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The Stranger
Albert Camus


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

The story line of The Stranger is not complicated, but there is considerable debate over what it means. The story concerns Meursault, a man who is rather passive, who does not make judgments about the quality of actions. He does not see patterns in the past or foresee consequences in the future. To act or not to act are one. He seems to care deeply only about the sensations of the fleeting present moment. He drifts into relationships and into actions, and one of these changes his life. It puts him into conflict with the moral ideas of the society around him.

* * *

Meursault, a shipping clerk in the North African city of Algiers, learns of his mother's death in a nursing home. He attends her funeral without showing the sorrow his society expects of a son or daughter. After the funeral he returns to Algiers.

The next day, Saturday, he goes swimming and meets Marie Cardona, a young woman who formerly worked at his office. They see a comic film together and Marie goes home with Meursault. They make love. On Sunday, Meursault stays by himself in his apartment, watching people on the street below.

The following evening, Meursault meets one of his neighbors, Raymond Sintes, who invites him to dinner. Raymond tells Meursault that his Arab girlfriend has been unfaithful and that he wants revenge. He asks Meursault to write her a letter ("a real stinker, that'll get her on the raw,") that will make her come back to him, so that he can then revile her and throw her out. Meursault agrees to write the letter.

The next weekend, Meursault and Marie go swimming. They return to Meursault's apartment, make love, and afterward hear the sounds of a quarrel in Raymond's apartment. A crowd has gathered at Raymond's door. Meursault refuses to call the police, but another neighbor does and when the policeman arrives, he finds that Raymond has beaten the girl. Meursault agrees to testify to the police on Raymond's behalf.

The following Sunday, Meursault and Marie are to accompany Raymond on an excursion to the beach, where they'll spend the day with Masson, a friend of Raymond. Before they leave on the bus, Raymond points out two Arab men near the bus stop; he says that one of them is the brother of the girl he had beaten. Raymond seems worried they will try to harm him for beating the girl.

At the beach, the three have lunch. Then Meursault, Raymond, and Masson go for a walk and meet the Arabs, who apparently have followed them from Algiers. After a brief fight, one of the Arabs pulls a knife and slashes Raymond. The Arabs flee. Raymond is not seriously hurt, and after being treated by a doctor, he insists on returning to the beach. He wants to go alone, but Meursault follows him. They encounter the Arabs again, and Raymond searches for an excuse to shoot the man who had stabbed him. Meursault talks him out of shooting and takes the gun. As they discuss how to handle the Arabs, the Arabs vanish.

Raymond and Meursault return to Masson's house, but Meursault does not enter. It is hot and muggy, and, sensitive to the weather, he feels strange and dizzy. He goes down to the beach alone, trying to cool off, and meets one of the Arabs. The two men confront each other once more, and when Meursault advances on him, the Arab pulls a knife. The sun blazes, blinding Meursault. He fires the gun once, killing the Arab. Then he fires four more times into the body.

The killing of the Arab marks the end of Part One of The Stranger. Meursault recognizes that his action will have consequences. He has "shattered the balance of the day."

As Part Two begins, Meursault is in prison. During the next eleven months he is interviewed repeatedly by the magistrate and by his court-appointed lawyer. The lawyer wants him to express regret for his mother's death as well as for his crime. The magistrate seems kind at first but becomes furious when Meursault tells him he does not believe in God, Marie visits him once but then, because she's not his wife, is not permitted to return.

At the trial, Meursault's lawyer doesn't let him speak in his own defense; so, except for a brief statement or two, Meursault listens to others talk about his past actions. The subject most often brought up is his behavior at his mother's funeral. The prosecutor paints a picture of a man incapable of the most basic human feeling, one who is a danger to society. People from his mother's nursing home are called to testify, as are many of the characters we have seen earlier in the book. Again and again, Meursault's passivity and his statements about the flatness of his emotions are turned against him. When asked about his motive for the crime, he replies that he killed the Arab "because of the sun." The jury finds him guilty, and the judge sentences him to death.

