Christian Guides to the Classics: The Stranger

Explore the Influential 20th Century Novel

Written by Leland Ryken


Fast Facts
  • Author: Albert Camus, a French Algerian (1913-1960)
  • First publication: Paris, 1942, in French
  • First American translation: 1946 by Stuart Gilbert (the translation that made the book famous to English-language readers)
  • Approximate number of pages: 150 (varies slightly by edition)
  • Genres: novel with first-person narrator; absurdist fiction; realistic fiction
  • Setting: French Algeria, mainly the city of Algiers, in the 1930s
  • Protagonist: Meursault, an ordinary middle-class person without external claim to prominence
  • Plot summary: The novel falls into two parts, each with multiple chapters. Part 1 is a description of the protagonist’s life until his murder of an Arab on a beach. Part 2 is the story of Meursault’s imprisonment and trial. At a more interpretive level, Part 1 depicts Meursault’s acceptance of immediate sensation as truth, while Part 2 portrays society’s need to impose a pattern of abstract explanation on the actions that Meursault experienced only as physical events.
  • The StrangerAlbert Camus

    I first fell in love with this book in Stuart Gilbert’s translation (available from Amazon from third-party vendors). This is the translation that made the novel a classic of English-language literature. Its style sparkles with descriptive and aphoristic brilliance. Among more recent translations is one by Matthew Ward (Vintage); since it is available directly from Amazon, it will be the “official” translation for purposes of this discussion. I will manage the discussion in such a way that either translation can be used. I myself regard Ward’s translation of "Mother" as "Maman" to be unnecessarily distracting.

    I first fell in love with this book in Stuart Gilbert’s translation (available from Amazon from third-party vendors). This is the translation that made the novel a classic of English-language literature. Its style sparkles with descriptive and aphoristic brilliance. Among more recent translations is one by Matthew Ward (Vintage); since it is available directly from Amazon, it will be the “official” translation for purposes of this discussion. I will manage the discussion in such a way that either translation can be used. I myself regard Ward’s translation of "Mother" as "Maman" to be unnecessarily distracting.


The Stranger appeared at a most inauspicious time for the publication of a novel—just as World War II was beginning. Not surprisingly, when the novel first appeared in a small print run of 4,000 copies, it was read primarily by the literati of Paris. By 1950 The Stranger had become a work of immense popularity and influence, perhaps even a cultural icon among young people and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. Fifteen years after its first publication, Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature. The author who wrote the Twayne’s Masterwork Study on The Stranger provides a good summary of the book’s importance:

To read The Stranger is to encounter one of the enduring literary masterpieces of the twentieth century, to relive a critical moment of our cultural heritage, and to engage in a living discourse on central moral issues of our times (English Showalter Jr, The Stranger: Humanity and the Absurd, Twayne Publishers, 1989, p. 9).

The Stranger is a novel of social protest, a statement of radical dissent from the youthful Camus (who was a mere 29 when the novel was published). Camus wished to show that society would inevitably persecute someone who refuses to play the game of conventional social behavior. The literary imagination always heightens the issues and experiences that an author portrays, and Camus went “over the top” by having his unconventional, individualistic protagonist condemned to death in a court of law not for what he did but for who he is.

Of course that premise is preposterous (the more so because Meursault is a French Algerian who murdered an Arab). No jury would have even heard about Meursault solely on the basis of his inner life. Camus’s solution was ingenious: he made his protagonist commit an “innocent” murder that bears no explanation or motivation. In other words, the murder is a pretext to get the protagonist into court. Of course all of this will receive its appropriate analysis as our chapter-by-chapter analysis and discussion unfold. I trust that I have said enough to show the inventiveness of Camus in composing one of the most memorable stories on record.

Wide Gamut of Responses

Our responses to the protagonist Meursault inevitably run a wide gamut. We cannot avoid feeling a bond with him in his rejection of his society’s decadence. Mainly we are repelled by him even as we find him intriguing. I personally find this repulsion so continuous that I would find it easy to believe that Camus intended his novel to be read as a satire in which the protagonist is held up to rebuke.

However, we have Camus’s own statement about how he himself regarded his protagonist in his preface to an American translation of the novel: “One would . . . not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth. . . .  I have tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve” (Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage, 1970, p. 337). In turn, we need to “be ourselves” as Christian readers. Camus’s own verdict on his protagonist simply signals that our response to Meursault is not exactly the response that Camus intended.

In the chapter devoted to The Stranger in my book Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective, I claim that on the surface The Stranger is a calculated setup to offend Christian sensibilities. The writer chooses depravity as his story material and then offers for approval such alien philosophies as hedonism, naturalism, existentialism, and absurdism. What claim does such a book have on a Christian reader? I can think of several answers to that question and hope the readers of this introductory piece will find the prospect of exploring those answers inviting.

To begin, The Stranger covers so much of the modern cultural “waterfront” that I do not hesitate to call it a primer on modern and contemporary culture and thought. I named the main ones in the preceding paragraph. While there are many other avenues toward an encounter with these forces, The Stranger has claims to being one of the best ones. Its concentrated brevity surely commends it to any busy person, and this is not merely a matter of available time. A compact expression of content is likely to be the product of greater thoughtfulness than a diffuse expression.

A second thing that commends The Stranger as a primer on what our culture is like is the beauty and artistry with which Camus orchestrates his masterpiece. The stylistic brilliance of the book is self-rewarding—-a kind of bonus to a reader who might go to the book in the first place because it is a barometer of modern thought and culture. Greatness of style enhances the effect of what an author says. While this should not beguile us into acquiescence with Camus’s worldview and moral vision, it does open the door to enjoying the artistic achievement of Camus.

Unusual Clarity

If we put my first two claims together—-that The Stranger is compact and stylistically superior—-we can see that it commends itself as a work that silhouettes our own world with unusual clarity. Paging around in a secular magazine gives us a vague impression regarding what our culture is like, but it is just that—-vague and impressionistic. A book dealing with contemporary cultural trends would be an avenue to getting a grip on our culture, but it leaves us only with a head full of generalizations and statistics. A work of literature, being the product of the imagination, allows us to vicariously live in the modern world. As Henry Zylstra wrote long ago:

If you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that age and that time. In the novels and stories and poems and plays of a period you have a good indication of what, deep down, that period was about (Testament of Vision, Eerdmans, 1961, p. 5).

In addition to being a great piece of writing, The Stranger is a novel of ideas. One of the byproducts of this is that we have a case study in the premise that ideas have consequences. We know this with our minds, but we often lose sight of the reality. The story of Meursault shows us in concrete terms how such ideas as hedonism, existentialism, and absurdism work themselves out in actual living.

How to Read a Novel

I want to branch out from my reasons for reading The Stranger to say something about how to read a novel. A lot of readers, secular as well as Christian, begin from the stance of a judge. These readers know what they believe and are waiting to pounce on an author who deviates from their personal convictions. But this is an act of self-defeating foreclosure. Before we assess, we need to listen.

C. S. Lewis is the best guide in the matter. In the only book of literary theory he ever wrote, Lewis famously differentiates between using a work of art and receiving a work of art. “The first demand any work of any art makes upon is surrender,” Lewis writes. “Look. Listen. Get yourself out of the way” (An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 19). The ideal recipient of art “seems passive at first because he is making sure of his orders.”

As The Gospel Coalition book discussion venture unfolds, I fully expect that the ideas embodied in the works under discussion will occupy us most. I am not opposed to this, because ideas are more open to discussion than enjoyment of an author’s artistry. Still, I would urge readers not to slight an author’s artistry and the truthfulness of human experience that a work of literature embodies and clarifies. As I once asserted in the title of an address, literature is more than ideas.

Where We Go from Here

The guides for each chapter are intended as a preview to reading and discussing the week’s chapter. This means that we will start our trek through the novel section-by-section. I will provide both analysis and sections titled “for reflection or discussion.” But before we begin, it’s important to consider why Christians should particularly read Camus.

Why Christians Should Read Camus

There is no more representative intellectual figure of the mid-20th century than Albert Camus. In addition to being an influential fiction writer, Camus was at the focal point of the intellectual crosscurrents that swirled about Europe and crossed over to the United States. The underlying principles of those movements remain pervasive in Western culture, and this is part of the relevance of Camus to us today.

