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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
Meursault, a young Algerian pied-noir, hears news of his mother's death. He receives this information with mild annoyance. He must now ask his boss for two days leave in order to attend the funeral. It is the custom, in his culture, for the bereaved to sit all night in vigil by the coffin of the departed loved one. At the vigil and during the funeral the following day he shows no grief, sadness or even regret. He only feels the physical inconvenience of sitting through the vigil and the heat of the sun during the funeral procession to the cemetery. At the funeral he makes mental notes of the physical objects that strike his eye; shining screws in the walnut coffin, the colours on the dresses of the nurses and the large bellies of the elderly mourners.
The following day, back in Algiers, Meursault goes swimming in the sea and meets a girl, Marie, whom he knows vaguely. That evening they go to the cinema together to see a comedy; afterwards they go back to Meursault's appartment to have sex. A relationship, of sorts, develops during which Meursault shows no more feeling or affection towards Marie than he displayed at his mother's funeral. One day she asks Meursault to marry her and he accepts (advising her that it's all the same to him whether they marry or not).
He works in an office in Algiers, taking little interest in his career and receiving with disinterest the news of a prospective promotion and the transfer to Paris that accompanies the rise in position. He is more interested in the physical sensations to be found at work such as enjoying the cool freshness of the hand-towels at mid-day and comparing this feeling to the warm clamminess of the same towels by the end of the day.
At home, as well as his relationship with Marie, he develops a relationship with his unsavoury neighbour, Raymond Sintes, a gangster who beats women. Meursault is as disinterested in the friendship with Sintes and he is with his romance with Marie. One day, this friendship leads him to a beach where he kills an Arab with five shots of Sintes' revolver. The two men had come across the Arab and his friends earlier in the day and a fight had broken out, one of the Arabs had a knife. Later on Meursault is walking alone on the beach and comes across one of the Arabs. Through chance Meursault has Sintes' gun. The sun on his head and the flash on that sun on the blade of the Arab's knife somehow results in Meursault killing the man with a single shot and then firing four more bullets into the inert body. So ends the first part of the book.
The second half of The Stranger is concerned with Meursault's trial and subsequent execution for the murder of the Arab. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, until the day before his execution, Meursault maintains the same detached indifference we saw in the first half of the book. He exhibits the same preoccupation with his own physical sensations and the same reluctance to pretend to have emotions he does not feel.
Much to the chagrin of the lawyers, he will not plead self-defence in the face of his murder charge. In the Algeria of the time such a plea would probably see him escape punishment. Neither will he express emotion or remorse for his victim. He is warned by his lawyer that the prosecution will make use of his unusual behaviour at his mother's funeral but in the same way Meursault refuses to express histrionic remorse over the Arab he won't make a show of weeping over his mother during the trial. The only explanation for killing the Arab Meursault will, or can, offer is “because of the sun.”
During the trial Meursault shows the same disinterested attitude he has displayed throughout the book. His mind wanders; he drifts in and out of what the prosecution and his defence are saying. To him, although he is aware that he is the subject of conversation, it is like they are talking about someone else. He is more interested in the different colours of the fans used by the jury-members or the sunlight and noise coming through the court-room window.
From his arrest to his execution, Meursault spends the time he is not in court in prison. Once he has come to terms with his loss of freedom he learns to adapt to his environment. He develops his memory and spends his time mentally cataloguing the items of furniture in his former room. He realises that even if a person were to live only for one day, he would amass enough memories to last in a hundred years in prison without getting bored. He thinks that even if he were made to live out his life in the base of a hollow tree-trunk with only the view of the sky above him for entertainment he could find enough to interest him in the flight-patterns of the birds and the shapes of the clouds above him. He would wait for these patterns in the same way that in his former lifer he waited for Saturday to take Marie into his arms.
After these reflections Meursault is ready to confront the prison Chaplain who attempts to take his confession and read him his rites. He throws the cleric out of his cell, stung by his promises of ‘another life' after this one, and convinced that this life alone is certain and that the inevitability of death removes all significance. After the Chaplain is gone, Meursault, for the first time, is filled with the “tender indifference of the world.” He now realises that he has been happy in his life and would like to live it all over again. He hopes “in order that all may be fulfilled” that there will be many people attending his execution and that they all greet him with cries of hatred.