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Meursault, a shipping clerk in the North African city of Algiers, receives a telegram informing him that his mother has died. He expresses no sorrow when he hears the news, but only a vague interest in knowing the exact time of her death- whether it occurred "today" or "yesterday."
He asks his employer for permission to take two days off in order to attend the funeral. The boss looks annoyed- though he obviously can't refuse the request- and Meursault tries to excuse himself by saying that his mother's death wasn't his fault. It then occurs to Meursault that he has no reason to apologize and that it's up to his boss to express condolences about his mother's death.
NOTE: The Stranger is written in the first person. All the events in the story are seen or experienced from the point of view of one person, Meursault, What we know about the events in the novel and about the other characters is based on his interpretation. In the opening scenes, notice how Meursault emphasizes the external aspects of his environment, and how little you learn about his inner feelings and thoughts.
Meursault eats lunch at his favorite restaurant, Celeste's, and catches a bus to the nursing home. On the ride, he's affected by "the glare off the road and from the sky" and "the reek of gasoline," an indication that his moods are strongly influenced by immediate physical sensations. Eventually, he dozes off. He arrives at the home and the doorkeeper takes him to the warden's office. Meursault has the feeling, in the course of their conversation, that the warden blames him for sending his mother to the home.
The warden leads Meursault to the mortuary and leaves him alone beside his mother's coffin. The doorkeeper appears and begins to unscrew the lid of the coffin so that Meursault can view his mother one last time. Meursault stops him. He can't explain why, but it isn't important for him to see his mother's body. At first Meursault feels uneasy in the presence of the doorkeeper. To ease the tension, he strikes up a conversation. For most people a funeral is a traumatic experience, but Meursault isn't like everyone else. His conversation with the doorkeeper could be taking place anywhere- they might be two strangers meeting in an elevator or on a train. As night falls, the doorkeeper offers to bring Meursault a mug of cafe au lait- coffee with milk. Meursault accepts the offer, and the two men continue their vigil beside the coffin.
As you read further, you'll learn that Meursault's attitude toward his mother's death- his apparent lack of intense emotion- is one of the most important elements of the novel. Would you be surprised by a person who didn't cry at a close relative's funeral? What reasons could you attribute to such an attitude?
In preparation for the customary all-night vigil, the doorkeeper arranges a number of chairs around the coffin. Meursault, "feeling very comfortable," dozes off again. When he wakes up he has the sensation "that the light had grown even stronger than before."
NOTE: Pay close attention to the way Camus interweaves and emphasizes certain details, most notably the image of light- both natural sunlight and electric light. In this first chapter, Meursault is affected, first, by the glare of the sun as he runs for the bus and, later, by the glare of the light as he sits beside his mother's coffin. You will find many more references to light throughout the story.
The dead woman's friends file into the mortuary, They stare at Meursault, but none of them says anything or addresses him directly. Why would his mother's friends ignore him in this way? Do you have the impression they are trying to make him feel guilty? They nod their heads and suck their toothless gums. One of the old women at the vigil weeps, and the doorkeeper tells Meursault that his mother had been her closest friend. "Now she's all alone," he explains. As the night progresses, Meursault grows tired and becomes aware of a pain in his legs. At dawn, all the old people shake hands with Meursault and leave.
Many critics have described Meursault's behavior at the funeral as antisocial, as an inability to relate to other people regardless of the circumstances. The people in the nursing home were his mother's friends, yet Meursault makes no attempt to communicate with them, to find out from them what his mother's last years were like. Other readers have interpreted Meursault's behavior as part of his overall reaction to his mother's death and as indicative of the philosophical stance of someone who refuses to be anything but completely honest with himself. Meursault tells us that when he and his mother lived together they "hardly ever talked"; "during the last year," he says, "I seldom went to see her." For Meursault, the reality of his relationship with his mother was not primarily that they were mother and son, but that they were two people who had very little in common and didn't even enjoy each other's company. As you read, you'll want to form your own conclusion about why Meursault acts the way he does.
Meursault is never formally introduced to his mother's friend, Thomas Perez, the only resident of the nursing home who's allowed to attend the funeral. Yet Meursault sees him with brilliant clarity- particularly his "pendulous, scarlet ears that showed up like blobs of sealing wax on the pallor of his cheeks...." His impressions of Perez indicate Meursault's interest in the physical nature of people and things. Yet he has a hard time staying interested in anything for very long. His mind seems to work like an instant camera; after he takes the picture, however, he throws it away. To him, no one picture is much more important or carries much more weight than any other.