Born in Algeria in 1913, Camus was a restless spirit who kept on the move and pursued many intellectual and professional paths. As a literary figure, Camus is considered a French author. He is as famous as a philosopher as a fiction writer, and in fact his novels are an embodiment of his philosophical viewpoints. Camus was killed instantly in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46.

The many-sided nature of Camus’s life makes it a veritable primer on modern secularism. Camus was a political activist, pacifist, and revolutionary. He was twice married but dismissive of marriage as an institution. He lived a sensual and disordered life. That chaotic life is itself instructive for Christians. If we want to see modern man “writ large,” Camus can supply our representative figure.

But my subject is why we should read Camus. Camus’s life is the background chorus (a helpful one) to his writing. That writing encompasses such a wide range that I cannot cover it all in this brief essay. I will accordingly place my focus on Camus’s best-known work, his 1942 novel The Stranger, a landmark of modern literature. Camus was a mere 29 years old when the novel was published.

The Storyteller

My first encounter with The Stranger came as I sat in a college chapel service at Central College in my home town of Pella, Iowa. A special-services speaker made a passing reference to Camus’s masterpiece, citing the central premise of the story, namely, that the protagonist was found guilty not because he had murdered a man but because he had not wept at his mother’s funeral. I found this narrative premise completely intriguing.

I first read The Stranger after my sophomore year in college while doing church work in California. Another member of my team had just read the novel and recommended it. I found the famous opening captivating and unforgettable: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY.Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.” Thomas Hardy once claimed that a story must be striking enough to be worth the telling. The Stranger meets that criterion.

Camus maintains the brilliance of writing all the way through the novel. The last sentence is as striking as the first: “For me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”

The first reason why Christians should read Camus the novelist is thus a narrative and aesthetic reason: Camus is a great storyteller and provides the materials and occasion for artistic entertainment. The Stranger is worth reading just for the brilliance of its style. The example of John Milton is instructive at this point. Although Milton eventually came to deplore the moral viewpoint of the Roman poets who had fired his youthful imagination, he nonetheless records that “their art I still applauded.” After all, the image of God in people is what enables them to create form and beauty. I have always relished the aristry of The Stranger despite the distance I feel from the worldview that it offers for my approval.

Voice of Authentic Human Experience

The subject of literature, I tell my students repeatedly, is human experience. Literature rarely gives us new information. What it does instead is put us in touch with human experience, clarifying that experience in the process. The Stranger performs that function to a preeminent degree.

The protagonist of the story is named Meursault. His actions and responses are abnormal in the extreme. Above all, he is unable to attribute normal human feeling and meaning to the external events of his life. He murders a man and feels no regret. When Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, asks him to marry her, the first-person narrator records, “I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.”

To write this off as being so abnormal as to be irrelevant is to miss the point. The imagination always heightens what it touches. As a result, the experiences of life stand silhouetted with more-than-ordinary clarity. Meursault’s life is a completely accurate picture of how many people around us live—a heightened and exaggerated picture, to be sure, but an accurate picture.

This is a second reason for Christians to read Camus: his fictional characters and the events of their lives are a window to our world. The daily news is also a window to our world, but it is out of date 48 hours later. Meursault, by contrast, haunts our memory and becomes an unforgettable acquaintance. As we ponder him, we come to understand some of the people in our own lives.

Camus the Modern Philosopher

Camus is also a towering modern philosopher. It is true that Camus repeatedly disavowed belonging to modern schools of thought. Yet these traditions are obvious in his writings and interviews. All I can say by way of explanation is that Camus was distrustful of organized systems. Thus when he claims not to be an existentialist, it means that he did not wish to be identified with all facets of that movement and its adherents. Additionally, we need to read Camus’s statements carefully. When he claimed in a 1950 essay that he had made a lifelong attempt to “transcend nihilism,” it is not necessarily the case that his attempt was successful.

In his own day and subsequently, Camus was regarded as an existentialist. The protagonist of The Stranger (whom Camus professed to admire) is an existential hero: encompassed in a world of total subjectivity, regarding his own existence of the moment as the only reality, denying the possibility of supernatural reality and its consolations, living under the shadow of death, and operating on the premise that life itself is the highest value.

It is incorrect to say that such existentialism died long ago. Existentialism is not only a philosophic movement of the mid-20th century; it is also a universal. Many people in our society live and think as existentialists, and if we want to understand them, assimilating Camus’s existential novel is a great help.

The literary and philosophical movement with which Camus was most thoroughly identified in his own day was the absurdist movement. It is hardly too much to say that The Stranger was the “poster book” of the absurdist movement. Fellow French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an essay on The Stranger that helped to make it famous. In it he wrote, “Absurdity means divorce, discrepancy. The Stranger is . . . a novel of discrepancy, divorce, and disorientation.” Sartre also related the style of the book to this absurdist viewpoint, noting that every sentence is self-contained, with the world being “destroyed and reborn from sentence to sentence.”

As with existentialism, it would be wrong to relegate the absurdist view of life to a philosophic and literary movement of the mid-20th century. Mersault’s inability to attach normal meaning to the events in his life—the absurd gap between the protagonist’s experience and his response to that experience—is what we see in less drastic form all around us. If we understand Meursault, we understand much about our own society.

Another modern movement that finds expression in Camus is nihilism. Although Camus wished to distance himself from nihilism as a philosophic system, his fictional protagonist Merusault is every inch a nihilist who denies that life has meaning. Meursault yells at the chaplain who visits him in prison, “Nothing, nothing had the least importance.” Of course part of this nihilism is denying the existence of God (“I explained that I didn’t believe in God,” Merusault tells the chaplain). The new atheism that afflicts us today is not new at all. We can find it full-blown in Camus’s novel.

To sum up:  another good reason for Christians to read Camus is the clarity with which his writing embodies leading philosophic viewpoints of the modern and contemporary worlds. The fact that The Stranger is set in Algeria 75 years ago, far from being a detriment, gives the book a helpful distance from our own moment in history. Emancipated from the surface clutter of our own cultural situation, the story is able to highlight the essential features of our world.

An Almost-Christian?

I want to conclude by returning to the life of the author. Camus offers us a case study in the mystery of how some alleged non-Christians are actually deeply engaged with the Christian faith. By exploring the vagaries of Camus’s interactions with Christianity, we can sharpen our understanding of the complexity of what we find in the attitudes of many people around us who seem intransigent to the Christian faith but who remain deeply entangled with it.

Camus’s early upbringing was Catholic, and he was baptized as an infant. Although Camus rejected institutional Christianity, he nonetheless remained in dialogue with Christians and Christianity throughout his life. Christianity was for him an intermittent sparring partner. The author of the book Albert Camus and Christianity (Jean Ominus; University of Alabama Press, 1965) writes that although Camus “was totally divorced from religion . . . there is in him the trace of a scar, even an open wound.”

Early in my study of The Stranger I encountered references to the view that Camus was moving toward a Christian viewpoint shortly before his untimely death. This is hard to extract from Camus’s writing, but certain aspects of his life make the hypothesis plausible. For example, in an interview on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus said, “I have only veneration and respect for the person of Christ and for his life. I do not believe in his resurrection.”

The real shocker was a book published in 2000 by an American Methodist named Howard Mumma, who served as guest minister at the American Church in Paris for several summers in the late 1950s. The book (Albert Camus and the Minister, Paraclete Press) chronicles how Camus sought the minister out for “irregular and occasional” dialogues. Eventually Camus asked Mumma to perform a private baptism (which Mumma refused). When Camus accompanied Mumma to the airport for his return to the United States that summer, expecting to resume their conversation the following year, he said, “I am going to keep striving for the Faith.” He was dead within a few months.

Camus’s moral and humanitarian earnestness is well attested. But if beyond that Camus became a serious Christian seeker, we are naturally teased into looking at his writings for evidences of a seeking soul beneath the overt rejection of orthodox Christianity and the church. And if such complexity could exist in a famous modern agnostic, what light might that shed on some of the acquaintances in our own lives? This, too, is a reason for Christians to read Camus.

