The Stranger is probably Albert Camus’s best known and most widely read work. Originally published in French in 1942 under the title L’Etranger, it precedes other celebrated writings such as the essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) and The Rebel (1951), the plays Caligula (1945) and The Just Assassins (1949), and the novels The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956). Set in pre-World War II Algeria, The Stranger nevertheless confronts issues that have preoccupied intellectuals and writers of post-World War II Europe: the apparent randomness of violence and death; the emptiness of social morality in the face of an irrational world; a focus on existential and absurd aspects of the human condition. Through the singular viewpoint of the narrator Meursault, Camus presents a philosophy devoid of religious belief and middle-class morality, where sentience and personal honesty become the bases of a happy and responsible life.
What perhaps strikes the reader first about The Stranger is the unemotional tone of the narrator, Meursault. The novel begins: “Today, mama died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the retirement home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Deepest sympathy.’ That tells me nothing. It could have been yesterday...” Meursault’s flat response to the death of his mother conveys a sense of resignation, one supported by his lack of ambition at work and his indifference in personal relationships. Save for his tirade against the chaplain at the end of the novel, Meursault remains rather monotone throughout; his only pleasures are immediate and physical: the taste of a café au lait; the warmth of sun and water; the touch of his fiancée, Marie. Thus, from the opening words, Camus projects his remarkable philosophy through an unremarkable protagonist: since death is both arbitrary and inevitable, and since there is nothing beyond death, life only has importance in the here and now, in the day to day activities that make up our existence. Camus’s simplistic narrative style, influenced by the journalistic tradition of Hemingway and his own experience as a reporter, helps to convey the sense of immediacy that lies at the foundation of his philosophy.
From a literary standpoint, The Stranger offers aspects that complement both modern and traditional sensibilities. With regards to the former, the story is presented as the subjective experience of a first-person narrator. We do not know his first name, what he looks like, or precisely when the action of the story takes place. He does not divulge much information about his past, nor does he attempt to present a cohesive view of, or opinion about, the society in which he lives and works. Such qualities are in stark contrast to the Realist novel tradition represented by such nineteenth century writers as Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), whose works attempt to reproduce a complete account of French society through the eyes of a moralizing, omniscient third-person narrator.
In a more classical vein, The Stranger offers order and balance. The novel is organized into two parts of equal length, and the central episode of the book—the shooting of the Arab—is both preceded and followed by five chapters. Themes are maintained with strict focus: the story opens with the death of Meursault’s mother, the murder lies at the exact center of the book, and the novel concludes with the death-sentence of Meursault. Within the story Camus creates scenes of explicit parallel and contrast. The tears and fainting of Thomas Pérez at the funeral, for example, offer a foil to Meursault’s lack of emotion. The noise of Salamano cursing his dog directly precedes the screams of the Moorish woman as Raymond beats her;...
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both relationships share qualities of physical love and abuse. One might argue that Camus’s sense of literary balance is an attempt to put into practice an existential philosophy: the only order in a disordered world is the one we create for ourselves.
The Stranger and its author have often been linked to Existentialism, a post-World War II philosophy that has become synonymous with the name of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80). Although Camus was a one-time friend and supporter of Sartre, he denied being an existentialist. Nevertheless, there are clear existential themes in the The Stranger, a product of the intellectual climate of the times. Camus’s preoccupation with the nature of being, for example, and his rejection of reason and order in the universe, are both existential concerns. When Camus presents the Arab’s murder as the result of a random series of events, and Meursault refuses to lie in court to help win his case, we enter into existential realms of human action and responsibility. There is no outside force governing our lives, according to the existentialists; individuals must take responsibility for their own actions. Meursault’s ultimate vindication is in having remained true to himself and to his feelings in a society that cultivates deception and hypocrisy.