Meursault experiences the funeral as a series of physical sensations. He smells the hot leather and the horse dung from the hearse and feels exhausted as a result of staying awake most of the night. He has a bad headache and can barely drag himself along to the cemetery. Perez's tearstained face catches his attention, as do the church and the graves surrounded by red geraniums. But mostly, he can't wait for the funeral to end so that he can return to Algiers, to the comfort of his small apartment where he can sleep "twelve hours at a stretch."
NOTE: Camus once described the most significant kind of novel as being, in his view, "philosophy expressed in images." He claimed that "the great novelists are philosopher- novelists" who "write in images instead of using arguments." Philosophical questioning is constantly implied in The Stranger. As you read the novel, see how Camus conveys his philosophy in terms of human testimony, experience, and description- not analysis.
In this chapter, you've observed that Meursault acted with disregard for others' feelings and expectations. But he was true to his own feelings. Given Meursault's general feeling of indifference, are you surprised that he even bothered to attend his mother's funeral? Why do you think he did?
It's the day after his mother's funeral. For Meursault, it's like any other Saturday. The previous day's experience has tired him, however, and he decides to go for a swim. At the pool near the harbor he meets Marie Cardona, a former typist in his office. Meursault and Marie swim together, frolicking happily in the water like children. Meursault obviously enjoys swimming; it's one of the few activities that seem to give him pleasure. Meursault and Marie doze off on a raft, his head upon her lap.
NOTE: WATER IMAGERY
What is Marie's reaction when Meursault tells her that his mother died the day before? She seems shocked, briefly, but doesn't really let it bother her. Ask yourself how you would have reacted if you were Marie. Would you have been shocked at Meursault's confession that his mother just died? Many people in Western cultures observe a period of mourning after a close relative has passed away or wear black as a sign that someone close to them has died. Yet Meursault shows no indication that his mother's death has altered his habits. He mentions his mother's death to Marie as casually as he might say that yesterday, he went to a ballgame or the opening of a play. Perhaps that is why Marie is not deeply affected by the news of the death.
That evening, Marie and Meursault go to the movies to see a comedy starring the French actor Fernandel. Then they return to Meursault's apartment and make love.
On Sunday morning, Meursault awakens to find Marie gone. In a rare moment when he reveals an opinion about something, he confesses that he's never cared for Sundays. Is it because he prefers the regimented life of the work week to the freedom of the weekend, when he must make his own choices about what to do? He sniffs the smell of Marie's hair on his pillow and lies in bed till noon, smoking cigarettes.
After lunch, he wanders restlessly around his apartment. Finally, "for want of anything better to do," he cuts an advertisement out of an old newspaper and pastes it in an album where he keeps things that amuse him. You get the feeling that Meursault is just killing time, waiting for Monday and the routine of going to work.
Meursault isn't the type of person who minds being alone. His meeting with Marie at the pool was purely accidental. It didn't seem to make much difference to him whether he met someone there or not. Whatever encounters he has with people take place by chance. He doesn't go out of his way to make things happen.
Some readers have suggested that Camus's description of Meursault as a person who loves bathing and lying in the sun, yet who lives in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment, is a direct parallel to the "external" and "internal" sides of all human beings. Does Meursault's desire to be alone contradict his love of the outdoors? Don't both feelings- the desire for company and the need for solitude- coexist in most human beings? As you read, ask yourself what makes Meursault different or stand out from other people.
He spends most of the day on the balcony of his apartment. From that vantage point, he observes a family going for their Sunday walk, the local teenagers on their way to the movies, the tobacconist across the street sitting outside his shop. Eventually, the streetlights come on, and Meursault decides it's time to fix dinner. It's been a typical Sunday. Most people would probably be bored with this routine, but Meursault seems content just to exist. Sunday or Monday, life or death- it seems to be all the same. He notices "a corner of [his] table with [his] spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it" reflected in the mirror. Does this imply that, for Meursault, these trivial details are as meaningful to him as his mother's death? In his indifferent way, he comments, "Really, nothing in my life [has] changed."
NOTE: Camus placed great emphasis on the routine nature of Meursault's life. He believed that the weariness that resulted from the acts of a mechanical life- a life that continued, unchanging, from week to week- was the condition necessary to give birth to the feeling of absurdity in an individual. The understanding that life was finite, and that the events of one's life were meaningless, given the fact that one must die, was one of the key principles of the philosophy of the absurd.
