Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’s The Stranger.” Explicator 59.3 (Spring 2001): 149-53.
CAMUS'S THE STRANGER
By Arthur Scherr
After reading the first sentence of Albert Camus's masterpiece The Stranger, many readers and critics conclude that its protagonist, Meursault, is either a fool, a madman, or a callous boor: "Today, maman died. Or perhaps yesterday, I don't know. I have received a telegram from the nursing home.
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'Mother deceased. Burial tomorrow. Sincerely yours.' That doesn't mean anything. It was perhaps yesterday" (Camus 1, my translation). Quoting Stuart Gilbert's slightly inaccurate English translation of this passage, Nathan A. Scott remarks, "the lifeless monotone of the speaker [Meursault] intimates that the issue is of no consequence to him" (34). Such terse comments by Meursault may be the basis for Colin Wilson's exclamation that "the hero of [The Stranger] is basically a brainless idiot" (Wilson 56, italics in original). In their psychoanalytic readings, Dennis Fletcher and Arthur Scherr have viewed Meursault/Camus as motivated by a Freudian "death instinct" to kill the Arab and (at least symbolically) Camus's mother. They argue that in real-life, the illiteracy, passivity, and unloving behavior of Camus's mother during his childhood diminished his self-esteem and thwarted his ambition. However, a close reading of these first lines makes clear that Meursault is not expressing indifference to his mother's death; he is exasperatedly alluding to the vagueness of the telegram (whose wording itself is callous).
Nor is there much justification for depicting Meursault as an impotent personality without opinions of his own. Alice Strange has recently expounded this view of Meursault, arguing that he "permits others to define his reactions and to create a social identity for him." Ostensibly perceiving him as a vegetative tabula rasa, she finds that he is "emotionally distant" from his closest friends, lacks "definite preferences of his own," and "avoids any attempt to make sense of his experience" (38).
In an influential interpretation of The Stranger as an implausible, surrealist escapade, Rene Girard labels Meursault an irrational, unintelligent child, a "juvenile delinquent" (531) who kills a man because he wants attention from society. Girard finds that Meursault's "egotistical martyrdom" (527) and "ultra-romantic conception of the self" (531) bear many similarities to this modern psychopathology. Until he commits the improbable murder, "for all practical purposes, Meursault is a little bureaucrat devoid of ambition" (523). His character "appears very humble [. . .] he does not view himself as a man with a mission; he has no visible pretentions [sic] and he is ready to do whatever is necessary to sustain his mediocre existence." Underneath his mild veneer, however, Meursault harbors an explosive "egotistical passion" and overweening pride. He cuts himself off from feeling for his fellow men, and finally commits murder (527). His fate is not tragic, Girard argues, because nothing in his personality leads us to expect him to commit murder or to find his act of murder convincing. Meursault epitomizes the insignificant "little bureaucrat" whom society invariably ignores. He "does not read or write; we cannot imagine him submitting a manuscript to a publisher or correcting galley proofs," Girard sardonically observes (528). "The man is, indeed, a derelict; he has no intellectual life, no love, no friendship, no interest in anyone or faith in anything. His life is limited to physical sensations and to cheap
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pleasures of modern mass culture" (528). Girard surmises that Camus's existence during the composition of The Stranger was similar to Meursault's.
[Class edit: Several early critics described Meursault as a] "schizophrenic," a "moron," or a symbol of the alienation pervading a modern, urbanized society devoid of religious faith (Thody 336n.). In the preface he wrote in 1955 to a new edition of [The Stranger], Camus rejected this disparagement of his protagonist. Meursault "wanders, on the fringe, in the suburbs of private, solitary, sensual life," he explained. "This is why some readers have been tempted to look upon him as a piece of social wreckage" (qtd. Thody 336). At several points in The Stranger, Camus makes clear that Meursault is an intelligent, well-educated person, suggesting that there is scant basis for judging him to be stupid and insensitive as Wilson, Girard, and others have done. From the novel we learn that, like Camus's, Meursault's father died before he was old enough to recognize him ("Mother used to tell me about my father. I never set eyes on him" [Gilbert 138]). And like Camus, Meursault had attended college. (After Camus graduated from the University of Algiers, the government denied him a teaching license because of his medical history of tuberculosis.) But illness or poverty had prevented Meursault from finishing his studies, dashing his hopes for the future. Meursault's ephemeral comrade, the alleged pimp Raymond Sintes, trusts that Meursault possesses sufficient intellect and verbal acuity to compose a convincing letter for Raymond to send to his unfaithful girlfriend. Other, more respectable people in the novel also allude to Meursault's intelligence, among them his boss.
