Tonio Kroeger by Thomas Mann and The Stranger by Albert Camus are both existentialist investigations. Existentialism as a school of philosophy ponders over the meaning of life, the relations of individuals to society, the conflicts inevitable in interpersonal relationships, etc. Such inquisitions are very much in evidence in the two novels in question. In particular, the notion of the ‘outsider’ is central to the depiction of the two lead characters – Tonio Kroeger and Meursault. In The Stranger, Meursault is shown not just to be an outsider with respect to society (due to his criminal tendencies) but also in relation to himself as he struggles to emote and connect with facts of his life. For example, the opening scene in The Stranger depicts Meursault’s reaction to the demise of his mother. The lack of remorse and loss is not only striking but bordering on the pathological. This vacuum in predictable emotion is also evident later in the story when he is tried in law court for murder. His deadpan answers to the juror’s questions and total lack of guilt epitomize the idea that he is an outsider on several counts. (Maclver, 1956, p.36)
The idea of Meursault as an outsider assumes an interesting theological/historical parallel, in that Camus conceived his protagonist as a type of Christ figure. In his famous introduction to the 1955 American University edition, he notes,
“[this is] the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth … I had tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve…I have sometimes said, and always paradoxically, that I have tried to portray in this character [Meursault] the only Christ we deserved. … I said this without any intention of blasphemy and only with the slightly ironic affection which an artist has the right to feel toward the character whom he has created.” (from the Preface, as quoted in Scherr, 2009, p.187)
The character of Kroeger is not as a-social as that of Meursault, but nevertheless feels the compulsion to look at society from the outside so as to fulfill his role of an artist. Since all novels have strong autobiographical elements, one only needs to look at the private and professional correspondence of Thomas Mann to decipher the authorial intent behind the character of Kroeger. For example, critic Erich Heller, who was personally acquainted with Mann, notes that Kroeger represents the notion of an “artist who has exiled from reality”. (Heller, 1958, p.68) This observation is derived from Mann’s own view on the function of literary artists and their modes of operation. The authorial intent is further revealed when we look at the construction of Kroeger’s character. He is a successful writer derived from upper classes of European society, akin to the facts surrounding Mann’s life as an artist.
Hence, in summation, both Kroeger and Meursault exhibit atypical social characteristics that lend them to be classified as outsiders. This status is both a boon and a bane, as they eventually learn. In Kroeger’s case, for instance, he mistakenly gets implicated on a criminal charge, reinforcing in him the incompatibility of artistic life with social sensibilities. In Meursault’s case, he belatedly realizes his emotional deficiencies (an illumination that is implied during the climatic trial), especially his inability to experience guilt. In this sense, Meursault’s status as an outsider implies hazard, whereas that of Kroeger’s suggests necessity and predicament.
Erich Heller, The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann (London, Secker & Warburg, 1958), pp. 68ff. (on the genesis of the work), 286 (on the date of publication).
MacIver, R. M., ed. Great Moral Dilemmas in Literature, Past and Present. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies, 1956.
Scherr, Arthur. “Albert Camus’s L’Etranger and Ernesto Sabato’s El Tunel.” Romance Notes 47.2 (2007): 199+.
Scherr, Arthur. “Meursault’s Dinner with Raymond: A Christian Theme in Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.” Christianity and Literature 58.2 (2009): 187+.