On Reading More Books: Albert Camus and Kate Chopin

This week, I read two excellent books: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) and Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942). Chopin’s work is #50 on my Top 100 list; Camus’ is absent because it was written in French. Both are very quick reads; thin paperbacks of 115 and 156 pages, respectively.

Incidentally, I am again going to re-do my “Top 100 Books” page. I might just turn it into a running list of books I read.

The Awakening is historically and culturally important because its plot is centered on the thoughts and actions of a woman in New Orleans, who becomes disenchanted with being a wife and mother. Then she basically decides she is going to break all social convention and do what she wants to do, when she wants to. In the late 1800s, that would have been a scandalous idea! It would fit perfectly with anyone who wants to read some early feminist literature.

Since I am not a literary pundit and big, technical words go right over my head, I will quote this work’s Wikipedia entry as follows:

The novel’s blend of realistic narrative, incisive social commentary, and psychological complexity makes The Awakening a precursor of American modernism; it prefigures the works of American novelists such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and echoes the works of contemporaries such as Edith Wharton and Henry James. It can also be considered among the first Southern works in a tradition that would culminate with the modern masterpieces of Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams.

Finally, I need to point out that I loved the book’s ending, not just what happened but the way it was portrayed. I thought it was perfect, I thought it was beautifully written, with impeccable word choice. Possibly the most satisfying final chapter of any book I have ever read.

The Stranger gripped my attention and I, pretty much, didn’t put it down until it was complete. My first recollection of this story comes from music, oddly. “Killing an Arab” is the 1978 debut single from the British band The Cure (love the band, don’t like the song). Not coincidentally, much of this story is about the protagonist Meursault who, in fact, kills an Arab — the stranger — by shooting him as he walks on the beach.

The fame which accompanies this work is due to its existential nature and the way it portrays Camus’ idea of absurdism. It is written in reflective first person.To paraphrase Wikipedia again:

Its theme and outlook are often cited as exemplars of existentialism, though Camus did not consider himself an existentialist; in fact, its content explores various philosophical schools of thought, including (most prominently and specifically) absurdism, as well as determinism, nihilism, naturalism, and stoicism.

Meursault is a man who, by nature, is very affected by his physical surroundings (heat, light, etc.). He doesn’t chit-chat much, because the extra words are meaningless. His life events happen to him, and he doesn’t regret or reminisce because he is too busy focusing on the present and the near future. This lack of regret, or maybe it is an inability to regret, becomes a detriment toward the climax of the story. Crucially, Meursault doesn’t notice this part of his personality is a detriment. He thinks that very serious life events are far less serious than they really are, and he finds happiness in the “gentle indifference of the world.”

I loved this story!

In closing, some of Meursault’s quotations, which underscore his mindset and personality: (notice his lack of emotion upon learning on his mother’s death)

Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.
I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored.
I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.
I had been right – I was still right – I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing and I had done another. And so?

2 thoughts on “On Reading More Books: Albert Camus and Kate Chopin

  1. I think I would be more apt to read the first rather than the second book you talked about. I just came back from New Orleans, I just finished reading “The Help” (fictional telling of black women’s stories working for white families in Jackson MI in the 1960s- recently made into a movie a couple yrs ago), which really got me interested in reading more southern literature. Early feminist southern literature might be a good start!
    When I even hear the name Albert Camus, I instantly think of “The Metamorphosis” and having to read it in high school, and hating every minute of it.

    • This was much better than any of Kafka’s work that I have read. It’s just an easy-to-read story. No stopping to figure out what’s going on because your completely confused 🙂

      But I do recommend the Awakening. Maybe try to buy a used copy/library/kindle. It is only 100 pages or so.

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