The Stranger is a tent-pole of existentialism, a philosophy that stresses the importance of humanity in the face of God's supposed absence. Readers will note that the central character, Meursault, portrays this lonely way of thinking by providing a strange and disquieting narration of the events unfolding before him with startling dispassion. Students will be wary of Meursault's atypical behavior; the novel's opening lines, "Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know," perfectly illustrate the backwards, disjointed manner of thinking Meursault possesses.

Scholars and literary critics have debated at length whether Meursault should be considered a hero or a villain for his actions and, more importantly, his reaction to the world around him. Indeed, this argument mirrors the trial towards the second half of the novel, during which a faceless jury and an irate judge accuse Meursault not of murder, but of being an outsider to humanity and for not expressing sorrow or any emotion at all. Students will likely contribute a lot of opinions on this subject: On the one hand, Meursault is responsible for a terrible crime and is very likely a sociopath; but on the other, his prosecutors' inability to try to understand him leads Meursault to joyfully accept death and express contempt for his fellow man.

From his passive refusal to obey common customs to his relatively minimalistic manner of speaking, Meursault perfectly demonstrates the isolation present at the center of our society. The Stranger's central theme deals with the oppressive responsibility of "fitting in," and how a person's inability to conform can lead to his death. Teachers can engage students in multiple discussions about how real this phenomenon actually is and whether it was the author's intent to bring attention to it. Students would be tasked to find ample evidence to support their claims. For example, the sun is a common motif, which could be said to represent the burden of life without justice or absolute truth. The stars and night sky, by contrast, are used to convey the emptiness of space, the indifference Meursault feels toward every aspect of his life, and the irony that one of the only times he expresses any emotion whatsoever is when faced with the certainty of death.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 123 pages
  • Publication Date: 1942
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

The Stranger focuses on Meursault, a young French man living in Algiers, in the days and weeks after attending his mother's funeral. Meursault carries on living a normal life—going on dates, talking to his neighbors, making dinner—until he unwittingly kills a man on a beach, subsequently leading to his incarceration. While Meursault is on trial, his character is called into question, and after being deemed a monster, he is sentenced to death. After an altercation with a prison chaplain, Meursault realizes that his place is not with people but among the stars, and so says he is happy that a crowd of spectators greets his execution with "cries of hate."

Content Warning: The Stranger contains some violence and sexual content.

Your students will love:

  • The deep discussions they can have over Meursault's character.
  • The questions posed by the book's existentialist undertones.

Students may have problems with:

  • The uneven, sometimes monotonous tone and narration may confuse or bore some students.
  • The fact that the book is translated from French sometimes leaves passages or words confusing to English-speaking readers.

Objectives for Teaching The Stranger

  • Define existentialism and explain its place within the novel.
  • Discuss the merits of Meursault's trial and whether the students agree with his sentence.
  • Consider the idea of being human and whether Meursault fundamentally represents that ideal.
  • Ask what role religion plays in The Stranger.
  • Encourage students to locate and interpret symbols and motifs.
  • Compare Camus's work to that of Franz Kafka and determine what makes them similar and/or different.
  • Question the importance and meaning behind the meeting between chaplain and Meursault.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Existentialism
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Simile
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

Isolation — Meursault's life is defined by his distance—both physically and mentally—from other people. His relationships tend to be very tenuous, and he expresses a withdrawn attitude toward everyone. From his girlfriend to his neighbors and even to his mother, Meursault doesn't seem to possess the capacity to love or to hate.

Related Works:

Nonconformity — Meursault does not adhere to common conventions. Whether it's eating eggs right out of the pan, shrugging when his girlfriend asks if he will marry her, or barely registering that his mother died, Meursault doesn't do or feel anything the way Western society would consider "right."

Related Works:

Nature — Nature's presence in The Stranger is subtle but extremely important. Meursault gives vivid depictions of the beach, the rocky terrain surrounding his mother's retirement home, and, most importantly, the sun and stars. The contrast between day and night serves as a powerful metaphor for Meursault's condition: Oppressed by the weight of the sun (expectations of how he ought to be), Meursault ultimately accepts the vast indifference of the night.

Related Works:


  • Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.


An Italian adaptation of The Stranger was released in 1967. The film has been praised and criticized for its strict adherence to the source material. The mixed consensus has leaned more negative in recent years, with a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, largely due to the underwhelming comparison it can't help but draw to the original.

External Resources

Available from Prestwick House:

Title Available Formats
The Stranger Paperback
Teaching Unit
AP Teaching Unit
Reproducible Downloadable Package
Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable Package
LitPlan Teacher Pack Reproducible Downloadable Package
Puzzle Pack Reproducible Downloadable Package

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