The Stranger by (Frenchman) Albert Camus. Vintage International. Translated from French by Matthew Ward. Paperback. 1946. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.
Okay, so having my son choose my books doesn’t always work out for me, the reader! He has chosen three bummers in a row; great books, downer emotions. I’ve been putting off writing about Albert Camus’s The Stranger because I really don’t know what to say about it. Is the theme here what the French call “ennui”: “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom”?
When a literature student has read and marked the material, understands the plot, characters and theme, but still doesn’t know exactly what to write about, one good strategy is to do some research. For college writing we must use what we call “valid sources” so that we don’t quote Joe Blow’s opinion when he is neither a scholar nor a gentleman. We need to find articles, even books, on what scholars and experts have written about The Stranger before. The problem with doing too much research before writing your own ideas is that you may accidentally “borrow” another’s thesis or ideas and end up re-hashing the ideas of someone else. In a perfect world, you would begin by having your own thesis and hook, be able to make more than one point based on that idea, then later research to add support, argument, or details to your original thought. Sometimes research can spark an idea and while you read another’s analysis, you can find holes you can then plug with your own research and analysis from the book. You may also find someone with whom you may argue, using their points to make counter-points built through your notes and the original text. Another thing a literature student can do is compare something from the text to something outside the text. Sometimes this helps because it takes the pressure off of digging a deep well into a story that is somehow elusive. The student can choose a character, for instance, and compare his behavior and personality to other characters they have formerly met. Here, I’m not going to do research, but I’m pretty sure a million things have been written about Camus’s The Stranger. I hear there is even a rebuttal text from the perspective of the Arab who meets his demise in the original text.
There is an easy comparison between Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, and Alex, the main character in A Clockwork Orange. Neither of these characters care about anything. Very little beyond their own urges makes any difference to them. Both characters passively and actively make poor decisions that not only affect themselves, but those around them. Their poor decisions lead to violence and damage others. (If I were writing a lit paper I’d have to break these types of behaviors down into categories if I could, then give examples of comparisons between the two characters. I’d need direct quotes from the book along with page numbers.)
Meursault’s mother is in an old folks’ home and he rarely visits. He’s the only child, lives alone and has no other pressing obligations, yet still thinks the home is best for her. The novel begins with Meursault being called to her funeral. When he arrives he chooses not to see her one last time; he does not want them to open the casket. He is not able to confirm his mother’s age. Even from the first chapter we see how Camus assaults Meursault with his surrounding environment. There are lots of colors, sounds, smells, places and people crushed into the funeral procession and burial. Because we are in the first chapter, we don’t know that this technique will become a pattern. Here is how the first chapter ends: “Then there was the church and the villagers on the sidewalks, the red geraniums on the graves in the cemetery, Perez fainting (he crumpled like a rag doll), the blood-red earth spilling over Maman’s casket, the white flesh of the roots mixed in with it, more people, voices, the village, waiting in front of a cafe, the incessant drone of the motor, and my joy when the bus entered the nest of lights that was Algiers and I knew I was going to go to bed and sleep for twelve hours” (18). Meursault does not cry before, during or after his mother’s funeral. She is the only family member we hear of. He suspects that when he returns to work after this little break that everything will go back to normal.
When Meursault goes swimming the next day and runs into a woman he used to date, we come to understand that his mother’s death is simply not on his mind. He asks Marie out and they have a date that night. We get another dense description when Meursault considers the passing scenes outside his window. He just sits there, smoking cigarettes, looking at the neighborhood below. He thinks about the woman, but just in a basic sense: how she looks, how she laughs, that he wants to have sex with her. He never mentions any emotions that have to do with her. By chapter three we are introduced to another relationship that does not work: Salamano and his dog. They live next door. Why does Salamano keep an ugly mangy dog that he cannot stand? Why does Meursault date a woman who stirs no emotion? Further, we meet another neighbor named Raymond Sintes who suspects his woman is cheating on him. He smacks her around a bit before breaking up with her: “He’d beaten her till she bled. He’d never beaten her before” (31). The neighbors can hear this physical domestic dispute but no one does anything.
