Student Question

How does Merseult's perspective change after his fight with the priest in The Stranger's final chapter?

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Before the priest's visit, Merseult is extremely agitated by the question of "a loophole," the problem of which "obsesses" him. He wracks his brains for a memory of an incidence when a prisoner had escaped from justice at the last moment, "the possibility of making a dash for it and defeating their bloodthirsty rite," a means of escaping the "rattrap." This thought preoccupies Merseult, and yet he also feels a "brutal certitude" that he is not going to be permitted any escape from the sentence which has been pronounced upon him. His mind dwells on the thought of public executions, and his disquiet is betrayed in the form of a "shivering fit" and chattering teeth as he allows his imagination to run wild. The narrative at this point seems to follow the stream of Merseult's consciousness as he considers the various means of execution; he attempts to distract himself by listening to the "faint throbbing" of his heart, whose cessation seems impossible to him.

The difference in Merseult's state of mind before the priest's visit and his state of mind after it is extremely stark. Where Merseult before the chaplain's visit grasps desperately at the thought of being pardoned, although he feels this is unlikely, the priest's visit ushers in an incredible calm, as if Merseult's mind has been purged.

Merseult describes his argument with the priest as having "washed me clean, emptied me of hope." He bawls his "certainty" into the priest's face that life isn't worth living, and that it doesn't matter when one dies because there is nothing after death, becoming ever more sure of himself, until the priest is taken away by the jailers. After the priest leaves, he is left "calm" and exhausted; at this juncture, it suddenly occurs to Merseult why his mother, late in her life, had "played at making a fresh start," feeling like "someone on the brink of freedom." Likewise, Merseult feels freed by his conviction that there is nothing after death. The "benign indifference of the universe" surrounds him, offers him "solace," and makes him recognize that he has been happy and, indeed, is still happy, lacking only the company of "a huge crowd of spectators" to watch his execution. Through his argument with the priest, Merseult has come to accept his death, feeling free in the belief that it will put an end to all obligation and suffering.

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