Since its publication, critics have interpreted Meursault’s plight in many ways. From a mythic or structuralist viewpoint, Meursault reenacts a timeless struggle of an individual caught up in the forces of fate, driven toward the murder by divine powers acting through the sun and the sea. In psychological readings, the protagonist acts out issues held by the author: an oedipal love for his mother and the desire to kill his father. Poststructuralist accounts concentrate on the novel’s language and Meursault’s inability to explain his actions adequately in court. This inability should be read as the failure of language, these latter critics argue, since it lies outside of reality, and not that of society’s justice system or of its moral code. If there is a reading Camus himself preferred it was one that took into account his philosophy of the absurd. Many readers, following Sartre’s first review of the novel in 1943, look to Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus for the most revealing commentary on the work. Published the year after The Stranger, the essay defines the absurd as arising from the meeting of two elements: the absence of meaning in the natural world, and mankind’s inherent desire to seek out meaning. Meursault’s ultimate dignity resides in the knowledge that his quest for meaning will always go unfulfilled; happiness is achieved only in a life without illusions. Notions of the absurd become an important part of post-World War II literary production in France, the principal writers, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genêt and Eugène Ionesco, forming what has become known as the “Theater of the Absurd.”
Meursault’s experiences with the natural world draw out elements of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd. Meursault’s name itself has been associated with the environment that affects him so strongly throughout the novel. In French, mer means “sea”; sol means “sun.” Standing under the penetrating rays of the midday sun at the beach, “the same sun” that burned the day he buried his mother, Meursault faces off with the Arab. Suddenly scorched by a hot blast of wind from the sea, blinded by the sweat in his eyes, Meursault fires the revolver and shatters the silence of the day. Later, in court, he will tell the judge that he killed the Arab “because of the sun.” He shows no remorse for the crime he has committed, realizing that it occurred only because of chance circumstances. This meeting between man and nature, like all such meetings, ends in a meaningless act. All that remains is for him to acknowledge what he has done.
Not surprisingly, much commentary has focused on the colonialist aspects of the novel, above all because the victim of the murder is an Arab. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd may point to the murder as meaningless, but during a time of straining relations between Arabs and French (war broke out in 1954 between France and Algeria and concluded in 1962 with Algerian independence), the killing of an Arab by a French-Algerian could have been interpreted, and was, as a meaningful act indeed. A critic of colonialist oppression and a proponent of social justice for Muslims, Camus—a pied-noir or Frenchman born in Algeria—is nevertheless silent in his novel on the volatile political issues of the time. Although not depicted as social inferiors, Muslims in the novel are relegated to the periphery: a deformed nurse, an abused mistress, prisoners, and shiftless hangers-on. Camus considered himself an “Algerian” writer, yet his two-dimensional treatment of Arabs in the novel has, for some, aligned him more on the side of the French.
Early on in his career, Camus planned out the stages that his work would follow. The Stranger belongs to the first stage of his writing career, a period that also includes such titles as The Myth of Sisyphus and Caligula. The Stranger projects a “zero point,” according to the author, an “absurd” state of existence reduced to immediate sensations. Camus’s later works, informed by his years working in the French Resistance and his experience with totalitarian governments, move beyond the leveling effect created by The Stranger and build upon positive social values. The Just Assassins and The Plague, belonging to the later period, recount tales of community, justice, and solidarity.
Source: Patrick J. Moser, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
The Stranger, which grew out of the experiment of A Happy Death and was nourished by Camus’s political experiences, constitutes an attack on the accepted norms of bourgeois society. It calls into question many aspects of an oppressive colonial regime: the use of the judiciary, religion, and above all, language to maintain dominance. It is an ironic condemnation of colonialist and racist attitudes. The novel also develops a theme with variations on indifference and difference, a theme rooted in the Algerian experience, as Camus’s articles in Alger-Républicain have shown. If the hero Meursault has a moral message—and the reference to him as a Christ figure would suggest that he has—it is one that plays a constant role in Camus’s thought; there are no absolutes to which one can adhere, only limits, and the vital nuances are played out within those limits. Total indifference and apathy allow others to act without limits. Meursault develops from an acquiescent figure who admits no limits to a combatant who claims the right to be different.
