets that case needs to be around the murder of Arab implying the unlikeliness of execution of the French to kill an Arab. In my opinion, it shows that French colonizers were so entrenched in their conflicts that they discussed Meursault’s mother and her death implying a criminal motive behind it rather than focusing on the actual victim, the Arab, during the trial. French was the judiciary, the courtroom was full of French people, no Arab was called for testimony, and the absurdity of the entire setup hints at their obliviousness. His condemnation of French hegemony used Meursault, almost an inhumane mindset, to express the sort of meaninglessness that was being imparted among humanity.

This argument remains confined to the complex relationship between signifier and signified. Common interpretations regard the west to be the signifier and exoticized east as signified. Camus is often charged that he displayed contempt for Arabs while this reading of the novel is that it just switched the roles of signifier and signified to deal with atrocities offered by colonial rule inversely. When Meursault shoots the dead body four more times, it signifies how the French were killing the already drained, there was no need to kill them further, they had already lost identity, individuality, culture, agency, liberty and all that was left was a hybrid muddle with no escape. Therefore, the novel was more of an attempt to invoke empathy for the Arabs.        

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