1. VERDICT OF DEATH
The conflict between the desire to live and the fact of death is a dominant theme in The Stranger. Most people, Camus is saying, accept the day-today events that make up existence without asking themselves: Why am I doing this? The only answer, he says, is that nothing we do has any long-lasting meaning. We die, the universe goes on. Nothing fundamental has changed. Later in his life Camus changed his thinking to add that within this framework, our actions can still be important because we can affect the lives of other persons. We must behave as if life has meaning.
A major component of Camus' absurdist philosophy is the idea that human life has no redeeming meaning or purpose. Camus argues that the only certain thing in life is the inevitability of death, and, because all humans will eventually meet death, all lives are all equally meaningless. Meursault gradually moves toward this realization throughout the novel, but he does not fully grasp it until after his argument with the chaplain in the final chapter. Meursault realizes that, just as he is indifferent to much of the universe, so is the universe indifferent to him. Like all people, Meursault has been born, will die, and will have no further importance.
Paradoxically, only after Meursault reaches this seemingly dismal realization is he able to attain happiness. When he fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age. This understanding enables Meursault to put aside his fantasies of escaping execution by filing a successful legal appeal. He realizes that these illusory hopes, which had previously preoccupied his mind, would do little more than create in him a false sense that death is avoidable. Meursault sees that his hope for sustained life has been a burden. His liberation from this false hope means he is free to live life for what it is, and to make the most of his remaining days.
2. BENIGN INDIFFERENCE OF THE UNIVERSE
Our lives are brief compared to the permanence of the universe. Images of sun, water, earth, and sky give pleasure to fleeting moments of our lives. But they can turn dangerous and destructive. The natural forces do not have empathy for us or care. They are neither good nor evil; they are simply there, and they go on being there long after we are gone. To accept this philosophy is to live in a world without God. Meursault can accept this and lives with the sensations, both pleasurable and painful, of sun and wind, of caresses, of smells and sights. Yet his incapacity to look beyond the sensation of the moment leads him into a pattern of action that changes his relationship to all these sensations, and in prison he is deprived of all that has made his life enjoyable.
In his essays, Camus asserts that individual lives and human existence in general have no rational meaning or order. However, because people have difficulty accepting this notion, they constantly attempt to identify or create rational structure and meaning in their lives. The term “absurdity” describes humanity's futile attempt to find rational order where none exists.
Though Camus does not explicitly refer to the notion of absurdity in The Stranger, the tenets of absurdity operate within the novel. Neither the external world in which Meursault lives nor the internal world of his thoughts and attitudes possesses any rational order. Meursault has no discernable reason for his actions, such as his decision to marry Marie and his decision to kill the Arab.
Society nonetheless attempts to fabricate or impose rational explanations for Meursault's irrational actions. The idea that things sometimes happen for no reason, and that events sometimes have no meaning is disruptive and threatening to society. The trial sequence in Part Two of the novel represents society's attempt to manufacture rational order. The prosecutor and Meursault's lawyer both offer explanations for Meursault's crime that are based on logic, reason, and the concept of cause and effect. Yet these explanations have no basis in fact and serve only as attempts to defuse the frightening idea that the universe is irrational. The entire trial is therefore an example of absurdity—an instance of humankind's futile attempt to impose rationality on an irrational universe.
3. IRRELEVANCE OF SOCIAL, RELIGIOUS, OR PHILOSOPHICAL VALUES
a. Ritual. Meursault is viewed as an outcast because he doesn't weep at his mother's funeral or feel guilty because he put her into a nursing home. Society has developed patterns of behavior for given moments in our lives, whether or not we have the requisite feelings. Meursault could have lied about his feelings at any time and made his ordeal easier.
b. Religion. Society also turns against Meursault because he doesn't believe in God or the possibility of an afterlife. This attitude leaves him open to the charge that he has no basis to deter him from wrong action; it also leaves him without conventional hope.
c. Love. Meursault says that he was "fond" of his mother. He loved her the way people love their mothers. He says to Marie that he does not really love her but will marry her if she wants. Love isn't important to him. Love, Camus is saying, and its institutionalized symbol, marriage, has been created by society and have nothing to do with how people really feel. Some readers argue that Meursault is incapable of loving anyone, while others claim that Camus is attempting to define love as the physical pleasure one experiences with another person.
