The Stranger: Meursault’s Virtues?
Meursault, the main character in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is an intriguing individual with a complicated relationship to the world around him. He is curious by nature, and often wonders about the reality and purpose of the situations he finds himself in. He frequently ponders whether or not an interaction is “natural.” What he means by this remains unclear as the story progresses, but we can infer that he is trying to examine the normalcy of daily situations, and whether or not they are valuable—whether or not the interactions actually matter. As a non-religious skeptic, Meursault is rather critical of our existence. Meursault is unique—he follows a unique routine, and has a unique outlook on life. Instead of merely judging him for being different than most people and condemning his violent mentality, we should learn from him instead.
Throughout most of the beginning of the story, Meursault leads a rather normal life. He is, however, more reserved than most people. He is unfazed by the death of his mother, who had already been in a retirement home for a long period of time before her passing. But he is noticeably uncaring; Meursault seems to perceive his mother’s funeral as an obligation more than a celebration to honor her life. Throughout the time he spends at her wake, he gets annoyed on multiple occasions by funeral-goers that make loud noises, but he is also annoyed when the room is completely silent. When walking to the church for his mother’s funeral, Meursault curiously accepts an idea proposed to him by a nurse: that he would either have to walk fast to the church and end up sweating due to the physical exertion required, or walk slowly and end up sweating due to the heat of the midday sun. Following the theme in which he wonders whether or not our existence actually matters, Meursault simply accepts the inevitability of sweating, and does not waste his time trying to fix a situation which he has no control over. However, he sees the heat and the long walk as an inconvenience, instead of seeing them as steps necessary to honor his mother’s life. He would prefer to be able to go about his daily life at home than to go out of his way for any reason, even if it is for a custom to honor the woman who raised him.
Meursault’s daily life is simple; he holds a daytime job like anybody else, and spends his free time at home or relaxing with his friend Marie. He values routine much more than most people, and it may be hard to understand, but such a mindset is worthy of respect. Meursault has a comfort zone; one from which he does not want to go far. He is perfectly content living in this comfort zone, but others do not seem to understand this behavior. Later in the story, during the court proceedings for his case, multiple witnesses who testify against Meursault describe him as being a cold, uncaring person. The prosecutor, ignorant to Meursault’s unique mindset, notes that “the day after his mother’s death, [Meursault] was out swimming, starting up a dubious liaison, and going to the movies” (Camus, 94). This only comes after his mother’s caretaker defamed Meursault in the eyes of the jury by noting that he “hadn’t wanted to see [his] Maman, that [he] had smoked and slept some, and that [he] had some coffee” (Camus, 90); the jury notices that Meursault simply goes about with normal activities at the wake, and doesn’t go beyond to show any emotion whatsoever.
The way Meursault behaves perplexes most people; we aren’t used to somebody who seems to exhibit such little desire to stray away from routine. However, his behavior is not harmful, even though other people look at it as being such. One of Meursault’s greatest societal taboos, living in the mid-20th Century, is being an atheist. When Meursault first meets with the magistrate presiding over his case, he waves a cross in Meursault’s face as if to cleanse him of sin and make a statement about his lack of religion, as he “was waving the crucifix almost directly over [Meursault’s] head” (Camus, 68). This interaction immediately lessens Meursault’s chances of being exonerated from the charges he faces, even though the judge seems to be fairly impartial during the remainder of the trial. Noticeably, Meursault remains calm as the judge attacks him in an extremely aggressive manner. He does not try to stand up for himself, nor defend his views, simply in the interest of excluding himself from any unnecessary conflict. Interestingly, as he has done before, Meursault questions how natural the situation was; whether or not it was really meant to happen, while noting that later interactions were perfectly natural, and seemed to go very well. He seems to want to justify the judge’s behavior as simply being the result of his remarks; as if it was inevitable that the judge would lash out on him because of his passion towards his religion. This questioning of inevitability will become crucial later in the story, near Meursault’s execution.
In prison, Meursault tries not to spend most of his time in his cell simply wasting away; he reads books and gazes at the sky and tries to improve his memory in an effort to get the most out of this experience awry from his painstakingly mundane routine. He would sometimes “get to thinking about [his] room, and in [his] imagination [he] would start at one corner and circle the room, mentally noting everything there was on the way” (Camus, 78). Looking closer, Meursault is simply creating a new routine. He walks around his cell and spends eighteen hours sleeping every day. Just like in the days after his mother’s funeral, Meursault tries not to make his time spent in prison an inconvenience. As long as he has to deal with something, he might as well make the most out of it, and try to keep his life as disruption-free as he possibly can. As such, although he is not accredited for it, he seems to behave in a manner with which a model inmate would behave. He is diligent, reserved, and doesn’t cause any issues in the prison.
As part of his routine, Meursault notices and later reads a newspaper clipping about an ironic story in Czechoslovakia. A man was murdered by his mother and sister who wanted to steal his fortune, as he was sleeping at the hotel they ran. Unfortunately, the two didn’t know that the man was their respective son and brother, as he had spent years away from home. Meursault found the story to be a bit puzzling, and somewhat ironic. He questioned how “natural” everything was in the events that took place, which he has done on numerous occasions in the past, such as with the judge. The situation was not inevitable, as the family chose to murder the man. It could have been avoided completely, however, if the man had announced himself to them before staying there and trying to surprise them. The fact that Meursault takes interest in the situation is relevant because he wants to know whether or not it really had to happen, and what could have prevented it, just as in his own case.
When seeing Marie for the first, and only, time in prison, Meursault doesn’t seem to get much from his meeting with her, other than seeing her and being able to converse with her. The room is loud with various inmates communicating with their loved ones, and he has to scream to talk to Marie. In the end, he does seem happy to be able to see her, especially considering his life is on the line at his trial. During the trial, Meursault doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the matter. The reporters, who he describes as “already [having] their pens in hand” (Camus, 85), are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the proceedings, as the only other interesting case being tried at the same time as Meursault’s is a patricide, and summer is the slow season for the news.Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to care that much about the attention put toward his case, but rather just note the behavior of the reporters in the densely populated courthouse. After being found guilty at his trial, Meursault questions what “natural” really is, and indirectly seems to consider the inevitability of what happens in our lives, and whether or not things have to turn out the way they do. For the first time, Meursault seems like more of a human than an objective robot. He no longer craves routine, and no longer seems to be fearless. He recognizes his mortality, and the inevitability of his impending execution. He wants to escape authorities, and wonders if it is possible that “If by some extraordinary chance the blade had failed” during his execution (Camus, 111). But he also manages to accept what is coming to him, noting that we all have to die at some point, “Whether it was now or twenty years from now, [Meursault] would still be the one dying” (Camus, 114).
By the end of the book, Meursault understands that death is inevitable, and that life must come to an end at some point, no matter who you are. His abnormal behavior, and odd lack of regard for what most people value, are simply what give meaning to Meursault’s life. He is perfectly content living in peace, and staying in his little bubble, as he is not like the rest of us. Meursault is an outcast, and perhaps that is what motivated his conviction; we simply alienate his behavior because it is what we consider as abnormal. Meursault’s behavior is abnormal, but his way of analyzing reality is not dangerous. He may deserve to be labeled an outcast by society, but the philosophy he embodies is not a threat to the people living within it. Because Meursault is unique, and has a unique perspective, he more than merely a criminal.
Camus, Albert, and Matthew Ward. The Stranger. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.
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