Part 1, Chapter 1

Plot Summary

The opening chapter is devoted the death and funeral of the protagonist’s mother. The opening telegraph message from “the Home” announces the death to Meursault. The chapter then unfolds in four stages: Meursault’s bus trip from Algiers to Marengo; events at the mortuary (including a night-long vigil beside the coffin); transfer of the coffin by means of a hearse to a church; a concluding phantasmagoria of sensations and memories, ending with the arrival of the bus back in Algiers.

As the travel guide through the opening chapter, I have arranged the itinerary into four “stops:” (1) chapter one as our first acquaintance with the protagonist; (2) chapter one as our initiation into the narrative world of the book; (3) chapter one as our introduction to the modern philosophic and literary tradition of the absurd; (4) a riddle regarding chapter one in light of what happens to the narrator in Part Two of the book.

Introducing Meursault

The telegraph message announcing the death of Meursault’s mother is one of the most striking openings in the annals of storytelling. The thing that makes it such is not the message itself but the way in which the narrator (Meursault) turns the message into a puzzle that needs to be solved, as he debates in his mind whether the death occurred “today” or “yesterday.”

The Stranger is a first-person narrative in which the protagonist tells his own story. This is central to the book’s effect. From start to finish we are being given an inside view of the narrator’s consciousness. Accordingly, it always relevant to ask as we work our way through the story what we think of Meursault. Camus himself foregrounds that question by making Meursault the omnipresent center of what happens in the story. Meursault, moreover, records everything around him like an automaton or security camera, so we have a lot of data to assimilate as we scrutinize the narrator.

A good format for reading or rereading chapter one is to compile a provisional understanding of Meursault—-mental notes on our first acquaintance with someone we will get to know extremely well. This initial portrait is a combination of description of Meursault as he is and our personal response to him and assessment of him. One thing that immediately stands out is the degree to which Meursault is dominated by the sensations going on around him. The heat and the glare of sunlight loom very large. So do random visual impressions and snatches of conversation with other people. The final paragraph in this chapter is an accelerated list of things that Meursault remembers from the funeral, and it is a riot of sensations.

While there is doubtless a sense of revulsion that sets in as we get to know Meursault, before we make too strong a move in the direction of judgment against him we need to ponder the element of recognizable, universal human experience that Camus captures in his portrait of the protagonist. God has created us as physical creatures with sensory responses. None of us is exempt from Meursault’s sensitivity to heat and fatigue and the effect of sensory stimuli. We, too, experience funerals partly in terms of the sensations that unfold around us and our responses to those sensations. Camus “got in right” when he captured this facet of our lives. Truthfulness to human experience is a forte of literature—-knowledge in the form of right seeing.

For reflection or discussionAs you compose a mental profile of Meursault, what are its main ingredients? If you had just met Meursault in real life, what would dominate your impression and assessment of him as you left your first meeting? What aspects of yourself and/or your acquaintances do you see embodied in the protagonist of this story? More generally, how is chapter one a window to your own world?

Entering the World of the Story

The ever-expanding portrait of the narrator/protagonist is the dominant piece of narrative business that transpires in the first chapter of The Stranger, but it is not the only one. The opening pages of every novel and opening moments of every performance of a play are our initiation into the world of the story. Here is how a literary critic describes this feature of storytelling:

In a work of art, there is presented to us a special world, with its own space and time, its own ideological system, and its own standards of behavior. In relation to that world, we assume (at least in our first perceptions of it) the position of an alien spectator, which is necessarily external. Gradually, we enter into it, become more familiar with its standards, accustoming ourselves to it, until we begin to perceive that world as if from within (Boris Uspensky, Poetics of Composition, University of California Press, 1973, p. 137).

Applied to the opening chapter of The Stranger, we need to formulate a preliminary understanding of the nature of the world that we as readers have entered, which is at the same time the world that Meursault inhabits. We need to ponder the traits and features of that world. Russian fiction writer Vladimir Nabokov gave the excellent advice that “in reading, one should notice and fondle details. . . . We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” in Lectures on Literature, Harcourt Brace, 1980, p. 5).

But there is a further dimension to the “world” of a literary text, and it has been expressed as follows by Southern fiction writer Flannery O’Connor: “It is from the kind of world the writer creates, from the kind of character and detail he invests it with, that a reader can find the intellectual meaning of a book” (Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1957, p. 75). To say that we can derive the intellectual meaning from the kind of world that the writer creates is to make a very large claim, but it is warranted. It is a rule of storytelling that the world that writer creates is offered as an accurate picture of reality. So as we reflect on the opening chapter of The Stranger, we need to ask what Camus wants us to believe is true about the world in which we live. In turn, we need to assess that version of truth and reality. We should not overlook the misery of human existence that Camus puts before us, and the ugliness and oppressiveness of the world that the characters inhabit.

For reflection or discussion: Following the suggestion of Uspensky, as you gradually settle into the narrative world of this novel, what stands out as most noteworthy? Following the lead of Nabokov, what physical details dominate your experience of the first chapter? Accepting Flannery O’Connor’s belief that we can actually discern an author’s worldview and truth claims from the qualities of the imaginative world that the author creates, what early signposts do you see in regard to what Camus wants us to share with him in regard to his assertions about life and the world?

The Absurd Tradition in Modern Literature

Thus far I have put two items on the agenda for consideration—-our introduction to the protagonist and our initiation into the world of the story (offered to us as a picture of reality). By the time we assimilate those two aspects of the story, we are well on our way to identifying the thing for which The Stranger is perhaps most famous, namely, its embodiment of a philosophic and literary tradition known as the absurd (also labeled absurdism). The opening chapter is our immersion into the world of the absurd, and this preliminary plunge will deepen with nearly every chapter of the book.

At its heart, the modern tradition of the absurd denies that life in this world has meaning. Camus contributed to this tradition by basing his concept of the absurd on a conflict between the human desire for meaning and significance and the way in which the universe denies that meaning. It is the tension between the two that defines absurdism for Camus.

Literary authors in the tradition of the absurd exercised their ingenuity in creating narrative situations that would embody their conception of a meaningless universe. The whole story that Camus tells in The Stranger is his ingenious vehicle, but we can experience a piece of the grand edifice already in the opening chapter. For example, as Meursault records and shares how he experienced the weekend of the funeral, it is obvious that he experienced it primarily as a series of sensory impressions. The one thing conspicuously absent from his experience of his mother’s funeral is the emotion of grief.

As we read the opening pages we repeatedly see evidence of Meursault’s inability to rise from the level of sensory experience to rational abstraction, or a level of logical meaning. This is a major motif of the book. By any normal way of living, there is an absurd discrepancy here between experience and a level of reasoning that ought to be present. A son ought to feel grief at his mother’s funeral. Meursault does not experience such grief. When a former resident of Paris launches into a discussion of the need for a hasty funeral in the Algerian heat because corpses decompose so quickly, Merusault pronounces that he found this information “rather interesting,” failing to make a connection to his mother’s decomposing body.

A related technique for which Camus is famous in this novel is the way in which Meursault puts all experiences on the same level of importance. In other words, he cannot arrange the experiences of life into a meaningful pattern of priorities and levels of importance. The observation of Meursault’s acquaintance Céleste that “there’s no one like a mother” carries no more importance to Merusault than the fact that he “had to run to catch the bus.”

For reflection or discussion: Now that the opening chapter has been positioned in the modern tradition of the absurd, what details do you find that illustrate the modern tradition of the absurd? What response does this absurdism elicit from you here at the start of the story?

Is This Man a Criminal?

In my introductory article on The Stranger I claimed that Part One narrates how the protagonist experienced the events of his mother’s death, and Part Two explores how a conventionally minded society seeks to make rational sense of those same experiences. That attempt occurs at Meursault’s trial, where Meursault and we with him experience the proposed pattern as an absurd irrelevance to how he experienced the events of the weekend of his mother’s funeral.

There is no need to hasten to discover what the prosecutor at the trial says by way of explanation. In fact, it is important that we relive the events of the novel in the sequence that Meursault experienced them. With that in view, we might profitably comb the opening chapter for evidence that could be adduced at a trial as evidence that Meursault is a murderer at heart. If we can’t detect such evidence, Camus will have led us to share his view that the universe we inhabit and (even more) the society in which we live are absurd.

