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The main theme of The Stranger is the absurdity of life. Mersault is a common, ordinary man who works in Algiers as a shipping clerk, performing routine and monotonous tasks. Because he is a bachelor who lives by himself, he has few demands placed on his free time. He is accustomed to doing what he wants, when he wants. Amazingly, he has difficulty entertaining himself, and the weekends tend to drag on for him in boredom. It is clear Mersault has done nothing significant in his life, and he states several times in the book that he had never received much attention before his murder trial.
When the book opens, Mersault has just learned that has mother has passed away. He had previously sent her to live in Marengo at a government run Home for the Aged, for he felt he could not support her at his apartment and believed that she needed someone to look after her during the day, while he was at work. When he receives the news of her passing, he does not seem upset by her death. With no emotion, he arranges for time off from work, goes to borrow a tie and mourning band from a friend, and eats a casual lunch. Once he arrives in Marengo, he shows no emotion and refuses to view her body. At the funeral, he does not shed a tear and is more concerned about the heat than the loss of his mother. He is also anxious to get back home.
On Saturday morning, after the funeral on Friday, Mersault, still showing no signs of grief, decides to go for a swim. He encounters Marie, who used to work as a typist at his office. He invites her to go to see a movie and chooses a comic film. After the movie, he takes Marie back to his apartment and makes love to her. Although he has enjoyed the evening, his feelings about Marie are casual. When she later asks him if he loves her, Mersault responds that he is not concerned about love, for it is too vague an emotion. When Marie asks him if he will marry her, he says that marriage is not important to him; therefore, if she really wants to get married, he would have no objection. It is clear that Mersault does not have emotional ties to people, and it seems absurd that he would agree to marry someone for whom he has no feelings.
Mersaultís neighbor is Raymond Sintes, a violent man who works as a pimp. Even though everyone else in the neighborhood avoids Raymond because of his personality and occupation, Mersault befriends him, for his neighborís personal life makes no difference to him. When Raymond tells Mersault about beating up a man until he was bleeding like a pig, Mersault is unconcerned and uninterested. In a like manner, when Raymond explains how he has beaten his Arab girlfriend for cheating on him, Mersault shows no interest. It is, therefore, absurd that he agrees to write a scathing letter to the girlfriend on Raymondís behalf. According to Raymond, the purpose of the letter is to cause another conflict so that he can punish and beat her again. When the fight takes place and Mersault watches Raymond beating the girlfriend, he refuses to call the police because he does not like policemen. It is, therefore, absurd that he agrees to go to the police station to testify on Raymondís behalf, starting that the girlfriend provoked the fight.
Mersault, who is usually a loner, foolishly allows himself to get involved with Raymond. He accepts an invitation to go with him to the beach house of Masson outside of Algiers. As they are boarding the bus for the beach, Raymond spies a group of Arab men and explains that one of them is the girlfriendís brother, who has been following him. Once they are on the beach, Mersault, Raymond, and Masson encounter two of the Arabs. A fight breaks out, and Mersault watches from a distance as Raymond and Masson beat the Arabs. Mersault then notices that one of the Arabs has a knife and tries to warn Raymond; but it is too late. Raymond has been stabbed in the arm and mouth.
When Raymond returns from the doctor in bandages, he wants revenge. He announces he is headed out to the beach. Mersault foolishly insists upon going with him. Before long they find the Arabs, resting near a stream behind some rocks. Raymond wants to shoot the brother of the girlfriend, but Mersault warns him he must not fire a shot unless he is provoked. In the end, Mersault persuades Raymond to give him the gun for safekeeping. He puts it in his pocket, and the Arabs disappear.
When they go back to the beach house, Raymond goes upstairs, but Mersault foolishly returns to the beach. Since it is early afternoon, the sun is glaringly bright and the heat is intense. Mersault, feeling hot and miserable, heads to the stream by the rocks in order to cool off. When he arrives at the stream, he spies the brother of the Arab girlfriend. When the Arab reaches in his pocket, Mersault puts his hand on the gun in his pocket as a safeguard. When the Arab flashes his knife in the sun, Mersault fires a shot that kills the man. After pausing for a moment, Mersault absurdly and for no reason fires four more shots into the dead body.
The actions of Mersault are clearly absurd - from his casual affair with Marie on the day after his motherís funeral, to his friendship with a violent pimp, to his needless murder of an Arab man whom he does not even know. The trial of Mersault, however, is even more absurd. During the pre-trial hearings, the magistrate badgers Mersault with questions about religion. When Mersault indicates that he does not believe in God, the magistrate waves a silver crucifix in his face and calls him the "antichrist." During the trial, the judge and the prosecuting attorney seem more interested in the fact that Mersault did not grieve at his motherís funeral and made love to Marie on the day after the funeral than the fact that he has killed a man. Several witnesses are called to prove his callousness nature. Since Mersault is totally honest and terribly naïve, he cannot slant the truth in his direction. He states that he did not cry over his motherís death because he has always expected old people to die. When he is questioned about why he fired four shots into a dead body, he can give no explanation, but admits that he has no remorse over killing an Arab who pulled a knife. Unfortunately, Mersaultís court appointed attorney is not very good and makes no attempt to free his client by saying he killed in self-defense. As a result, the jury is totally swayed against Mersault, this stranger who killed a stranger. They convict him of cold-blooded murder and sentence him to execution by guillotine. It is an absurd sentence for a man who truly does not view himself as a criminal.
After Mersault is sentenced, the absurdity continues. Mersault refuses on several occasions to see the chaplain. Eventually, the man bursts into his cell and tries to persuade Mersault to confess his guilt and beg for forgiveness. The truthful Mersault, of course, refuses. When the chaplain begins praying for him, Mersault screams and grabs him by the neck. Three jailers have to rescue the chaplain. After the chaplainís visit, Mersault has a new sense of peace and calm. He accepts his death sentence as part of the absurdity of life.
The Stranger emphasizes the pain of being strange and alienated. Mersault seems to have no place in the world. Although he states that he was "fond" of his mother, Mersault clearly did not love her, as proven by his lack of grief over her loss. Although he goes to work everyday, he is not ambitious and does not care if he gets ahead. When his boss offers him a promotion to Paris, he refuses because the sun does not shine enough there.
He becomes involved with Marie Cardona because it is convenient. Even though he does not love her, Mersault says he will marry her, because being married or single is not important to him. In a similar manner, Mersault becomes involved with Raymond, a violent pimp. Most people avoid Raymond, but Mersault is not bothered about his personality or his occupation. When Mersault kills the Arab, he has no remorse. Mersaultís indifference to life sets him apart and makes him a stranger. His disinterest in social interactions and his lack of emotional attachments create a great sense of loneliness and boredom in him. Since he does not believe in God or an afterlife, he is stripped of future hope. The only thing that matters to Mersault is his existence. Unfortunately, his existence was alienated and absurd.