The story has a simple plot. Meursault, a clerk in an Algiers shipping office, attends his mother’s funeral at an old people’s home in Marengo. The following day he goes swimming, meets an old friend, Marie, takes her to see a Fernandel movie, and initiates an affair with her the same evening. With another friend, Raymond, he spends a Sunday on the beach with Marie, where they encounter three Arabs, one of whom has a grudge against Raymond. In the ensuing confrontation, Meursault shoots one of the Arabs.
The second half of the novel relates Meursault’s trial and conviction, and his growing selfawareness during the months in prison. After being sentenced to death, he affirms his own system of values and rejects that of established society.
When The Stranger was first published in 1942 the aspect that evoked the most interest among critics was the use of the passé composé, the compound past tense, since the traditional tense used in literary narrative is the passé simple. Sartre, in his review of the book, comments that the effect of the passé composé is to isolate each sentence, to avoid giving any impression of cause and effect. Meursault’s experience is a succession of presents. During the transition from Mersault to Meursault, Camus changed the form of the narrative: an omniscient author using the passé simple and the third person was replaced by a first-person narrative in the passé composé. The author leaves his hero in a situation where he is dominated by the power of language rather than in control of it; language is equivalent to destiny.
Camus’s concern with language is evident in The Stranger. [The] use of language beyond [Meursault’s] mastery reveals an intellectual confusion that stems from the limits of his education. It is true that Meursault was once a student; but in rejecting ambition, he also rejected the value of an intellectual life. Rational thought is not worth the linguistic effort involved. Ironically enough, misinterpretation is not limited to Meursault. The French authorities misinterpret too.
“Literature” obscures the true nature of reality: Meursault is someone who has “given up language and replaced it with actual revolt. He has chosen to do what Christ scorned to do: to save the damned—by damning himself.” Viewed in this light, Meursault’s deliberate firing of four more shots into the dead body is an act of revolt, a defiance of the society in which he lives. Meursault, who places no reliance on language, throws down the gauntlet but fails to justify his action in the eyes of the world.
[It] is obvious that Meursault is in conflict, albeit unconsciously, with all the norms of the French system; in response to his narration of events, the reader’s sympathies lie with the Arabs defending their honor rather than with the unsavory Raymond. Meursault refuses to play the game, to be part of the family. The authority figures are all predisposed to be kind to Meursault: the soldier on whose shoulder he falls asleep on the bus, the director of the old-age home, his employer, the examining magistrate, his lawyer, the priest. It is only when he says no that they begin to resent him; he declines to view his mother’s body, he turns down a promotion that would take him to Paris, he refuses to recognize the Cross, or to misrepresent the details of his case. When he says yes, it is to the “wrong” things: to a cup of coffee, to a Fernandel film, and to Raymond’s sordid plan.
During the trial, it becomes clear that Meursault is being tried not for his action, but for his attitudes. The ironic presentation of the prosecutor’s arguments, in which the narrator’s use of free indirect discourse shows up the emptiness of the rhetoric, makes the trial seem farcical. Indeed one could assert that Meursault is innocent with respect to the invalid reasons for guilt attributed by the prosecution: “I accuse this man of burying a mother with a criminal heart.” The implications of “the void in the heart that we find in this man” are enlarged to the scale of “an abyss into which society could sink.” Meursault is accused of two crimes which he has not committed: burying his mother with a criminal heart (although psychoanalytical studies of this text have concluded there is some basis for his feelings of guilt at her death), and killing a father, since the prosecutor affirms in a flourish of rhetoric that he is responsible for the crime that will be tried in court the following day.
Bearing in mind the trials in Algeria that Camus covered as a journalist, one could conclude that the parodic deformation is mild, for in many of those cases the charges were politically motivated, the witnesses bribed, and the verdict a foregone conclusion. It is true that Meursault makes no effort to defend himself; but it is because he does not understand the ideas behind the verbiage, nor the consequences of his own words and deeds. The words used do not express reality, but Meursault and his friends are unable to counteract the force of their intent. They are verbally ill-equipped. The prosecutor, however, rejects such a defense before it is voiced. “This man is intelligent.… He can answer. He knows the value of words.” In a sense, this is true. Meursault refuses to use words that do not precisely translate his feelings, words like love, guilt, shame. Society is accustomed to euphemism and lip-service.
