How does the setting affect Meursault, in The Stranger by Albert Camus?
The setting that impacts Mersault most pointedly is that of the hot beach at the end of the first part of the novel. This setting affects Mersault in its connection to the earlier setting of his mother's funeral.
While Mersault is emotionally affected by a number of settings in the novel (as evidenced by the thoughts presented in his inner monologue, if not by a traditional or overt sentiment), the overbearing sun at the beach causes Mersault to commit murder.
When Mersault's mother dies, he sits in vigil at her rest home then participates in the funeral the following day. Bored, annoyed and seemingly oppressed by the atmosphere of the rest home, Mersault is again cognizant of a sense of discomfort and oppression on the walk to the burial ceremony.
"Evenings in that part of the country must have been a kind of sad relief. But today, with the sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimmer with heat, it was inhuman and oppressive."
Later at the beach, Mersault becomes aware of the brutality of the sun once again. The reader, it would seem, is invited to connect these episodes as at the trial Mersault is pressed to admit that there is a connection between the murder and Mersault's grief over his mother's death. This connection is treated in depth and with complexity in the second half of the novel as Mersault is condemned, effectively, for being insensitive at his mother's funeral and for not acknowledging any emotional response to her death.
The circumstances of the setting at the beach function as a suggestion that Mersault was, in fact, emotional in regards to his mother's death and furthermore that he was not in control of these emotions.
Immediately before shooting the Arab, Mersault draws the connection between the day of his mother's funeral and his discomfort at the beach.
"The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I'd buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins throbbing under the skin. It was this burning, which I couldn't stand anymore, that made me move forward."
In this passage, the text creates a definite relationship between the murder and Mersault's mother's death. Yet, the narrative resists a simple correlation as Mersault repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that he was inspired to kill a man due to his emotional state. Refusing to admit to having any motives at all, the state condemns Mersault with the understanding that Mersault's proclaimed lack of emotion makes him a monster.
We might note that Mersault is a character with an internal monologue that can be described as emotionally evasive or superficial. The notion that this figure might understand himself fully seems to be at odds with the nature of his thoughts, which are remarkably devoid of self-analysis. Beyond registering his comfort or discomfort and his appetetive sensibilities, Mersault rarely (if ever) appears to delve into analysis and does not seem to attempt to dictate his feelings. He reacts. He knows only if he is hungry, bored or angry.
Only in the very end does Mersault come to grips with the mechanisms of his psychology and his deep feelings. Until then, he is largely passive and responds to his environment without any apparent agency or sense that he might choose how to feel. There is little narrative dedicated to processing Mersault's emotions and a good deal dedicated to simply and clearly reporting those emotions (on a mainly superficial level).
The idea that Mersault may have been led to commit a crime so terrible by a mere coincidence of setting underscores Camus' commentary in the novel. Mersault was not capable of freedom of choice and thus his punishment becomes absurd.
Additionally, the religious and social condemnation of this man on the grounds of his failure (or refusal) to analyze himself in such a way as to create a meaning for his action becomes an ironic failure of conventional thought to realize that its own meanings are not universal and can be seen as projections, inventions or evasions of an animal truth.
"According to Camus's philosophy at this time, life has no meaning; there is no hope for it ever to have meaning" (eNotes).
Seen one way, humans are unable to fully understand themselves, and so can only guess at the meaning of their actions. Elevating such conjecture to the level of ultimate truth ignores the basic problem posed by existentialism.