The Strange Case of Meursault

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Few stories begin with such a brief but strong statement: "Mother passed away today. I'm not sure whether it was yesterday or today. The telegram from home reads..." Camus 1 is an abbreviation for Camus. It's an authoritative, emotionless, and seemingly empty assertion, but it replays in your head and acts as more than just an excellent hook. This opening line is used by Albert Camus to introduce his novel The Stranger and its core theme of nonsense. The Stranger is a first-person narrative that tells the story of Meursault, the main character and protagonist, from the time he receives the telegram stating that his mother died until his execution for killing an Arab. It tells the story of a man so oblivious of everything else around him, that he is unmoved by death. Meursault is unaffected by his mother's death, his murder of the Arab, and the prospect of his own execution. Meursault views death as an ultimately "meaningless" event, one which ordinarily would call into question the certainty of human concepts, such as the value of life: “What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love or his God…” (Camus 75). Camus uses concise and powerful language throughout the novel to convey Meursault's detached point of view and emotionless demeanor, which creates a flat character and captures the basic mood of absurdity. It is undoubtedly absurd for a man to shun all prospects of love and happiness in his life, to take another man’s life without so much as a second thought to the consequences and to treat death as if it were a mere fluke. Such is the character of Meursault.   

Absurdist fiction came around as a post-World War I movement that features dream like sequences, imagery, or a subdued reality. ("Absurdism.") Absurdism was a philosophical movement, one in which authors, philosophers, and other intellectuals sought to redefine and search for answers to human nature. As they progressed they made way for more jaded philosophies that embrace both the ideas of absurdity and nothingness. Grappling with and focusing on the study of human behavior under circumstances which appear to be purposeless and absurd. Similarly, the "morals" of a story, if present, are generally not explicit and the themes or characters' realizations are vague and debatable in nature. Philosophers attempted to explore the irrational nature of existence with rational and logical framework used for conventional philosophical thought. ("Absurdism.") Absurdity is the philosophical view where one ends up questioning life after they are forced out of a "very repetitive existence."

Meursault's unusually monochromatic and binary view of the world offers a borderline, objective view of time or place in which scenes occur, creating a flat character. This is seen when he does not consent to the keeper to open his mother’s casket for one final farewell: “While he was going up to the coffin, I told him not to trouble.” (Camus 6). Audiences would expect to see a sorrowful Meursault and most likely the scene that would follow would be one that evokes sympathy from the audience. Instead, we see a man who is an emotionless block. He does not wish to see his mother to the surprise of some of the witnesses. This is consistent with absurdist literature, in that characters are more often than not nameless and interchangeable. For example, Camus keeps "irrelevant characters" nameless like when Raymond was "shadowed all the morning by some Arabs." (Camus 40). This is to show the apparent anti-social nature of Meursault who is not so eager to identify with the rest of the human race unless forced to. People, to him, are like an unnecessary burden in his life. “Events seem outside the realm of rational motivation and interchangeable and may have a dream or nightmarish quality.” ("Absurdism") Camus chooses to emphasize the necessity to satisfy a physical desire and of the senselessness and absurdity of both life and death. At other times, both dialogue and incidents may appear to the reader as completely nonsensical, even satirical, and through such literature the imagery that lends itself to absurdist philosophy is clearly reflected: “All normal people, I added as an afterthought had more or less desired the death of those they loved, at some time or another.” (Camus 41). Meursault made this statement to the lawyer charged with defending him in court. The nonchalance with which he handles his case makes one think that he has a death wish. It is however quite amusing at the responses he gives. This is so because Meursault does everything with a firm belief that he is justified to do so as per the principles he abides by regardless of what others may think.

Meursault is fascinated by the sun. This could be because the sun is a constant figure in his life. A figure that he has learnt to identify with, to hate and to love it in the monotony of his life: “The sun plays an essential part in the novel and provides Camus with a vessel to explore the irrational nature of existence with rational and logical framework used for conventional philosophical thought.” ("Absurdism.") Camus's painting of the sun as an impartial deity in Meursault's life enhances the absurdist imagery of the novel, and adds to the sense of a distorted reality: “Now, in the full glare of the morning sun, with everything shimmering in the heat haze, there was something inhuman, discouraging about this landscape.” (Camus 11). This and other allusions to the sun shows how Meursault is enchanted by something he knows little about and which, he cannot grasp. A prime example of where Camus used the sun as absurdist imagery would be how the sun played an antagonistic character, tormenting Meursault to the point he "couldn't stand it any longer" (Camus 38), leading up to the moment "the trigger gave," (Camus 39) and the sun forced him to commit a murder.