Meursault finds a voice and an adequate command of language in the final pages of his narrative. The reader is led to suppose that his execution is imminent and that his voice will be silenced: the guillotine effectively dislocates the very source of speech.
Only in his final outburst does Meursault consciously evaluate other people, although still in a negative way. Camus called him “a negative snapshot.” In an absurd world, all men are equal. It is through a kind of askesis, a narrowing down of his field of vision, that Meursault reaches an initial state of awareness, just as Mersault did. But Mersault is committed to death, and Meursault is committed to life.
Camus is playing ironically with ambiguity here, but this does not detract from the moral intent, to demonstrate that judgment is unjust because it is based on ambiguous data. Misinterpretation can be accidental or intentional, but in either case the consequences can prove fatal.
Metaphysical absurdity is mirrored by the social situation depicted in The Stranger; as Camus remarked, “The Plague has a social meaning and a metaphysical meaning. It’s exactly the same. This ambiguity is also present in The Stranger.” The injustice of that social situation is in turn reflected and complicated by the particular attributes of a colonial society. Meursault learns in the course of writing his life that it is not meaningless, and his desire to relive it is the first positive affirmation he makes.
One aspect of Meursault’s statement, which will be a constant in Camus’s ideas on rebellion, is the emphasis on the concrete and the present. The prison chaplain embodies exactly what Meursault rejects: a nonphysical relationship with the world and with human beings, a passive submission to the injustices of God and society, and a dogmatic faith in a better life in the future. Meursault is solidly involved in the here and now, convinced that joy is one of the most precious of human emotions, not to be sacrificed for some abstract and hypothetical goal. He sums up, but only for his readers, his notion of happiness during the final day in court: “While my lawyer went on talking, I heard the echoing sound of an ice-cream vendor’s horn. I was overwhelmed by the memories of a life that was no longer mine, but in which I had found the simplest and most persistent joys…: the smells of summer, the neighborhood I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s laughter and her dresses.” The core of Camus’s arguments in The Rebel is here in embryo.
Source: Susan Tarrow, “The Stranger,” in her Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus, University of Alabama Press, 1985, 215 pp.
The ambiguity of the novel starts with the title. With regard to whom or to what is Meursault a stranger or an alien? The word étranger is only used twice in the récit, but not for Meursault. Alienation or estrangement is said to be the mood of Camus’s L’Etranger, and this short novel allegedly demonstrates a person’s complete lack of relatedness to other human beings. Meursault, however, is not like Baudelaire’s “Etranger,” who has no friends, like the “stranger” in Schnitzler’s short story “Die Fremde,” or like the outsiders in Thomas Mann’s early writings, who create an atmosphere of cold estrangement whenever they meet other people. Meursault is not odd, certainly not odder than, for instance, Salamano. True, Marie once calls him “bizarre,” but this does not apply to his way of life, or his character, only to his unconventional views of love and marriage. He is not a stranger to Masson or to his boss. He has friends, such as Celeste, Emmanuel, Raymond; and his friends stay by him when he is in trouble. People in the neighborhood know him and he knows them. He is one of them.
Thus, it is rather obvious that Meursault is not a stranger to others. However, it is more difficult to determine whether he is a stranger to himself, as it has often been said.
