Albert Camus’ The Stranger follows the life of Meursault, an Algerian man, who is also the protagonist and narrator of the novel. Divided into two parts, the narrative offers a comprehensive, albeit detached, account of Meursault’s life before and after he commits a senseless, apparently unprovoked slaying. As Meursault starts off as removed, emotionless man without a care for his friends and family aspects of Camus’s philosophy of the “absurd” can be uncovered.
On the surface, Meursault’s apathy and indifference signify not a failed man, but an fully, self-aware absurd one however; it is not until Meursault is faced with the absurdity of the human condition during his murder trial and subsequent death sentencing that he truly develops into the “absurd hero”.
At the core of the Camusian notion of the “absurd” is the claim that there is a fundamental struggle between what one wants from life and what he or she actually receives (Handout). What one naturally seeks from the life is meaning and/or rational order yet, what he or she ultimately finds is pandemonium (Handout).
One can search the universe far and wide and never find the answers he or she so anxiously yearns to discover. This constant search for meaning is known as the human condition. The human condition is the natural longing to impose meaning and order in a world without it. The basis of the absurd human condition is the conflict between one’s desires for significance or meaning and the unresponsive, callous world they eventually encounter. According to Camus, this is essentially the “absurd”. The “absurd hero” could then be characterized as an individual that fully accepts and embraces this absurd condition.
Upon first glance one might believe Meursault lives his life in the manner of a man completely aware of the absurd. At the start of the novel readers discover that Meursault’s mother, who resides in a nursing home, has recently passed away. When recounting his mother’s death, Meursault says, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (Camus 3). At her memorial, to the shock of everyone around him, Meursault fails to convey any remorse or sorrow for his mother’s death. In fact, Meursault is seemingly irritated by his mother’s friend’s cries (11).
While preparing for work the following day Meaursault states, “… Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed” (24). It is obvious that the death of his mother holds no substantial importance for Meursault and he refuses to pretend that it does. On this occasion, Meursault is rejecting the human condition. He is not desperately searching for the implications of his mother’s death because knows it would ultimately be a futile attempt. He is aware that life cannot supply the answers to his questions so he simply does not ask them.
Thus, he remains unfazed by his mother’s passing and swiftly moves on with his life. This is not the only instance where one can see Meursault seemingly reject the human condition and take it as a sign of his awareness of the “absurd”. During Meursault’s entire relationship with a former colleague named Marie Cardona his refusal to seek out the importance of the events and relationships in his life becomes painfully obvious. Early on in their relationship it is evident that it is strictly physical for Meursault.
He does not describe Marie in the manner one would expect of a caring partner. Rather, he merely views her as a sexual object and he is instantly aroused whenever he sees her on several occasions (Camus 35). Like Meursault, Marie also relishes in physical contact. She embraces Meursault in public on numerous occasions and also takes pleasure in sexual activity (43). However, unlike Meursault’s physical affection for Marie, Marie’s physical affection for Meursault signals a much deeper sentimental and poignant attachment.
For Meursault, their relationship lacks any real significance and he makes no attempt to conceal that fact. When Marie asks him if he loves her Meursault responds, “I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so” (35). Still, Marie later asks Meursault if he wants to marry her. He responds, “…it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to” (41). Even though Marie is clearly disappointed by Meursault’s indifference towards love and matrimony she never ends the relationship nor does she question her longing to marry him.
Instead, she searches for the reasons why she is so drawn to Meursault and the meaning behind his strange behavior. In fact, Marie even claims it is Meursault’s peculiar personality that appeals to her. By trying to determine the reasons behind things beyond her control Marie is demonstrating the absurdity of the human condition. Meursault does not begin his development into the absurd hero until the near end of part one in the novel when he kills an Arab he and his friend, Raymond Sintes, previously had a physical altercation with. After the murder Meursault is hrown into prison and assigned a young, court appointed lawyer. During their first visit together the conversation quickly changes from reassuring Meursault that he will win his case to scrutinizing his personal life. The lawyer tells Meursault that an investigation of into his private life revealed that he had displayed “insensitivity” the day of his mother’s funeral (Camus 64). Knowing this indifference of emotions could be used in favor of the prosecution, the lawyer asks Meursault if he had felt any grief the day of his mother’s memorial.
Meursault answers that on the day of his mother’s funeral he was preoccupied with his own physical needs and was unaware of what was really occurring (65). He also claims that while a part of him probably did love his mother, “it didn’t really mean anything” (65). Meursault’s attorney is upset by his claims and demands him not to repeat them in front of the Magistrate. Seeing that Meursault obviously was not negatively affected by his mother’s death at all the lawyer asks him if he could argue that he had actually “held back his natural feelings” the day of his mother’s funeral in an effort to explain his blasé demeanor (65).
