The Stranger is a book of many facets and meanings most of which are not immediately apparent. In fact without in depth analysis the entire point of the book is easily missed. The manner of story telling in The Stranger is unique and at first hard to come to grips with. It is not the story which is especially complex but the manner in which it is told. It is done by a narrator. In his telling of his tale he neglects to mention several important aspects of his internal state, (which after a great deal of speculation seems to be what the book is really about).
One soon learns that it is exactly that which is most important for complete understanding of the book, which is so carefully omitted. But, these features are not completely forgotten about, they are implied and inferred creating the need for careful analysis. For example, Camus himself, on the back cover of the book says the book is an exploration of “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd”; at first glance this book seems to have an almost unhealthy lack of the absurd and Camus statement seems meaningless. That is until the book as a whole is explored and one realizes that the lack of such is exactly what is absurd.
This simple leap of thought, if the conclusion is correct is precisely the key to understanding The Stranger. It forces one to read between and even through the lines in a search for understanding, one comes to see that that which remains unwritten is the most important thing to read in this particular novel. The story begins with the death of the central character, Mersaults, mother. That is in fact the first line of the book, the statement of this fact. It is the deadpan and uncaring manner of this statement that alerts the reader to the fact that this will be a different kind of book.
The narrator never says that he is not overly distraught over his mothers death, but it is implied through the language he uses when talking of this event. “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I dont know… Maybe it was yesterday”. One can almost feel the nonchalant manner in the way it is written, yet it is not immediately obvious. That is what I mean by reading in between and through the lines. Maman had been living at an old peoples home in Marengo for the last few years of her life and Mersault must catch a bus there to go to her funeral. He catches the bus for the eighty kilometer ride at two oclock in the afternoon.
While on the bus he falls asleep for most of the ride. This slumber is another indication of the empty emotionless state the character constantly finds himself in. Once at the home he meets the director immediately prior to sitting his deathwatch. While talking to the director Mersault feels he is criticizing him for not taking proper care of his mother. His immediate response is to defend himself, the fact that he has enough of his faculties together to even be worried about such things is another disturbing indicator of his lack of grief and general lack of caring for his mothers death.
The director then asks Mersault if hed like to see his mother, his only response is to get up and follow the director to where her coffin is. It is made clear in the book that there is no verbal response; this is important because throughout the book Mersault almost never lies to another human being. The lack of an answer actually means no. Mersault does not want to see his mother. He is only present for forms sake. Mersault, when he comes to his mothers coffin, chooses to have the lid left on. This surprises the caretaker and becomes very important later on in the book.
It is also another indicator of Mersaults persistent lack of “normal” human emotion. Most people when faced with such a significant event as the death of a loved one would have to confirm the event with their own eyes, the better to deal with it emotionally. Mersault and the caretaker then proceed to have a fairly amiable conversation, smoke some cigarettes and drink some coffee. Mamans friends in the home then arrive and most of them are very distraught, crying, howling and being very demonstrative of their grief.
The contrast between their reactions and Mersaults further highlights his lack of emotion, these people knew his mother for only a few short years, while he had known her all his life. After the deathwatch Mersault cleans up a little bit in preparation for the funeral. He also shows a tiny bit of emotion: “… I could feel how much Id enjoy going for a walk if it hadnt been for Maman. ” This is almost the only time that he indicates that he might actually feel some grief at his mothers passing. At the funeral Mersault doesnt cry or shows signs of great emotion, and the funeral proceedings quickly become a blur to him.
He is asked if his mother was very old and he replies that yes she was while secretly knowing that he didnt know her exact age. More lack of feeling and a new facet of his personality is noted, an almost total lack of interest in anyone but himself. After the funeral, Mersault has a Saturday to himself and decides to go for a swim. While swimming he meets a young woman who recently worked in his office, Marie. They start flirting, talking and all of those things that two young people who are attracted to each other like to engage in. He tells her of his mothers death and she asks how long ago.
His reply being yesterday takes her by surprise and she gives a little start. I believe her surprise is at his attitude, for he seems to be happy. They go the movies that evening and she goes back to his place that night. Mersault describes the entire course of events very clinically and with very little feeling. He doesnt seem to be concerned one way or the other that he has got together with this girl. Hed be just as happy if he hadnt met her that day. Mersault spends the next day watching the world outside his window go by. He never seems to get bored or feel like doing something else.
