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The Stranger Essay, Research Paper

The Stranger

In The Stranger, Albert Camus portrays Meursault, the book’s narrator and main character, as aloof, detached, and unemotional. He does not think much about events or their consequences, nor does he express much feeling in relationships or during emotional times. He displays an impassiveness throughout the book in his reactions to the people and events described in the book. After his mother’s death he sheds no tears; seems to show no emotions. He displays limited feelings for his girlfriend, Marie Cardona, and shows no remorse at all for killing an Arab. His reactions to life and to people distances him from his emotions, positive or negative, and from intimate relationships with others, thus he is called by the book’s title, “the stranger”. While this behavior can be seen as a negative trait, there is a young woman who seems to want to have a relationship with Meursault and a neighbor who wants friendship. He seems content to be indifferent, possibly protected from pain by his indifference. Meursault rarely shows any feeling when in situations which would, for most people, elicit strong emotions. Throughout the vigil, watching over his mother’s dead body, and at her funeral, he never cries. He is, further, depicted enjoying a cup of coffee with milk during the vigil, and having a smoke with a caretaker at the nursing home in which his mother died. The following day, after his mother’s funeral, he goes to the beach and meets a former colleague named Marie Cardona. They swim, go to a movie, and then spend the night together. Later in their relationship, Marie asks Meursault if he wants to marry her. He responds that it doesn’t matter to him, and if she wants to get married, he would agree. She then asks him if he loves her. To that question he responds that he probably doesn’t, and explains that marriage really isn’t such a serious thing and doesn’t require love. This reaction is fairly typical of Meursault as portrayed in the book. He appears to be casual and indifferent about life events. Nothing seems to be very significant to him. Later on in the book, after he kills an Arab, not once does he show any remorse or guilt for what he did. Did he really feel nothing? Camus seems to indicate that Meursault is almost oblivious and totally unruffled and untouched by events and people around him. He is unwilling to lie, during his trial, about killing the Arab. His reluctance to get involved in defending himself results in a verdict of death by guillotine. Had Meursault been engaged in his defense, explaining his actions, he might have been set free. Meursault’s unresponsive behavior, distant from any apparent emotions, is probably reinforced by the despair which he sees open and feeling individuals experience. He observes, for example, Raymond cheated on and hurt by a girlfriend, and sees his other neighbor, Salamano, very depressed when he loses a dear companion, his dog. Meursault’s responses are very different, he doesn’t get depressed at death nor does he get emotionally involved. He appears to be totally apathetic. Thus, he seems to feel no pain and is protected from life’s disappointments. Sometimes a person like Meursault can be appealing to others because he is so non-judgmental and uncritical, probably a result of indifference rather than sympathetic feelings. His limited involvement might attract some people because an end result of his distance is a sort of acceptance of others, thus he is not a threat to their egos. Raymond Sintes, a neighbor who is a pimp, seems to feel comfortable with Meursault. Sintes does not have to justify himself because Meursault doesn’t comment on how Sintes makes money or how he chooses to live his life. Even though Meursault shows no strong emotions or deep affection, Marie, his girlfriend, is still attracted and interested in him. She is aware of, possibly even fascinated by, his indifference.

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The Sun as a Symbol/Motif in Albert Camus’s The Stranger

Camus’ usage of the sun opposes its warmth and beauty in The Stranger. The sun is a symbol for feelings and emotions, which Monsieur Meursault cannot deal with. There is a sun motif present throughout the novel, which perniciously characterizes the usual fondness towards the sun. The sun is a distraction from Meursault’s everyday life and he cannot handle it. The sun first presents a problem to Meursault at his mother’s funeral procession. Even before the procession embarks, Meursault remarks of the sun, calling it “inhuman and oppressive.” Meursault has shown no emotion towards his mother’s death and he directs his bottled-up anxiety at the sun. To Meursault, the sun is an influence on all his senses, as he cannot hear what someone else says to him. He pours with sweat, symbolizing the flow of emotions. Meursault constantly thinks about the sun when one would expect him to be mourning his dead mother. He says, “I could feel the blood pounding in my temples,” which is strong imagery. At the beach with Raymond, the sun provokes Meursault to commit a crime. He says, “(the sun) shattered into little pieces on the sand and water.” While going to get a drink of water, the foreign Arab uses a knife to shine the sunlight in Meursault’s face. Meursault knew that all he had to do was turn around and walk away. His emotions (again not shown externally and reserved) took over. Camus states, “All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, instinctively, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes.” This strong imagery forces Meursault to fire and kill the Arab with a revolver. What makes it worse, he fires four more times to make sure the sun is dissipated for good. In prison, Meursault changes his views on both the sun, and on his view of life, which are similar. Meursault was first introduced to the harsh sun at his mother’s funeral. Then, the sun took him over and led him to murder another human being. But in jail, Meursault realizes that the sun (and life) is warm and friendly. He discovers that you assign meaning to your own life and that the sun does not need to cover his emotions anymore. In prison, Meursault adulates the sun. He says, “I moved closer to the window, and in the last light of day I gazed at my reflection one more time.” The sun symbolized his emotions and inner-self, and he knows this. He would not have admired his own reflection earlier in the novel. Although most creative thinkers have used the sun as a positive being, Camus’ existentialist approach sees the sun as a barrier to Meursault’s emotions. It is not until Meursault can comprehend this and grasp that there is “gentle indifference to the world,” that the sun motif is consummated.