The plot thickens through these relationships that do not work. Meursault does not know or really like Sintes, but when asked, he sits in his apartment and listens to the man’s suspicions about his girlfriend. Sintes comes up with a plot to write his ex a love letter begging her to come back. When she does, and lets down her defenses, he’ll really pop her good and throw her out. His revenge will be complete. He asks Meursault to write the letter. Meursault says no, then yes, because he really has no opinion one way or the other. Who cares if someone gets hurt? Who cares if he plays a role in someone else’s violent revenge? The violence against the woman and the plot against her further violation bonds the men in machismo: “I got up. Raymond gave me a very firm handshake and said that men always understand each other” (33). When Salamano’s dog is said to have “whimpered softly” at the end of chapter three I began to wonder if the dog were a symbol of something else. The dog is kept, hated and beaten. The girlfriend is kept, not loved (at least) and beaten. We could also stretch this idea back to the dead mother. She was kept in an old folks’ home, not particularly loved (at least in an overt way) and, as one does, is beaten by life until under ground. Women and dogs are not fairing well in this story. As Meursault engages with the woman he is dating, we come to know that he does not love her either.
The letter-writing plot works perfectly for those who set it in motion. The ex comes back, they go to bed and she is mercilessly beaten. Even though Meursault knows he wrote the letter that brought the woman back to her aggressive lover, he has no emotions concerning the woman’s plight. It’s not that he tamps down his true feelings or covers a well of deep emotion with macho distain; he truly has no feelings. The scene is written as a nice bonding visit as Sintes describes the girlfriend’s beat down to Meursault. Just as the girlfriend runs from her abuser, Salamano’s dog runs too. The two who are beaten upon make their escape. The difference is that Salamano actually cares that his dog has gone missing. He cannot picture his life without a dog to beat and curse. He is now all alone. Like Meursault. Like Sintes. Like the dog on his own. Like Maman in her grave.
By chapter five we learn that the beaten girlfriend has a brother…an Arab…and that brother has friends. They are keeping an eye on Sintes which creates rising action within the plot. We get to hear Meursault’s boss describe his employee to a T: “He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that that was disastrous in business” (41). Meursault feels that if one does not achieve their dream career, then whatever you become no longer matters. “…I couldn’t see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn’t unhappy. When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered” (41). He does not even care if he gets married or has a family. The girl he’s been dating for one minute asks Meursault to marry her. He basically says ‘I don’t love you, but sure. Whatever.’ Why are all the women in this novel so dumb? Marie doesn’t view Meursault as anything other than eccentric. She wants to marry him (without love on his behalf) and move with him to a new job position in Paris. We go on to see that she is just as peculiar as him; maybe they are a perfect fit. I think Salamano and his dog could be the basis for an entire paper; I see how they keep popping up in these notes. Meursault asks Salamano why he doesn’t just get a new dog. “…he was right to point out to me that he was used to this one” (44). This prompts the thought that we can get used to, even attached to, the things that we hate. The dog had replaced Salamano’s dead wife who served the same purpose: “He hadn’t been happy with his wife, but he’d pretty much gotten used to her.” I summed up this chapter with 1) taking care of things we can’t stand; 2) not taking care of others; 3) loneliness; 4) no decision is also a decision.
