The Stranger is a relatively short piece of fiction, but within its pages, Camus includes an overflow of philosophical material. This French classic depicts the furtive Algerian Monsignor Meursault, who shortly after dealing with the death of his Maman, befriends a neighbor, Raymond Sintes, and finds himself in prison for murder. In this intriguing masterpiece, Camus breaks down a combination of bad decisions, character traits, and manipulations by others, which lead to life-altering consequences.
Msgr. Meuersault ‘s mother has passed away at her home for the elderly. Forced to attend her funeral, it is apparent his emotions are not what he thinks they should be. He is asked if he wants to see her body and how old she was. He does not want to see her and he does not know how old she was. When her new friends come to the funeral, he is annoyed that they are crying. He is conscious he should be as sad as they are, but instead of sharing in their grief, he is only concerned with the noise they make and the fact they didn’t really know her. Meuersalt observes conventional social practices, but is more conscious of the physical loss than he is emotionally hurt. As far as he is concerned, everything feels the same as it did before.
After the funeral, Meuersault returns to the city to continue his regular routine. It is obvious that he is somewhat of an outsider. He is a regular at Celeste’s restaurant, where he doesn’t want to go because he isn’t in the mood to hear any talk about his Maman or his having sent her to a home instead of looking after her. Meuersault observes the goings on of the city, people, events, time, weather, but isn’t a part of any of it himself. He speculates about what “they” must have done or how “they” must feel without ever interacting with others. He is a stranger. The only person he does have a relationship is his fiancée, Marie. He enjoys his outings to the beach with her, feeling her touch and the physicality of their relations. But does he love her? Of this, he is uncertain.
With the confusion surrounding his mother’s death, the peculiar Meuersault takes refuge in a convenient new friendship with his “warehouse guard,” neighbor Raymond. Almost immediately after asking Meuersault to ‘be friends, ’ Raymond wants him to write a letter to a girl he says has cheated on him. A man with keen powers of observation, Meuersault has been drinking, and fails ask his only friend for an explanation before involving himself. Before he knows it Meuersault has witnessed Raymond beating the girl and agrees to testify to police in Raymond’s defense. Raymond takes Marie and Meuersault to the beach, where a murder occurs. Without thinking who the stranger Raymond is, Meuersault has killed a man with Raymond’s gun.
At the trial, it becomes clear that Meuersault has no remorse for murdering a man. When questioned by his lawyer about why he shot the man several times after he was already dead, he doesn’t know. ‘I would have liked to have tried cordially explaining to him, almost affectionately, that I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything.’ In fact, this was a man who had no feeling at all. He felt no love for his mother or his fiancée. He may have been a clinical psychopath, which explains his lack of understanding of other people’s emotions at his mother’s funeral.
The prosecution’s delivery of the case against Meuersault presents the reader with a stunning realization that despite his oddities, the protagonist has character traits that many people possess. This leads to his demise. His insensitivity and ignorance are used as ploys against him.” I can be insensitive and ignorant,” thinks the reader. As the prosecution moves on, Meuersault’s crime becomes one of manipulation and stupidity. He made bad decisions because he trusted a person he thought he needed to be his friend at the time. “I make stupid decisions and trust people I shouldn’t,” the reader thinks. Could I be put on trial for murder too?
As a reader, Camus has draws you in. Now, Meuersault utilizes his first-hand knowledge as a prisoner to give an account of the personal freedoms he has lost. It is not about living in a cell, it’s about the senses which are taken away. The caress, smell, prickles that run through the body when you feel another human’s touch-gone. The true peacefulness that comes from walking outside on a fall afternoon when the sun is out-the leaves are crisp and you take in a huge breathe of fresh air. Those are things you can’t get back.
In this, Part Two of the novel, Camus asserts his force as an intellectual. After the guilty verdict has been read the real punishment begins. Many people consider first world society advanced. But in alluding to the guillotine’s quick and humane manner of murder, Camus implies that today’s methods are anything but fast and painless. In imprisoning a murderer, the person is left to wonder every second of every day what will happen to them. ‘So the thing that bothered me most was that the condemned man had to hope the machine would work the first time.’ But this is not all. They must also consider the date of appeal, again and again. Why the cruelty of providing hope, only to dismiss it once more? Meuersault decides, there is no reason to concern himself with hope. It doesn’t matter if he lives one day or twenty years. It is all the same.
But who are the people who decide who lives and who dies? Some say those who commit murder deserve to die. It seems as though killing murderers is only perpetuating that cycle. Of course things might be different if a person knew the victim. I don’t have the answers. In his time in prison, Meuersault reflected that, ‘I’d realized that the most important thing was to give a condemned man a chance. Even one in a thousand was good enough to set things right.’ I wondered, should people be given another chance? I don’t want murderers being released, especially psychopaths. Then again, if it were you, wouldn’t you want the chance? I know I would.
Even if you are willing to admit defeat, which is admirable, because sometimes there are no appeals-if you look hard enough there is beauty in everything. Meuersault thinks about his Maman again. He finally knows why the old people were crying about her at her funeral. In the end, she decided to give in to the hopelessness and start over. He would do the same. ‘And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope, for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.’
I know there will be disagreement with this one. Comments??Anyone??
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
For more information: Existentialism