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The Stranger defines Camus for most Americans. The novel is simple, with none of the diversions common in popular literature. The main character is not a hero, has no “true” love affair, and the pursuit of money and power never enters into the story. The Stranger is an honest atheist, willing to accept his life as it happens. Analysis of the novel should begin by recognizing the story’s basic structure. There are three deaths which mark the beginning, middle, and end of the story. First, Meursault’s mother dies. This death occurs before the narration starts, but marks the start of Meursault’s downfall. In the middle of the tale we have the death of an Arab. The defining events in The Stranger are set in motion by Meursault’s murder of the Arab. One day, walking toward a cool stream, Meursault is blocked by an Arab. It seems the Arab draws a knife, as Meursault sees a flash of light from the blade. Meursault then kills the Arab, believing this to be an act of self-defense. At the end of the novel, Meursault is executed. Meursault is an anti-hero, at best. His only redeeming quality is his honesty, no matter how absurd. Meursault does not believe in G-d, but he cannot lie. This inability to falsify empathy condemns him in the eyes of others. While Meursault is executed for killing an Arab, he is hated for not expressing deep emotion when his mother dies. Meursault has faith in nothing except that which he experiences and senses. He is not a philosopher, a theologist, or a thinker. Meursault exists as he is, not trying to be anything more than himself. Why do people recognize Meursault as a plausible character? After two World Wars and other sufferings, many people came to (or tried to) live life much as Meursault. They lost the will to do more than exist. there was no hope, no desire. The only goal for many people was survival. Even then, the survival seemed empty. We learn just how empty Meursault’s existence is through his relationships. He is not close to his mother; we learn he does not cry at her funeral. He does not seem close to his mistress, Marie Cardona. Of his lover, Meursault states, “To me she was only Marie.” There is no passion in Meursault’s words. Readers should note an Arab is killed. Arabs were traditionally the targets of racism in Algiers. In Algiers, the more French one was the more important the individual. This might explain why it was more upsetting to the court that Meursault was not respectful of their societal norms… killing an Arab was a minor offense. In L’?tranger, Albert Camus anticipates an active reader that will react to his text. He wants the reader to form a changing, dynamic opinion of Meursault. The reader can create a consciousness for Meursault from the facts that Meursault reports. By using vague and ambiguous language, Camus stimulates the reader to explore all possibilities of meaning. Camus also intends to shock the reader into rereading passages. Through discussion of narrative structure, the opening lines, the role of pity, resentment toward Meursault’s judges, and the relationship between murder and innocence, I will prove that Camus’ purpose is to bring the reader to introspect on their own relationship with society. Through narrative structure, Camus invites the reader to create and become the consciousness of Meursault. Utah Sate University Professor David Anderson notices that “Meursault takes the stance of simply reporting these impressions, without attempting to create a coherent story from them.” Indeed, in Part One, what Meursault reports are exclusively facts. Micheline Tisson-Braun comments that Meursault “registers facts, but not their meanings; … is purely instantaneous; he lacks the principle of unity and continuity that characterizes man” (49). Through generalization, the reader links the details of Meursault’s life. The reader thereby creates their own meaning for Meursault’s actions. Meursault, without a memory or an imagination, refuses to spend time connecting events and contemplating essences. The reader does this for Meursault. Thus, the reader creates a consciousness for Meursault that is uniquely the reader’s. It exactly represents Meursault’s effect on the reader. When the court forces Meursault to confront his past and use his memory and when in his jail cell when he has nothing to do but imagine, Meursault develops an independent consciousness. The reader is intentionally left to compare Meursault’s impression on themselves with the consciousness that Camus creates. Camus uses this other, reader-created Meursault as a bridge and a tool to put the reader in Meursault’s shoes. On trial, the reader compares the mental reaction of Camus’ Meursault with their consciousness for Meursault. Already the reader sympathizes with Meursault (ostensibly because we create his consciousness and it is inherently similar to the reader’s), but in the court, Camus has the reader to place themselves on trial. The reader introspects on whether they are guilty of indifference to society. Camus has the reader create a consciousness for Meursault so that Camus can inspire introspection in the reader. Camus anticipates the reader will re-read his startling opening. By the opening