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Meursault As The Stranger Essay, Research Paper

Derek Goff

English 24104

Mr. Venza

14 April 2000

Meursault as “The Stranger”

The way a person reacts to ordinary situations determines the opinions of others based on their behavior. Yet, when this behavior is abnormal or different from the rest of society, it causes society to form an opinion based totally on a person’s behavior not their true personality. In Meursault’s case, his strange opinions and unexpected remarks put him in this position, without ever really giving him an opportunity to be truly understood. However, Meursault cannot change his actions and behaviors from the past, therefore making him responsible in the society he freely chooses to live in. Meursault’s complete indifference to society and human relationships causes him to appear as the actual “stranger” with those he encounters, which eventually leads to his incarceration and inevitable date with the guillotine.

Meursault is definitely a man who is set in his ways. He has his own opinions and outlooks on life and because of that fact he is constantly reminded of his inadequacies within society. His refusal to look at his mother one last time after she had passed away seemed pointless to Meursault at the time, where as the funeral director viewed this as extremely odd:

“We put the cover on, but I’m supposed to unscrew the casket so you can see her.” He was moving toward the casket when I stopped him. He said, “You don’t want to?” I answered, “No.” He was quiet, and then I was embarrassed because I felt I shouldn’t have said that. He looked at me and then asked, “Why not?” but without criticizing, as if he just wanted to know. I said, “I don’t know.” (Camus 6)

The difference of opinion between Meursault and all of society, but in this example the funeral director, brought about a feeling of inadequacy to Meursault and an appearance of him as a stranger to society. Alice J. Strange explains his situation perfectly by saying: Holding Meursault to his words, and recognizing the voids they reveal, the reader sees Meursault as the stranger…. (Strange 3) Throughout the novel, these encounters and/or relationships gradually set Meursault aside from society. His encounter with the Arab shows how the presence of other people in his life makes absolutely no impression on him. Taking the Arab’s life was something he did as a natural reaction, he pulled the trigger thinking it was justified where as any normal human being would think other wise. Once on trial, Meursault constantly observed the people in the courtroom as if he had no idea of how the rest of society lived. Every thing he saw was new to him and it brought him a feeling of excitement, as if he was enjoying being on trial. Fear only came after his verdict. He didn’t even consider his fate early on in the trial because he was in awe of the rest of society; their behaviors and actions were all new to him. In chapter three part two Meursault explained this by saying:

Usually people didn’t pay much attention to me. It took some doing on my part to understand that I was the cause of all the excitement. I said to the policeman, “Some crowd!” He told me it was because of the press and he pointed to a group of men at a table just below the jury box. He said, “That’s them.” (83-84)

The only thing Meursault is worried about is the press, not the fact that his fate is about to be determined by a group of people that don’t even know him. He doesn’t even care about death at this point, only how he is excited to see all these new people and be able to watch the court proceedings.

Before Meursault’s incarceration, he lived a life of desire based on his own satisfaction. His life was completely self-centered and focused on his own physical pleasures. Meursault’s obsession with his own desires can be explained by saying that:

His contempt for man-made necessities’, such as religion, morality, government, is supreme; but his attitude toward natural coercion, hunger, sex, the weather, etc., though less explicit, seems almost equally disdainful. Meursault is a non-participant (Carruth 8-9).

He took absolutely no consideration of other’s feelings and how his actions affected them. Meursault’s love of smoking, eating, drinking, having sex, swimming and being outside, all of which are physical pleasures, are taken to extremes. Take away these and try to imagine what Meursault would be like. He would be practically lifeless because he wouldn’t enjoy anything. He is never concerned with what is going on in other areas of his life or others. His satisfaction comes above everything else in his life and controls everything he does. Also, Meursault’s relationship with Marie was totally based on sex rather than love. He had sex with her purely out of lust and only to satisfy himself. At no point did he intentionally have sex with her to express his love for her; love was never part of his intentions. Another example of how he based his own satisfaction ahead of everything else was how Meursault went to see a comical movie the day after he buried his mother. He wasn’t worried about his mother at all; the only thing that he was concentrating on was having a good time. He was able to laugh and enjoy himself knowing that his own mother had just passed away, something that obviously made little impact on him. His physical pleasures dominated his life and forced him to behave the way he did. By letting these physical pleasures dominate his life, he created an attitude and behavior that was unaccepted and seen as wrong to the rest of society.

