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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.
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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 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.
The following are some of the themes of The Stranger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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