There can be hardly any doubt, however, that Meursault is a stranger to society. As Camus states in his “avant-propos,” “il est étranger à la société où il vit, il erre, en marge, dans les faubourgs de la vie privée, solitaire, sensuelle.” (One might perhaps question both “errer” and “solitaire”). He is, according to Camus, not playing society’s game, because he does not lie, even where and when everybody lies in order to simplify life, and because he rejects time-honored formulas, such as expressing regret after a crime, even when this rejection means the death sentence. Whether this actually stems from a “deep, though silent passion for the absolute and for truth” is debatable; this passion being too silent to be noticeable. To be sure, he is not only sincere when he refuses to pretend before the investigating judge that he feels genuine remorse, but also when he refuses to pretend to Marie that he loves her, and his sincerity makes him even say dogmatically that one is never allowed to pretend. Yet when he congratulates his lawyer in court, he is aware of not being sincere, and his testimony in behalf of Raymond at the police station is not a proof of his absolute sincerity either.
Meursault may also be termed a stranger to society because of his unconventional ideas about love, marriage, and how to get ahead in a job. Love, a conventional concept according to Le Mythe de Sisyphe, does not mean anything to him, and marriage, a conventional basis of society, is not a serious matter. He also declines the opportunity of going to Paris. Not to have any professional ambition is an affront to modern society. Meursault antagonizes society also by his “friendship” with the pimp Raymond and, above all, by not displaying the usual signs of grief at and after the burial of his mother.
Meursault is also a stranger to society because he sometimes feels left out. In the courtroom he has the bizarre impression of being just an intruder. Though he is sometimes tempted to “intervene” in the proceedings, he is told by his lawyer to keep quiet. His own trial seems to be held without him and his fate is decided without anyone asking him about his opinion. He is “reduced to zero” precisely by somebody who “acts” in his interest and who, according to convention, identifies himself with him by using “I” many times when he speaks of him. Meursault’s helplessness during the proceed- ings in court may be symbolic of man’s precarious place in a mass society whose workings he does not control nor even understand and whose leaders may speak in his name to further their own interests.
Meursault not only disregards some of society’s time-honored conventions, but also some of its most valued achievements. Unlike another “stranger,” Jean Péloueyre in Mauriac’s Le Baiser au lépreux, he makes no reference to his former studies. Literature, philosophy, science, art do not seem to exist for him. No great personality, living or dead, is ever named in the book. Although he went to a university, there are only a very few instances which would indicate that his education might be more than elementary. Raymond obviously assumes that Meursault can write better to his prostitute mistress than he himself could. Meursault remembers having learned in school something about the guillotine and about the events of 1789 (the only historical fact mentioned in L’Etranger). He apparently read some mystery novels, and also thinks he should have read books dealing with executions. These are rather few and strange examples of the education society has given him. His short, “disconnected” sentences and his almost exclusive use of the passé composé may also be taken to be—among other things—a rejection of school rules and conventional writing.
This negative attitude toward culture perhaps reaches its climax in that unbelievable description of Paris, the cultural center of his nation: “C’est sale. Il y a des pigeons et des cours noires. Les gens ont la peau blanche.” (It’s dirty. There are pigeons and dark alleys. The men have white skin.) This is not meant to be funny. Meursault does not crack jokes and Marie does not laugh when she hears it, although she usually laughs at almost anything. It seems that L’Etranger is directed not only—as it has often been noted—against the Pharisiens but also against the Parisiens. Camus, of course, has often been critical of Parisian life and society, comparing it with the happier and more natural life in sundrenched Algeria.
However, this stranger to society never attacks society as such. He is not an anarchist or a rebel, he does not accuse or deride the judicial system, even praises some of its features, and is, according to the warden, the only prisoner who understands and approves certain punitive aspects of prison life. He is a law-abiding citizen, holds a steady job, works hard and well, and wears a black tie and a black armband as a tribute to convention. He is respectful to everybody, including the authorities (“Oui, monsieur le Directeur,” “Oui, monsieur le Président”) and does not deny conventional politeness: he thanks the director for arranging a religious funeral and later for attending the funeral. He compliments Masson on his cabin and thanks the newspaperman for his friendly words. He never uses offensive language.
Meursault, the stranger to society, never speaks of “society,” although the public prosecutor and the papers do. It is “the others” who have condemned him, that faceless, anonymous, undistinguishable group of people that sit in the jury box as well as in the streetcar and judge any new arrival.