Back in his cell, Meursault thinks about death and about escape. He does not want to see the prison chaplain, but the chaplain visits him anyway and attempts to have him acknowledge his guilt and also the possibility of an afterlife. Meursault flies into a rage and attacks the chaplain in the only outburst of feeling he displays in the book.

The book ends with Meursault's recognition that the universe is "benign" and "indifferent"- that no one, except himself, really cares whether he lives or dies. His last wish is that a large, hostile crowd attend his execution.

[The Stranger Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • MEURSAULT

    Meursault, the main character and the narrator of the story, is a 30-year-old shipping clerk who lives an ordinary day-to-day existence. We see him as a son (at his mother's funeral); as a friend; as a solitary creature pursuing simple experiences from moment to moment; and as a prisoner, first on trial, then awaiting execution. Physical sensations of sun and wind and physical activities such as swimming or running mean a great deal to him. Larger experiences in his life- the death of his mother, a chance for marriage, and a change in job- mean relatively little. We learn almost nothing about his past, though he is a curiously candid person, speaking of experiences in the present that most of us, if we felt them, might keep silent about. He has a detached attitude toward other people. This annoys most people, but some are attracted to him because of his silence and his habit of not offering judgments. The central event in his life, at least as far as it influences others, is killing an Arab. His most intense experience, however, is his attack on a chaplain while in prison.

    Many readers see Meursault as a hero and as a martyr for the truth. He refuses to disguise his feelings and by doing so threatens society. He accepts death for the sake of truth rather than play society's games and conform to what he sees as society's illusions, lies, and hypocrisies. At the same time, he doesn't judge other people but attempts to understand why they act and say the things they do.

    Some readers note, however, that Meursault occasionally compromises his loyalty to the truth, for example, by writing a letter to Raymond Sintes's girlfriend. He also lies to the police to win Raymond's release after he has beaten the girl.

    Other readers see Meursault's feelings as callous, not heroic. For instance, when Raymond is beating an Arab girl, Meursault refuses to send for the police because he dislikes them. His feelings take precedence over the immediate danger to the girl.

    Meursault is a complex- in some ways contradictory- character, and one of the most rewarding challenges of reading The Stranger is trying to figure out his personality. You'll have to sift through a lot of evidence as you try to get a grip on Meursault, and as you do you'll probably need to rethink some basic assumptions you have about people.

  • CELESTE

    Celeste, the owner of Meursault's favorite restaurant, usually expresses traditional feelings: "There's nothing like a mother," he says when Meursault announces his mother's death. At the trial, he tries to defend Meursault. He says that he's sure the killing was an "accident," which is close to the truth.

  • DOORKEEPER OF THE NURSING HOME

    The doorkeeper shows Meursault around the nursing home and tells him about his mother, her friends, and life at the home. He is more sympathetic toward Meursault than the warden and sits with Meursault during the all-night vigil by the coffin. He offers Meursault coffee in what seems a kind act. At the trial, however, Meursault's acceptance of the coffee is offered as an example of his lack of proper feeling.

  • WARDEN OF THE NURSING HOME

    At the nursing home where Meursault's mother has lived and is now being buried, Meursault is confronted by the doorkeeper and the warden who represent the social order. The warden's job is to oversee the last years and the funerals of old people whose families can't look after them. He generally expresses ordinary sentiments and tries to make Meursault feel guilty for leaving his mother in a home.

  • THOMAS PEREZ

    Perez is a close friend of Meursault's mother. He is referred to as her "fiance" and, in contrast to Meursault, weeps at her funeral. He reappears as a witness at Meursault's trial.

  • MARIE CARDONA

    A former typist in Meursault's office, Marie becomes his lover the day after he returns from his mother's funeral. She, like Meursault, is devoted to sensual pleasures. But her values are rooted in traditional standards, and she wants what most people are said to want: love, marriage, a conventional life. She has an intuitive understanding of Meursault's character and remains loyal to him after he kills the Arab.

  • SALAMANO

    Salamano, one of Meursault's neighbors, has a dog with which he constantly fights. When Salamano's wife died, he got the dog for company. He has a sort of love/hate relationship with the animal that is not unlike Raymond's relationship with his girlfriend. Salamano loses the dog during the course of the story and turns to Meursault for advice and comfort.

