In Albert Camus's The Stranger, what is Meursault actually on trial for, his actions or his eccentric character?

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In short, it is both. Meursault has shot a man in cold blood for no significant reason at all. This is why he is brought to trial. However, as the trial progresses and the evidence is brought out, the judge and jury become more perplexed by Meursault's strangeness in general....

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In short, it is both. Meursault has shot a man in cold blood for no significant reason at all. This is why he is brought to trial. However, as the trial progresses and the evidence is brought out, the judge and jury become more perplexed by Meursault's strangeness in general. Most murders are committed for reasons, whether it be hatred or jealousy, money or some other form of gain, yet Meursault killed the Arab because the sun was in his eyes. One might think this is enough reason to convict Meursault or at least conclude he is insane.

The prosecutor starts attacking Meursault for his indifference towards his mother's death, an event which has nothing to do with the murder but helps to turn everyone in the courtroom against Meursault. The others view Meursault as cold, even monstrous and evil, because he went to the movies with his girlfriend so shortly after his mother's funeral. His antipathy towards social obligations seems to shock them all more than an act of violence.

While the trial began concerned with the murder, it ends with the judge and jury condemning Meursault for his feelings of alienation and his refusal to play by society's social rules. This plays up the sense of absurdity which colors Meursault's vision of the world.

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In strictly legal terms, Meursault is on trial for murdering the Arab. But at the same time, he's also on trial for his nihilism and his shameless flouting of the accepted norms and values of the society he's come to reject. The prosecutor makes great play of the shocking way that Meursault treats his girlfriend—even though his behavior was hardly out of the ordinary at that time. The prosecutor also launches a furious attack against the prisoner in the dock for his indifference towards his late mother. For a young man not to honor his mother is treated by the prosecutor as almost a crime in itself, one worthy of total condemnation.

The evidence for Meursault's guilt in carrying out the murder is overwhelming, but the authorities know that it's not enough that he must be punished for this most serious of crimes. He also needs to be made an example of. Meursault's nihilism, his alienation from society, are potentially contagious, especially among the young. It is as essential, therefore, for Meursault to be arraigned in the court of public opinion for his moral misdeeds as it is for him to be formally prosecuted in a court of law. On both counts, he is guilty.

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In The Stranger, Meursault is initially put on trial for killing the Arab, but the trial becomes more and more about Meursault himself, so the short answer to your question is: Meursault is on trial for both his actions and his eccentric character.

You could make the argument that the court is more intrigued and revolted at Meursault's outlook on life (his character) than the fact that killed another person. This starts out as typical questioning, to find out a criminal's character in order to discover a motive for committing the crime. For example, at the beginning of Part 2, Meursault notes that he does not believe in God and the magistrate finds this "unthinkable." Yet, killing the Arab was not deemed unthinkable; it was just a crime. Meursault's outlook on life is more appalling to the magistrate than the crime itself. 

The judge and the Prosecutor spend much more time questioning Meursault about his relationship with his mother than about the murder. The Prosecutor tells the jury that on the day after Meursault's mother's funeral, Meursault was out at the movies with a girl (Marie), later claiming that Meursault is "morally guilty" of his own mother's death. The case becomes all about Meursault's odd behavior. In fact, at the end of part III, in a surprising moment of overt clarity, Meursault's lawyer interjects, asking "Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?" Shortly thereafter, the Prosecutor responds, saying "I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother's funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart." Judging by this exchange and this last comment, this is a decisive moment and an obvious declaration by the Prosecutor that the jury should focus on the callous way Meursault has behaved, prior to the crime. In other words, the evidence of Meursault's murder of the Arab is an effect of his general criminal behavior. 

Meursault is eventually convicted of murder without extenuating circumstances. This is equivalent to first degree murder, willful and premeditated. His lawyer told Meursault to expect a favorable judgment, thinking he might get a few years and a suspended sentence. But since Meursault showed no remorse and since Meursault's philosophy contradicts the God-fearing, moral ideologies of the court, his sentence elicits the maximum punishment: death. Like the trial itself, the conviction is based upon his crime, but the severity of the punishment is based upon Meursault's character. 

If this were an either/or question, I would say the trial is more about Meursault's character than the crime. Had he repented and/or claimed self-defense, even though these strategies would have been lies, his punishment would have been far less severe. 

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