The weekend is over and Meursault returns to his job. His employer greets him warmly, asks Meursault if he was tired out by the events of the weekend, and inquires about Meursault's mother's age. Realizing that he doesn't know his mother's exact age, Meursault answers vaguely that she was "round about sixty." He can't understand why his employer should be interested.
You learn little about Meursault's job as a shipping clerk. But you are told that the simple physical act of washing his hands during the day gives him pleasure. At night when he's leaving work, however, he says that washing his hands is less pleasurable, since the roller towel is "sopping wet." In his juxtaposition of small details, is Camus attempting to show that the wet towel, which relates directly to Meursault's physical comforts, is more important to Meursault than his mother's age?
Meursault eats lunch at Celeste's restaurant. Then he returns to his apartment for a nap and later goes back to the office. This is his daily routine.
Why do you think Camus spends so little time describing what Meursault does at work? Some readers feel that the author's intention is to show that all jobs are equally meaningless and that nothing one does will have any effect on the nature of the universe. Others feel that the ritual of going to work is more important to Camus than the work itself.
After work Meursault walks home along the harbor, feeling the coolness of the evening air on his face. On the steps of his apartment he meets an elderly man, Salamano, who lives with his dog on the same floor as Meursault. The man and the dog have lived together for eight years. They've been inseparable all this time, much like a married couple; in fact, they've even begun to resemble one another. But Salamano regularly beats the dog, and the dog, in turn, irritates his master, by pulling on the leash when they walk down the street.
Before reaching his apartment, Meursault greets another neighbor, Raymond Sintes, who invites him into his room for dinner. Meursault accepts the offer, not because he feels particularly friendly toward Raymond, but because it means he doesn't have to prepare his own dinner. Meursault notices that Raymond has a bandage wrapped around his hand, and Raymond explains that he hurt his hand in a fight with his girlfriend's brother. During dinner, Raymond asks Meursault for advice about how to deal with the woman, who's been unfaithful to him, He's already beaten her but wants to punish her further. (Raymond describes himself as "a bit short-tempered," but you get the impression that he derives pleasure from hurting others. Though he tells people he works in a warehouse, he is reputed to be a pimp.)
NOTE: Camus named several characters in The Stranger after members of his own family. His mother's maiden name was Sintes. His grandmother's name was Catherine Marie Cardona. Some readers think that the similarities in the names seem to indicate that Camus wanted to call attention to the autobiographical elements in the novel and to indicate that much of the book was inspired by his childhood experiences.
Meursault listens to Raymond's story without offering an opinion. When Raymond asks if Meursault has any advice, Meursault says, in his usual noncommittal way, that lie found the story "interesting," but that "one could never be quite sure how to act in such cases."
NOTE: Meursault's character, whether he's dealing with the warden at his mother's nursing home or with Raymond Sintes, never wavers. He listens with interest because he's curious about the concerns of other human beings. But why Salamano beats his dog or Raymond beats his girlfriend is a mystery to him. He's unable to understand why people act as they do and doesn't really care, so he spends very little time wondering.
Raymond's plan is to write his girlfriend a letter that will make her feel remorse for being unfaithful to him. She'll return to him, he'll take her to bed, and in the midst of their lovemaking he'll throw her out. Meursault agrees that this is probably as good a plan as any an consents, at Raymond's request, to write the letter for him.
Camus has described Meursault as a person who "refuses to lie." Yet his writing of the letter, to many readers, seems like an overt act of deception. From what you know of Meursault, do you think he's compromising his values by getting involved Sintes? Or can Meursault now be viewed as a lonely person who's desperately attempting to make contact with other human beings? Does this interpretation contradict his antisocial behavior at the nursing home?
The writing of the letter creates, from Raymond's point of view, a bond between them. "So now we're pals, ain't we?" he says, slapping Meursault on the back. Meursault is as surprised by Raymond's display of friendship as he was by Perez's grief at his mother's funeral.
Some readers feel that Meursault's willingness to help Raymond is a way of breaking the monotony of his daily routine, a chance to do something different. Others feel that Meursault is just drifting, as always, from one chance encounter to another. He can be Raymond's friend, without feeling friendship, as easily as he can be Marie's lover, without feeling love. As you read, ask yourself why Meursault feels and acts the way he does. Do you think of him as an honest person? Or is he just acting selfishly? As you read further, you'll see how the simple act of writing the letter for Raymond takes on enormous importance.
