So a follow up on teaching The Stranger by Albert Camus: what a success! Which initially surprised me, since I thought this would be a “we-need-to-read-this-novel-because-its-important-so-power-through-it” kind of text. Unfortunately, in high school this situation comes up every now and then. For younger students, it’s often with Shakespeare. Last year, it was with Washington Irving stories in the eleventh grade, and The Picture of Dorian Gray in the twelfth. Obviously, as a teacher you try to make everything interesting, but depending on the given makeup of a section, and perhaps on the time of year, students will sometimes take to one text while rejecting another, and often it’s unpredictable.
But students loved The Stranger. It has a lot of philosophical themes, and we went down a few rabbit holes with Absurdism, Existentialism, and Nihilism. At first I didn’t plan on covering these topics in-depth, but I now think modern and post-modern philosophies are “hip” right now with younger generations. If you let students show that they’ve done outside research on a topic (or maybe just show that they’ve watched “Rick and Morty”)… well, anything to get them interested. Or in other words, I didn’t think to explore Existentialism weeks ago, but I adjusted my lessons and let various students talk about philosophies they personally liked as they showed interest in doing so. They were able to relate their personal interests to The Stranger, and thus as a result class was quite fruitful.
Also, there’s something intriguing about “unhappy” endings—it’s the same streak that attracts grade school kids to Roald Dahl, I think—and in a novel like The Stranger, which is so short, it is clear from early on this narrative is going to go off the rails in a delightful way. Additionally, the novel really got students talking about mental health, which for better or worse is a big high school topic right now. So I probably shouldn’t have been gritting my teeth (to the tiniest degree) this summer when I thought students wouldn’t be able to discuss the story of a man who shoots another man for absolutely no reason, and then refuses to defend himself in court.
That summary sounds a little interesting, right? If you are like me (minus six months) and haven’t read The Stranger, take a few afternoons do to do. The book itself is barely a quarter of an inch thick, and it’s delightfully different than most things published today. I don’t know if it will lead you to any serious philosophical reflection, and really, I don’t think novels ever have to do that; they only fundamentally need to be entertaining. And The Stranger is just that; it’s gripping. Now on to reading a few more texts that slipped through the cracks of my undergraduate and graduate programs. The joys of being an English teacher: always new exposure to new literature, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
–Jeff and Leah