Clothing and Social Constructs in The Stranger
In some novels, even the most minuscule ordinary objects are subjects of great importance and symbolism; after all, symbolism which adds meaning to the text that cannot be overlooked. In the work The Stranger by Albert Camus, outerwear holds a great importance throughout the text and expresses social predicaments, particularly the main character Meursault’s rejection of social constructs. Clothing is usually a constant within society and represents normalcy, as it is uniform. While clothing can be found in many shapes, colors, and sizes, the social expectations that come with wearing this clothing do not falter. However, Meursault is unable to conform to understanding the significance of particular clothing in specific situations due to his rejection of social constructs, and this mindset would not let him follow an authentic, spiritually fulfilled life.
One character Meursault spends a significant amount of time with throughout the first half of The Stranger is Marie, his love interest. However, it becomes clear that this relationship with Marie is nothing but a shallow, lust filled affair from the perspective of Meursault. This shallow, lust-filled attraction Meursault develops for Marie is particularly shown through Meursault’s continuous descriptions of Marie’s outerwear. When Marie and Meursault meet to go to the beach, the first description given is: “I really wanted to sleep with her because she was wearing a pretty dress with red and white stripes and leather sandals” (p.31). The focus here is not on Marie herself as a person, but on her outer appearance. She is objectified and examined carefully — the only sense of emotion the reader receives being the lust that Meursault feels when observing her. Marie is a sensuous pleasure here, her clothing serving as the main aspect that has caught the main character’s attention. Additionally, the tone of this statement is one of indifference: Meursault does not refer to Marie as being pretty, but to the dress she is wearing. Meursault emotionally detaches himself from his love interest here, rejecting social constructs. It is also important to place a focus on the color of Marie’s dress; it is red and white, made up of colors that deeply contrast each other. Red is the color of sensuality, of sexual desire, whereas white represents innocence and purity. It can be interpreted that the dress represents the social norm of relationships and love: a balanced blend of sexual desire and pure emotions, something that Meursault finds very fascinating. Yet there is also the implication that Meursault desires to undress Marie as he wants “to sleep with her” (p.31), indirectly showing that he wishes to break away from the social constructs implemented on Marie and take her in her rawest form, devoid of any constructs. Marie plays society here: she conforms to the norm of relationships by genuinely caring for Meursault and wanting a real, loving relationship. However, it is clear that Meursault has opposite intentions in mind and openly rejects having a deep emotional connection with someone of the opposite gender. This focus is a rejection of the inauthentic life that social constructs bring, something Meursault does not want to experience.
Formal clothing is additionally mentioned often throughout The Stranger, and Meursault often feels out of place in formal circumstances, further strengthening his sense of alienation from society and their normal customs. Meursault attends his mother’s funeral at the preamble of The Stranger, startling others with his emotionless response to her death. Yet it is not only this which shows his rejection of social constructs, but also his feelings of discomfort while wearing black for the funeral: “I felt a little stranger because I had to go up to Emmanuel’s place to borrow a black tie and armband” (p.3). Meursault again pays great attention to the clothing that the other persons at the funeral are wearing (which correlates to his great interest in Marie’s clothing), noticing that “there were four men in the room dressed in black” (p.12). It is here once again that the individuals themselves are of no importance, only the social constructs they wear. The specific colors and shades that are worn by individuals is stressed continuously by the main character, as Meursault even states, “I felt a bit lost standing between the blue and white of the sky and the relentless darkness of these other colors: the sticky black of the blistering tar, the dull black of the mourning clothes, the shiny black of the hearse” (p.15). The color black brings a sense of uniformity and persistence, qualities which seem inauthentic and leave an individual devoid of any individuality. This is what Meursault seeks to avoid, as he does not want to conform to the social constructs of this French society. The consonance used in this statement draws more attention to the color, along with the harsh “ck” in the term black, adding significance to the image being produced. The contrast between the light sky and the dark clothes must also be noted as it intensifies the feeling of misplacement that Meursault feels at the funeral. Additionally, Meursault feels “hot in (his) black clothes” (p. 13), further expressing the discomfort this character feels and challenging French social customs, which do not coordinate with the climate of a colonized country. Meursault continues to reject the formal outerwear that every individual is required to wear due to his inability to conform to the social constructs set out by society. Although he attempts to follow society’s rules, his attempts are finally futile.
One time when Meursault feels more at ease, though, is when he swims with Marie. The descriptions given here are lighter and the imagery softer, “the late afternoon sun” being not “very hot”, and the water being “warm, with lazy, long, low waves” (p.31). A contrast to other scenes is immediately generated here due to the fact that the sun is not extremely hot and uncomfortable, but rather relaxing and warming. Additionally, Marie and Meursault are not constricted in their clothing within such scenes — something that has an immediate effect on Meursault. He seems to be happiest in this scene, as the tone of this passage is lighter and more playful. Additionally, a lot of movement is included within the scene, specifically of the water as the two characters play with it, the foam spraying up into the sky and then falling back onto their faces “like warm rain” (p.31). The simile establishes a pleasant image, as the rain is neither too hot nor too cold, and is light in its movement. It can be seen here that Meursault is most comfortable when not enveloped or surrounded by masses of clothing. The imagery and use of color recall features of an essay written by Albert Camus, Summer in Algiers, as a great stress is placed on color and movement in both works. Summer in Algiers describes the simple and authentic life of individuals in Algiers, something that Meursault attempts to achieve. That is why such great parallels in description, content, and style can be found between the two, as Meursault endeavors to live authentically without the burden of social constructs.
Clothing is, ultimately, used throughout The Stranger in order to depict Meursault’s rejection of human social constructs in an attempt to live authentically. He feels discomfort when placed in a situation that requires him to either wear formal clothing or be subjected to individuals wearing such clothing. Additionally, he places great stress on the clothing itself when it is worn, completely disregarding the individuals who wear this outerwear, strengthening this sense of negative sensitivity to the social constructs that are embodied in clothes. It is only when Meursault is placed in a situation without the stress of these clothes, these social constructs, that he shows true happiness and is at peace.
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