As Meursault leaves the apartment, Raymond offers sympathy for his mother's death. "You mustn't let things get you down," he says, Adding that death is something that happens to everyone.
In this chapter Meursault has committed an action that sets in motion the drama- he's written the letter for Raymond. He has done this, disregarding the possible consequences, especially to the girl.
A week passes. Raymond has dropped by to say he'd mailed the letter to his girlfriend. Meursault and his coworker, Emmanuel, have seen two movies, but we are not told the names of the movies. (Why do you think Meursault tells you about the roller towel at work, yet neglects to give details about other aspects of his life?) You can assume that this is a typical week in Meursault's life.
On Saturday, Marie and Meursault go to the beach. Her physical presence stirs him out of his normal lethargy. He takes pleasure in just being with her, staring at her, enjoying her beauty and sensuality. At the beach they swim together on their backs. They fill their mouths with the foamy spray from the waves and "spout it out against the sky." Afterwards, they embrace and hurry back to Meursault's apartment, where they make love under the open window.
The next morning Marie asks Meursault whether he loves her. Meursault says that the question has no meaning to him, but that he supposes he doesn't. Marie appears upset at first by Meursault's response but manages to shrug off her disappointment.
NOTE: MEURSAULT'S ATTRACTION
A moment of tenderness between Meursault and Marie is shattered by the sounds of a violent quarrel between Raymond and his girlfriend. Meursault and Marie join the crowd in front of Raymond's apartment and can hear Raymond beating the woman. Marie suggests that Meursault call a policeman, but he responds that he doesn't like policemen.
This is another of the rare instances in which Meursault expresses an opinion. (Previously, he has indicated that he doesn't like Sundays.) Some readers feel his dislike of the police indicates a dislike of authority in general. Others think that the reference to the police is a way of foreshadowing events in the second part of the novel. Is Meursault's response to this situation selfish? Apparently, it doesn't matter to him that someone may be getting hurt, or that Raymond, for whom he's just done a favor, beats women. What's important to him are his own feelings- in this case, his dislike of the police.
Another tenant in the building arrives with a policeman. Raymond, a cigarette dangling between his lips, finally opens the door. The policeman orders Raymond to take the cigarette out of his mouth. After a glance at Meursault (for approval?) Raymond defiantly continues smoking, and the policeman smacks him in the face. The policeman accuses Raymond of being too drunk to stand up steadily, but Raymond isn't drunk at all- he's trembling with anger.
NOTE: Camus used the term "anti-hero" to define a person who accepts the meaninglessness of life, yet who continues living as if life has meaning. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, written about the same time as The Stranger, Camus posed the question whether to commit suicide when one is faced with the utter indifference of the universe. To the anti-hero, suicide is not a solution. Instead, the anti-hero accepts his state of being, concentrating on experiencing the pleasures of the moment.
Meursault and Marie return to his apartment, but the scene at Raymond's has upset her and she leaves. After she goes, Meursault takes a nap. It seems he's capable of going to sleep at any given moment. You should note other places in the novel when Meursault sleeps after upsetting scenes or circumstances.
Later in the day, Raymond knocks on Meursault's door. He's worried about Meursault's reaction to his confrontation with the policeman. Had Meursault, Raymond wants to know, expected him to defend himself against the policeman? Meursault tells him that he hadn't expected anything. Questions about proving one's masculinity according to the traditional codes of society play as small a part in Meursault's way of thinking as questions about grief or love.
Raymond asks Meursault if he'll testify to the police, that the woman had been unfaithful to him. Meursault, always willing to go along with the spirit of the moment, even if he doesn't understand how his testimony will be of any value, agrees. Do you feel that Meursault's behavior is inconsistent? Some readers think that getting involved with Raymond is Meursault's way of testing his relationships to society. Others feel that he's acting against his principles by letting himself get involved with Raymond's problems. As the story unfolds, consider the consequences of Meursault's relationship with him.
The two men go drinking in a cafe. Raymond proposes that they visit a brothel, but Meursault declines. On their way home they meet Salamano, who is frantically looking for his dog. Raymond tries to reassure Salamano by telling anecdotes about dogs that have returned to their masters, but Salamano is afraid that the police will find and destroy the dog. Meursault says that Salamano should inquire at the pound where stray dogs are taken: and that for a small charge the dog will be returned to him. At the idea of paying money in exchange for his dog, Salamano flies into a rage and begins cursing the lost animal.
