Would it be plausible to see the character of Meursault in Albert Camus's The Stranger as a black man?  

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Albert Camus's novella The Stranger is a reflection of his French-Algerian heritage, and should be read in that context. The ramifications for France of its colonization of Algiers in 1830 and subsequent occupation of Algeria until 1962 (the decolonization following a protracted and bloody war of independence waged by Algerian nationalists) are still being felt today, as Muslim immigration from North Africa and the Middle East continues to deeply affect French (and German and Dutch and Swedish, etc.) cultural sensitivities and politics. That The Stranger takes place in French-occupied Algeria and involves the violent death of an Arab at the hands of a French-Algerian of French extraction lends Camus's story a particularly enduring relevance. The French, as European colonial administrators and expatriates tended to be, were prone to a cultural arrogance and heavy-handed demeanor in administering this prized possession, and relations between those of French extraction and those native to North Africa were frequently tense. And it is that tension that is at the heart of The Stranger.

Told in the first person by the novella's main character, Meursault, The Stranger is about the relationships between those of French heritage and those indigenous to North Africa. Camus, a communist who adamantly opposed French colonization of Algeria, adopted a decidedly negative view of his fellow Frenchmen and their treatment of the Arab population that had been subjugated by the stronger European powers. Camus's narrative is replete with examples of the arrogant, condescending attitude of the invaders toward the Arabs. Examine, for example, the following passage from The Stranger, in which Meursault describes his conversation with his friend Raymond regarding the latter's argument with and beating of his Arab girlfriend:

"His first idea, he said, had been to take her to a hotel, and then call in the special police. He’d persuade them to put her on the register as a “common prostitute,” and that would make her wild. Then he’d looked up some friends of his in the underworld, fellows who kept tarts for what they could make out of them, but they had practically nothing to suggest. Still, as he pointed out, that sort of thing should have been right up their street; what’s the good of being in that line if you don’t know how to treat a girl who’s let you down? When he told them that, they suggested he should 'brand' her."

Meursault is not taken aback by Raymond's treatment of the girl and of his friend's ideas about how to exact revenge for his perception of the girl's impertinence. Again, in the following passage, Meursault continues to describe Raymond's actions within the sociocultural context in which the story takes place:

"He’d beaten her till the blood came. Before that he’d never beaten her. 'Well, not hard, anyhow; only affectionately-like. She’d howl a bit, and I had to shut the window. Then, of course, it ended as per usual. But this time I’m done with her. Only, to my mind, I ain’t punished her enough. See what I mean?':

The point of Camus's story is less Raymond's actions and attitudes and more Meursault's response to his friend's information. Meursault is not critical of Raymond but rather understanding of and sympathetic to his situation. These French-Algerian residents of French-occupied Algeria assume a tone of racial or ethnic superiority and view the indigenous peoples as inferior, evident in Meursault's description of the scene when, following Raymond's beating of his girlfriend and Meursault's support of Raymond, the victim's brother and other Arabs begin to view these two outsiders with anger and vengeance on their collective mind:

"Just as we were starting for the bus stop, Raymond plucked my sleeve and told me to look across the street. I saw some Arabs lounging against the tobacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have—as if we were blocks of stone or dead trees."

All of this, the reader discovers, leads to the tragic chain of events that result in Meursault's shooting of one of the Arabs following an earlier violent confrontation on the beach. 

Now, Meursault's complicity in the death of the Arab is suggested by what the police perceive as his unemotional demeanor--a demeanor initially observed following his mother's death in the story's beginning. This is Meursault's personality; he is emotionally distant, not prone to displays of joy, anger, or any other emotion. When his employer offers him a transfer to Paris, Meursault, rather than appearing grateful and optimistic, instead responds ambivalently: "At this he looked rather hurt, and told me that I always shilly-shallied, and that I lacked ambition—a grave defect, to his mind, when one was in business." And, again, when his girlfriend asks if they can get married, his response is less than enthusiastic: "Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married."

When reading The Stranger, one can clearly see the relevance of Camus's story for the current age. Can the story work with Meursault as black? Yes and no. On one hand, it's difficult to reproduce the social dynamic Meursault inhabits in Camus's story with a black protagonist. Meursault belongs to the privileged class of French-occupied Algeria: the colonizer class. Given the terrible, lasting effects of colonialism, there are few settings where a black protagonist would occupy the particular position of privilege the citizens of colonial powers enjoyed during this time. I would argue that it would be difficult to reproduce the power dynamics and themes of racism and prejudice that color The Stranger as Camus told it. On the other hand, it might be possible to make alterations to the story and its setting in order to convey the same themes and ideas that Camus was interested in communicating.

In short, yes, The Stranger can work if the Meursault character is black, but it would require significant alteration to the story's context.

Read the study guide:
The Stranger

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