The Stranger * Albert Camus

Once or twice I had a mind to assure him that I was just like everybody else; quite an ordinary person. But really that would have served no great purpose, and I let it go—out of laziness as much as anything else

The Stranger

Meursault, weeks after his mother’s funeral is accused of a murder – he kills an Arab in French Algiers, who was involved in a conflict with one of Meursault’s neighbors. The novel contains some of Camus’ philosophy, that of absurdism, because “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” . As the lawyer appointed to the court noted, he should have felt more grief during the death of a loved one.

All normal people, I added as on afterthought, had more or less desired the death of those they loved, at some time or another.

Here the lawyer interrupted me, looking greatly perturbed.

“You must promise me not to say anything of that sort at the trial, or to the examining magistrate.”

I promised, to satisfy him, but I explained that my physical condition at any given moment often influenced my feelings. For instance, on the day I attended Mother’s funeral, I was fagged out and only half awake. So, really, I hardly took stock of what was happening. Anyhow, I could assure him of one thing: that I’d rather Mother hadn’t died.

The lawyer, however, looked displeased. “That’s not enough,” he said curtly.

Meursault is now incarcerated. His general detachment and ability to adapt to any external circumstance seem to make living in prison tolerable, especially after he gets used to the idea of being restricted and unable to have sex with Marie, though he does realize at one point that he has been unknowingly talking to himself for a number of days.

“Never in all my experience have I known a soul so case-hardened as yours,” he said in a low tone. “All the criminals who have come before me until now wept when they saw this symbol of our Lord’s sufferings.”

I was on the point of replying that was precisely because they were criminals. But then I realized that I, too, came under that description. Somehow it was an idea to which I never could get reconciled.

For almost a year, he sleeps, looks out the small window of his cell, and mentally lists the objects in his old apartment while he waits for his day in court.

Those first months were trying, of course; but the very effort I had to make helped me through them. For instance, I was plagued by the desire for a woman—which was natural enough, considering my age. I never thought of Marie especially. I was obsessed by thoughts of this woman or that, of all the ones I’d had, all the circumstances under which I’d loved them; so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled me, no doubt; but, at least, it served to kill time.

Meursault never denies that he killed the Arab, so, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney focuses more on Meursault’s inability or unwillingness to cry at his mother’s funeral than on the details of the murder. He portrays Meursault’s quietness and passivity as demonstrating his criminality and lack of remorse and denounces Meursault as a soul-less monster who deserves to die for his crime.

“Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?” […]

“I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart.”

To the reader, Meursault acknowledges that he has never felt regret for any of his actions because, he says, he has always been too absorbed in the present moment. Although several of Meursault’s friends testify on his behalf and his attorney tells him the sentence will likely be light, Meursault is sentenced to be publicly decapitated.

Put in a new cell, Meursault obsesses over his impending doom and appeal and tries to imagine some way in which he can escape his fate. He repeatedly refuses to see the prison chaplain, but one day the chaplain visits him anyway. Meursault says he does not believe in God and is not even interested in the subject, but the chaplain persists in trying to lead Meursault away from atheism (or, perhaps more precisely, apatheism). The chaplain believes Meursault’s appeal will succeed in getting him released from prison, but says such an outcome will not get rid of his feelings of guilt or fix his relationship with God.

“No! No! I refuse to believe it. I’m sure you’ve often wished there was an afterlife.”

Of course I had, I told him. Everybody has that wish at times. But that had no more importance than wishing to be rich, or to swim very fast, or to have a better-shaped mouth. It was in the same order of things. I was going on in the same vein, when he cut in with a question. How did I picture the life after the grave?

I fairly bawled out at him: “A life in which I can remember this life on earth. That’s all I want of it.” And in the same breath I told him I’d had enough of his company.

Eventually, Meursault accosts the chaplain in a rage. He attacks the chaplain’s worldview and patronizing attitude and asserts that, in confronting the certainty of the nearness of his death, he has had insights about life and death that he feels with a confidence beyond what the chaplain possesses. He says that, although what we say or do or feel can cause our deaths to happen at different times or under different circumstances, none of those things can change the fact that we are all condemned to die one day, so nothing ultimately matters.

Nothing, nothing had the least importance and I knew quite well why.

After the chaplain leaves, Meursault finds some comfort in thinking about the parallels between his situation and how he thinks his mother must have felt when she was surrounded by death and slowly dying at the retirement home. Yelling at the chaplain had emptied him of all hope or thoughts of escape or a successful appeal, so he is able to open his heart ‘to the benign indifference of the universe,’ after which he decides that he has been, and still is, happy. His final assertion is that a large, hateful crowd at his execution will end his loneliness and bring everything to a consummate end.

The book is called The Stranger in reference to the protagonist, Meursault. He is estranged from society because he does not adhere to its expectations or belief systems, as he believes that life has no reason or meaning. An essential part of Meursault’s character development in the novel is his coming to terms with his own attitudes about death. At the end of the novel, he has finally embraced the idea that death is the one inevitable fact of human life, and is able to accept the reality of his impending execution without despair.

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