For reflection or discussion: If we just look at the data presented in chapter one, what is the worst verdict that we can reach about Meursault? Does anything add up to criminal behavior?

Part 1, Chapter 2

Plot Summary

The chapter is devoted to Meursault’s experiences on the weekend immediately following the two days of his mother’s funeral. The funeral showed Meursault in an extraordinary situation; the weekend routine initiates us into his normal life. The keynote of Meursault’s private life is its boring quality. The main action in chapter two is Meursault’s going for a Saturday swim in the harbor, meeting up with a former coworker named Marie at the harbor, and spending Sunday watching the street scene from the window of his flat.

Glimpse of the Protagonist’s Common Life

Compared to the abundance of “narrative business” that transpired in chapter one, this chapter is slow paced. It is always wise to operate on the premise that storytellers know what they are doing. Applying that principle here, we can begin by noting that all stories are based on a principle of swinging back and forth between contrasting material. That material can be virtually anything, but one of the “constants” is the swing of the pendulum between intensity of action and the mundane. A story that keeps everything at a fever pitch wears us out.

The genius of the novel as a genre is that it sets a whole world into motion and achieves a kind of density of effect in the process. Chapter two of The Stranger does more than simply fill out the picture of Meursault’s world, but that is definitely a part of Camus’s intention. Just as chapter one was our initiation into the world of the novel as a whole, this chapter initiates into the world of Meursault’s daily reality.

For reflection or discussion: In my guide to chapter one, I quoted Boris Uspensky to the effect that when we enter a narrative world we begin as an external spectator but then rather quickly become residents of that world, experiencing it from within. We can apply that strategy for reading to chapter two: as the pages unfold, what things emerge as the salient features of Meursault’s world?

Literary Realism

A second subject that I wish to put on the agenda is the tradition and techniques of literary realism. At one level realism is a universal as old as storytelling, but at another level it is a literary tradition that arose in second half of the 19th century. When I introduce the concept of literary realism in my courses, I list the following as leading features: verisimilitude (lifelikeness) at the level of surface details; as the inverse of that, avoidance of fantasy or unlifelike details; piling up of specific details to create what literary critics call the illusion of reality (illusion because we know that the world that we have entered is a fictional world that exists only inside our heads); refusal to overlook the negative features of life.

For most of the 19th century, realism also implied a balance between good and bad aspects of human experience. Most Victorian novels illustrate that tendency. As we move into the late 19th century and then throughout the modern era, realism is assimilated into a movement known as naturalism. Fiction writers in this tradition continue to use the descriptive techniques of realism (especially the accumulation of details to recreate the effect of real life), but that technique is now pressed into the service of a worldview. The primary traits of that worldview are pessimism and determinism. The preponderance of what a naturalistic writer gives us is the ugly, the sordid, and the miserable. I consider The Stranger to be a naturalistic novel.

For reflection or discussion: We can first simply note the features of chapter two that fit my descriptions of realism and naturalism. Then we can ask what Camus is saying about life in general by means of these techniques. At a further stage, we need to become self-consciously Christian readers and ask how we assess realism and naturalism as Christians who want to live holy lives. I have addressed this issue over a lifetime of writing on literature in Christian perspective, but what matters here is what the participants of this discussion group think about realism. I will register one preliminary point: we know that realism in itself (and within certain bounds) is a legitimate technique, because the Bible is replete with the realistic portrayal of life in a fallen world.

Literature of Clarification

As a literary scholar I divide the literary landscape into three categories. I expect each of these categories to have its own “division of duties,” which means that I have differing expectations for each of the categories.

One category is the literature of Christian belief. This is a huge province in what John Keats called “the realms of gold” (the world of literature), but it does not dominate the scene in either English or American literature. A second category is what I label the literature of clarification. Such literature does not endorse a Christian viewpoint, and in some of its reaches it may actively oppose the Christian viewpoint, but not in such an aggressive way as to become a continuous battle for me as I read. There is also a category that I call the literature of unbelief, in which either the material that is portrayed or the aggressive hostility of viewpoint against Christianity puts me in the stance of engaging in virtual combat with it.

I place The Stranger in the category of the literature of clarification. I use that label because for me the chief feature of such literature is that it clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks. I am always grateful for such clarification. We might say that the daily news also clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks, but only with a very heavy analytic effort of our part. By contrast, a literary text comes with interpretive insight already infused into the material and with essential issues silhouetted with heightened clarity.

For reflection or discussion: If we accept my label “literature of clarification” as accurate for The Stranger, we can start to list the human experiences that are portrayed and that call our attention to what life in our own society is like. By the time we share what stands out for us personally, I can predict that the list will be long.

Second Look at Our Absurdist Hero

By choosing the first-person narrative viewpoint as his way of telling the story, Camus decisively threw the focus of the book on the characterization of the protagonist. With chapter two, as with the other chapters of the book, we can’t go far wrong if we view ourselves as the observant companion of the protagonist. Getting to know Meursault more closely is thus an important part of the narrative business in chapter two. In my literature courses I often use the formula “an ever-expanding vision of . . .” as a way of organizing my students’ experience of a story or play. Chapter two is a good test case for that formula. For example, as we progress through the material, we see more and more layers of boredom in Meursault’s life, of sensuality, of bondage to sensory experience, and such like.

I will say something formally about literary naturalism in connection with a later chapter, but for now it is important to note that environmental determinism is an important part of naturalism. With that in view, we might profitably consider how Meursault’s environment accounts for his behavior and for his being what we might call “slow on the affect.” Surely anyone in Meursault’s context would find the circumstances of daily living damaging to the human spirit.

In my commentary on chapter one, I highlighted the ways in which the attitudes of Meursault are Camus’s attempt as a novelist to embody an absurdist view of the universe. What “packs the punch” in regard to absurdism in chapter one is the protagonist’s inability to attach normal logical meaning to the external events in his life. Every observation or experience is placed on the same level. Additionally, Meursault experiences his mother’s funeral as a series of physical sensations (to some extent normal), with a notable absence of emotions such as grief (totally abnormal).

In chapter two this technique takes a temporary holiday. Chapter two reads in every way like a typical piece of realistic and naturalistic fiction. But then Camus jolts us back into the absurdist mental world at the very end of the chapter. The last two sentences [a single sentence in the Ward translation] remind us, after our chapter-long amnesia in the matter, that this weekend was immediately preceded by the death and burial of the protagonist’s mother. As if that were not a sufficient shock, the parting shot is the narrator’s statement that “nothing had changed” [in the Gilbert translation, “nothing in my life had changed”].

For reflection or discussion: Continuing to compile a profile of the central character is a good starting point for organizing our experience of chapter two. As an aid to that, completing the formula “an ever-expanding picture of . . .” will lead us in an interpretive direction. For an angle on Meursault as absurdist hero, we need to give weight to the fact that this is not just any weekend in Meursault’s life; it is the weekend that immediately follows the death and burial of his mother. What does it add to our experience of Meursault’s weekend to view it through that lens? Additionally, in your own life or observations, what is the effect of physical surroundings such as Meursault’s on the human spirit?

Secular Sunday

Being a person for whom Sunday observance is important, I often wonder what Sunday would be like without the routine of public worship of God. For me, chapter two of The Stranger has always provided an answer. To be sure, as an embodiment of an absurdist viewpoint, Meursault’s Sunday is an extreme case. But that is how literature works: It heightens its subject so the subject stands out silhouetted. Surely chapter two does that for what I have called the secular Sunday.

Camus himself highlights the Sunday motif with interspersed comments. The first is, “I remembered that it was Sunday and that bothered me: I don’t like Sundays.” The second reference is, “A typical Sunday afternoon” (Gilbert translation; in the Ward translation, “It was Sunday all right”). At the end of the chapter we read, “It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday.”

For reflection or discussion: Some readers will doubtless be able to confirm whether or not Camus “got it right” from their own experiences of a secular Sunday. For readers who have always practiced a Lord’s Day routine, the chapter opens a window to a foreign experience. For both sets of readers, what stands out?