A word that is stressed by Camus in connection with estrangement, especially in his Le Mythe de Sisyphe, and has perhaps become the most popular word of his philosophical vocabulary, is “absurd.” It has confusingly different meanings, and often is synonymous with “indifferent” or “stranger”-like. Meursault, therefore, has also been called an absurd man, his style “style absurde,” and L’Etranger an absurd novel or a novel of the absurd. In the novel the word is used only once. In his outburst at the end Meursault calls his life, not life in general, “absurd.” But “absurd” has no meaning without the assumption of a meaning, and it is not clear which meaning Meursault thinks or feels his life has been lacking. This somewhat corresponds to the “poor joys” of his life he speaks about, which imply great and real joys, of which, however, there is not the slightest intimation in the novel.
According to the terminology and the illustrations of Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Meursault’s basic indifference is absurd, since the absurd teaches that all experiences are indifferent. In addition, some of his experiences can be called absurd, such as that of the “inhuman landscape” and that of the independent reflection in the mirror of his tin can. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe Camus also calls the uneasiness absurd which one feels on discovering how non-human men really are and how mechanical their gestures can be. In L’Etranger Meursault is fascinated by the little woman who one day sits down at his table in the restaurant. Twice he calls her “bizarre,” and he even follows her to watch her. Her gestures have the precision of an automaton. This woman automaton, as he calls her, observes him in court as intently and seriously as the young newspaperman. Since the latter is to some extent Meursault (and Camus) himself, this encounter with her may indicate his discovery of his own mechanical way of life. The jerkiness (saccadé ) of her gestures also corresponds to the frequent jerkiness of his style. But the “femme automate” is not a “reflection” nor a “more extreme version of him.” He lacks her “incredible” precision, speed, and assurance. Also, Meursault apparently sees “la mécanique qui écrasait tout” not in his life but in his execution. By the woman automaton Camus may have intended to symbolize the mechanization of modern life in this story that uses the style of modern American fiction.
“Indifference,” which plays a key role in Camus’s world, is a concept related to estrangement and absurdity and often synonymous with either. His teacher, Jean Grenier, wrote an essay “De l’Indifférence,” and the original title of Meursault’s story was “L’Indifférent.” In the preface to the 1957 edition of L’Envers et l’endroit, Camus diagnoses a deep indifference in himself which is like a natural weakness and has to be corrected. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe, however, he finds a noblesse profonde in indifference and sees that man at an advanced stage will nourish his greatness with the wine of absurdity and the bread of indifference. The world reveals to him a serene indifference to everything. The sky, in particular, is indifferent, has an inane, indifferent smile, pursues with the earth an indifferent dialogue, and is even indifferent to the “atrocious victories and just defeat of Nazi Germany.” But it also has charm, beauty, sweetness, and tenderness. This “explains” the paradoxical “tendre indifférence du monde” in the last paragraph, when Meursault looks at the starry sky.
Meursault is never called “indifferent” in the novel, but a group of hostile Arabs watch Raymond’s house with indifference and the court reporters seem indifferent. It is clear from these two occurrences that indifference is not identical with apathy, but rather with lack of emotionalism. Meursault displays indifference at the death of his mother, at Raymond’s offer of friendship, at Marie’s desire to marry him, and at his employer’s proposal to transfer him to a Paris office. After his mother’s death “nothing has changed.” One cannot change one’s life; at any rate, all lives are of equal value. Meursault’s indifference is probably not congenital, like Camus’s, but the result of a drastic experience of an undisclosed nature. The break came when he had to give up his studies and ambitions. Now he knows that “all that” has no real importance and in various situations he repeats the slogan of indifference: “It’s all the same to me.” The prospect of impending death shakes his indifference considerably, although he tries to maintain it by looking at the sky, and in his violent anger at the chaplain he even loses it to some extent, but only to regain and reaffirm it on a higher, lyrical, or mystical level. Again he maintains that nothing has any importance, that all lives and men are equal (because of death); but now with the “stars on his face,” he feels that the world’s “tender indifference” is penetrating him. As he finds the world brotherly now, it is a kind of mystical union, not with mother nature, but with brother world. Whereas the end of the first part, which leads to a violent death, is dominated by tension, hostility, destruction, and misfortune (malheur is the last word of this part), the end of the second part leads Meursault, who expects a violent death, to vague feelings of truce, peace, tenderness, brotherhood, and happiness. The last word (haine) is harsh again, but it means in its context the conquest of solitude and the reconquest of indifference.