Meursault simply says, “no, because it’s not true” (65). Their meeting abruptly ends shortly thereafter with the attorney looking at Meursault with utter disgust. One may wonder why any of this is relevant to a trial concerning a cold-blooded murder. In fact, Meursault himself even points out that “none of this had anything to do with” his case (Camus 65). From the very beginning the focus quickly turns from the actual crime to Meursault’s moral character. As Meursault recounts the events leading up to the shooting, the Magistrate offers responses like “fine, fine, and good” (67).
Then, he suddenly asks Meursault if he loved his mother. Meursault nonchalantly answers, “yes, the same as anyone” (67). The stenographer is visibly shaken by his response and the magistrate goes off on a religious outburst. During his rant the magistrate asks Meursault if he believes in God several times to which he simply answers “no” (70). Instead of acknowledging the fact that Meursault senselessly killed a man, the courts are more concerned with his actions during his mother’s funeral and his lack of religiousness. The following summer marks the start of Meursault’s trial.
Upon entering the courtroom Meursault is surprised by all of the people in attendance. After being seated in the packed courtroom full of his peers and the press Meursault notices a row of unfamiliar faces in front of him. He also observes that the faces are all fixated on him and shortly thereafter he realizes that they are, in fact, the jury (83). It is here that Meursault experiences the Sartrean concept known as “the Look”. The concept of “the Look” or “the Gaze” refers to tendency of human beings to only become more conscious of themselves when confronted with the gaze of another.
The “look” of another is an objectifying one. It reduces one to a mere object and forces him or her to see themselves through the eyes of others, as others see them. During the trial, Meursault listens on as witness after witness takes the stand to describe his detached personality and behaviors. It is quickly apparent to Meursault that as the center of a controversial murder trial, the proceedings become less concerned with the type of person he is in actuality and more concerned with others’ perception of his character.
Another example of Meursault being the subject of “the look” is during his lawyer’s closing argument. In an effort to help jurors better understand his reasoning, Meursault’s lawyer offers his own explanation of the events leading up to the murder. He even goes as far as to speaking in the first person, as if he were Meursault saying things like “it is true I killed a man” (Camus 103). Meursault is completely taken aback and thinks the tactic was meant to further exclude him from the case and reduce him to nothing (103). The entire murder trial of Meursault is meant to represent the absurdity of the human condition.
When Meursault fails to offer a more logical explanation than “because of the sun” for viscously gunning the down the Arab or justify his lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral the courts main objective becomes removing him from society. Why is the court so obsessed with eliminating Meursault? It is simply because he threatens the reason and order of the universe. Not crying at a loved one’s funeral and killing a man because of the sun are two utterly incomprehensible acts for they do not follow any rationality. Sentencing Meursault to death by guillotine is society’s vain attempt at enforcing order in a world without it.
According to Camus, this encounter with the absurd leaves Meursault with three options (Handout). He can choose to commit suicide, turn to the comfort of religion, or he can simply accept the absurd condition. For Camus, committing suicide means declaring that life is unworthy of living. This is something his “absurd hero” would not do (Handout). An individual’s encounter with the absurd may also have the option of turning to dogma or religion as a means to ease or downright deny the absurd condition. Camus views this choice as intellectual idleness and self-deception (Handout).
Lastly, one who encounters the “absurd” can choose to completely accept and grasp the notion of the absurd condition. For Camus, this is the suitable and most necessary choice. Meursault never entertains the thought of suicide. He is however, constantly visited by the chaplain against his wishes. The chaplain urges Meursault to rely on God for consolation but Meursault adamantly refuses. During one especially irritating visit Meursault becomes enraged and shouts, “Nothing, Nothing mattered” (Camus 121). It is here that he comes to the realization that life essentially offers no real meaning thus, nothing truly mattered.
Regardless of who you were or how you spent your life, you were ultimately going to suffer the same fate as everyone else: death. At the end of the novel Meursault says, “As if blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope…I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world…I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again” (122). Unbeknownst to him, Meursault had been maturing into the “absurd hero” throughout the entire course of the novel. During his trial, Meursault comes to realize that his failure to decipher or seek out significance in his own life has left him susceptible to those who will enact such meaning for him.
Until that point, he thoughtlessly coasted from day to day, lacking the inspiration or capacity to truly assess his life. The trial and subsequent death sentencing ultimately forces him to tackle his existence consciously because he is finally being held accountable for his actions. Suddenly his initial indifference no longer just applies to his personal understanding of himself, but to the entire universe. By wholly accepting the “gentle indifference of the world” Meursault finally emerges as the absurd hero he always was.
Cite this Albert Camus’ The Stranger
Albert Camus’ The Stranger. (2016, Oct 15). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/albert-camus-the-stranger/