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Stranger Essay, Research Paper

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. —- 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. —- 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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