  Camus shows the reader how the sun's constant presence represents a deity to Meursault. Similar to Camus's own beliefs on a G-D, the sun is always present but never interacting. This reflects Camus's views on religion through Meursault, who says "...I'd very little time left, and I wasn't going to waste it on G-D." (Camus 74). Camus is quoted as having said "I do not believe in G-D and I am not an atheist." This shows how they hold similar and skeptical views on a religious environment. Instead of viewing deities as benevolent they chose to view them as omnipresent, but simply as observers, with no real regard for human behavior. To put it simply, the sun, or other deity, doesn't care if you live or die, it will only observe. This may have been greatly appealing to Meursault who if anything, dislikes people meddling in his life. Meursault's odd, loner, and impulsive manner further adds to the absurdist construct. Camus uses “absurdism” and features absurdist literary techniques such as dream like sequences, imagery, or a subdued reality to express his philosophies through Meursault. Often times, absurdist works explore themes of loneliness and isolation, of the failure of individuals to connect with others in any meaningful way. This is a testimony to the lifestyle shown by Muursault. Meursault accepts when Raymond insists upon being his friend with great indifference: “When I made no comment, he asked me if I would like us to be pals. I replied that I had no objection…” (Camus 20).  Then, when Raymond asks Meursault to write a letter that will help torment Raymond's mistress, Meursault uncaringly agrees, because he "didn't have any reason not to." (Camus 22). Meursault does not place value or judgment on his cruelty. Meursault simply writes the letter because he has the time and the ability to do so. Subsequently, Meursault lacks any emotional response when his neighbor, Salamano, tells Meursault that his dog has disappeared: “I suggested he should get another dog….” (Camus 30). Most significantly, Meursault kills an Arab whom he does not know without any remorse whatsoever.  Afterward, when the court demands that Meursault must die for killing the Arab, Meursault makes little effort to plead for his own life but instead only hopes that it will end quickly. Camus expresses this through Meursault's separation of himself from realistic characters and situations. ("Absurdism.") Due to this isolation, Meursault is neither moral nor immoral. Rather, Meursault is amoral and simply does not make a clear distinction between good and bad in his own mind. In a way, everything goes for Meursault and he does not make any effort to criticize society. He even condones the shady character Raymond who is not very popular in his neighborhood and who is rumored to be a pimp.

Meursault’s life runs smoothly in its usual repetitive fashion. Then, little by little, Meursault impulsively becomes involved with Marie. Marie becomes Meursault’s mistress but Meursault sticks to his old unattached self and fails to form a meaningful relationship with her. Camus once said "But one day the "why" arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement." ("The Stranger" Novels for Students 279) This statement characterizes Meursault perfectly. On being asked by Marie whom he cares for, he impartially states "I said I didn't mind." (Camus 28). Each subtle desire to be indifferent brings Meursault to a mental crisis, and the further into this crisis he falls, the less he seems to care. This crisis is resolved when Meursault comes to accept the utter meaninglessness of his individual life within a collective society. Meursault expresses his revelation by stating "Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why." (Camus 121). Meursault's status quo is uprooted by the rest of the world and he begins to collapse. Meursault's denial of external values always leads back to the idea that existence must be meaningless. Questioning the absurd first occurs to Meursault after his mother's death when he realizes that everything was still the same: “somehow I'd got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I'd be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.” (Camus 24) From Meursault's mother's death, the ideology of nothingness becomes apparent and begins to surface and take a prominent role in his life. This is foreshadowed by the opening statement of the novel.

Camus’ beliefs resemble those depicted by Meursault in the novel. Camus also said "The literal meaning of life is whatever you're doing that prevents you from killing yourself." (Crash Course). It is hard to argue Camus's self manifestation in Meursault: “What did other people's deaths...couldn't this condemned man see.” (Camus 67) By acknowledging the clear likeness of philosophies, it makes Camus's ideology almost interchangeable with that of Meursault's. Most notably is the belief in a deity who is not concerned for the welfare of human beings; a belief held and shared by both Meursault and Camus. The character Meursault was more than just the creation of Camus, but perhaps even Camus's self manifestation. Meursault's objective and absurdist mind set echoes the other writings of Camus. The objectively phrased, observant statements that make up the book are meant to be more than just a dive into the mind of a character, but rather an exploration into the monochrome world of the author.

Works Cited

"Camus, Albert." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 1, Gale, 2009, pp.

289-292.

“Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16.” Eventbeat, 7 June 2016,

eventbeat.org/existentialism-crash-course-philosophy-16/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

"Existentialism." Literary Movements for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism

on Literary Movements, edited by Ira Mark Milne, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2009, pp. 222-252.

“‘The Stranger.’ Novels for Students” edited by Marie Rose Napierkowski and Deborah A.

Stanley, vol. 6, Gale, 1999, pp. 276-296.

October 20, 2022
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