Is Meursault an antihero in the novel The Stranger by Albert Camus?

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Meursault can be viewed as an antihero, but with the proviso that there are certain striking differences between his behavior and that of other well-remembered antiheroes in literature.

Usually an antihero is a character who commits misdeeds or crimes but still has some claim on our sympathy and admiration. His...

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Meursault can be viewed as an antihero, but with the proviso that there are certain striking differences between his behavior and that of other well-remembered antiheroes in literature.

Usually an antihero is a character who commits misdeeds or crimes but still has some claim on our sympathy and admiration. His acts can often be rationalized by the fact that the enemies against whom the antihero acts are even worse people than him and that they are the ones who deserve justice or punishment more than he does. In some cases even this rationalization is lacking. In Macbeth, for example, Macbeth is an antihero not because the ones he kills are evil but because he kills regretfully, with the knowledge that his acts are wrong and that even if his motive is lust for power, those acts are in some sense imposed upon him from the outside. He becomes driven on by prophecies, Lady Macbeth's prodding, and the fact that once he has become "stepped in blood" so far, it is impossible for him to turn back.

In the case of Meursault in The Stranger, these elements are mostly absent. He kills the Arab man for no reason that can be explained with reference to ordinary human values and concerns, even negative ones like Macbeth's power hunger. Another famous antihero Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment kills as an expression of his will in an unfair and hostile world. Meursault's motives can be said to resemble Raskolnikov's, but if so, in such a way that the act of killing lacks even the meaning Raskolnikov attributes to murder.

That said, Meursault is still a man with whom the reader can sympathize, but he is without the titanic, larger-than-life qualities with which Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and many other writers endow their antiheroes. Meursault is a man alone in a senseless world. He appears indifferent to the death of his mother and to anything else, carrying out one action or another because it is just as good, or bad, as anything else. Typically an antihero has the quality of both a hero and villain. But Meursault has neither, unless, in this twentieth century existentialist world, man is a hero just for being able to survive and act, even indifferently, in a world without meaning.

Camus stated that one of the models for The Stranger was, unexpected as it might seem, James M. Cain"s crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. At the end of Cain's story the antihero Frank seems to recognize the moral wrong of the murder he committed. The close of The Stranger parallels this epiphany, but in a different way. Meursault's final wish is that at his coming execution there will be a huge crowd that will greet him with howls of hatred. In his ultimate moment Meursault has created the "meaning" previously lacking in his world. This scene, more than any other in the novel, raises him to the level of an antihero, though still in a rather different sense than that of the other more "traditional" characters we have discussed.

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The qualities expressed by an antihero are opposite of those expressed by a true hero. Where a true hero is brave and resourceful, an antihero (also spelled anti-hero) is weak and limited. Where a hero is personable and honest, an antihero may be annoying and manipulative. A hero succeeds in his quest through virtue and valor and the help of friends. An antihero may succeed or he may fail. He is often alone but, when he has friends, his friends are of the ignoble sort. The list of qualities and antithetical qualities goes on, but this gives a foundation for examining Meursault.

Meursault annoys people: "I had an idea [my employer] looked annoyed.". Meursault is not personable: "But maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you." Meursault is weak, which is part of why he comes to be condemned on trial, and has no resources--he killed a man "because of the sun." He has no virtue: he agreed to write Raymond's letter knowing the purport and intent of it. He has no valor: "but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was ... nonsensical, ...."

In one sense, he fails at his task in that he is convicted of the crime he commits. It may be argued that in another very different sense he succeeds in his task because he proves with his life that the world that he sees is senseless and without meaning--that the only things that matter, either for good or for ill, are physical sensations: "I explained that my physical condition at any given moment often influenced my feelings." Yes, Meursault fits the definition of an antihero.

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