The plot moves forward as Meursault defends Sintes in court; he gets off with a warning. To celebrate being able to beat a woman and get off with just a warning, Sintes, Maria and Meursault decide to spend the day at the beach. Yea! As they board the bus, brother Arab and his buddies watch. Later, there is a confrontation on the beach. Sintes get his arm and face cut with a knife welded by one of the Arabs. Sintes wants to shoot the Arab but Meursault talks him out of it. He takes the gun from his friend who goes back to their beach host’s house to get bandaged up. For some reason (or, just like everything else in the novel, for NO reason), Meursault takes the gun and wanders by himself along the beach going back in the direction where the scuffle with the Arabs had occurred. [By the way…it’s not ME who is calling these characters “the Arabs”; that’s the way it is put in the book. Blame Camus!] Again, environmental factors begin to overwhelm Meursault as he walks along the beach. The sun is blasting hot, the sand is burning, the ocean is reflecting. We begin to think that maybe Meursault is having a heat stroke. It very much seems that Meursault is experiencing some sort of episode where he can’t control his body or his thoughts. When he comes upon the Arab brother they confront each other. Meursault is standing up with a gun and the Arab is laying down with a knife. Maursault is environmentally assaulted while he assaults the other: “The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver” (59). You think maybe he is overcome and squeezes the trigger by accident, but then he shoots the Arab FOUR MORE TIMES. That part is a little more difficult to explain.
Meursault is arrested. As they are getting to know him he comes to understand that others have testified he was not upset one bit by his mother’s death. Meursault is confused as to how that could mean anything in light of this new development. What does having no feelings have to do with the current murder? Meursault does not verbally defend himself. When they ask why he won’t defend himself he says that when he has nothing to say he just keeps quiet. When asked if he loved his mother he says sure, “the same as anyone” (67). Does he mean he loved his mother the same amount as he loved anyone else? (Zero.) Or does he mean he loved his mom as much as anyone else loved her? (Unknown.)
Chapter One of Part Two is when we learn a bit more regarding Meursault’s personal philosophy; the French ennui. The police/chaplain’s investigations are the tools by which we question Meursault. Why had he hesitated between the first and second shot? “…it really didn’t matter.” Did he believe in God? No. Without belief in God, the chaplain states that his life would be meaningless. “As far as I could see, it didn’t have anything to do with me, and I told him so” (69). Meursault begins to agree with the chaplain only to get him to leave. He doesn’t care what he himself believes or what the chaplain believes, or what the chaplain believes of him. He just doesn’t care. When the chaplain asks if he is sorry for what he had done “I thought about it for a minute and said that more than sorry I felt kind of annoyed. I got the impression he didn’t understand. But that was as far as things went that day” (70). I summed up this chapter by writing “There is no sadness at the loss of freedom; no longing for a different outcome. He just enjoys conversing with the magistrate during the investigation which takes 11 months. The magistrate calls him Monsieur Antichrist.”
At trial that are many people that can testify to Meursault appearing to care about nothing. [So interesting here that an unknown previous reader began numbering the pieces of evidence against Meursault stated during his trial. The person had made no previous or subsequent markings. They marked seven pieces of evidence against Meursault.] When the prosecutor appears jubilant that they have all the evidence needed, we see a shocking admission of feeling. The prosecutor looks at him “…with such glee and with such a triumphant look in my direction that for the first time in years I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me” (90). Even though Meursault’s testimony during Sintes’s trial helped tremendously, the same does not occur when the roles are reversed. At the end of the trial, Meursault is briefly transported to his past. This part reminds me of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex when we see that if one does not take control of one’s destiny, life can just as easily take you down one road as another: “The trial was adjourned. As I was leaving the courthouse on my way back to the van, I recognized for a brief moment the smell and color of the summer evening. In the darkness of my mobile prison I could make out one by one, as if from the depths of my exhaustion, all the familiar sounds of a town I loved and of a certain time of day when I used to feel happy. The cries of the newspaper vendors in the already languid air, the last few birds in the square, the shouts of the sandwich sellers, the screech of the streetcars turning sharply through the upper town, and that hum in the sky before night engulfs the port: all this mapped out for me a route I knew so well before going to prison and which now I traveled blind. Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent” (97).