lines, he sets a tone and standard that the reader should continually reassess their attitude toward Meursault. Aujord’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-?tre hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai re?u un t?l?gramme de l’asile: Cela ne veut rien dire. C’?tait peut-?tre hier (L’Etranger 9). At first, Camus shocks the reader into believing that Meursault does not care about the death of his mother. Camus’ intention, however, is to compel the reader to create a dynamic approach to Meursault. The reader must have an open mind and constantly be willing to change their view of Meursault for Camus’ later surprises to have the desired effect. As the reader reconsiders their initial negative response to Meursault, they find his humanity. Camus shifts the reader’s reaction to Meursault from negative to neutral. This sets the stage for the reader to begin to identify or pity Meursault. Demosntrating his humanity, Meursault refers to his mother affectionately as “maman.” Camus also carefully words Meursault’s observations. “Maman est morte.” Camus is intentionally vague and ambiguous. Meursault states a fact the reader must interpret. On one hand, the sentence could be interpreted as “maman is dead.” A reader who has taken the opinion that Meursault’s indifference is the result of an incredible state of shock could take this interpretation. The reader could also read that “maman was dead.” This would show that Meursault is indifferent to the physicality of her death because he has already dealt with it mentally. By interpreting Camus in the Pass? Compos?, the reader acknowledges that maman’s death is a completed action. Camus asks the reader to decide if Meursault lives completely in the present and if he reports events exactly as he sees them. Meursault’s reporting builds a trust with the reader. By encouraging the reader to reread the opening, Camus hopes to have the reader change their opinion of Meursault. Camus implores the reader to wonder what Meursault is thinking, explore the possibilities of Meursault’s thoughts. The reader’s initial reaction that Meursault is heartless begins to fall apart as Meursault reports further. “Ou peut-?tre hier, je ne sais pas” (L’Etranger 9). Meursault factually does not know when his mother died. It is not that he does not care, as the reader might first interpret, but that he does not know. Camus intends this confusion so that the onus lies on the reader to determine whether Meursault is heartless, indifferent, or innocent. Meursault continues, “c’?tait peut-?tre hier” (L’Etranger 9). By not telling the reader or Meursault the exact date, Camus stresses the date’s importance, or lack thereof. Already Camus has the reader reassess societal assumptions. One of the first things we do when confronted with the news of a death is ask the exact time. The reader introspects on the importance of temporal markers. By inviting the reader to share in Meursault’s exploration of the present and disregard for the past, Camus accomplishes his goal. Through encouraging the reader to identify with Meursault, Camus also lures the reader into pity for Meursault. Ren? Girard comments that, “the undergraduates quickly learn, of course, that it is not smart to pity Meursault” (26). Girard not only misses Camus reader response oriented intention, but he even wants his students to forego the process that Camus desires. Through the reader first identifying with Meursault and then pitying him, Camus sets up an epiphany for the reader. By pitying Meursault, the reader also feels a varying degree of negative attitude toward Meursault. By implanting in the reader a sense of looking down at Meursault, Camus orchestrates the epiphany. The greater the reader pities Meursault, the greater the realization of the essence of l’absurde. The reader finally realizes that every person is partly Meursault and that the pity transfers back onto the reader. Camus, through Meursault, shows the reader to pity themselves and all other humans. The reader demonstrates to themselves, through their conclusions, the essence of l’absurde: the reader is like Meursault, naked in the face of impossible odds, living in a deplorable and pitiable state. The reader pities their own relationship with society. Anderson argues that, Pity is a social construction which violates the text’s notion that ‘one life [is] as good as another’ (Stranger 41). It divides the individual who pities from the one who is pitied by creating the illusion that either fate is any different. Meursault argues that ‘we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people …[who will] all be condemned one day’ (Stranger 121). So, the reader’s feelings toward Meursault actually manifests the reader’s attitude toward all people. Any negative reactions or emotions the reader feels for Meursault are indicative of their relationship to others. It is the reader’s relationship with other individuals that defines their relationship with society as a whole. Camus needs the reader to pity Meursault in Part One so that the realization that all people are in a universal circumstance in Part Two becomes even more great, even more revealing. Girard argues that the reader links pity for Meursault with resentment