Albert Camus’s The Stranger: Meaning of Meaninglessness
By: Ramlal Agarwal
The German occupation of France and World War II dissolved old certitudes and unshakable assumptions from the former ages. Some of the most sensitive and creative intellectuals and writers of the age found themselves in a void. They were besieged by a sense of the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence. Albert Camus was one of them. He subjected his feelings to the rigors of philosophic inquiry and artistic treatment, combining the roles of a philosopher and a poet. Philosophically, he dealt with it in his seminal and heart-searching book, The Myth of Sisyphus, and artistically, he explored it in his various novels and plays, of which The Stranger and Caligula are the most prominent.
In The Stranger, he deals with a man who, like himself, is besieged by a feeling of absurdity. It affects his relationships with people. Except for practical needs, he is totally withdrawn and behaves, unlike normal people. It is for this reason that readers remember the very first paragraph of this novel.
Meursault receives the news of his mother’s death rather coolly. The telegram does not mention when she died. Hence, he takes two days’ leave and leaves for the old people’s home where he had kept her. The caretaker takes him to the mortuary and asks him whether he wants to see the face of his mother. Meursault declines. At the vigil, he is more aware of the light from the bulb and the flies. Unmindful of propriety, he drinks coffee and smokes a cigarette. He shows complete indifference to the rites of the burial and again declines to see the face of his mother one last time before she is interred. The following day, he sleeps with his girlfriend Marie. In their subsequent meetings, Marie asks him whether he loves her, and he replies that he does not think he does. When Marie asks him whether he would marry her, he says that it does not matter, but he would marry her if she wanted to.
One day, while returning from his office, he meets his next-door neighbour, Raymond Sintes. Local people say that Sintes lives off women, and most people don’t like him much. Raynold tells him that he has some wine and black pudding and asks if he wants to have them with him. Meursault accepts because it would save him from cooking his own meal. In the room, which is not well kept, Sintes takes out a bandage from his pocket and wraps it around his right hand. Meursault asks him what he has done. Sintes replies that he has had a fight with a block, the brother of his mistress, whom he had thrashed for cheating on him earlier. Another character from the same building is Salamano, who is always seen with his mangy dog and is always cursing him. One day, the dog is missing, and Salamano grieves over his lost dog and starts looking for it everywhere. Later on, Raynolds phones Meursault and tells him that his friend Masson has invited him to spend the day at his chalet just outside Algiers. When Meursault says that he has promised to spend the day with Marie, Raynolds says that she too has been invited as she would please Masson’s wife.
Masson and his wife welcome the trio very warmly, and all of them spend their time in a very pleasant and happy atmosphere. It makes Meursault happy, and he thinks that he should marry Marie.
After lunch, the men go for a walk on the beach, and the women stay behind. Raynold notices two Arabs approaching them. One of them was the brother of my mistress. Raymond and Masson decide to take them on. Though they knocked them down, the brother of his mistress had a knife, and he made a cut on Raymond’s arm and face, and they disappeared. Raynold is taken to the hospital, where they are relieved because the wound is not deep, and Raynold is discharged after bandaging. Raynold again insists on going to the beach alone, but his friends follow him. They reached the spring where the Arabs were resting. Raynold and Masson again decide to take them on, and Raynold hands his gun to Meursault if the situation gets worse. However, the Arabs ran away without a fight. The party decides to return. Raynold and Masson climb up the wooden stairs, but Meursault feels too weak to climb and returns to the beach, where he is confronted by the Arab brandishing his knife. Too tired and harried by the sun, the glare reflected by the blade Meursault takes out his gun and shoots the Arab, who falls to the ground. He again fired four more shots into the body, and the moments of happiness Meursault had felt earlier dissolved into the sea of unhappiness.
His trial begins in a cordial and friendly manner. The judge seemed ready to let him go but hardened his stance when he asked if he believed in God, and Meursault said “no. The prosecutor insists on dubbing him a monster and unfit to live in society. The bone of contention is Meursault’s conduct at his mother’s funeral. He is asked whether he loved his mother, why he left her at a home, and whether he smoked cigarettes and drank coffee by the side of his dead mother.
Meursault tells the court that his physical needs often distorted his feelings, and on the day of his mother’s funeral he was very tired and sleepy. The trial drags on, and he feels his fate is being decided without his participation. At long last, Meursault is condemned to be decapitated in a public square in the name of the French people.
The chaplain visits him in his cell to console him and goad him to turn to God. He asks him whether he has ever wished for another life. Meursault says “yes, one that would remind him of this life”. He says that other people’s deaths or the mother’s deaths hardly mattered when one and the same destiny was to select him.
Meursault’s state of mind is not different from what Eliot expresses in his poem- Ash -Wednesday.
“I do not hope to turn.
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope.”
Meursault’s last wish is that there should be a large crowd of spectators at his execution, and they should greet him with cries of hatred.
The Stranger touches our hearts because it depicts a hero who, though his behaviour is seemingly odd and whimsical, is honest and true to himself and is not afraid of what others think. He firmly refuses to put on a show or go by tradition, and he accepts himself as he is.