He seems almost totally entertained by a total lack of entertainment. The next day he goes to work. He works in an office whose purpose is never fully explained. It seems to be some sort of freight business. The lack of explanation shows a disinterest in his work, the same he shows toward life in general. He does mention getting a great deal of enjoyment from washing his hands before going out to lunch, which of course seems strange at first, but it highlights his uncaring almost lazy attitude towards life, he chooses to get enjoyment out of such a simple act because it takes no effort and costs no money.
This lack of ambition is, again, demonstrated quite succinctly later on in the novel. Mersaults boss says that he might be transferred to Paris where he will be paid more and have a position higher in the company. Anyone with a spark of ambition would be overjoyed at the prospect while Mersault shows barely a flicker of recognition. On his way home from the office Mersault runs into his neighbor, Salamano. Salamano has a dog, a spaniel, who is afflicted with severe mange. The man is extremely mean to the dog, beating it and swearing at it and generally being needlessly cruel.
Mersault doesnt feel any pity towards the animals situation and takes it as being the way things are. Mersault then runs into his another neighbor Raymond. Raymond is a nasty piece of work. He beats his girlfriend, starts fights on the streets and generally is a pretty scummy individual. It is implied that he might be a gangster through the description of his “… nose like a boxers” and sharp manner of dress. Raymond invites Mersault into his place and they begin to talk. Throughout the conversation one becomes appalled at the type of person that Raymond is.
His mannerisms, his behavior, everything. But over the course of the evening they become good “pals”, using Raymonds terminology. It is clear that Mersault doesnt really like Raymond but he also has no reason to dislike him and so decides that yes, they are friends. Raymond had concocted a way to get back at his last girlfriend for cheating on him which involved writing a letter to get her back. She would come back to his place, they would make up and then, as a surprise, he would beat her. Not being good with words Raymond has Mersault write the letter.
Mersault has no qualms about doing, in fact he does it gladly. Mersault continues to see Marie and life is going pretty well. Raymonds plan worked, so well in fact that screams of the woman draw the tennants attention and the police are called. Mersault feels no guilt toward the part he played in having a woman severely beaten. Mersault and Raymond go for a night out to drink some booze and shoot some pool, as if nothing happened. Further evidence of Mersaults persistent nihilism and total lack of empathy for his fellow man. On the way home the two men run into Salamano who has lost his dog.
He is sobbing and crying and really quite shaken. This seems odd to Mersault because he knew how much the old man hated his dog. The old mans crying makes Mersault think of Maman but he doesnt know why. Again he is so out of touch with anything emotional that he doesnt realize he is feeling a touch of grief. The next day Raymond invites Mersault to his friend’s beach house that weekend, and he accepts. Marie goes to his house later that day and asks if Marie would like to marry him, and his reply is that it would be OK, for it didnt really matter to him one way or the other.
When she asks him if he loves her, she receives a similar answer. This total lack of caring for even such a monumental and life changing thing as marriage is almost sickening. He really couldnt care less. What he is doing, who he affects or how he is perceived. That Sunday Mersault, Raymond and Marie make their way to Raymonds friends beach house. On their way out of the building they see a group of Arabs whom Raymond identifies as family of the girlfriend who he beat so severely. The day at the beach house is pleasant enough and everyone is enjoying themselves, swimming, eating and talking.
That is until Raymond, his friend Masson and Mersault take a walk down the beach. They encounter the group of Arabs mentioned earlier and a brawl ensues. Raymond gets cut quite badly but manages to land a few blows. The matter remains unresolved and the two opposing forces separate. Later on, Raymond and Mersault take another walk on the beach and once again meet the Arabs, this time there are only the two of them. Raymond draws a gun before anything is said, Mersault takes it off of him saying that it wouldnt be right to shoot a man, especially without saying something first.
The two parties separate with out anything really happening and the two men walk back up to the beach house. Raymond returns to the bungalow while Mersault decides to walk some more. He encounters one of the Arabs. They contemplate each other for a while and Mersault draws the gun and shoots him several times. Before shooting Mersault talks of the sun beating down on him, “The sun was the same as it had been the day Id buried Maman… my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin.