Although Camus once states that “those are very poor who need myths” and that Algerians live without any myths, he himself reinterpreted or recreated old myths and perhaps created some new ones. In particular, his L’Etranger has been thought of as embodying various old and new myths. The multiplicity of mythical interpretations points definitely to the suggestive intensity of Camus’s novel, but perhaps also to the elusive vagueness or to the abuse of “myth” as a literary term.
While representing the myths of modern man, of Oedipus and Sisyphus, Meursault is also said to be a reincarnation of the myth of Christ. Indeed, it is almost generally believed that this little office clerk, who cannot feel sad at his mother’s death, who does not believe in a life hereafter, who kills a fellow-man, who does not seem to have any set of moral values, and who, consequently and perhaps not quite jokingly, is called “Mr. Antichrist” by the investigating judge, is a Christ figure, a tragic hero who takes upon himself the burden of humanity, a “sacrificial victim,” or the “scapegoat of a society of pharisees and Pilates.” Camus himself calls him—“paradoxically,” as he says—“the only Christ we deserve.” True, Meursault is like Christ a “victim of a judicial error,” is like Christ unprejudiced toward social outcasts, and is executed at approximately the same age Christ was. But, in spite of Camus, one cannot see how Meursault “accepts to die for truth.” He does not “incarnate truth,” he does not die for the sake of sincerity, but because of his sincerity (whatever the causes of his sincerity may be), because his attitude is not “conventionnelle, c’est-à-dire comédi- enne.” He does not live or die for anybody or anything, nor does he think he does, and his death does not change anything or anybody.
It is also rather difficult to see how the sea and the sun are used as “mythic religious symbols” in L’Etranger and especially how they are “associated in Camus’s mind” with the mother and the father. The homonymy of mère and mer does not mean much, since most of the time Meursault calls his mother “maman.” It is impossible to see the connection between the colorless, boring old woman, as Meursault sees his mother, whom he hardly cares to visit at the old age home, and the fascinating and beautiful Mediterranean, which he likes to watch and where he enjoys swimming. And while the sun is in L’Etranger the most powerful force, the father is weakness personified. All that Meursault knows about his father is that he vomited after witnessing the execution of a stranger, whereas his “stranger”-son finally expects his own execution with a feeling of near elation.…
Camus in the “avant-propos” calls Meursault “un homme pauvre et nu.” Indeed many a reader may sympathize when seeing poor Meursault suffer from an excess of light and heat, or dine on boudin, or “lost” in the forensic maze, or subjected to monstrous accusations. To be sure, there also are extenuating circumstances for his crime: the preceding scuffle, the beginning of a sunstroke, the lack of premeditation, the excessive consumption of wine, the feeling of the hostility of the world, the reflex (or defensive) nature of the first shot. But Meursault is no innocent, as most critics assume, unless one adopts the “absurdist” point of view, which “makes murder at least indifferent.” Meursault’s deed is not altogether an accident or a stroke of bad luck, as his friends in the courtroom and the magazines have called it. It comes as a climax: first, Masson, Raymond, and Meursault walk on the beach, then Raymond and Meursault, and finally, Meursault alone; at first, Meursault tries to prevent Raymond from shooting, then he thinks that one could shoot or not shoot, which is not a very innocent thought, and finally he does shoot. As he stands by the body of the dead man, he does not even feel that he has committed a crime. He understands that he has destroyed the equilibrium of the day and the exceptional silence of a beach— which is a credit to his feeling for nature—but he does not feel that he has also and above all destroyed a human life. He has to be told that he committed a crime and actually remains to the very end a “stranger to his crime.”
