How does Camus utilize secondary characters to help develop the reader’s perception of Meursault in The Stranger?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Albert Camus' The Stranger, Meursault is a man of little emotional depth. As he sits beside his mother's casket during the vigil, concern for the death of another—even his mother—seems alien to him. His entire existence appears only superficial. Hisawakening to life, sadly, comes as he faces his death.

Camus uses secondary characters as "foils" to Meursault's emotional one-dimensional existence. At his mother's funeral, the "keeper" (or "Caretaker") is prepared to show Meursault his mother before sealing the casket. The son refuses. The older man's curiosity over Meursault's response shows the reader that his behavior is unusual. Strangely, Meursault himself cannot explain his actions.

“We put the lid on, but I was told to unscrew it when you came, so that you could see her.” While [the keeper] was going up to the coffin I told him not to trouble. 
“Eh? What’s that?” he exclaimed. “You don’t want me to...?”“No,” I said.
 He put back the screwdriver in his pocket and stared at me. I realized then that I shouldn’t have said, “No,” and it made me rather embarrassed. After eyeing me for some moments he asked: “Why not?” But he didn’t sound reproachful; he simply wanted to know. “Well, really I couldn’t say,” I answered.

Walking to the cemetery, Meursault notes what a beautiful day it is. One would expect more attention on his part to the task that lies before him, but he is unfazed. Meursault is simply doing what is expected, laying no emotional claim on this woman who gave birth to him.

When Meursault returns home, he goes to the pool and meets up with Marie, a girl who once worked in his office. They swim and laugh, and then get ready to go to the movies. Marie's response to Meursault's mourning attire makes one wonder if it is his mother's death that bothers her or Meursault's casual behavior regarding his "loss:"

When we had dressed, [Marie] stared at my black tie and asked if I was in mourning. I explained that my mother had died. “When?” she asked, and I said, “Yesterday.” She made no remark, though I thought she shrank away a little.

Later, Marie asks Meursault to marry her; he agrees. He admits he does not love her, and she is puzzled by his behavior. When asked, he admits that he would have said yes to any woman proposing marriage. Marie tries to get (one could surmise) some kind of emotional response from Meursault:

Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter. 
 To which I answered: “No.”
 She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked: “Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her—I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me—would you have said ‘Yes’ to her, too?”

“Naturally.”
 Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about my being “a queer fellow.” “And I daresay that’s why I love you,” she added.

Meursault eats, works and sleeps. He goes through the motions of life, but not "living." Through his interactions with other characters, the reader finds that Meursault is shallow. Early on, it seems that he knows what he must do in life, but is not emotionally vested in his actions. His feelings might well be summarized when he says:

I very soon realized all that was pretty futile.

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