Even though Meursault let his physical pleasures control his life, he was however satisfied with the life he was living; completely content with where he was in his life. He never asked anything from anyone and never once expected anything from others. Stephen Bronner puts this into perspective by saying: “Meursault is passive, unreflective, and compulsive. He is a prototype of the ‘absurd man’ who seeks no questions and tells no lies.” (Bronner, The Thinker 44) Mr. Bronner explained that Meursault set himself apart from others through his passive nature and lived extremely independent. This attitude is proven even further when Meursault refused a promotion based on the fact that he was satisfied with the life he had then:

He was planning to open an office in Paris that would handle his business directly with the big companies, on the spot, and he wanted to know how I felt about going there. I’d be able to live in Paris and to travel around for part of the year as well. “You’re young, and it seems to me it’s the kind of life that would appeal to you.” I said yes but that really it was all the same to me. Then he asked me if I wasn’t interested in a change of life. I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all. He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that I was disastrous in business. (41)

The thought of ambition and success never even crossed his mind and turning down the opportunity made no difference to him. He could care less about what his boss and others thought because he was only concerned about himself. This would appear extremely strange to anyone because why in the world would anyone not want to earn more money, respect, power and even have the opportunity to live in Paris? Meursault’s problem was obviously that he had absolutely no ambition. This became blatantly obvious in chapter five when Meursault said: “When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it mattered.” (Camus 41) So, we can see that Meursault did at one time have some ambition for something other than physical pleasures, but once he lost the opportunity to continue his education, he also lost all of his drive. This showed that Meursault was an intelligent man and had the ability to expand his intelligence, but apparently chose not to. That definitely appeared as bizarre to others.

Meursault’s twisted relationship with Marie was totally based on his sexual desires, but what became extremely clear was that he was unable to experience love. Meursault never once showed any signs of emotion only until he was about to loose his own life. Meursault had a hardened soul and could never bring himself to truly love Marie. He proved just how irrelevant she was to him while he was incarcerated when the thought of Marie brought him to say: “ Anyway, after that, remembering Marie meant nothing to me. I wasn’t interested in her dead. That seemed perfectly normal to me, since I understood very well that people would forget me when I was dead” (115). His words were just as hardened as his soul was. Meursault’s relationship with Marie was not the only odd relationship he had with a female. Meursault’s relationship with his mother was almost non-existent from hindsight. He never saw her, or visited her, and until her death she was out of his life so he didn’t care much about her, or so it seems. The fact is he did love her; it was just that he never showed it, just like every other emotion. Meursault thought that putting Maman in the home was the best choice for the time being, so she could be cared for better, and still live a pleasant life. Yet, Meursault never realized that people considered him as a bad person until his conversation with Old Salamano. In chapter five Meursault said: “I still don’t know why, but I said that until then I hadn’t realized that people thought badly of me for doing it, but that the home had seemed like the natural thing since I didn’t have enough money to have Maman cared for.” (45) This realization shocked Meursault because he was never aware of the reputation he had in his neighborhood. He didn’t want to be seen as a bad person, but his strange actions and self-centered behaviors created his image and there was nothing he could do about it.

Throughout the novel, Meursault came into contact with society many times, but each time he always received an awkward response leaving him with the feeling like an intruder or an outsider. Meursault’s interactions with society such as the funeral director, Maman’s friends, Raymond, the Chaplain, and the courtroom all provide substantial reasoning for society’s perception of him as a stranger. Beginning with the funeral director, Meursault caused an awkward feeling between him and the director because of his bizarre comments. Not wanting to see his mother one last time, smoking during the memorial service, and not even knowing his own mother’s age proves to be outrageous when compared to the average human being’s social and moral standards. But the fact is Meursault is not the average human being. Helene Poplyansky beautifully explained this when she said:

Meursault is far from social convention or intellectual problems; what counts for him are his own sensations and desires. He is an outsider not only for others but also for himself. He looks at himself without trying to analyze his actions and their consequences. (Poplyansky 80)

By acting the way he did, Meursault almost forced his image as a stranger upon himself.