  • RAYMOND SINTES

    At Meursault's trial, Raymond, another of Meursault's neighbors, describes himself and Meursault as "the best of pals." Do you find it hard to believe that Meursault would be involved with such a person? Raymond is not only violent, he's sadistic as well. But his code of honor is as important to him as religion is to the chaplain or the magistrate. According to the code, if someone treats him badly, he'll take revenge. Conversely, if someone does him a favor- as Meursault does, by writing a letter to his girlfriend- that person will be his pal.

    Raymond tells his neighbors that he works as a warehouse man, but it is implied that he's really a pimp, living off the earnings of prostitutes. He uses violence to demonstrate his masculinity and is concerned about Meursault's opinion of him. For example, when he doesn't challenge the policeman who arrives to break up his quarrel with his girlfriend, he worries that Meursault may think he's a coward. Raymond doesn't realize that Meursault is often just passing the time with him- in fact, is barely listening to him. He interprets Meursault's silence and passivity as a sign of intelligence.

  • MASSON

    Masson is Raymond's friend the owner of the beach cottage. He takes part in the first scuffle with the Arabs but essentially has a minor role in the story. At the trial, he attempts to create a favorable picture of Meursault.

  • MAGISTRATE

    During the trial, Meursault is confronted by several people who each represent an aspect of society and traditional attitudes toward morality and behavior. The magistrate is an authority figure who believes in God and wants criminals to believe and to repent their crimes. During their first interview, Meursault views the magistrate as an amiable and kindly person. At a later interview, however, the magistrate becomes perturbed and excited when Meursault refuses to answer his questions about the murder. He waves a crucifix in Meursault's face and tries to convince him of the existence of God. You sense that the magistrate is less a truly religious person, who's found peace within himself, than a person who uses religion as a way of reassuring himself that his life has meaning.

  • MEURSAULT'S LAWYER

    Camus purposefully withholds the name of Meursault's court-appointed lawyer. He's just a part of the judicial system that society has created, and he has little to gain or lose by the outcome of Meursault's trial. He's shocked at Meursault's indifference toward his mother's death, and realizing that this will be a key issue, he advises Meursault to remain silent during the trial. Do you get the impression that he thinks Meursault's case is hopeless from the start?

  • PROSECUTOR

    We see the prosecutor only in a courtroom setting. He interviews each witness and turns even the slightest detail to Meursault's disadvantage. Meursault is fascinated by the skill with which the prosecutor twists information to create his case. He's playing the game of justice, and playing it well, but he has no desire to find out why Meursault killed the Arab. He's obviously interested in the psychological connection between Meursault's behavior at his mother's funeral and the murder of the Arab, and it's on this connection that he rests his case.

  • CHAPLAIN

    After Meursault has refused several times to see him, the chaplain comes to Meursault's cell while Meursault is awaiting death. He tries to convince Meursault that there's a life after death. He becomes frustrated by Meursault's refusal to believe that a God exists, yet he insists, hoping that he'll eventually wear Meursault down. For Meursault, the chaplain is just the last in a long line of people who have tried to foist their ideas on him. His insistence that Meursault express some belief in God leads to an attack by Meursault.

[The Stranger Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

The city of Algiers, the principal setting of The Stranger, almost seems an active participant in the novel. The city is described as bathed in sunlight so intense at times that it makes Meursault feel dizzy; it is surrounded by white-hot beaches and endless expanses of sky and water. The street where Meursault lived was modeled after the Rue de Lyon- the main artery of Belcourt, the Algerian suburb where Camus grew up. Meursault's observations from his balcony (Part One, Chapter II) will give you a good sense of the atmosphere in Algiers during the late 193Os- the time when The Stranger was written, and the time that the action in the book, according to most critics, takes place.