Part 1, Chapter 3

Plot Summary

Chronology continues to govern the sequence of the book. Chapter one covered the mother’s funeral, chapter two the weekend following the funeral, and now chapter three the return to the weekday world. The brief opening scenario is devoted to life in the office. The bulk of the chapter portrays Meursault’s life in the apartment complex. The keynote is the sordidness and “seediness” of the world the protagonist inhabits.

Assimilating a Piece of Naturalistic Fiction

I am going to assume that the story material in this chapter is sufficiently offensive to Christian sensibilities that I should address that issue first. I will begin with the literary movement called naturalism (to some degree a philosophic movement as well). When I teach naturalistic fiction in my courses, I list the following as the distinguishing features:

  • A systematic description of contemporary society as it really is.
  • Pessimistic tone, with special emphasis on human smallness and helplessness.
  • A deterministic view of the universe and its influence on people; denial of human choice.
  • Characters drawn from the lower classes.
  • Psychological interest; preoccupation with human subjectivity and the subconscious, and with the irrational springs of human action.
  • Emphasis on human loneliness and isolation.

The Stranger incorporates all of these features, and chapter three is a good specimen with which to analyze the phenomenon.

I will put some prompts to discussion on the table in the reflection/discussion section below. But first, I want to share two choice quotations that I encountered at the very outset of my teaching career and that I have regularly invoked in my teaching of modern literature. Literary scholar Roland Frye, a Christian who taught at Princeton University, wrote helpfully that secular authors “clarify the human situation to which the salvation of God is addressed” (Perspective on Man, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961, p. 59). I broaden that statement slightly to make it say that great literature always clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks.

Harry Blamires, student and protégé of C. S. Lewis, likewise addressed the question of how Christians might find something of value in literature and other art forms that portray evil in ways that are off putting to Christian sensibility. Blamires, whose statement is more open ended than Frye’s, said, “There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly” (The Christian Mind, London: S.P.C.K., 1966, p. 68).

I do not expect that the participants in this discussion group will be unanimous in their assessment of the subject matter of naturalistic fiction. Let me add one more idea for consideration. I am sometimes willing to put up with offensive subject matter in order to assimilate a larger good the book can offer me. Along these lines, the authors of a book entitled How to Read a Dirty Book (Irving and Cornelia Sussman, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1966) make the reasonable suggestion that “to learn how to read a dirty book is to learn how to see the book whole” (pp. 12-13).

For reflection or discussion: It is always potentially useful to begin at the level of personal response: how does a piece of naturalistic fiction like chapter three affect me? Further, what accounts for that response, and/or what does my response reveal about me? Applying the formula of Roland Frye, what aspects of the human situation are clarified in chapter three? How does the Christian faith speak to those experiences or issues? Applying the framework bequeathed by Harry Blamires, what does thinking Christianly about the material presented in chapter three look like?

Artistic Technique in Chapter Three

On the surface, realistic fiction is much less replete with artistry than other forms of literature. For purposes of contrast, let’s consider the example of an English sonnet. Such a poem unfolds in stately and beautiful fashion on the principle of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. Each quatrain has its pattern of abab rhyme. There are ten syllables per line, and the meter flows in regular, wavelike manner. Each quatrain is likely to have its own controlling image or motif, and the concluding couplet sums up the preceding movement with an aphoristic punch. The artistry of such a performance is obvious.

By comparison, it might seem that nearly anyone can write a piece of fictional narrative like chapter three of The Stranger. Just observe the social scene and note details from daily life. This “slice of life” is recorded in everyday prose anyone naturally speaks. I believe that there is truth in this seeming artlessness of prose fiction, but it is not the whole truth. It is not the case that just anyone could have written chapter three of The Stranger.

Out of several avenues by which to see the artistic skill of a writer of realistic fiction, the one that impresses me most is the selectivity of details by which Camus (in this case) captures a larger sense of life. The task of the writer, including the writer of realistic fiction, is to incarnate meaning and viewpoint in concrete details. We tell students in our writing courses that their task is to show rather than tell. Yet the details cannot be random; they must be a net that captures a sense of life. The fiction writer searches for just the right details or snapshots to convey the sense of life that the author wishes to impress upon us.

An exploration of this technique of selectivity in chapter three of The Stranger will on the one hand unfold the inventiveness and artistry of Camus, and on the other hand the view of life that Camus wished to embody and persuade us to accept as truthful. Our assumption as readers must always be that authors intend something significant with every detail they put into a story. An early example in chapter is Meursault’s annoyance when at work the roller towel in the washroom becomes unpleasantly wet as the day unfolds. When Meursault mentions this to his employer, the employer (in contrast to Meursault) finds the situation regrettable but “a minor detail.” What does Camus intend with this detail?

Some of these particulars carry over from one chapter to the next and become themes or motifs in Meursault’s life. For example, in the opening chapter Meursault had to run to catch the bus to Marengo (site of his mother’s funeral). Early in chapter three Meursault and his fellow office worker Emmanuel find themselves running to catch up with a truck and climb aboard. In the next paragraph we see Meursault running to catch a street car. I cannot imagine that Camus would have chosen this motif without a purpose.

Once we accept the premise that good fiction writers invent details that embody a larger meaning, it is obvious that even writers in the realistic camp practice an incipient symbolism—-not blatant as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but latent. Taken one step further in the direction of literary sophistication, this latent symbolism might become combined with literary allusion. In chapter one, there are so many references to the heat of the sun that the sun becomes a member in the cast of characters. Chapters two and three do not flag the sun quite as conspicuously as chapter one does, but the sun continues to insert itself into our consciousness.

I have always felt that Camus intends a reference to the book of Ecclesiastes, with its repeated formula of life under the sun. If so, we have an instance of what literary scholars call an intertext, in which authors set up a dialogue between a previous text and their own text. I was naturally pleased to see a master’s thesis done at Liberty University that explores the likely influence of Ecclesiastes on Camus (Justin Keith Morgan, Living in the Tensions: Camus, Qohelet, and the Confrontation with the Absurd).

For reflection or discussion: Building on my suggestion that the details in a piece of realistic fiction like chapter three are carefully selected to embody a larger sense of life, it will yield a lot to comb the chapter and compile a list of “telling details.” Then we can ponder the incipient symbolism of those details. That, in turn, might yield a sense of life or even worldview that we think Camus is commending. If we think that Camus might be “playing off” the negative passages in Ecclesiastes, how does the book of Ecclesiastes serve as a gloss on The Stranger, and how does the latter serve as a gloss on the book of Ecclesiastes?

Another Glimpse of the Absurdist Hero

I should explain that when I speak of Merusault as a “hero,” I am using that word in a loose sense to denote the protagonist of the story. I will note in passing, though, that Camus (as quoted in my introductory posting on The Stranger) claimed that Meursault “agrees to die for the truth” and in the process becomes “the only Christ we deserve” (Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage, 1970, p. 337).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the opening chapter of The Stranger is the pronounced disconnect between what happens in Meursault’s life and his inability to attribute a normal or rational human response to the events of his life. That technique makes an obvious return in chapter three. For example, when Meursault’s neighbor Raymond Sintes asks if Meursault isn’t disgusted by Salamano’s mistreatment of his dog, Meursault answers “no.” When Raymond discusses the sordid experience with his girlfriend and asks Meursault what he “thought of the whole thing,” Meursault replies that he “didn’t think anything but that it was interesting.” At the end of the conversation Raymond announces that he and Meursault are now pals, to which Meursault replies “yes,” adding for our information, “I didn’t mind being his pal, and he seemed set on it” (Ward translation). I will note in passing that the Gilbert translation rather consistently strikes me as packing a greater punch, as in Gilbert’s translation of this same passage: “‘So now we’re pals, ain’t we?’ . . . I didn’t care one way or the other, but as he seemed so set on it, I nodded and said, ‘Yes.’”

As Christian readers we can hardly avoid being increasingly irritated by the protagonist of the story. Edmund Fuller made the comment that Meursault is “essentially subhuman, whether Camus conceives him as inherently such or as reduced to such” (Man in Modern Fiction, New York: Vintage, 1949, p. 12). The concluding phrase in that sentence alerts us to something important about Camus’s story. A double judgment starts welling up within us as we read—-against Meursault, yes, but also against his decadent society. Once we get that equation before us, we can ponder the question of environmental influence or determinism.