Also, the closest thing to a friend that Meursault had was Raymond. Initially, Raymond appeared as a crude man without any morals, comparable to Meursault at times, and he behaved in an absurd manner. Yet, he attempted to create a bond with Meursault and some could say that Meursault accepted it, I however do not. From the first time Raymond appeared in the novel Meursault seemed uneasy to Raymond’s motives, as if he didn’t trust him. This feeling never went away either. Even though the two did spend time together and Meursault did him a favor by writing him a letter, Meursault always seemed to never truly consider his friendship. Not only was Meursault unable to show any signs of emotion with women, he is unable to show any signs of emotion to his somewhat of a companion.

Meursault’s final interaction with the chaplain showed how Meursault was unable to connect with and understand other’s perspectives. Meursault did enjoy their meetings, but only because he had no other contact with the outside world; he only wanted to be entertained instead of sharing any sort of friendship. The difference between Meursault and the rest of society, courtesy of the chaplain, became blatantly clear when he and the chaplain discussed their views of after life and religion. Meursault never thought that the way in which he was living was wrong or even sinful and that is what set him apart from every other human being. His lack of awareness and ignorance for social values appeared in chapter five, when the chaplain said: “More could be asked of you. And it may be asked. And what’s that? You could be asked to see. See what?” (Camus 118) The chaplain was only asking Meursault to try and understand where he was coming from and what he believed in. Religion never played a role in Meursault’s life and he was too stubborn to try and be open-minded about it. His stubborn attitude and close-mindedness never permitted him to even understand where others were coming form, he didn’t have to accept it but he could have at least given others beliefs a chance. You could even say Meursault was blind in a sense that he never opened up so that he could get along with others. He always saw life in a totally different perspective than everyone else and could never be rationed with. The obvious difference between Meursault and others became clear when the chaplain explained to Meursault that the stones on the walls in his cell appeared as the face of God and salvation. Meursault responded by saying:

This perked me up a little. I said I had been looking at the stones in those walls for months. There wasn’t anything or anyone in the world I knew better. Maybe at one time, way back, I had searched for a face in them. But the face I was looking for was as bright as the sun and the flame of desire – and it belonged to Marie. I had searched for it in vain. Now it was all over. And in any case, I’d never seen anything emerge from any sweating stones.” (119)

The chaplain’s perspective of the stone walls in Meursault’s cell was totally different from what Meursault perceived them as, and within those lines it symbolized Meursault’s and society’s conflicting views. The cell represented society and the stones represented the people within Meursault’s life. He lived his entire life around those stones and had never seen any faces like the chaplain had. The only face he was looking for was Marie’s, or, in actuality, lust. He lived his life pursuing his desires and it eventually led him to the cell. But how Meursault didn’t see the faces represented him as a total stranger to society because society was the faces, symbolically speaking. Meursault’s own perception of his life and society is only half of the evidence that proved him to be the stranger. Society too had their perceptions of him and it also left us with the same conclusion, that Meursault was the stranger.