Paradoxically Meursault gets even more elusive when he reaches what is generally assumed to be “lucidity” at the end. The light which illuminates for him his past life and life in general is not bright sunshine, but seems to come from the stars which he sees. His rejection of a future life, his reaffirmation of indifference, his contention that death equalizes all men and makes everything look unimportant, seem clear, in spite of the passionate tone; his lyrical reflections at the very end, when he has regained his calm and reached the height of lucidity, are the least clear passages of the whole novel.…
Those who see in Meursault a Christ figure recall “the last moments of Christ, whose crucifixion was preceded by cries of hatred from the crowds.” But then one must also explain why Meursault suddenly and consciously identifies himself with Christ or parodies him. When one thinks that Meursault deserves the hatred of the people because he “has denied their myths,” and they see in him the symbol of their fate, which is usually masked by myths, one overlooks the fact that Meursault does not speak of expecting, but of wishing those cries of hate; also he has never been aware of his denying collective myths or of his being a symbol of something. When one believes that Meursault “wants the crowds to be there because he wants society to give some sign that it realizes how much he defies it,” one forgets that the death penalty is a clear enough sign of how society regards him.
Meursault’s strange last wish is above all proof of the firmness of his indifference in contrast to his attitude in court where the mere sight of people who, as he thought, detested him, made him feel like crying. He actually does not express that strange wish, but he feels the desirability or necessity of it; that wish probably means the ultimate height of tender indifference, which he thinks he has not achieved yet, but may or will very soon achieve.
The number and the violent reaction of the spectators are, of course, also a sign that people care about him, but a possible connection with the Salamano episode seems to be more enlightening. The only other time “haine” is employed in L’Etranger is to denote Salamano’s feelings toward his dog. The old man even constantly uses what might be called “cris de haine” toward his dog: “Salaud, charogne.” Since after his presumably violent death the hated dog makes his former master cry with affection and unhappiness, Meursault’s possible identification with the generally detested dog may be an indirect way of expressing his desire to be remembered well by the people who despised him before his death. Meursault’s identification with a dog at the time of his execution recalls Josef K., who in Kafka’s Der Prozeb; is executed at the end “like a dog.”
Meursault’s final illumination does not quite illuminate him in the eyes of the reader, who is left in the dark about the narrator’s outward appearance (except his complexion), about his first name, and, above all, about his childhood and youth. In addition, Meursault shows baffling inconsistencies in his attitudes and actions. At ten in the morning he barely manages to walk three quarters of an hour because of the sun, but he walks the same distance at four o’clock the day before after a bus ride without any complaints; he takes a sunbath the day after, races after a truck and jumps on it at twelvethirty two days later, and enjoys lying in the sun for hours. He shuns the “effort” to climb a few wooden steps, but instead takes a long walk in the broiling sun. He first wants to “see his mother right away,” but then repeatedly declines to see her. He does not care about Sundays, but does not want to waste a Sunday visiting his mother. And why does he keep Raymond’s revolver? And why does he (as well as the prosecutor) mistake the day of his mother’s burial for the day of her death (is this another “burial of the burial”)?
These are some of the puzzles which the numerous critics of the book have failed to solve or even to notice. Prompted by their philosophical preoccupations, some have in ingenious “superstructures” discussed ill-defined alienations or discovered non-existent myths and “absurdities,” while they often failed to see obvious facts and to explain disturbing difficulties. One ventures to hope that careful and searching attention will turn to the “properly esthetic” facets of the book, such as the varied style and the enigmatic point of view. L’Etranger itself will continue radiating its charm and challenge.
Source: Ignace Feuerlicht, “Camus’s L’Etranger Reconsidered,” in PMLA, Vol. 78, No. 5, December, 1963, pp. 606- 21.