Narrator Meursault begins with one of the most famous opening statements in modern literature: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Meursault is not so much callous as affectless, utterly disconnected from social conventions. He attends his mother’s funeral but fails to conform to the rituals expected on such an occasion.
The next day, he goes to the beach and picks up a woman named Marie. The two become lovers, but Meursault is unable to make any long-term commitments. He is also befriended by a petty hoodlum named Raymond.
The following week, Raymond invites Meursault and Marie to join him at the beach. While walking alone along the shore, Meursault confronts a hostile Arab. The sun flashes in Meursault’s eye while he finds himself with Raymond’s revolver in his hand. Before he is aware of anything, he has fired five shots into the Arab’s body.
The novel is divided into two almost equal parts; the second focuses on Meursault’s trial for murder. The prosecutor builds his case upon what he argues is a pattern of consistently selfish, cynical behavior. The defense attorney uses the same circumstantial evidence to attempt to depict Meursault as fundamentally sympathetic.
Meursault rejects the specious games of both and the premise that there is a meaningful pattern to any individual’s existence. Uncomfortable with the facile abstractions that distort the gratuitousness of actions, he offers himself as a martyr to the truth.
Written in a severe, understated style, the novel mocks grandiose claims for coherence among discrete, immediate events. It questions traditional assumptions about moral responsibility and about the individual’s role in society.
Bree, Germaine, ed. Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. An early collection of essays by outstanding critics. Includes a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential “Explication of The Stranger.”
Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus ....
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