Note Salamano's love for his dog
Raymond's love for his girlfriend
Are these relationships involved with negative as well as positive feelings? Some readers feel that Meursault refuses to accept the possibility of feeling love because he recognizes the pain involved in such a relationship. (Raymond's relationship with his girlfriend and Salamano's with his dog seemed to involve more pain than pleasure.) Camus poses the question whether or not a relationship that involves pain as well as pleasure is worth the trouble. Do you feel that this is an accurate interpretation of love?
d. Justice. During the trial scene in Part Two, everyone participates in some sort of game, except Meursault. He is just a spectator at his trial. We first meet the idea of justice in Part One, as Raymond seeks revenge on his girlfriend for being unfaithful to him. And again, when the Arabs attack Raymond, it is to punish him for beating her up. But during the trial, no one makes any real effort to discover why Meursault has acted the way he did. Ask yourself whether Meursault would have been found guilty of killing the Arab if he'd cried at his mother's funeral. In his summing up, the prosecutor says that he doesn't blame Meursault, because he has no soul. But as a pathological killer, he's a danger to society and must be removed. The fact is that Meursault has killed a man with apparent ease and without remorse. Is the prosecutor right? Is Meursault a dangerous man and is justice served in this trial?
Meursault is characterized as a person who has no commitment to anyone or to anything except his own small pleasures and the necessities of the moment. He drifts without thought into minor activities - his affair with Marie, his friendship with Raymond, his comforting of Salamano. He finds it easier to say yes than no. Yet, when pushed, he will not lie about his motives, even though to say what is expected of him would clearly make people more sympathetic to his ordeal. As you read, keep in mind these questions: What is the purpose of acting when you know you will die? Are you responsible for anyone's actions other than your own? How committed are you to your own ideals and to what extent would you defend your feelings and beliefs?
5. THE IMPORTANCE of the PHYSICAL WORLD
The Stranger shows Meursault to be interested far more in the physical aspects of the world around him than in its social or emotional aspects. This focus on the sensate world results from the novel's assertion that there exists no higher meaning or order to human life. Throughout The Stranger, Meursault's attention centers on his own body, on his physical relationship with Marie, on the weather, and on other physical elements of his surroundings. For example, the heat during the funeral procession causes Meursault far more pain than the thought of burying his mother. The sun on the beach torments Meursault, and during his trial Meursault even identifies his suffering under the sun as the reason he killed the Arab. The style of Meursault's narration also reflects his interest in the physical. Though he offers terse, plain descriptions when glossing over emotional or social situations, his descriptions become vivid and ornate when he discusses topics such as nature and the weather.
Decay and Death
The different characters in The Stranger hold widely varying attitudes toward decay and death. Salamano loves his decaying, scab-covered dog and he values its companionship, even though most people find it disgusting. Meursault does not show much emotion in response to his mother's death, but the society in which he lives believes that he should be distraught with grief. Additionally, whereas Meursault is content to believe that physical death represents the complete and final end of life, the chaplain holds fast to the idea of an afterlife.
An essential part of Meursault's character development in the novel is his coming to terms with his own attitudes about death. At the end of the novel, he has finally embraced the idea that death is the one inevitable fact of human life, and is able to accept the reality of his impending execution without despair.
Watching and Observation
Throughout the novel there are instances of characters watching Meursault, or of his watching them. This motif recalls several components of Camus' absurdist philosophy. The constant watching in The Stranger suggests humanity's endless search for purpose, and emphasizes the importance of the tangible, visible details of the physical world in a universe where there is no grander meaning.