Algiers is a city of crowded apartment buildings, where the neighbors and shopkeepers all know one another. The streets are lined with bars and restaurants. Arabs, Europeans, and pieds-noirs- people of European descent born, as Camus himself was, in Algeria- live side by side, but not without tensions and conflicts. The story should be seen against this background of racial mix and unrest. Algiers is also a port city, where ships come and go constantly, leaving fragments of many cultures (the city has been described as a "marriage" of East and West) in their wakes. Camus has depicted the Algerians as a people with "a distaste for stability and a lack of regard for the future, people in a hurry to live." You can imagine the streets teeming with life, twenty-four hours a day.

More than the city, even, the natural climate of North Africa forms a powerful backdrop to events and shifts of mood- the sun, the heat, the vastness of space and sky have much influence.

THEMES

The following are some of the themes of The Stranger.

  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.

  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.

  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, have 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.

    There are several kinds of love in this book. Note Salamano's love for his dog. Look, too, at 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 seem 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?

  4. COMMITMENT

    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?

STYLE

Camus's style is simple, clear, and direct. He's not writing an intellectual essay on a philosophical theme (as he did in The Myth of Sisyphus) but a novel that deals with his philosophical preoccupations. In order to do this, he has created recognizable characters and placed them in realistic situations. The clarity of style is the perfect instrument to convey the thoughts of the narrator (Meursault), who is attempting to find order and understanding in a confused and confusing world.

Some readers point out the overall subdued quality of Camus's style. Others compare his vocabulary to that of a child. Notice, also, the brevity of most of the sentences- which are also childlike- and the absence of complicated grammatical constructions. Camus describes objects and people but makes no attempt to analyze them. His attention is always fixed on the concrete nature of things. He uses words cautiously as if he were somehow suspicious of abstract terms. He also makes no attempt to analyze concepts such as love and religion, but reveals his thoughts about them by telling us Meursault's responses. (Note the conversations between Meursault and Marie about marriage and the exchange between Meursault and the chaplain about God.)

Occasionally, Camus's style and use of vocabulary become more complex, more vivid. Notice the scene where Meursault kills the Arab. The stillness of the natural world suddenly explodes; it's as if the universe has split in two or some other major catastrophe has just taken place. The heat is "pressing" against Meursault's back and the "cymbals of the sun" are "clashing" on Meursault's skull. The world begins to vibrate and change, in the same way that Meursault's own life will change now that he's finally performed an act for which he must take responsibility.

Camus's language is often repetitive; the same phrases and images reoccur throughout the novel. Natural images- the sun, sea, and wind- appear in different guises at different times. Before killing the Arab, for instance, Meursault acts as if he's waging a battle with the sun- the same sun that gave him such pleasure earlier in the day. Phrases like "Having nothing better to do" and "I had nothing to do" are used frequently to establish Meursault's indifference toward his own experience. As you read, pick out other words and phrases that appear regularly and try to figure out their significance.

The Stranger was originally written in French. The widely read American edition, translated by Stuart Gilbert, is faithful for the most part to the tone of the first-person narrator. Be aware, however, that the translator makes many changes in the original text. For example, in the nursing home scene in the opening chapter, Meursault asks the doorkeeper if he would turn off one of the lamps in the mortuary. Gilbert translates the answer, "Il m'a dit que ce n'etait pas possible" ("He told me it wasn't possible.") as "'Nothing doing,'" indicating a direct quote from the doorkeeper, which, however, is not in Camus's original version. At the end of Part One, while describing Meursault's reaction to the sun before he kills the Arab, Camus writes, "Tout mon etre s'est tendu" ("My entire being became tense"), which Gilbert translates with considerable latitude as "Every nerve in my body was a steel spring." In the second paragraph of Part Two, Chapter II, Gilbert translates "...j'ai senti que j'etais chez moi dans ma cellule et que ma vie s'y arretait" as "I realized that this cell was my last home, a dead end, so to speak." A more literal translation would read, "I felt that my cell was my home and that my life had stopped there." Gilbert also takes considerable liberty with Camus's sentence structure and paragraphing.