For reflection or discussion: What evidence do you see (lightly touched on in my commentary above) that Camus is painting a portrait of an absurdist protagonist/hero? That this represents Camus’s view of life’s possibilities can be taken as a “given.” Christian hope rules that out as an accurate viewpoint. Still, we can extract some truth from Camus’s portrayal. First, I wonder how many unbelievers on my block or shopping in my local grocery story find life meaningless as Meursault does. When I put the daily news as reported by the media alongside The Stranger and its protagonist, the latter seem a great deal less exaggerated than initially believed. Again, it is easy to make theological sense of what we are asked to contemplate in chapter three; it all has to do with human sinfulness. I wonder what further theological sense my theologically inclined readership might make of chapter three.

Part 1, Chapter 4

Plot Summary

Chapter four further portrays Meursault in his social environment. Specifically, we glimpse snapshots of life in the office, a weekend with Meursault’s girlfriend Marie, Raymond’s sordid life of sex and violence, and Salamano’s relationship to his dog. That is the external action. But a psychological novel like The Stranger requires us to read at an internal level also. By embodying the action in a first-person narrator, Camus makes it easy to track with the protagonist’s inner life.

Déjà Vu

Externally this chapter reads like “more of the same” when compared to chapter three, and this is a good starting point for analysis. It is important to proceed aware of the conventions of storytelling, including the principle of theme and variation. Theme denotes the element of sameness or repetition that carries through from one episode to the next. Observing the familiar strands in the plot can be a good format for “scurrying through the text” (my informal classroom term for close reading). When we move to an interpretive level, we can reflect on what Camus accomplishes with the element of sameness and reinforcement in chapter four. The storyteller sets a whole world in motion. The novelist partly wants that world to register with us.

With a naturalistic novel like The Stranger, a second level is also at work. Repetition doesn’t just create the desired density of the imagined world but a deliberate sense of monotony. By a short step, that monotony becomes a sense of despair over the nature of existence. The literature of despair has been such a dominant force in literature for so long that a piece of fiction like chapter four of The Stranger can seem like formulaic or cliché writing. But this book was published in 1942 and stands near the beginning of a tradition that became predictable and trite but began as innovative and vital.

Another interpretive angle emerges if we grant my earlier suggestion that Camus sets up an inter-text between his story and the book of Ecclesiastes. Or, if you do not agree, we can simply resort to reader-response criticism and make the connection on our own. The effect in either case is to ponder how the book of Ecclesiastes (and especially the meditation in the opening chapter on the endlessly repeated cycles of life under the sun) comments on The Stranger, and (working the other way) how Camus’s story glosses the book of Ecclesiastes.

For reflection or discussion: With the previous chapter’s picture of “life on the block” in your memory, what motifs are repeated in this chapter? The repeated elements can be something as major as Meursault’s sensuality and as seemingly minor as our seeing Meursault yet again running to catch a bus. What do we contemplate about the modern world as we assimilate chapter four of The Stranger?

Getting to Know Meursault’s Friends

The framework of theme and variation implies that the issues a storyteller puts on the agenda undergo discernible progression. If some things remain constant, other things develop. In the early phases of a story (and with chapter four we are still at an early point), the element of progression likely extends things that have been introduced. The principle of accretion dominates, whereas later in a story genuine change and reversals occur.

Chapter four belongs to the first of the two paradigms I have just mentioned. It expands our knowledge of narrative issues already introduced but does not change the trajectory of those issues in transformative ways. We see this primarily in regard to the protagonist’s three friends. I do not wish to preempt what my readers might uncover on their own, so I will only briefly note one line of inquiry in regard to each of the characters.

Meursault’s girlfriend Marie has been one-dimensional up to now, but in chapter four she grows. She remains the object of Meursault’s sexual interest, yes, but she also emerges as someone with a sparkle that we all might find winsome. She longs for romantic intimacy, as captured by her question whether Meursault loves her. As she and Meursault hear Raymond beating his girlfriend, Marie protests and asks Meursault to call a policeman. In short, Marie represents a voice of normalcy in the world of the story, though by Christian standards she is a loose woman. As a voice of normalcy, Marie functions as a foil to Meursault.

Raymond, too, grows from the kernel of what we read in chapter three. His talk in chapter three develops into unsavory and violent action. Raymond’s violence is bad enough, but by the time he proposes that he and Meursault go to a brothel, we begin to sense that Raymond’s depravity is advanced.

The portrait of Salamano takes a surprising turn in chapter four. Up to now we knew him from mistreating his dog. Now we learn the subtlety of the man-dog relationship. Salamano emerges as a walking bundle of anxiety about the dog who vanished during a routine walk on the Parade Ground. Salamano tells Raymond that he will never pay to regain his dog from the pound, but two minutes later he appears at Meursault’s door, weeping at the thought of losing his dog.

For reflection or discussion: We can begin at the observational level. I noted a few aspects of the further characterization of Marie, Raymond, and Salamano. What do you discern? Then we can press analysis in a more interpretive direction. One of the most useful analytic tools for assimilating a story is to ask what function a given episode or detail serves in the ongoing dynamic of the story. Alternatively, we can ask what effect results from the data the author chose to include. Having codified the further characterization of Marie, Raymond, and Salamano, how do you theorize the expanded portraits affect the overall design?

Renewing Contact with Our Absurdist Hero

Even the etymology of the word protagonist hints at the centrality of this character in how we experience any story. Based on the Greek for  “first struggler,” protagonist thereby denotes how readers experience conflict. But this ordinary significance intensifies when the story is told by a narrator in his own person (the so-called first person point of view). This is another way of saying that no matter what other narrative data we read in The Stranger, the central point of the story is what happens inside Meursault.

There are three ways Camus handles the question of his central character in chapter four. One is (again) the external thread of action. When I teach stories, I often use the framework of hidden and apparent plots. The apparent plot is the foreground action, so obvious that even the archetypal obtuse roommate can pick up on it. In chapter four this line of action extends the “life on the block” or “slice of life” principle. At this level we read a story of boredom, sensuality, brushes with violence typical of police blotters, and forced entanglements with neighbors.

When we move to a more interpretive level, we often deal with the harder-to-discern hidden plot. The hidden plot in chapter four is the background chorus of the absurdist view of life, as embodied in an absurdist “hero.” I don’t want to preempt your search for this evidence, so I will comment only that the data consists (again) of Meursault’s inability to attach normal emotional and logical meaning to external events.

Third, and combining the two levels of action previously noted, the story of Meursault in chapter four is told partly in terms of a grand foil or contrast by Camus. While we can see Meursault’s absurdist outlook simply through close reading of the text, that absurdist position stands out silhouetted more clearly by being juxtaposed to the actions and attitudes of the other three characters. For example, Marie rises to the human level of romantic longing when she asks Meursault if he loves her. Meursault’s emotional deficiency stands silhouetted against that norm when he replies that the question has no meaning, but he supposes that he doesn’t love her.

For reflection or discussion: Whatever else might transpire as the chapters unfold, the background chorus in this novel is the creation of an absurdist hero. By the end of the novel, we will remember some particularly shocking examples of the absurdist mindset. One of them is Meursault’s reply to Marie about the meaning of love. The sound of Salamano’s weeping leads Meursault to remember his mother “for some reason” (Ward translation; in the Gilbert Stuart translation: “For some reason, I don’t know what. . .”). What other moments in chapter four add to the background chorus of details in which Camus has embodied his absurdist view of life?

On the ‘Readerly’ Virtue of Patience

All readers, but perhaps preeminently readers in a book discussion group, feel an urge to codify their understanding of a novel’s meaning early on. By the time we reach chapter four of The Stranger, an inner voice tells us that it is time to sum up what the novel “says” and to register our verdict on it. I would urge a caution in regard to the impulse to reach closure.

First, it is not wrong to be searching for understanding of the story as a whole. It is part of narrative art to set up a creative tension between our felt need to reach closure and an equally strong impulse to maintain openness and postpone closure. Stories raise expectations as the stories unfold, and storytellers prompt us to reach tentative conclusions. But stories are also a calculated strategy to frustrate our early attempts to pin them down.