When Meursault watches people on the street from his balcony, he does so passively, absorbing details but not judging what he sees. By contrast, the people in the courtroom watch Meursault as part of the process of judgment and condemnation. In the courtroom, we learn that many of Meursault's previous actions were being watched without his—or our—knowledge. The Arabs watch Raymond and his friends with implicit antagonism as they walk to the bus. Raymond's neighbors act as spectators to his dispute with his mistress and the police officer, watching with concern or petty curiosity. At times, watching is a mysterious activity, such as when Meursault watches the woman at Celeste's, and later when she watches him in court. The novel's moments of watching and observation reflect humanity's endless search for meaning, which Camus found absurd.
In the courtroom drama that comprises the second half of The Stranger, the court symbolizes society as a whole. The law functions as the will of the people, and the jury sits in judgment on behalf of the entire community. In The Stranger, Camus strengthens this court-as-society symbolism by having nearly every one of the minor characters from the first half of the novel reappear as a witness in the courtroom. Also, the court's attempts to construct a logical explanation for Meursault's crime symbolize humanity's attempts to find rational explanations for the irrational events of the universe. These attempts, which Camus believed futile, exemplify the absurdity Camus outlined in his philosophy.
The crucifix that the examining magistrate waves at Meursault symbolizes Christianity, which stands in opposition to Camus' absurdist world view. Whereas absurdism is based on the idea that human life is irrational and purposeless, Christianity conceives of a rational order for the universe based on God's creation and direction of the world, and it invests human life with higher metaphysical meaning.
The crucifix also symbolizes rational belief structures in general. The chaplain's insistence that Meursault turn to God does not necessarily represent a desire that Meursault accept specifically Christian beliefs so much as a desire that he embrace the principle of a meaningful universe in general. When Meursault defies the magistrate by rejecting Christianity, he implicitly rejects all systems that seek to define a rational order within human existence. This defiance causes Meursault to be branded a threat to social order.
the cage in which man exists
numerous times the note is sounded (notably by the chaplain) that all men are under the sentence of death
what Meursault does in prison is of the greatest significance: he accepts it
one day of life is enough to supply material to negate 100 years of boredom
(read “Tale of a Political Prisoner” P. 24)
others prisoners fall into ennui or suicidal boredom,
thus they live in the prison of existence
signifies freedom & the source of life
swimming in the sea gives Meursault moments of great joy
in the sea he could immerse himself totally. be one with the primal mother, & be carried by the fundamental rhythms of existence
a more complex symbol
Meursault also loves the sun & its presence floods the novel
however, the sun is also lethal
at the moment of his crime he feels “the cymbals of the sunlight crashing on my forehead” (59)
sun is personified as a violent character; perhaps responsible for the crime
ambiguous interpretation of the sun as giver & destroyer of life
Themes of the Absurd in The Stranger
The Myth of Sisyphus can be read as an attempt to clarify and to make explicit the worldview expressed in The Stranger, and The Stranger can be read as an example of the absurd hero and the absurd fiction described in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Most of the philosophical content of The Stranger comes near the end, where Meursault sits in his cell awaiting his execution, and particularly in a heated exchange between Meursault and the prison chaplain who tries to convert him to Christianity. Meursault rejects the chaplain's entreaties, telling him that he has no interest in God or anything otherworldly. He wants to live with the certainties of this life, even if his only certainty is the death that awaits him.
Meursault is an absurd hero both on a figurative and on a literal level. On a figurative level, Meursault, condemned to death and awaiting execution, is a metaphor for the human condition. On a literal level, Meursault perfectly exemplifies the absurd characteristics of revolt, freedom, and passion outlined by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Meursault refuses to accord himself with custom, and asserts his freedom by doing what strikes him as appropriate at any given moment. This includes:
smoking and showing indifference at the vigil for his dead mother
going to the beach and sleeping with a woman the day after his mother's funeral
forging a letter for his friend Raymond, who is a thug and a pimp.
This exercise of freedom also represents a revolt against any attempt to place restrictions on his life. His passion is evident in his enthusiastic pursuit of new pleasures and new experiences: he loves being alive.