Meursault did live his life on his own and never depended on others for anything, but the fact remains that he left a lasting impression on those whom he encountered. During Meursault’s trial, the prosecutor basically reviewed all of society’s impressions of Meursault and how he was a self-absorbed bastard. He constantly accused Meursault of being inconsiderate and cold-hearted by bringing up instances in his life that had nothing to do with the actual shooting. Stephen Bronner also stated: “Meursault is innocent of the crimes for which he is actually sentenced and guilty of what is essentially ignored” (Bronner, Portrait 34) This proves how Meursault’s previous actions of indifference even caused the prosecutor to portray him as an evil person. The prosecutor molded an image of Meursault that appeared as if he was the devil incarnate, and he made it seem as if Meursault intentionally set out to cause pain and anguish, when really Meursault’s only crime was ignorance. It was as if he intentionally set out to cause others pain and anguish, when really Meursault’s only crime was that of ignorance. Yes he was inconsiderate, but the fact is that he didn’t know any better and no one is able to change that without the help from others. People perceived Meursault as though he didn’t care about their feelings, causing him to be labeled as a horrible person. Another contributing factor to society’s perception of Meursault was his quiet nature. Meursault did not speak unless he feels it was totally necessary, and even then he sometimes will still keep to himself. Other people expect reactions out of people in social interactions and when they don’t receive one, what are they supposed to assume? In this case, people saw his quiet nature as an insult and refuse to understand his true nature. Meursault’s removed himself from a lot of life’s complications and tried to live the most simple life possible. Unlike the rest of society, he didn’t bother with things that required effort, which seemed as if he didn’t like to express himself. However, a lot can be misunderstood from silence. Meursault’s silence appeared as ignorance, yet, Jean Paul Sartre stated: “A man’s virility lies more in what he keeps to himself than in what he says.”(Sartre 3) His silence didn’t represent insecurity or a lack of consideration. How are others to know what someone else is really thinking? Meursault’s appearance to society was judged from the wrong criteria. People overlooked what his true personality was and what his true intentions were, causing him to appear as an unwanted stranger.

Meursault’s character and interactions throughout the novel can only make a person wonder about his motives even though we, the reader, think we have a insight over the society that he lived in. All of Meursault’s problems and complications were all because of his appearance as a stranger, which he caused through his ignorance of social conventions. Yet, it makes me wonder why are strangers always seen as unwanted and why does a natural fear of them arise? The fact is that strangers are labeled and in some way disrupt a person’s environment. What a person can not understand makes them defensive, and when a person is defensive they scrutinize what they don’t understand, only to make themselves feel better. Meursault fits the bill for this because when something goes wrong, for example the shooting, someone needs to be blamed, and no better person than a stranger, Meursault, to take the fall. Also, since Meursault was so oblivious to others, I realized that the possibility of Meursault not having a father figure around could have been a cause of some of his problems. The absence of a father causes a child to grow up differently from most of society, which usually does grow up with a father, and it creates the question, is the father to blame? We assume not, but since Meursault is definitely an odd character it makes us wonder.

Meursault lived his life different from any other, never aware of others and completely focused on his personal satisfaction. Yet, after understanding his mentality and motivations that caused people to label him as a stranger, he can not be totally blamed for his actions. I am not saying that the way Meursault lived his life was justified nor were his actions because he did live a self-centered life. What I am saying is that his true crime was ignorance. Meursault was almost like a young child that was never taught right from wrong and how to be considerate of others. He never deliberately set out to cause harm or pain on anyone, he just didn’t know any better. Yet, Meursault was given a chance to realize how he lived his life was wrong only after his judgement. He understood that what he had done was wrong and that every action has a consequence, and his consequence was death. The only shame in the matter is that society is just as responsible as he is because they should have taken the responsibility of teaching him social values and even morals. Meursault deserved to be punished for his actions, but being put to death is never justified for being inconsiderate. Now, his fate would never leave him, but neither would his past. So, Meursault’s actions could not be erased from time and his appearance as the actual stranger to society that is something he can never change. Justified or unjustified, Meursault will always be the stranger.

Bronner, Stephen Eric Albert Camus: The Thinker, The Artist, The Man. Groiler

Publishing Co., Inc., 1996

—. Camus: Portrait of a Moralist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999

Camus, Albert The Stranger. New York: Random, 1988

Carruth, Hayden After the Stranger: Imaginary Dialogues with Camus. New York: The

Macmillian Company, 1965

Poplyansky, Helene. Camus’s L’Etranger: Fifty Years On. New York: St. Martin’s Press,

Inc., 1992

Sartre, Jean-Paul. An Explication of The Stranger Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962

Strange, Alice J. “Camus’ The Stranger.” The Explicator (1997): 36-37

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