The readerly virtue of patience is founded on at least two principles. One is the advice of C. S. Lewis (quoted in an earlier posting) that we must surrender ourselves and not seek to impose our convictions when appropriating a work of literature. Second, stories are literary wholes. The final meaning is never in place until the story is over.

For reflection or discussion: How have you experienced the inner tug of war between wanting to make final sense of what seems to be happening in a story and being aware that any attempt to foreclose on a story’s meaning will certainly be defeated as the story continues to unfold?

Part 1, Chapter 5

Plot Summary

Like the preceding chapter, this one continues to tell the story of Meursault’s routines and relationships. In view of what happens in the next chapter, this unit is the lull before the storm, but as we experience the unfolding action we have no way of knowing. The chapter unfolds in four main phases: (1) Meursault’s morning at work, (2) Marie’s visit in the evening, (3) supper at Céleste’s restaurant, and (4) a pre-bedtime conversation with Salamano.

A Word About Reading

I will arrange my commentary according to the succession of four units noted above. Before I start my journey through chapter five, though, I want to say something about the dynamics of reading a novel. We owe it to a great writer to assume that he or she has a master plan. It is our task as readers to discover that plan. Reading a story is akin to solving a riddle. This will be clearer if we scrutinize a story with the conviction that the author has arranged the data for a precise purpose. I fully expect that some of you will resist the idea of reading as being akin to figuring out a riddle, but I have found it a useful strategy and one that enhances my sense of adventure as I read.

In the same vein, I will commend a theory of Camus’s intellectual and literary confidant Jean-Paul Sartre. It is perhaps surprising that a philosopher could have written one of the best short treatises of literary theory in What Is Literature? (trans. Bernard Frechtman; Harper and Row, 1949). Sartre claimed that readers collaborate with an author to produce a work of literature. Reading is directed creation in the sense that the words on the page are the means by which readers invent the work that the author intends. Applying this to the sequence of four units in chapter five, we can view ourselves as assembling the details and their sequence along with Camus, in the process reaching certain conclusions about what is happening in the chapter.

Meursault’s Morning in the Office

In an earlier section, I labeled The Stranger a novel of ideas. But the type of truth that literature and the other art are particularly adept at conveying is truthfulness to reality and human experience. This, in turn, yields knowledge in the form of right seeing—-getting us to see ourselves and life around us accurately. The classical tradition has championed the idea that the writer “holds the mirror up to life.”

We can apply this to the opening paragraphs of chapter five. Most of us have received a personal telephone call while at work and felt our employer or superintendent’s disapproval. Most of us know what it is like to have our employer call us into his or her office to discuss a new job opportunity. All of us have felt the sting when we do not respond warmly to what someone else wants us to embrace enthusiastically.

It’s harder for us to relate to two other dimensions of Meursault’s morning in the office. One is the exchange with Raymond, and it, in turn, has two phases to it. The first is Raymond’s invitation to Meursault (which also extends include Marie) to spend the weekend with him on the seaside. Considerably more ominous is Raymond’s announcement that he has been stalked by Arab friends, as well as a brother of the mistress whom he abused. On a first reading we have no way of knowing how momentous these two things will be in the story.

More important is the exchange between Meursault and his employer. The offer for Meursault to accept a post in Paris represents opportunity for professional advancement. In a reply that shocks us as much as it shocks the employer, Meursault states that “it was all the same to me” (Ward translation; Stuart Gilbert translation: “I didn’t care much one way or the other”).  This refusal is then generalized into the sentiment that “one life was as good as another.” The conventionally minded employer interprets this as an appalling lack of ambition.

For reflection or discussion: We can begin at the level of truthfulness to everyday reality: how does your life at work compare to Meursault’s morning? Second, while we can tuck Raymond’s call away in our minds for future reference, Meursault’s exchange with his employer is a major event in the novel. How do you assimilate Meursault’s rejection of a good job offer and his viewpoint that one life is as good as another? How does this event add to the unfolding portrait of Meursault?

The Most Unusual Proposal of Marriage on Record?

The second scenario in chapter five is Marie’s visit to Meursault on the evening of the same day. The primary point of conversation concerns love and marriage. Marie asks Meursault “if I wanted to marry her.” Meursault replies famously that “it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to” (Ward translation; Gilbert translation: “I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married”). Further conversation on the subject simply repeats that core idea. Particularly striking, though, is Marie’s comment that “marriage was a serious thing,” followed by Meursault’s reply, “No.”

Various strands of the novel converge in this conversation: Meursault’s indifference to life, his emotional deficiency, and his inability to attribute human meaning to experience. Meursault cannot generalize from his momentary sensory pleasure with Marie to a permanent emotion called love.

For reflection or discussion: I have refrained from calling Meursault an absurdist hero in this episode, but reflecting on this label helps us closely assess his behavior in this episode. Additionally, we can profitably go through the experience from Marie’s point of view. What evidences suggests that Marie is as perplexed and exasperated by Meursault’s behavior as we are?

Dinner at Céleste’s

The third scenario in this chapter is the oddest bit of invention in the novel thus far. Its focus is “a strange little woman” who asks to share Meursault’s table at the restaurant. The highly particularized list of details regarding the woman’s appearance and behavior is explicable only if we grant the premises of literary realism. The literary realist is bent on recording the random details of everyday life. If we ask what claim these random details have on us, the literary realist (in this case Camus) would base his or her answer on the principle known as verisimilitude (“lifelikeness”). If it happens in real life, the writer of realism claims, it should interest us.

The episode is so loaded with particularized details that we might initially be inclined to think there is no universal human experience here. But that is always a risky thing to assume about literature. Coming through all of the details in this episode is a very universal experience, namely, eccentricity of character. Anyone who doubts it needs to take a trip to the local fast food restaurant.

For reflection or discussion: The self-imposed task of good practitioners of literary realism is to make the mundane so striking that it will interest the reader. Does Camus succeed with you in this brief episode? We can also ponder how the last sentence of the episode provides an interpretive framework: “I thought about how peculiar she was but forgot her a few minutes later.”

A Man and His Dog

Surprisingly, Maursault’s interaction with his neighbor Salamano gets the most space in the chapter. Predictably, the point of entry for the conversation is Salamano’s still-lost dog. That telescopes into a history of how Salamano came to possess the dog in the first place, and by a logic all its own yields a brief biography of Salamano, including his marital history. Salamano becomes an even more sympathetic figure in our imagination than with his grief over his lost dog in the previous chapter.

Then a chain of connections unfolds as it often does in real life. Salamano tells Meursault that his mother was fond of the dog. With the mother now introduced into the conversation, Salamano naturally offers his condolences. Meursault remains silent. Then we get a major piece of foreshadowing, though on a first reading we have no way of knowing it. Salamano offers the information that people in the neighborhood had “said nasty things about” Meursault (Gilbert translation) because he sent his mother to “the home.” Characteristically, Meursault is surprised that people would speak ill of him regarding his mother. Equally telling is the detail that for years Meursault’s mother “never had a word to say to me” (Gilbert translation).

For reflection or discussion: On a first reading, we have no way of knowing that the exchange with Salamano is the last evening of normal life for Meursault. If we grant the premise that these two or three pages draw a boundary around Meursault’s regular life, what are the keynotes? One of my standard test formats is to print a passage and ask my students to generalize about how the passage epitomizes or typifies the specific author or work from which the passage has been taken; how does the concluding unit dealing with Salamano and Meursault epitomize the novel up to this point?

Part 1, Chapter 6

Plot Summary

This chapter is by far the longest we’ve read in The Stranger. It is also the turning point in the plot (not to be confused with the climax). The chapter narrates what happens on the Sunday that Meursault, Marie, and Raymond spend at the beach. An ominous note emerges while the threesome wait for the bus when they see the Arabs who have a grudge against Raymond. Raymond’s friend who invited the group to his bungalow is identified as Masson. The morning is hot and uneventful, and lunch is accompanied by heavy drinking and smoking. The return to the beach is marked by even more intense heat and the appearance of Raymond’s antagonists. Fisticuffs ensue, and then the troublesome Arabs disappear, followed by more heat. “Raymond’s man” reappears, and Meursault, who carries Raymond’s gun, shoots the Arab five times.

