Meursault: A Static or Dynamic Character?
Throughout the duration of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, the narrator, Meursault, evolves in terms of his self-awareness and world-view, a change which Camus uses to aid the reader in understanding both his protagonist and the existentialist themes throughout the novel. By splitting the text into two parts, Camus not only creates a valid ‘before’ and ‘after’ distinction for Meursault’s murder of the Arab, but also forges a distinct indication of the protagonist’s change in understanding of choice and consciousness. During Part 1, we are given a snapshot of Meursault’s daily life: Maman’s funeral, his relationship with Marie, Raymond, and Salamano, and the trip to the beach culminating in his murder of the Arab. In Part 2, Camus recounts Meursault’s incarceration, his trial, and the period before his execution, mirroring his murder of the Arab with his dawning revelation from indifference to acceptance. As a result, the dynamic nature of Meursault’s character is evident; through the intermediates of Maman’s funeral, the murder of the Arab, and his attack on the chaplain Meursault loses the flatness he embodies during Part 1 and shifts in character throughout the remainder of the novel.
In the beginning of the novel, Camus paints Meursault as someone who is emotionally and spiritually detached from society. He revels in the physical aspects of his existence, thinking about nature, swimming, and his lusty feelings for women such as Marie in extensive and passionate detail. When he travels to Marengo to attend Maman’s funeral, he is not overcome with grief at the loss of his mother, and declines the caretaker’s offer to see her body before the funeral, telling him that he doesn’t know why he’d rather close the coffin. Throughout the proceedings of the funeral, he spends a lot of time describing both the oppressive heat of the sun and the pleasantries of nature, using long and descriptive passages that dictate his behavior, as seen when he sits vigil for Maman, commenting; “It was pleasant; the coffee had warmed me up, and the smell of flowers on the night air was coming through the open door. I think I dozed off for a while.” (Camus, 9). In his passivity, he allows the weather and his surroundings to dictate his behavior, showcasing a lack of individual motivation and active participation in the dynamic nature of his environment, as well as little taste for personal choice, shifting his attitude based on the method of least resistance. This is evident in all aspects of his life, as seen when he tells Marie that love doesn’t mean anything to him, and that he doesn’t care if they get married. As apparent in his response, Meursault focuses on the physical rather than the emotional, and is unaware or ambivalent about what happens to him in his life. Although this signifies a lack of choice, his incongruity may also be a nod toward the existentialist idea of the universe as an irrational and disordered. By ignoring feeling, Meursault may be attempting to focus on the objective and concrete in a subjective and absurd world.
A major turning point of the text, Meursault’s murder of the Arab on the beach can be viewed as the next step in his transformation from indifference to acceptance, hinting at the first inclination of choice as he decides “that you could either shoot or not shoot.” (Camus, 56), Camus’s sly reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Even though Meursault indicates that he had little influence, or choice, in the murder, claiming that “the trigger gave” (Camus, 59), his acknowledgment of his power to kill or not kill the Arab is an important milestone in his conversion to self-consciousness and self-awareness. By giving some authority to the power of decision, he comes closer to the existential ‘freedom to choose’, reaching the philosophy that “humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe” (“Existentialism”).
The final stage of Meursault’s transformation, his descent toward self-awareness occurs after his attack on the chaplain, who attempts to persuade him to turn to God for comfort. Meursault tells the chaplain that he doesn’t believe in God, and that everything in life is meaningless because all humans are destined for death, and becomes enraged, grabbing him by his cassock in anger. He narrates that “I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy.” (Camus, 120), the first real indication in the text of emotion following the trial, during which Meursault was forced to consciously identify the existence he was being held accountable for. Here, his confrontation with the chaplain is the only time in the novel that he is passionate and active with feeling, indicating self-awareness as he claims understanding and a sense of sureness; “I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me.” (Camus, 121). Interestingly enough, this change is mirrored with Meursault’s murder of the Arab, a parallel that compares his shoot or not to shoot epiphany with his comprehension of self-awareness. Meursault’s world view shifts even further when he voices the thought “I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” (Camus, 123), expressing his ‘kinship’ to human existence for the first time. His realization that all humans “are elected by the same fate” (Camus, 121) – death, bridging the barrier that he previously felt toward other people, accepting companionship, even if it is in the form of an angry mob. This awareness that the universe’s indifference to human affairs echoes his own personal indifference evokes this feeling of companionship that leads Meursault to label the world ‘a brother’, the full dawning of his transformation as an existentialist character.
Overall, it can be said that Camus’s existentialist novel The Stranger depicts the protagonist, Meursault, as a dynamic and evolving persona. Within the text, Meursault shifts from passivity to participation, embodying existentialism at the close of the novel through the themes of choice, free will, and freedom that he exemplifies. These topics permeate both his fictional existence and our own; as readers, applying the idea that every human is in charge of his or her own destiny, is a fresh and innovative idea in a society that preaches conformity over individuality. Thus, through the catalysts of Maman’s funeral, the murder of the Arab, and his attack on the chaplain Meursault gains depth and perspective, approaching life and his impending death with an original world-view different from that which he displayed in the beginning of the text.
Works Cited Camus, Albert, and Matthew Ward. The Stranger. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print. Mastin, Luke. “Existentialism.” The Basics of Philosophy. Philosophy Basics, 2008. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
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