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Mersault, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a Frenchman who works as a shipping clerk in Algiers. He is obviously a good employee, for he is offered a promotion. Since the new job would require him to live in Paris, he refuses the position. His boss is upset by Mersaultís refusal and lack of interest, but Mersault has a detachment about everything in life.
Mersault is a private man who lives by himself in an apartment. When the book opens, his mother has just passed away in Marengo. Mersault had sent her there to live at the Home for the Aged, for he felt she could not live by herself and he could not care for her because of his work. Mersault reveals much about himself in his reaction to his motherís death. He does not grieve over her loss and does not cry at her funeral. He later tells his attorney that he simply accepted the fact that old people had to die.
Mersault accepts life as it comes and is not dynamic enough to change the ways of the world. As a result, he allows himself to get involved with Marie and Raymond. It is clear that Marie deeply cares for Mersault and wants to become his wife. Mersault, however, does not love her, for he feels that love is too vague an emotion. He also does not care about getting married, but he tells Marie that if she insists, he will marry her, even though he does not love her. It is with the same kind of detachment that Mersault becomes involved with Raymond Sintes, his neighbor in the apartment building. He visits with Raymond and learns that he plans to beat his girlfriend because she has been unfaithful. When Mersault and Marie later hear a woman screaming in Raymondís apartment, he realizes what is happening but refuses to call the police, for he does not like policemen.
Even though Mersault does not like Raymond, he accepts an invitation to travel with him to the beach house of one of his friends. The trip proves to be Mersaultís undoing. Before they board the bus to the beach, they notice a group of Arabs. One of them is the brother of the girl whom Raymond has beaten. Raymond is clearly upset to see him, and during the trip, he keeps looking behind him on the bus to see if the Arabs are following him. Both Raymond and Mersault are glad to arrive at the beach house of Masson without incident.
When Raymond, Masson, and Mersault go for a walk on the beach, they encounter the Arabs. A fight breaks out, but Mersault, not wanting to get involved, stands at a distance. He, therefore, is able to see the knife that one of the Arabs takes out of his pocket. He tries to warn Raymond, but it is too late. The Arab has already slashed Raymondís arm and face. After he returns from the doctor in bandages, Raymond asks Mersault to go for a walk with him. When Mersault agrees, he learns that Raymond is carrying a gun and looking for the Arabs. Mersault persuades Raymond to give him the gun for safekeeping. Mersault puts the gun in his pocket.
Later in the afternoon, in the heat of the day, Mersault goes out to the beach by himself. Feeling hot and miserable, he heads towards the stream to find relief from the intense heat and sunlight. As he approaches the stream, he spies the Arab lying on the sand. When the Arab reaches in his pocket, Mersault reaches for the gun. He fires a single shot, which kills the man. He then fires four more bullets into the dead body. Mersault is taken into custody and charged with murder. Since he does not want to seek his own counsel, he is assigned a court appointed attorney. When the attorney questions Mersault, he admits that he felt no sadness over sending his mother to the Home for the Aged or over her death. He also says he has no regrets for killing an Arab.
Before his trial begins, Mersault is certain that he will be freed on "extenuating circumstances." Once he sees the jury, however, he realizes that they are out to condemn him. He further realizes that everything he says on the witness stand is misinterpreted and used against him. By the end of the trial, he accepts that he will be convicted and will probably face deportation or a short prison term. He is, however, totally unprepared for the final judgement. The jury has sentenced him to be decapitated by guillotine in a public place.
As Mersault waits in his prison cell for the day of his execution, he thinks about his past and his future. Although he dreams of being free, he accepts that he will soon be killed with "much efficiency" by a shiny guillotine. He is thankful, however, for each new day when he is not led away to be put to death. Although he refuses to see the chaplain on three occasions, he finally comes to Mersaultís cell uninvited and unannounced. He talks to Mersault about God and an afterlife, but Mersault refuses to listen or accept his beliefs. He also refuses to admit his guilt and ask for forgiveness. When the Chaplain tries to pray for him, Mersault screams at him.
After the chaplain leaves, Mersault realizes he has a new sense of peace and calm. He thinks about death in a new way. He believes it will allow him to be in harmony with the indifferent universe. For the first time in the book, Mersault actually seems committed to something:
"I was sure of myself, sure about everything, ....
Sure of my present life and of the death that was coming
... Iíd been right, I was still right, I was always right.