The Stranger Essay, Research Paper
Meursault, the main character and the narrator of the story, is a 30-year-old shipping clerk who lives an ordinary day-to-day existence. We see him as a son (at his mother’s funeral); as a friend; as a solitary creature pursuing simple experiences from moment to moment; and as a prisoner, first on trial, then awaiting execution. Physical sensations of sun and wind and physical activities such as swimming or running mean a great deal to him. Larger experiences in his life- the death of his mother, a chance for marriage, and a change in job- mean relatively little. We learn almost nothing about his past, though he is a curiously candid person, speaking of experiences in the present that most of us, if we felt them, might keep silent about. He has a detached attitude toward other people. This annoys most people, but some are attracted to him because of his silence and his habit of not offering judgments. The central event in his life, at least as far as it influences others, is killing an Arab. His most intense experience, however, is his attack on a chaplain while in prison.
Many readers see Meursault as a hero and as a martyr for the truth. He refuses to disguise his feelings and by doing so threatens society. He accepts death for the sake of truth rather than play society’s games and conform to what he sees as society’s illusions, lies, and hypocrisies. At the same time, he doesn’t judge other people but attempts to understand why they act and say the things they do.
Some readers note, however, that Meursault occasionally compromises his loyalty to the truth, for example, by writing a letter to Raymond Sintes’s girlfriend. He also lies to the police to win Raymond’s release after he has beaten the girl.
Other readers see Meursault’s feelings as callous, not heroic. For instance, when Raymond is beating an Arab girl, Meursault refuses to send for the police because he dislikes them. His feelings take precedence over the immediate danger to the girl.
Meursault is a complex- in some ways contradictory- character, and one of the most rewarding challenges of reading The Stranger is trying to figure out his personality. You’ll have to sift through a lot of evidence as you try to get a grip on Meursault, and as you do you’ll probably need to rethink some basic assumptions you have about people.
The city of Algiers, the principal setting of The Stranger, almost seems an active participant in the novel. The city is described as bathed in sunlight so intense at times that it makes Meursault feel dizzy; it is surrounded by white-hot beaches and endless expanses of sky and water. The street where Meursault lived was modeled after the Rue de Lyon- the main artery of Belcourt, the Algerian suburb where Camus grew up. Meursault’s observations from his balcony (Part One, Chapter II) will give you a good sense of the atmosphere in Algiers during the late 193Os- the time when The Stranger was written, and the time that the action in the book, according to most critics, takes place.
Algiers is a city of crowded apartment buildings, where the neighbors and shopkeepers all know one another. The streets are lined with bars and restaurants. Arabs, Europeans, and pieds-noirs- people of European descent born, as Camus himself was, in Algeria- live side by side, but not without tensions and conflicts. The story should be seen against this background of racial mix and unrest. Algiers is also a port city, where ships come and go constantly, leaving fragments of many cultures (the city has been described as a “marriage” of East and West) in their wakes. Camus has depicted the Algerians as a people with “a distaste for stability and a lack of regard for the future, people in a hurry to live.” You can imagine the streets teeming with life, twenty-four hours a day.
More than the city, even, the natural climate of North Africa forms a powerful backdrop to events and shifts of mood- the sun, the heat, the vastness of space and sky have much influence.
The following are some of the themes of The Stranger.
1. VERDICT OF DEATH
The conflict between the desire to live and the fact of death is a dominant theme in The Stranger. Most people, Camus is saying, accept the day-today events that make up existence without asking themselves: Why am I doing this? The only answer, he says, is that nothing we do has any long-lasting meaning. We die, the universe goes on. Nothing fundamental has changed. Later in his life Camus changed his thinking to add that within this framework, our actions can still be important because we can affect the lives of other persons. We must behave as if life has meaning.
2. BENIGN INDIFFERENCE OF THE UNIVERSE
Our lives are brief compared to the permanence of the universe. Images of sun, water, earth, and sky give pleasure to fleeting moments of our lives. But they can turn dangerous and destructive. The natural forces do not have empathy for us or care. They are neither good nor evil; they are simply there, and they go on being there long after we are gone. To accept this philosophy is to live in a world without God. Meursault can accept this and lives with the sensations, both pleasurable and painful, of sun and wind, of caresses, of smells and sights. Yet his incapacity to look beyond the sensation of the moment leads him into a pattern of action that changes his relationship to all these sensations, and in prison he is deprived of all that has made his life enjoyable.