Meursault is an office worker for a shipping firm. One of his responsibilities is to check bills of lading. He seldom mentions his job, but seems to dislike it despite his failure to voice complaints. "The office was stifling, and I was kept hard at it all the afternoon," he recalls (Gilbert 32). He fears his boss and is afraid to disobey company rules. When Raymond phones him at the office, Meursault tells the reader, "I'd have liked to hang up at once, as my employer doesn't approve of my using the office phone for private calls" (Gilbert 51). Thus, at least on the surface, Meursault is the quintessential compliant employee.
Nevertheless, Raymond perceives Meursault, who had once lived in Paris (Gilbert 54), as a man of the world, neither a fool nor a toady. "As a matter of fact, I rather want to ask your advice," Raymond says, requesting Meursault's participation in a plan to wreak vengeance on the former girlfriend. "You've knocked about the world a bit, and I daresay you can help me" (Gilbert 36). Raymond asks Meursault to write a letter that will trick his girlfriend into
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coming back to him, giving Raymond the opportunity to further abuse her. "Raymond told me, he didn't feel up to writing the kind of letter that was needed, and that was where I could help" Meursault recollects (Gilbert 40). Agreeing to compose the letter, Meursault makes clear to the reader that it requires no special intellectual effort on his part, thereby revealing that he is highly literate: "I didn't take much trouble over it, but I wanted to satisfy Raymond." He reads the letter to the less educated Raymond, who observes, "That's the stuff. I could tell you was [sic] a brainy sort, old boy, and you know what's what" (Gilbert 41).
Meursault's boss recognizes his abilities and offers him a promotion. Meursault tells us that the job is an important one: "It was to open a branch at Paris, so as to be able to deal with the big companies on the spot, without postal delays, and he wanted to know if I'd like a post there" (Gilbert 51). When Meursault tells his boss that he does not "care much one way or the other" about the promotion, the boss "looked rather hurt, and told me that I always shilly-shallied, and that I lacked ambition--a grave defect, to his mind, when one was in business" (Gilbert 52). At this point Meursault hints at a latent source of his later act of violence--frustrated ambition and failure to achieve his dreams: "As a student I'd had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant," he recalls. "But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile" (Gilbert 52). This is one of the most emotional and powerful statements of the first half of the novel.
The same evening that Meursault responds lukewarmly to his employer's offer, his girlfriend Marie asks him to marry her. Perhaps feeling depressed from pondering the "futility" of his frustrated ambitions, he agrees if she wishes it. But he tells her that he probably does not love her (Gilbert 52). Meursault's apathy toward life and the repressed rage that erupts when he shoots the Arab five times may result from the failure to achieve his goals despite his intelligence and education.
Appropriately enough, the last person to remark on Meursault's intelligence is the prosecuting attorney at his trial for murder. "The prisoner is an educated man," he tells the jury. "You will have observed the way in which he answered my questions; he is intelligent and he knows the value of words. And I repeat that it is quite impossible to assume that, when he committed the crime, he was unaware of what he was doing" (Gilbert 125-26). After hearing the prosecutor's words, Meursault thinks to himself, "I noticed that he laid stress on my 'intelligence.' It puzzled me rather why what would count as a good point in an ordinary person should be used against an accused man as an overwhelming proof of his guilt" (Gilbert 126).
In The Stranger the hero's intelligence is more often remarked on than his stupidity or insanity. And it may be that rage at his boring job and the failure, because of factors beyond his control, to complete his education and fulfill his
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ambitions precipitate Meursault's act of violence. Disgust with himself for getting involved with a disreputable person such as Raymond may have forced his hand, causing him to pull the trigger--a last desperate means of wrenching himself free of a degrading entanglement.
Critics who depict Meursault as an insensitive, ignorant "juvenile delinquent" when it is frequently mentioned that he is an intelligent, well-educated man, have either not read the novel carefully or have been misled from the start by its deceptively simple sentence structure (the French passé composé [class note: an informal form of the past tense not commonly found in literature before Camus]).
Camus, Albert. L’Etranger. New York: Pantheon, 1963.
Fletcher, Dennis. "Camus between Yes and No: A Fresh Look at the Murder in L'Etranger." Neophilologus 61 (Oct. 1977): 523-33.
Gilbert, Stuart, trans. The Stranger, a Novel by Albert Camus. New York: Vintage, 1960.
Wilson, Colin. Anti-Sartre, With an Essay on Camus. San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1981.
By Arthur Scherr, City University of New York
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