A few minutes after Meursault returns to his room, Salamano knocks, his hands trembling, and asks Meursault to reassure him once again that the police won't take away his dog.
NOTE: MEURSAULT'S EMOTIONS
Why do you think the visit from Salamano makes Meursault think of his mother? Does he envy Salamano's ability to feel emotion for his dog? Does Meursault, at this moment, want to be like everyone else?
Raymond calls Meursault at work and invites him to spend the following Sunday at a friend's bungalow outside Algiers. He assures Meursault that Marie can come along as well. Raymond also says that he thinks some Arabs, including the brother of his girlfriend, are following him. He asks Meursault to be on the lookout for any Arabs hanging around the house.
Meursault's boss calls him into his office. Meursault is certain that he's going to be scolded for talking on the phone, but instead his boss offers him a job at a proposed branch office in Paris. Meursault's employer assumes that anyone would jump at the chance to move to Paris, but Meursault couldn't care less. When his boss suggests that "a change of life" might be good for him, Meursault answers that he's comfortable in his present situation, and has no particular interest in or reason for making a move.
Some readers feel that Meursault's unwillingness to accept the job in Paris relates directly to the title of the book. If he were to move to Paris, they argue, he would truly be a stranger, out of place, forced to focus on the minute details of merely surviving. The irony of this interpretation lies in the fact that Meursault already acts as if he were a foreigner, unaware of the customs of the world in which he presently exists, a world where a display of emotion at the death of your mother is expected of you, and where lack of ambition- turning down a better job- is frowned upon. Others feel that Meursault's actions indicate a conscious rebellion against the norms of society, on all levels.
Meursault's boss is surprised at his lack of ambition. When Meursault returns to his desk, he gives us a brief glimpse of his past. "As a student," he says, "I'd had plenty of ambition." Then he was forced to give up his studies (you are not told why) and began to realize that ambition, like everything else, was pointless, and could only lead to disappointment.
NOTE: As you read, refer to "The Author and His Times" and see how often Camus incorporates events from his own life into the book. For example, when he was 17, he suffered a bout of tuberculosis. Just as Meursault had to give up his studies, so Camus was forced to abandon his dreams of becoming a teacher.
Marie visits Meursault that evening and asks him to marry her. He says that he doesn't "mind," and if it will give her pleasure, he'll marry her. When she asks if he loves her, he again replies that the question means nothing, but that he supposes he doesn't. Marie then asks whether he'd consent to marry any other girl he liked who asked him, and Meursault answers, "Naturally," not concerned that he might be hurting Marie's feelings. But his answer does hurt her and makes her wonder whether she really loves Meursault. She tells him that he's a "queer fellow" but that that was probably the reason she loved him. "But maybe," she adds mysteriously, "that's why one day I'll come to hate you." What do you think she has in mind?
Yet nothing Meursault says bothers Marie for very long. Sensing that marriage is important to her, Meursault agrees to marry her whenever she wants. He tells her about the possibility of moving to Paris, and we learn that he once lived there. In his eyes, however, it's "a dingy sort of town," with "masses of pigeons and dark courtyards."
NOTE: Remember that you're reading a translation from the French. Stuart Gilbert, the translator, has Meursault describe Paris as "a dingy sort of town," whereas in the French, Camus simply writes "C'est sale" ("It's dirty"). In a book such as The Stranger, where the language a character uses is important in order to understand motivation, one must take into consideration such changes in the text.
Meursault suggests to Marie that they dine together at Celeste's. Coyly, she answers that she's already "booked" for the evening, implying a date with someone else. Not surprisingly, Meursault doesn't think of asking what she's doing. It's only, when Marie asks if he's not curious that he mentions he did want to know.
At Celeste's, an "odd-looking little woman" asks Meursault if she might join him at his table. As you may have noticed, Meursault observes the people around him with great clarity and with an almost photographic precision, as if each person were a specimen under a lens. Once this woman joins Meursault, she takes no notice of him; but he watches her intently. The way she moves reminds Meursault of a robot. She takes off her jacket and studies the menu, then adds up the bill in advance and places the exact amount- plus tip- on the table, before she's even eaten!
