Part 1, Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
Part I, Chapter 1 Summary
Meursault receives a telegram informing him that his mother has died in Marengo. He isn't sure why his boss is reluctant to give him the time off. He has lunch at Céleste's, a favorite restaurant, then catches the two o'clock bus. He falls asleep, then wakes up to find that he has been sleeping against a soldier, with whom he does not wish to chat.
He walks two kilometers from the bus station to the nursing home where his mother died. There, he asks to see his mother, but isn't allowed to until he speaks to the director of the home. It's revealed that Meursault was his mother's sole financial support and that he was forced to put her in the home to ensure that she received the proper care. He feels that this was the right decision, in part because Maman, as he calls his mother, was never that happy living with him.
Maman's body has been taken to the home's mortuary. There, Meursault meets the caretaker, who isn't given a name. Meursault begrudgingly initiates small talk with the caretaker, who dives into his entire life story. He tells Meursault that he's sixty-four and came from Paris. He was destitute when he happened upon the home. He never expected this to be his life. Meursault offers him a cigarette, and they drink coffee together.
A group of women from the home comes into the mortuary to grieve over their loss. One woman in particular starts to cry, which makes Meursault very uncomfortable. Apparently, this woman is (or was) his mother's best friend. She cries for a while, but then quiets down. The caretaker offers the mourners coffee, but this doesn't prevent Meursault from falling asleep for a little while. He's later able to wash up in the caretaker's room.
Meursault signs some documents for the director, who says Maman's friends won't be allowed to attend the funeral; it's more "humane" that way. The director has, however, given Thomas Peréz, Maman's "fiancé," permission to attend the funeral. Peréz wears an almost comical outfit with a felt hat and corkscrewed trousers, but his grief is real. During the procession, Peréz cries so hard that the tears fill his wrinkles, blinding him. Meursault doesn't shed a tear.
Part I, Chapter 1 Analysis
You'll notice that this novel is told almost entirely in short, simple sentences. Camus rarely uses semi-colons and deliberately keeps the language plain and accessible. Nevertheless, a style starts to emerge, and the diction reflects Meursault's flat, unemotional affect. On the rare occasions that Meursault grows upset or feels the need to speed up time, the syntax changes, and sentences start to get more complicated.
Light and Heat. Throughout the novel, light and heat will appear as oppressive forces that upset Meursault, make him uncomfortable, and eventually lead him to commit murder. In the next chapter, we'll see how Meursault finds relief from the heat when he goes swimming with a woman.
Camus uses a simile when he describes Peréz "crumpl[ing] like a rag doll."
Red and White. Meursault describes the "blood-red earth" and the "white roots" that fall over his mother's coffin. This blood-red earth is of course a symbol of death, whereas the white roots are clear symbols of goodness and purity. Together, these two colors symbolize Maman's death and afterlife.
The Sun. Traditionally, the sun is a symbol of life and energy, its light a source of intense joy and pleasure. Meursault, however, finds the sunlight irritating, and the sun becomes a symbol of oppression for him. He will later blame his crimes on the sun itself.
The Absurd. The Stranger is Albert Camus' great absurdist novel. In this first chapter, Meursault's reactions to the formality of his mother's funeral underscores the essential absurdity of traditions about death, which dictate that Meursault not smoke at the funeral (a ridiculous expectation, to be sure).
Death. Much can and has been inferred from Meursault's response to his mother's death. Traditionally, a son who has recently lost his mother is expected to grieve openly, to cry at the funeral or express some feelings of remorse, but Meursault does none of these things. Throughout this chapter, he's irritated and insensitive, and seeing his mother's best friend weep makes him uncomfortable. His apparent apathy to everything around him will later result in him being called a monster at trial.