POINT OF VIEW

All the events of The Stranger are seen through the eyes of the narrator, Meursault. The story is told in the first person and traces the evolution of the narrator's attitude toward both himself and the rest of the world. At first, Meursault makes references to his inability to understand what's happening around him, but often what he tells us seems the result of his own laziness or indifference. He's frequently inattentive to his surroundings. His mind wanders in the middle of conversations. Only rarely does he make value judgments or express opinions about what he or the other characters are doing. You learn that he doesn't like policemen or brothels, but otherwise he seems to accept experiences without differentiating among them.

At the trial, in Part Two, you learn what the other characters think of Meursault. Yet even these testimonies are filtered through Meursault's observations, and sometimes you have the impression that he's barely listening.

Some readers think the book would have been more successful if it had been told in the third person by an omniscient narrator. The characters, they argue, are merely fragments of what people are really like, and it's difficult for readers to sympathize or identify with people about whose past they know so little. (Of the characters whom Meursault encounters, only Salamano's past is revealed in some depth.) Other critics feel that the past of the characters are irrelevant and that Camus's main purpose would be lost if the story were told in any other way. The Stranger, they argue, is the unfolding of one person's way of viewing his surroundings, more than a study in relationships between people.

As you read, ask yourself whether it was wise for Camus to tell the story through Meursault's eyes and why he chose to do so. Don't assume that Camus and Meursault are interchangeable; remember that Meursault- though he sometimes seems to be the mouthpiece of the author's view of the world- is a fictional character and must be interpreted accordingly.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

The Stranger consists of two parts.

Part One deals with approximately three weeks in Meursault's life, and ends with his killing of an Arab. In this part, we see Meursault at his mother's funeral, at his job, puttering around his small apartment. He begins an affair with Marie and drifts into a relationship with his neighbor, Raymond Sintes. Then he commits the murder that will result in a sentence of death.

Part Two picks up directly following the murder and ends eleven months later. We see Meursault in his prison cell and during his trial, and are introduced to the various functionaries of the state: the lawyer, the magistrate, the prosecutor, and the chaplain. Meursault compares his life in prison with his former life, and we watch how his attitudes evolve. Does he change? Or does he simply become crystalized in his old pattern? If the climax of Part One is the murder of the Arab, what do you think is the climax of Part Two? Is it the verdict at the end of the trial or Meursault's outburst when the chaplain visits him in jail? Are there other possibilities?

The two parts of The Stranger can be seen as forming a kind of duality. Part One is principally a narrative, while Part Two is mainly Meursault's commentary on his life in which he attempts to understand the reasons for existence. In Part One, Meursault walks through the world largely unaware of the effect of his actions on others; in Part Two he is conscious of every aspect of his experience, both past and present.

CAMUS'S PHILOSOPHY

Albert Camus was not what we would usually consider a philosopher- a person who sets forth views in a systematic, orderly fashion. Camus was, however, very concerned with some of the same questions as philosophers. Since he did not state his ideas systematically and unambiguously, it is difficult to summarize them, and there have been conflicting interpretations of his outlook.

The Stranger was published early in Camus's career, in 1942, when he was primarily concerned with what he called the "absurdity" of the human condition. People want, and need, a basis for their lives and values, but the world offers them none, Camus believed. Because there is no overarching value system, a person can't make everyday value judgments, but is adrift in a meaningless world. The inevitability and finality of death adds to the absurdity of life, in Camus's view.

Camus's outlook was in part a reflection of his inability to accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church (a major underpinning of French culture), which provided a firm support for life on earth. Nonreligious in a traditional sense, Camus, like many others, was cast adrift, feeling that life had no significance as well as no meaning.

Meursault may be seen as an embodiment of Camus's outlook. Life for him has little meaning on a deeper level, and he is not concerned about making value judgments or assessing right and wrong. Yet at the end of The Stranger, Meursault draws some order out of life. In an impassioned speech to a chaplain, who has been trying to convince him of the validity of the traditional Christian outlook, Meursault says life may have no deeper meaning but he indicates that he feels close to others who share life's predicament. Through this feeling of solidarity, Meursault seems to gain strength, and seems to come to terms, at least partially, with the absurdity of life.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [The Stranger Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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