Readers have interpreted the function of the robot-woman in the novel in a number of ways. Some feel that she epitomizes a machinelike, antihuman aspect of the world- rigid, inflexible, out of touch with the rhythms of the universe. Other readers feel that Meursault identifies with her in some way; like him, they argue, she's a stranger, alone, lost in her own world. Remember that part of the tension of the novel hinges on the dualism between a structured world, in which people go to work at the same time every day and return home at the same time each evening, and a world that's less structured, where events flow easily and haphazardly into one another. In what ways does Meursault's own life embody both these qualities?
At the door of his house Meursault meets Salamano, who tells him that the dog is definitely lost. Meursault invites Salamano into his apartment and suggests that he find another dog to replace the lost one. Meursault isn't really interested in Salamano's problems, or so he confesses to us, but he has nothing better to do and, for a change, doesn't feel like going to sleep. You might want to contrast Salamano's unhappiness at the loss of his dog with Meursault's indifference at the death of his mother.
NOTE: Uncertainty surrounds virtually all the relationships in The Stranger. Salamano doesn't know for certain that his dog is lost. Meursault doesn't know whether he loves Marie. He also doesn't know the exact age of his mother when she died. Most people, according to Camus, live in fear of what's going to happen to them next. Camus believed that acceptance of the inevitability of one's own death was the only way to exist in an uncertain and indifferent universe.
Salamano tells Meursault how, as a young man, he'd wanted to be an actor, but eventually turned to a job on the railroad. (His life, like Meursault's, is another case of thwarted ambition.) He admits that he and his wife had never gotten along well but that when she died he'd felt lonely. A friend offered him a puppy, whom Salamano treated like a baby, feeding it first from a bottle. Meursault, in one of his few attempts to please someone else, tells Salamano that his dog appeared to be "well-bred." From the conversation, you can see that Salamano, despite the fights he had with his dog, obviously had a serious emotional investment in the relationship.
Before leaving, Salamano informs Meursault that some neighbors had been critical of him for sending his mother to the nursing home. Salamano assures Meursault that he knew how much the latter was devoted to his mother, but, nevertheless, the criticism surprises Meursault. He doesn't understand why people should think badly of him for his treatment of his mother. He explains that he hadn't been able to afford keeping her with him and that for years they'd never talked to one another. Going to the home, where she could make friends, was the best thing for her, he feels.
On Sunday, the day of the outing with Raymond and his friends, Meursault wakes up feeling "under the weather." His head is aching, his first cigarette tastes bitter, and he has trouble getting out of bed. Although Meursault loves to go swimming, we get the impression he'd be just as happy staying at home doing nothing. (Recall how he spent the Sunday after his mother's funeral.)
This Sunday will be one of the most important days in Meursault's life. His bad mood on waking seems to foreshadow the events to come. Perhaps his mood is a warning that he should stay home.
Marie, on the other hand, is excited about the excursion. Ironically, she tells Meursault that he looks like "a mourner at a funeral." More than two weeks have passed since his mother's funeral. Some people think that Marie is being thoughtless when she tells Meursault that he resembles a mourner. Others think that if Meursault had truly been in mourning over his mother's death, she would have been more sensitive to his feelings.
NOTE: ON FREEDOM
Marie and Meursault wait outside for Raymond. In the street, however, the glare of the sun hits Meursault in the eyes "like a clenched fist." Marie is anxious to have a good time and doesn't pay much attention to Meursault. (Does it surprise you that Marie- so involved in ideas of love and marriage- shows so little sensitivity to her lover's feelings?) instead, she keeps exclaiming, "What a heavenly day!" When Raymond finally appears, his straw hat makes her giggle,, but Meursault is put off by Raymond's high spirits and his outfit.
The previous evening, Meursault tells us, he went to the police station, where he told the police that Raymond had been justified in beating his girlfriend. The police gave Raymond a warning and dismissed the case without even bothering to check Meursault's statement. What has happened to Meursault's honesty? Is there a connection between this hypocrisy on his part and his bad mood?
As they walk toward the bus stop, they notice some Arab men leaning against the tobacconist's window. One of the men, according to Raymond, is the brother of his girlfriend. Meursault observes the way the Arabs are staring at them- "as if [they] were blocks of stone or dead trees." Meursault tells Marie that one of the Arabs holds a grudge against Raymond, and she insists that they hurry off to the bus stop.