Meursault also maintains the kind of ironic detachment we would expect from an absurd hero. He prefers observing events to getting directly involved; one memorable chapter describes Meursault spending an entire day sitting on his balcony watching passers-by in the street. Even when he is directly involved in events, he is unable to get too caught up in them. When his lover, Marie, asks him to marry her, he tells her that he doesn't love her but that it makes no difference to him if they get married or not. Even when he kills the Arab, there is a sense that he is not really there, not really doing what he is doing. It seems almost as if he is observing himself shooting the Arab rather than actually doing the shooting.
In his final outburst to the chaplain in prison, Meursault sums up a great deal of his absurd worldview, forcefully asserting that nothing really matters, that we all live and we all die, and what we do before we die is ultimately irrelevant. After the chaplain leaves, Meursault enjoys a final, revelatory moment: "And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again." Free from hope, Meursault recognizes himself in a universe without meaning and without hope. At the end of the novel, he comes to a full acceptance of his absurd position in the universe and cannot but conclude that he is happy.
Connection between Sisyphus & Meursault
If happiness is real, we must be able to find happiness without relying on hope, faith, or anything else that goes beyond immediate experience. The Myth of Sisyphus is essentially an elaborate attempt to show that this is possible, and it concludes with its starting premise: if genuine happiness is possible, then Sisyphus must be happy.
Not only does Meursault exemplify many of the characteristics of an absurd hero. In writing The Stranger, moreover, Camus attempts to exemplify what he defines in The Myth of Sisyphus as the characteristics of the absurd artist. In The Stranger, Camus describes (and does not explain) ordinary events without getting too caught up in their philosophical implications and without trying to point to any universal themes. The first part of the novel, in particular, delights in describing the many humdrum events and quirky characters that fill Meursault's everyday life. We meet Salamano and his dog, caught in a moving love-hate relationship, and learn about the joys of sunbathing at the beach. In all of these descriptions, we find a fascination and exuberant joy at the myriad possible life experiences. Any universal themes we draw from the novel do not arise from excessive sermonizing or over-heavy symbolism, but from a cohesive and coherent worldview that is engaging and arresting.
THE STRANGER – FINAL THOUGHTS
Basic to all thematic elements in The Stranger are Camus' hard-won existential philosophies. In all existential thinking, the underlying assumption is that there is no divine purpose for the universe or for human life. Man, though he shares a common existence with the lower creatures, is unique because of his consciousness, his ability to think and reason. He alone can seek and create explanations for his own mortality. Awareness of mortality, of purposeless death, is termed The Absurd.
Most humans function automatically, blind to the absurdity of their condition. Some, however, experience an awakening to absurdity, a sudden realization that life is meaningless. According to Camus, this awakening is followed by either suicide or recovery. Both actions imply decision.
Recovery necessitates an acceptance of absurdity and a fundamental recognition of death's inevitability. Once a man faces his own imminent death, he realizes death is shared by all; it is the one sure human truth. Ironically, the universality of death provides a purpose for living - love and compassion for one's fellow sufferers. Man's moral code takes life from these feelings.
The Stranger is the story of Meursault's awakening and recovery. Early in the novel, he is unmoved by his mother's death because death itself holds no meaning for him. After murdering the Arab, Meursault progresses by degrees to a full recognition of his own purposelessness and impending death. During the long months of imprisonment, he slowly realizes that his former life was not empty. He misses the freedom to make love to a woman, smoke cigarettes at will, or go for a swim. These small joys, once meaningless, take on new importance when denied. Meursault begins searching for the purpose of his existence but ends by creating one. Finding the loophole in his sentence becomes his raison d'etre.
In spite of his rationalizations to the magistrate, Meursault does not finally reject God and eternity until the priest visits his cell. In a single, violent moment of catharsis, he accepts life's absurdity and embraces his own death as a bond tying him to humanity. Meursault awaits his execution, emptied of hope, yet calm and happy because he is no longer a stranger to himself.