When The Stranger appeared in English in 1946, readers could only look back with anger at nearly two decades of depression and war-and before that more war and more poverty and more repression, slavery, sweat shops, disease, madness, and early death. History seemed to be nothing less than a record of man’s immense foolishness, and since up until then knowing it seemed only to make matters worse, the lesson was clear: Ignore it. And as for the future, it was pretty clear to anyone that the less you bothered with it, the less you tempted fate. The less you tried to change things, it seemed, the better off you were. The idea was to take life a day at a time and live it without asking too much of it. The book’s antihero, Meursault, has freed himself of the obligation to care about others, to feel anything, to do more than sustain himself in a series of small pleasures. He has no large appetites, makes no large demands on others, asks nothing but to be left alone. Modernism has been defined as neither a continuation of the past nor a rebellion against it but rather an attitude of total indifference to it. This could be a description of Meursault’s personality. He lives totally in the present, blissfully unaware of the past and completely unconcerned about the future.
“Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the rest home: mother deceased. burial tomorrow. very truly yours. It doesn’t say anything. Maybe it was yesterday” (1). Not exactly the normal reaction of a son to the news of his mother’s death. What kind of person responds in this matter-of-fact way? Are we not at first put off by such casualness? Is not this Meursault a stranger to our normal feelings and expectations? We sense a distance. Not that he seeks to scandalize or offend. Far from it. He is rather quite unassuming, almost shy. He wants neither to offend nor to be hated. When asking his boss for two days off to attend his mother’s funeral, for example, he feels that he ought not to have said that to him. Or, when sensing the reproach of the director of the rest home, he begins to explain himself.
In short, we are disoriented, perhaps even slightly offended, by our encounter with a being who shows no sign of sharing normal human feelings. Nor does he attest to any normal aspirations. Slowly we are familiarized with his world, even led to see our own world through his eyes. Stripped of our normal “conceptual lenses,” we see that world increasingly as arbitrary, capricious, pretentious, even hypocritical. By the time of the trial we may even find ourselves tempted, if not actually inclined, to side with Meursault against the prosecutor and jurists who inhabit the world that was ours at the beginning of the novel. However short-lived that experiential voyage may prove to be, the stylistic accomplishment is remarkable.
The social order from which Meursault is so estranged is the world of ambition and the desire for advancement that his employer expects, as well as the decorum and grief to which all at the burial bear witness. It is also the expectation that one ought to cry at the funeral of one’s grandmother, about which Camus personally felt such conflict and hypocrisy. And it is certainly viewing love as a serious matter and treating marriage as an important social institution. Here we glimpse the deeper social meaning to which normal people cling with ferocious tenacity. The rituals and ceremonies, the institutions and practices, by which society daily reenacts the drama of its cosmic significance are grounded in a system of values and beliefs that give shape to a living that might otherwise hover precariously close to the abyss of nothingness. Not to speak of the offices, hierarchies, and prerogatives by which the power and self-esteem of the few may be protected from the desires of the many.
In any case, giving up ambition and, by implication, the belief system by which it is sustained, Meursault settles into a style of life in which inarticulate personal needs and satisfactions dictate spontaneous responses to the demands of nature and others. He goes along with the flow of habits and events. Such is the path of least resistance, except when his inclination moves him otherwise. And why act differently when “it’s all the same to him”? (32)
But then the beach, where “the trigger gave way [and Meursault] . . . understood that [he] had broken the harmony of the day, the marvelous silence of a beach where [he] had been happy. Then [he] pulled the trigger four more times on the motionless corpse where the bullets buried themselves effortlessly. And it was as if, with these four brief shots, [he] was knocking on the door of misfortune” (50). What could have been simpler or more natural? Heat, exhaustion, the beating of the sun, the shaft of light, the threatening confrontation- and the body tightens up to defend itself: The hand clenches the revolver, and the trigger gives way. With perhaps a touch of exasperation, even annoyance, at the intrusion of the threatening other into this already oppressive situation, the tension previously held coiled within his body bursts forth with those four fatal shots, as if it had been waiting for that moment of release.
All of which is, in one sense, no great deal. Oppressive conditions give rise to tension. The tension is released, and life goes on. Yet a person was killed. Surprisingly perhaps, the authorities initially show little interest in Meursault. As they become aware of his strangeness, their attitude changes. He does not “live by the rules.” He does not think like ordinary people. He does not pay his respects, but seems indifferent to everything that is usually taken seriously. Is not such an attitude offensive? Who is this person, to treat cavalierly what we hold so dear? How can he act this way? There must be something the matter with him. Otherwise there would have to be something the matter with us for taking so seriously that which is not worthy of such respect. If we can’t get him to see the error of his ways, thus acknowledging the Truth of ours, we must treat him as a traitor to the human community, and make him pay for his transgression.
Two points should be noted here. Meursault is portrayed as a brute, a person so cold and calculating as to smoke at his mother’s funeral, begin a liaison on the following day, and commit pre-meditated murder without the least feeling of remorse. Such a “moral monster” would of course be a threat to any order. But Meursault is still more threatening, for he does not even recognize, not to say acknowledge, the values and norms by which the fabric of society is woven together. If he would repent and admit guilt, he would at least implicitly legitimize the claim of those values. Even a murderer can be pardoned- far more easily, Camus suggests, than one who not only refuses to acknowledge social norms, but fails even to perceive their existence.
There can be little doubt that Camus personally felt the oppressive weight of social expectations and conventions, even to the extent of exhibiting traits of which he was not at all proud. The normal and expected, even the admired and rewarded, can often be quite violative of our self-respect and personal integrity. We can both play up to those expectations and at the same time be disgusted by so doing. The struggle to find acceptance, along with the distaste for such a need, can play havoc with a desire to be true to oneself. This tension plays like a basso continuo to the explicit themes of Camus’s life and work. Thus Meursault’s revolt is not only the metaphysical rejection of social hypocrisy, but also the personal purgation of the temptation to play by the rules – even to be the dandy – and the reaffirmation of the individual’s right, experienced by Camus almost as a characterological duty, to bear witness in one’s actions to the truth of one’s experience.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Vintage Books: New York, 1954.