On the bus ride Meursault notices that Raymond is attracted to Marie. Occasionally Marie gives Meursault reassuring looks, as if worried that he might be feeling jealous. Why do you think that Marie doesn't bring up Raymond's fight with his girlfriend, an incident that affected her so disagreeably?
The beach is on the outskirts of Algiers. As they walk to the water, Marie innocently swings her bag against the petals of the flowers. Her carefree nature is muted by Meursault's observations of the "half-hidden" houses on the edge of the beach and the "metallic glint" of the sky. In contrast to Marie's feeling that the day is heavenly, for Meursault it has become hellish and foreboding, like a nightmare.
Raymond introduces Meursault and Marie to Masson and his wife, who live in a small bungalow near the beach. Meursault compliments Masson on his house and notices that Marie and Masson's wife are getting along. For the first time, he tells us, he "seriously considers" the possibility of marrying her.
Some readers feel that Meursault knows instinctively that his life is about to change. Like Masson, Meursault would like to have a house at the beach where he could go with Marie on weekends. But the instinct to rebel against all the trappings of a conventional life- marriage, a house at the shore- is too much a part of Meursault's personality to ever change. Can you imagine Meursault working overtime to save money to buy a house?
As usual, Meursault begins to feel better with the combination of warm sunlight and cold, refreshing water. He and Marie take a long swim together. He notes how their "movements matched" and how they "were both in the same mood, enjoying every moment." A little later, they return to the bungalow, where Meursault eats and drinks with great appetite, so much so that he begins to feel "slightly muzzy." Meursault, Masson, and Raymond, in the spirit of the moment, discuss the possibility of spending all of August on the beach together, sharing expenses. Marie announces that it's only 11:30, which surprises everyone. Why do you think time is important here? Remember that the novel begins with a question of time- when Meursault's mother died, whether it was yesterday or today. Some readers feel that the element of time- of knowing the exact time is one way of creating order in an unstable universe.
After lunch, Meursault, Masson, and Raymond head back to the beach. Once outside, Meursault observes that "the glare from the water sear[s] one's eyes." Recall his mention, earlier in the chapter, of the glare of the sun, how it "hit [him] in the eyes like a clenched fist." Recall also that, as part of Camus's outlook when he wrote The Stranger, nature- and the universe in general- is indifferent to the plight of human beings. Many readers feel that in this scene Meursault becomes a victim of the natural elements. His ability to appreciate the pleasures of the physical world- lying in the sun, bathing- backfires. The sun, once a symbol of peace and pleasure, becomes a demonic force from which Meursault, as if hypnotized, is unable to escape.
The three men walk along the shore. While Masson and Raymond talk about people whom Meursault doesn't know, Meursault is concerned only with the sun beating on his bare head. Once again, he feels groggy, paralyzed, half-asleep.
Meursault notices two Arabs coming toward them from the other end of the beach. Raymond quickly discovers that one of them is his girlfriend's brother. The two groups of men confront one another on the sand, which Meursault observes is as "hot as fire." Raymond approaches one of the Arabs, who lowers his head, as if to butt Raymond in the chest. Raymond lashes out at the man and calls to Masson for help. Masson attacks the second Arab and knocks him into the water. As Raymond turns to Meursault and shouts out with bravado, "I ain't finished with him yet," the Arab quickly pulls a knife and cuts Raymond on the arm and mouth.
The Arabs back away, one holding the knife in front of him, then race off down the beach. Masson and Meursault help Raymond, who appears to be badly wounded, back to the bungalow. Raymond decides that the wounds aren't serious, but Masson, just to be sure, takes him to a nearby doctor. Meursault stays behind with Marie and Madame Masson, both of whom are upset by the incident. Meursault doesn't like the idea of having to explain what happened. Instead, he stares Meditatively at the sea.
Raymond returns from the doctor in a bad mood and insists on going for a walk by himself on the beach. Despite his insistence that he wants to go (can you think why he might want to?) Meursault follows him.
The two men walk to the end of the beach and come upon the two Arabs lying on the sand. One of them is playing the same three notes over and over again on a reed flute. The other Arab stares at them without saying anything. Raymond reaches into his pocket as if to pull out a revolver and unexpectedly asks Meursault if he should shoot one of the Arabs. Meursault, who usually responds "without thinking" to what people say to him, weighs his response briefly. Then he advises Raymond not to do anything unless the Arab threatens or insults him. "If he doesn't get out his knife," Meursault tells his companion, "you've no business to fire."