It was this burning, which I knew I couldnt stand anymore, that made me move forward. ” He shoots the Arab because the sun was too hot, or so he says. The fact that he compares the sun that day to how it was at his mothers funeral is very important, because he is so unused to and unschooled in emotions that he confuses them with the sun. What happened is that Mersaults lack of emotion finally catches up with him. Its as if all the passion, emotion and feeling that he has kept bottled up and ignored for so long finally bubbles to the surface and manifest themselves in the murder of another human being.
It is at this point of significance that the first half of the book ends and part two begins. This significance of the event is twofold: firstly Mersault has finally made a significant choice about the course of the rest of his life, and he has done something so completely absurd as to be insane. Camus statement on the back cover about absurdity finally starts to make real concrete sense. Of course, this isnt Mersaults first absurd act, his attitude towards marriage and other people is also ridiculous, but not with the appalling force that his murder is.
Up to this point the rest of Camus statement, specifically his reference towards nakedness, does not manifest itself completely, that comes later during Mersaults soul searching while waiting for his execution in prison. During Mersaults trial, the legal system seems to be designed against him. The prosecution does an extremely good job of character assassination.
They cite his odd, numb behavior at his mothers funeral, his involvement with Raymond and his girlfriend, the fact that he was seeing Marie only a day after his mothers funeral, and other of his actions that make him in their eyes, a dangerous sociopath. .. I have had occasion to call for the death penalty, never as strongly as today have I felt this painful duty made easier, lighter, clearer by the certain knowledge of a sacred imperative and by the horror I feel when I look into a mans face and all I see is a monster,” a part of the prosecutions final statement. Poor Mersault didnt stand a chance. Mersaults nakedness in the face of the absurd, truly begins to make itself known as early on as immediately after his detention and questioning. He never lies and never tries to cover things up, being quite matter of fact about what he did and exactly how he did it.
This can be interpreted in several ways: shock, a simple over trusting mind or a belief in ones own invincibility and right to freedom. I believe it is a mixture of the first and last of the options that I have laid out. Mostly because The Stranger has been called the first existentialist novel and the philosophy of existentialism is a great champion of the freedom of the individual. This ideal, coupled with an over-powering numbness due to recent events, which Mersault himself probably doesnt acknowledge, makes him very honest with the police, naked if you will.
The prison chaplain comes to visit Mersault several times during the course of his stay in prison, trying to make him repent and ask for forgiveness for his sins. Mersault, being a good existentialist, whether conscious of the fact or not, spurns the chaplain and all he stands for very much surprising and aggravating the man of the cloth. At the last visit of the chaplain, Mersault actually demonstrates some coherent and appropriate emotion at his impending execution. He grabs the chaplain and shouts and rants in his face of his joys and fears, but still refuses to accept God.
While in prison one learns of Mersaults father and their relationship, or lack thereof. He never knew his father, except through a story his Maman used to tell him. It is of his father going to an execution and throwing up for half of the morning. The story makes him contemplate executions, but not his own, at least not consciously, not till later that is. Everytime he thinks of executions “the next minute I would get so cold that I would curl up into a ball under my blanket and my teeth would be chattering and I couldnt make them stop”.
Further evidence of Mersaults “nakedness”, he still refuses to acknowledge his emotions but they are beginning to manifest themselves in an increasingly physical manner. If there is a message at all in this book it is the importance of family. Mersault and his mother never really got along when they lived together. They didnt really converse “… Maman used to spend her time following me with her eyes, not saying a thing”. Mersault never learnt how to feel from his mother and he never had a father.
These facts have created deep rooted psychological issues within him. He refuses to acknowledge the chaplains title of father, instead addressing him as monsieur, and only speaks at all of his real father on the last few pages of the book. The fact that he only speaks so lately and briefly of this man demonstrates the pain that he feels when even thinking about him. The implication being that a healthy, happy family life is essential for a good and productive, psychologically sound existence later on.
On the other hand, a dysfunctional unfulfilling family life will create discontent, emotional emptiness, fear of intimacy and a whole bag of mental problems. The Stranger is a wholly unique book not in content exactly but in style, the implied feelings are at first hard to come to grips with but with perseverance, a wonderfully complex book begins to take shape. The possibilities of interpretation are endless and varied. The only criticism I could level at it is that Im sure that much of its meaning is lost in translation which may be a large part of what makes it initially so hard to understand.