Meursault (mur-SOHLT), a young clerk in a business office in Algiers, Algeria. Although not totally disengaged from humanity, Meursault, the narrator and main character, maintains only unemotional and uncommitted relationships with others, even his mother. When called to a home for the aged in Marengo, fifty miles away, for his mother’s funeral, he shows no desire to view her body for the last time and shocks the other residents of the home by his seeming indifference. Though physically intimate with his Arab girlfriend, Marie, he regards her desire for marriage as a matter of no consequence. When an acquaintance named Raymond Sintes promises to be Meursault’s “pal” for life if he will help him in his own love affair, Meursault replies only that he has “no objection.” Meursault is completely but passively amoral. He sees nothing wrong with attending a comic film with Marie immediately after returning from the funeral or in assisting Raymond in the latter’s mean-spirited effort to punish his girlfriend for her refusal to submit to his domination. When Meursault and Raymond arm themselves against two Arabs, one of them the brother of the young Arab woman Raymond is attempting to dominate, it occurs to Meursault that whether he shoots or does not shoot the Arabs would amount to the same thing. When he kills one of the Arabs, he acts unconcerned. Another feature of his character, complete resignation to the flow of events, including the consequences of the murder, emerges during his prison experience. If character is created by, and is merely the sum of, a person’s decisions, as existentialist philosophy holds, Meursault makes very few true decisions. Even the five shots that he fires into his victim seem to represent something that simply happens to him rather than any conscious choice. Later, in his cell, he contemplates his future calmly, concluding that having lived even one day in the outside world provides a prisoner with enough memories to keep him from ever being bored. He cooperates with his court-appointed lawyer only passively and does nothing to help the latter counter the general impression of callousness toward his mother that the lawyer knows the prosecution will use to sway the jury. Meursault completely lacks faith in God or in the possibility of an afterlife. He rebuffs all soul-saving attempts of the priest who visits him in his cell after his conviction. He possesses only the existentialist certainty of death and feels happy in the awareness that life has emptied him of any hope except the hope that his execution may draw “howls of execration” from a crowd of onlookers.
Marie, Meursault’s girlfriend, by contrast a conventional young woman who enjoys the beach and films. She want to settle down with a husband and is willing to marry the indifferent Meursault. By visiting him in prison and attending his trial, she exhibits patient hopefulness in behalf of her hopeless companion.
Raymond Sintes, an aggressive young man who comes closest to being a friend of Meursault. He possesses mostly undesirable traits. Pugnacious and vindictive, he beats his own Arab girlfriend and talks constantly of punishing her and wreaking vengeance on her brother, who appears only to be trying to protect her. It is Raymond’s aggressive attitude that draws Meursault into the situation that results in his crime.
The lawyer, unnamed, is a crafty and valiant defense attorney. He is nevertheless unable to elicit from his client the responses that might prevent the imposition of the death penalty.
The priest, also unnamed, is a man of faith, conscientious in his duty. He is knowledgeable about psychology but unsuccessful in his attempts to reclaim Meursault’s soul for Christianity. The fact that he is resourceful and persuasive serves to underline the extent of Meursault’s resistance to all aspects of conventional faith and hope.