for his judges. “Sympathy for Meursault is inseparable from resentment against the judges. We cannot do away with that resentment without mutilating our global esthetic experience. This resentment is really generated by the text” (Girard 16). So, Camus uses the reader’s pity for Meursault. The reader identifies with Meursault and sympathizes, perhaps empathizes, with Meursault’s absurd situation. Only once Camus sets up the link between the reader and Meursault can he impart in the reader a resentment for the judges. The resentment operates through the consciousness that the reader creates for Meursault and because the reader identifies with him. Camus provokes the reader to resent the judges of Meursault by having the reader feel that they are also judges of the reader. The reader begins to resent not only Meursault’s judges, but all those who judge others for their past actions. Camus induces the reader to question their view of society. Girard argues that Camus “set out to prove that the judges are always wrong” (18). Camus’ intention, however, is more complex than Girard would have us believe. Camus intends for the reader to come to an independent conclusion that Meursault’s judges are wrong and unjust. From there, the reader can apply the same theme to their own lives. Ultimately, Camus does question all judges. But by traveling first through the reader, Camus compels the reader to make the determination that all judges are inherently unfair. So, by anticipating reader response, Camus makes his point more strongly. He does not blatantly tell the reader that those who judge are criminals in their own right, rather he lets the reader make that decision based on prompting from Meursault. By setting up the court as a manifestation and metaphor for society, Camus opens the door for the reader to explore the concept even further. Through a reader response analysis, we uncover that Camus actually points the finger at all judges in society, that is, all people who judge the thoughts and actions of others. Through the Arab’s murder, Camus has the reader reassess the definition of innocence and murder. They are not opposing terms and do not even have opposing connotations. Camus intends, however, to use the neutrality of innocence to affect our view of murder. “The contradiction between the first and the second Meursault, between the peaceful solipsist and the martyr of society; it is that contradiction in a nutshell, as revealed by the two conflicting words ‘innocent’ and ‘murder’” (Girard 17). Meursault fires an involuntary shot followed by four voluntary ones. Through the dynamic murder, Camus creates the perfect scenario that forces the reader to deconstruct these two terms. In the reader’s mind, Camus starts a process where innocence subverts murder. The reader questions who is innocent in relation to their society and who is the murderer. This reflects back to and depends upon the reader’s attitude toward both Meursault’s judges and all who judge. Furthermore, the reader questions the dynamic morality of murder. The reader constructs a new meaning for innocence and murder that applies to Meursault and how he affects the reader. By the court connecting Meursault’s indifferent past to his crime, the reader explores exactly how they are related and applies new significance to their definition. Purposely stark, Camus lets the reader make their own decision about the relationship of Meursault’s crime to his sentence. Girard states that “from a purely textual standpoint, Meursault’s condemnation is almost unrelated to his crime” (13). Camus intentionally disassociates the two and allows the reader to make the connection. It is natural to consider the attitude of the judges both unfair and inevitable. … Thus, the gap between this portentous action and an afternoon cup of caf? au lait is gradually narrowed, and we are gently led to the incredible conclusion that the hero is sentenced to death not for the crime of which he is accused and that he has really committed, but for his innocence, which this crime has not tarnished (Girard, 18). It is the reader inserting their interpretation that connects the verdict with the crime. Camus leads the reader to believe that the court kills Meursault for his indifference, and in doing so, the reader deconstructs innocence, again. Through reader response criticism we find that Camus’ message is that no one living in a society is truly innocent. We are all creators and contributors to l’absurde. The reader begins to prosecute Meursault for opposing society. Camus, then, wants the reader to introspect on their relationship with society. The reader asks: in what way am I a Meursault? Am I guilty of feeling indifferent to other people? Even my parents? The reader prosecutes themselves. Camus leads the reader to make a connection that is entirely their own between Meursault’s actions and his sentence. Camus has the reader put Meursault on trial to determine his innocence. Camus communicates his message through the reader’s identification with Meursault. Albert Camus anticipates an active reader and forces them to introspect. Although Camus relies heavily on the reader to stop and contemplate, reread, and identify with an indifferent man, Camus