Meursault suggests that Raymond give him the revolver. This is a crucial moment, and you should consider Meursault's motive for taking the weapon from Raymond. Some readers feel that he's taking it as a precautionary measure, that he's less likely to use the gun than Raymond. Others think that he wants the gun so that he can be more fully involved in the episode. Still others hold that Meursault subconsciously wants to do something that will alter his life and that possessing the gun is a way of taking control of his destiny.
As the men continue to eye one another, Meursault thinks that it makes no difference whether one fires the gun or not. "It would come to absolutely the same thing," he observes to himself. What do you think he means by this?
Then, suddenly, the two Arabs leave, and Meursault and Raymond return to the bungalow. Raymond is in a better mood, perhaps because he feels he's redeemed himself "as a man" in Meursault's eyes. (Do you remember the incident between Raymond and the policeman earlier in the novel?) But once back at the bungalow, Meursault can't make the effort to climb the steps to go inside and be sociable. The sunlight is too blinding, too strong, and once again the feeling that nothing matters, that "to stay, or to make a move- it [comes] to much the same," takes over.
Meursault returns to the beach. He walks now like a shell-shocked veteran returning to the scene of battle. But he isn't thinking of the Arabs. Instead, his conflict is with the red, glaring sun, which presses itself on him from all sides. His temples are throbbing. He's sensitive to every vivid reflection of light on the hot sand. He clenches his fists in his pockets and grits his teeth, determined to ignore the sun and the "dark befuddlement" it's causing in him. His goal is to return to the cool stream and the shade of the rock where he and Raymond encountered the Arabs on their last walk. But when he reaches his destination he discovers that one of the Arabs- Raymond's antagonist- has also returned.
When Meursault sees the Arab, he's shocked. He thought that the incident between Raymond and the Arab was closed. Not once on his walk from the bungalow to the rock did he think of meeting the Arabs. For a moment, Meursault realizes that he has the freedom to walk away, that the situation between Raymond and the Arab doesn't involve him directly. But, writes Camus, "the whole beach, pulsing with heat, [is] pressing on [his] back." It's too difficult even to turn around. He takes some more steps toward the stream. Is it possible he is still thinking only of the cool water, rather than of a confrontation with the Arab? The intensity of the heat reminds him of the heat at his mother's funeral.
NOTE: As Meursault confronts the Arab, the language he uses to describe the scene becomes more intense than in any previous section of the novel: "becalmed in a sea of molten steel" and "gouging into my eyeballs." Is Camus deliberately matching the intensity of the language with the action? You might want to compare the translation with the French original to make sure the translator is not subtly altering Camus's wording.
Almost as if he is trying to get out of the scorching sun, Meursault again steps forward, knowing that it's probably a foolish thing to do. At that, the Arab takes out his knife. As the light shoots upward from the blade, the sweat pours down over Meursault's face and eyes, blinding him. He hears the "cymbals of the sun clashing on [his] skull." He senses a "fiery gust" rise from the sea, the sky crack in two, and a sheet of flames pour through the crack. He seems- as he presses down on the trigger of the gun in his pocket- like a man possessed. It is not even certain, as he fires a shot at the Arab, that he has done so deliberately: "The trigger gave...." But, with the sound of the gun he knows "all [begins]." He's shattered the balance of the day and the peacefulness of the beach. Then he fires four more times at the body of the Arab but he does not tell us why he does this. Is it the action of someone temporarily insane?
Some readers compare Meursault's killing of the Arab to the outbreak of a war, where the peacefulness of a beautiful landscape is shattered by violent action. The death of one person, these readers say, is as important as the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occur during a war. For Camus, all forms of violence are equally meaningless; nothing can justify the killing of another person.
Other readers interpret the murder of the Arab as an indication of the violent impulse inherent in all people. Up to this point, Meursault doesn't seem like the type of person who would commit murder. These readers feel that his act is a reflection of the violence brewing beneath the surface; it exposes the naked violence in the most apparently harmless of people. The acts of violence in the book so far- Salamano beating his dog and Raymond beating his girlfriend and fighting her brother- have arisen out of passion. How does Meursault's indifference lead to violence?
Camus believed that most people don't realize the absurdity and meaninglessness of their lives. The recognition of the absurd occurs when the routine that characterizes each life has been destroyed. Ask yourself, as you read Part Two, whether killing the Arab, and the consequent disruption of Meursault's routine, has altered Meursault's way of looking at the world.
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