The Impact Of Light And Heat On Mersault’s Realisation In Albert Camu’s The Stranger
The sun plays a critical role in the existence of life. It gives us light and it warms the world. However, these very qualities also bring about death and pain. The duality of the traits of the light and heat of the sun as both being calming and invigorating is used as a symbol. It shows that the source of life can also take it easily, making life purposeless. In The Stranger by Albert Camus, Camus utilizes the symbols of light and heat to highlight the absurdity and meaninglessness of life and Mersault’s conflict to realise this.
The heat and light at Maman’s funeral serve as a catalyst for Meursault descent into an absurd view. Meursault is a very physically sensitive character, making him very reactive to the light. Despite his mother’s death he remained emotionless and gave no reaction until, “the caretaker turned the switch and he was blinded by the sudden flash of light”. This is the first moment where he begins to realise the meaningless of death. Despite believing it is the brightness of the lights that bothers him, it is actually the beginning of his realisation of absurdism that is uncomfortable. For example, when he is overcome with the physical need to smoke he, “didn’t know if he could do it with Maman right there. He thought about it; it didn’t matter”. This provides the first glimpse into Mersault’s final realization about absurdity of life, with light and smoke acting as a catalyst that Maman’s death didn’t matter. However, the light inside is not nearly extreme enough to force Meursault to a absurdist viewpoint yet. Later, in a part of Maman’s funeral procession, Meursault notes that in the heat, “go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you can work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church… There was no way out”. Camus uses the heat to establish the universe’s indifference. The sun does not care about the health of mourners. The heat’s indifference is especially highlighted with Perez at the funeral. Camus juxtaposes the effect of the heat and light on the Meursault and Perez. Meursault, who shows no feelings about his mother’s death, is largely unbothered, but Perez, someone who cares for Mersault’s mother, is unable to keep up with the funeral procession due to the heat. Mesault notices that “Perez had a slight limp. Little by little the hearse was picking up speed and the old man was losing ground”. The heat is indifferent to Perez’s feeling, it affects him and prevents him from partaking in the funeral when Meursault remains largely indifferent and physically unbothered. Although the heat has little physical effect on Meursault, he still describes the heat as “inhumane and oppressive” with an extreme intensity unseen with the light at the funeral home. This heat distracts his thoughts and forces him to the reality around him. During the funeral, Meursault is continuously pushed by the sun’s heat into noticing details going around him, “the church, the villagers on the sidewalks, the red geraniums on the graves in the cemetery… the blood-red earth spilling of Maman’s casket”(18). The intense heat prevents him from focusing on Maman’s death and focuses on other meaningless details. He is uncompassionate to life’s difficulties. In one case at the nursing home he notices a nurse with a “brightly colored scarf on her head” when in reality it is a “bandage wrapped around her head just below the eyes. Where her nose should have been, the bandage was flat”. This is because, “she’s got an abscess”. Meursault trivializes serious health problems because he simply has no reason to care. He doesn’t notice details around him unless there is an oppressive heat and light. The more intense the light and heat, the more he notices the reality around him as filled with death.
The heat of the sun is also the driving force for Mersault’s murder of the Arab, which would shatter Mersault’s comfortable world. In this instance, Meursault is so physically affected by the heat that he is driven to kill the Arab. This heat is similar to the one during the day of his mother’s death, feeling his “forehead swelling under the sun” and “his head ringing from the sun”. Meursault’s conflict with the heat represents his own internal struggle to realise absurdism. This heat from the sun also provides the same lack of escape from the situation as before with the funeral procession. Mersault notes that “to stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing”. This trapped feeling drives Meursault to find any way out, killing the Arab. The sun is indifferent to something as horrible as murder. It forces Meursault into doing something, making Mersault feel as if he is optionless and not in control of his fate. Camus conveys the idea of absurdism, the inherent meaninglessness of human life, through the symbol of the heat. Mersault himself begins to realize a change when he says that, “he knew that he had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of the beach” and how “it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness”. This marks Meursault’s journey into realising the absurdity of life. In court Mersault concedes there was no ulterior motive, blurting out “it was because of the sun”. This lack of ulterior motive of murder highlights that life had no meaning, since there was no reason to take life, simply the sun. The sun took control of his actions, and Meursault reaches an epiphany: that his actions and his life are meaningless. Mesault himself notes the lack of control and meaning he feels, “It occured to him that all he had to do was turn around and that would be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on his back.He took a few steps towards the spring” and that it “was this burning, which he couldn’t stand anymore, that made him move forward”. Meursault acknowledges that despit there being another option, the burning heat forces him to move forward even thoug he concedes that “it was stupid”. The role of heat in Mersault’s murder of the arab is symbolic of Mersault’s descent into an absurdist worldview and a turning point within Mersaults intellecual journey.
Heat, and light is symbolic of Meursault’s absurd epiphany, and its development throughout Mersault’s trial. On the first day of his trial Mersault states that he, “knew as soon as the weather turned hot that something new was in store for me”. When the prosecutor states that Meursault’s crime was “premeditated” he compares Meursault’s ideas to a “dim light”. When “people laughed” at Meursault’s justification that the sun made him kill the arab, Meursault is thrust deeper into thinking that life is meaningless. At the end of the trial he realizes that his, “fate was being decided without anyone so much as asking his opinion”. At this point “the sun was getting low outside and it wasn’t getting hot anymore”. After the verdict and the days before his execution Meursault begins to obsess over the rising of the sun, “and so he spent his waiting for the dawn”. The dawn of the sun also comes with the dawn of the idea of absurdism. When he waits “patiently for the first light to show”, he concludes that “deep down he knew perfectly well that it doesn’t much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy”. Before speaking to the chaplain about his ideas he had his “back flat against the wall, and the light was streaming over his forehead”. Mersault’s epiphany comes with the rising of the sun and its light. His intellectual journey parallels the cycle of the sun and heat during court.
The roles of light and heat in highlighting the meaninglessness of humanity is seen through Meursault’s actions and thoughts and reactions to light and heat. Each of these factors drive him to come to his ultimate absurd conclusion. The heat during his mother’s funeral forces Meursault to notice details around him. The heat on the beach before the murder controls Mersaults actions, making him kill the arab despite having more rational options. The stuffy room where the trial takes place helps Meursault to realise that his fate is out of his control. Ultimately, Camus’s use of the light and heat as symbols of humanity’s meaninglessness forces readers to reflect on the motives of their actions and the impact of the greater universe.
- Camus, Albert, and Matthew Ward. The Stranger. Vintage International, 1989.
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