successfully provokes the reader to experience the trial in the place of Meursault. Perhaps Camus wrote all of Part One to set up the reader in a situation where they must reassess their relationship with society. Whatever the reader’s emotional response, Camus places the reader in position to experience the trial, l’absurde. Through anticipation of a responsive reader, Camus communicates the essence of l’absurde. Raymond typifies the beast-character in Camus’ L’Etranger. He is like Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire (T. Williams), emotional and manly. Physical solutions come naturally to him, as we see when he mistreats his ex-girlfriend. Ideally, society is exactly the opposite; law and order attempt to solve things fairly and justly. I posit that Meursault is somewhere between these two extremes and that this is the reason why he is a societal outcast. This metaphor explains his major actions in the book: as he struggles to keep his identity, his personality comes in conflict with the norms of society and he is shut down. Just as an animal sticks to instincts, Meursault has a hard time feeling emotions such as remorse or compassion. Even the first page shows us this. Just as an animal leaves its family when it is old enough, never to return, when Meursault hears of his mother’s death he is unattached, even uncaring. He had similar feelings when he sent her to live in the old people’s home. Meursault has quite a passion for women; he starts dating Marie the very day after he finds out of the death. But like most animals, marriage is basically nonexistent for him; though he acknowledges it, it holds little meaning. When he is isolated in jail, he dreams of women; not Marie, whom he has been seeing for some time, but women in general. Like an animal he feels the urge to mate without any desire for monogamy. An animal has to focus on the present in order to survive, and as far as we know doesn’t spend much time cogitating about its past. Meursault always lives in the present, hence his lack of remorse. This beast-like quality is one that gets him into trouble in the courtroom, for people misconstrue his nature to be that of a cold-blooded, calculating murderer. Although beast-like, Meursault has some human characteristics, and these are so defined as to be amazing. One is his amazing capacity for telling the truth. He is in fact absurdly honest when in the court room he says, “the witness is right. It’s true, I did offer him a cigarette” (90). Although such a response might normally be contrived to impress and elicit sympathy from the jury, Meursault is not that kind of person. No normal human would go beyond the truth in this way to offer evidence that would hurt his position, especially when death is on the line. Another human characteristic is his ability to rationally assess a situation. We see this in every aspect of his life, from details of the people and weather at the funeral to his nonchalant narrative of the court proceedings. Only twice does his beast feel threatened enough to take over. “Bang!” The gunshots echo hollowly in the pit of the stomach. Something about mankind’s inherent morality should forbid him from committing any such act, but something about Meursault’s character permits him the foul luxury. Throughout this scene the sun and light play crucial roles, and in the end they confuse him enough so as to be the catalyst for his awful decision. Here Camus shoves the role of the beast into our face. The sun and light are used to represent nature, which is wild and wholly unpredictable. Nature calls to his beast, and it is Meursault’s “natural” or animalistic side that finally pulls the trigger. The shining knife, the other catalyst, besides being a fighting weapon, would be a fine thing to hunt with. When Meursault recognizes that his animal is in danger of being slaughtered he has no choice but to fight back. But even as he impulsively, needlessly fills the body with bullets, the unhappiness his human side feels is apparent as it once again gains control over him. As Meursault approaches the end of his life, he is solicited by people who want to bring him to the glory of the lord. Here Meursault’s animal side takes control; animals don’t spend any time worshipping a god or dreaming of an afterlife; their attentions have to be focused on living. Thus Meursault is not able, because of his very nature, to believe in a hereafter. His human side gives in to his animal side at the end when the chaplain tries forcibly to make Meursault see the light. His animal feels the threat of being tamed, or converted to the ways of human society, and so he explodes to save himself. Only twice in the novel does Meursault experience extreme pressure, once from nature and once from society, and at these points he gives himself over to his beast. This proves devastating from a certain point of view: the first time he compromises his chances of living, and the second time he compromises his chance of an afterlife. This self-preservation instinct is the only thing that keeps him in touch with his bestial side, and in spite of these consequences he triumphs over life in that he remains unique, he does not conform.


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