The lack of guiding one’s own life is reflected again in the next chapter. “Everything was happening without my participation. My fate was being decided without anyone so much as asking my opinion…But on second thought, I didn’t have anything to say. Besides, I have to admit that whatever interest you can get people to take in you doesn’t last very long. For example, I got bored very quickly with the prosecutor’s speech. Only bits and pieces–a gesture or a long but isolate tirade–caught my attention or aroused my interest” (98-9). He cannot even take an interest in his own trial! Even though it is determined that Meursault’s crime was premeditated, he seems to feel that even the loss of one’s freedom can become boring. They make the case that Meursault had never shown any emotion. In today’s lingo we might wonder if he were on the autism spectrum; does he have special needs? “I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything. My mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow” (100). When they call for the death penalty, Meursault blurts out that the heat of the sun made him do it! The court finds this pretty humorous. Meursault is simply nowhere to be found in his own life. “I think I was already very far removed from that courtroom” (103). Further, “The utter pointlessness of whatever I was doing there seized me by the throat, and all I wanted was to get it over with and get back to my cell and sleep” (105). As he’s being taken away Marie looks at him with “a worried little smile on her face. But my heart felt nothing, and I couldn’t even return her smile.” Meursault’s lack of emotion and decision are never more confounding that when he is sentenced to the guillotine. He claims he is thinking nothing and when asked if he has any parting words”I thought about it. I said, ‘No.’ That’s when they took me away” (107).
Reflections of Alex occur again when Meursault is contemplating an escape from prison. He pictures making a run for it, “But when I really thought it through, nothing was going to allow me such a luxury. Everything was against it; I would just be caught up in the machinery again” (109). The industrial prison complex becomes the path for those who do not forge their own. Ironically, as Meursault contemplates his own death he figures that there is one thing worthy of interest. “How had I not seen that there was nothing more important than an execution, and that when you come right down to it, it was the only thing a man could truly be interest in” (110)? He curses himself for never taking anyone up on the invitation before. Wasn’t being publicly killed the pinnacle of human investment? Why had he never considered it that way in the past? In a funny way he points out that it is in everyone’s interest that the beheading come off without a hitch; you want that guillotine to work correctly THE FIRST TIME. As he waits in his cell Meursault points out that (duh) he never really had an imagination. He knows that everyone will die sooner or later, so what’s the difference that his is sooner? “But everybody knows life isn’t worth living.” The existential angst continues as he reflects back on his one sided relationship with Marie. She had stopped writing. “…remembering Marie meant nothing to me. I wasn’t interested in her dead. That seemed perfectly normal to me, since I understood very well that people would forget me when I was dead. They wouldn’t have anything more to do with me. I wasn’t even able to tell myself that it was hard to think those things” (115).
The chaplain continues to wrestle for Meursault’s soul by trying to make him believe that he needs to accept Christ into his heart before dying. Meursault thinks this is the most ridiculous thing ever. The conversation holds no interest to him and that is the reason he wants to stop visiting the chaplain. The religious man cannot fathom how the prisoner can face his own death without the comfort of God being by his side. “I said I would face it exactly as I was facing it now” (117). The chaplain presses by asking if there is any hope. Is dying really the end? No heaven? No hell? “‘Yes,’ I said.” It feels as if Meursault does not require one single solitary thing outside of his own existence to make him feel better. There is nothing outside of himself that can add comfort: not his mother, not Marie, not his friends, not his co-workers. Meursault needs nothing to exist except air, food and water. He does not need guilt to make him feel better or worse. “I didn’t know what a sin was. All they had told me was that I was guilty. I was guilty, I was paying for it, and nothing more could be asked of me” (118). Meursault feels that wishing for something, like another life or to believe in God, is still just a wish. Wishing to be rich doesn’t make one rich so why put effort into wishing? Meursault finds more surety in the life he has certainly lived that the hope that some higher spirit exists. He continues to reiterate that nothing really matters. Here is how the story ends:
“So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself–so like a brother, really–I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (123).