Looking Backward

So much happens in this packed chapter that it is hard to know where to begin. The story takes a surprise twist, with more surprises to follow in part two. In a story that takes a fateful turn halfway through, it is important to stop and take stock of what has happened up to the turning point. This is especially appropriate in a murder story, where it is standard practice to track backward in search for an explanation of the murder. Additionally, in this story, at Meursault’s trial the prosecutor and jury will claim that Meursault was a murderer at heart long before he pulled the trigger five times.

So as readers we need to ask if anything in the first five chapters would lead us to suspect that Meursault would murder. I propose that we do not. If anything, Meursault existed in our imaginations as an unduly passive person. He is a modern-day pagan, devoid of spiritual sensitivities and preoccupied with physical life. His neighbors would probably tell an investigating policeman that he was basically a good person—-a little odd, to be sure, but certainly not someone who might be expected to carry a gun and shoot someone to death.

This is not to deny that once the murder has been committed a clinical counselor or detective might draw negative conclusions about the data with which we as readers have been presented in the first five chapters. But that is hindsight and requires reinterpreting the data in light of the fact that a crime has been committed. For the moment, my focus is on what we have been led to expect before the fateful Sunday.

For reflection or discussion: I have tipped my hand on the question of whether we have been given prior information that might account for Meursault’s crime; my readers might reach other conclusions. Should someone have called Meursault to the attention of the police before the Sunday in question?

Murder Story

At a descriptive level, chapter six should be scrutinized and enjoyed as an archetypal murder story (one of the best, in my view). A good murder story takes readers through the experiences as the murderer undergoes them. The writer in this genre must tell us enough to make the murder suitably vivid in our imagination. I tell my students that the first obligation for readers is to relive the text (in this case a story) as fully as possible. As we read or reread chapter six, we need to luxuriate in the details that Camus invented for us.

Then as we become more analytic we can start to arrange the individual details into a hierarchy of importance. All the invented details help us relive the event, but some of the details have more influence on the eventual murder. Alternatively, if we decide that none of the details rises to the level of being more determinative than others, that, too, might explain the murder.

Most real-life murders we read about in the newspaper or see covered on television boil down to interpersonal relations and motivations arising from those relationships, such as thwarted love or greed. Or, if the crime is committed against a stranger, at least we can see motivations such as robbery, cover-up to rape, or payment for a “hit.” It is natural, therefore, to comb chapter six looking for conventional motivations for murder. When we do, I believe we come up empty.

But we learn a lot from the physical sensations that dominate Meursault’s Sunday. The sun and heat are obviously major “players” in the drama. So is the excessive drinking and smoking at lunchtime. At a key moment Meursault is desperate to reach a certain stream of cool water. The presence of a stalking antagonist naturally unnerves Meursault. Of course the stalking Arab draws a knife, but it is less the threat of attack than the piercing light glinting off the knife’s blade that produces the gun shot. If we grant the premise that Camus wants us to experience the murder as primarily caused by physical sensations, we can admire the skill with which Camus managed the feat. Certainly the murder itself is expressed as a riot of sensations, in writing so dense with imagery that it ranks as poetic prose.

For reflection or discussion: At the level of narrative and descriptive technique, what do you like best about Camus’s writing in this chapter? If you imagine yourself to be a creative writing teacher and chapter six were turned in to you, what would you praise? Then as you shift from your role as a hypothetical writing teacher to that of a hypothetical detective who has been handed this homicide, what are your tentative conclusions about how the murder happened? What would you say to the chief of police or local media? Additionally, we can build bridges to our own life and times. We read or hear about murders nearly every day; what light does this fictional murder shed on real-life murders? Finally, we should never lose sight of the fact that literature presents universal human experience for our contemplation; what features of your experience do you see in heightened form in this chapter (experiences such as the oppressive effect of immediate physical environment)?

What Camus Really Does in This Chapter

I tell my students that great writers do not bypass what the general populace wants in a story. They simply do something more profound with the conventions. As intimated in my commentary, at the surface level Camus gives us all of the conventional and sensational details of a murder story. As a murder story it is a cut above the usual television detective drama, with more subtlety in the telling. But Camus did not bang out chapter six on his typewriter primarily to entertain us with a skillfully crafted murder story.

So what did Camus really intend with chapter six? Camus composed The Stranger as a writer of social protest. He had grievances against modern society. We must remember the extreme poverty in which Camus grew up in Algiers. Camus was also a philosopher with a particular bent toward a view of life called absurdism. It can be assumed that Camus despised the status quo of modern life and the conventionally minded people who adapted their expectations to what modern life afforded them. Camus was also an existentialist with a strong commitment to individualism and the revolt of the individual against society.

Additionally, I want to revisit the commentary that Camus himself made on this story in the preface to an American edition of the book (as noted in an earlier posting). Here is what Camus said about his protagonist:

The hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this respect he is foreign to the society in which he lives. . . .  He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened. . . .  One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth (Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. Philip Thody, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Alfred A. Knop, 1968, pp. 335-337).

In the same preface, Camus makes the preposterous claim that “in our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” The statement is obviously hyperbolic, but the literary imagination always heightens the issues with which it engages. Camus seems to have taken on the challenge to compose a story in which society would condemn a man for not weeping at his mother’s funeral. He accordingly composed a story of an “innocent” murder devoid of any conventional motivation. What Camus needs is something to land his protagonist in the courtroom, where in fact he is convicted of murder for reasons other than murdering.

So we reread chapter six to see the homicide is devoid of conventional motivation. We should particularly scrutinize the last two pages, where actual murder occurs. The sentence that narrates Meursault’s pulling of the trigger is famous. Pulling the trigger is handled in such a way as to remove the element of volition on Meursault’s part: “The trigger gave.” That’s absurd, we protest, which is exactly  Camus’s strategy in this absurdist novel.

Having mentioned Camus’s absurdist hero, I also need to flag two sentences that might otherwise whirr past us. One is Meursault’s conclusion that “just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire—-and it would come to absolutely the same thing” (Gilbert translation; Ward translation: “It was then that I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot”). A little later we read, “To stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing.” Here is the return of Meursault’s inability to arrange life into a hierarchy and to attach normal human meaning to events (all of which assume an equal importance in Meursault’s mind).

For reflection or discussion: In a chapter so dense with sensory images, it would appear on the surface that Meursault acted with full volition and awareness of what he was doing. Running counter to that motif, though, is the idea of a murder that happens without human volition; what passages or details fill out this pattern, culminating in statement that the trigger that simply “gave”? And how does the chapter reinforce the picture of an absurd hero? This chapter takes us through the events leading up to the murder in such a way that we are led to feel that the murder had a certain logic to it; what is that logic?

Looking Forward

Even if we are familiar with this story and already know what happens in part two, it is important that we reach tentative conclusions about what should happen to Meursault now that he has murdered. We need to temporarily exclude from consideration what happens at Meursault’s trial. Obviously Meursault needs to be arrested and brought to trial for having murdered someone. Witnesses at the trial can be expected to say something about extenuating circumstances that help to explain how the murder happened. Perhaps a psychological profile will clarify Meursault’s pathological inability to attach normal emotion to what happens in his life. Such a profile on the one hand might be the basis for leniency, since Merusault is by nature a passive personality who poses no threat to society, but on the other hand he might seem like a psychopath who feels no regret for wrongdoing. In any case, Meursault will ultimately be convicted on the basis of his having pulled the trigger of a pistol.

For reflection or discussion: Perhaps your own tentative conclusions about the normal course of events that might now be expected to follow will differ from what I’ve offered.  Additionally, you might profitably predict what will happen in Meursault’s mind now that he has (in his own words at the end of the chapter) knocked “on the door of my undoing (Gilbert translation; Ward:  “door of unhappiness”).

Part 2, Chapter 1

Plot Summary

This chapter is devoted to Meursault’s interviews with the examining magistrate and his court-appointed lawyer. Depending on our familiarity with television programs in the genre of The First 48, Mersault’s examination follows a thoroughly familiar contour. As readers we have prior information about the defendant and the circumstances of the murder, but the people who interrogate Meursault start “from scratch.” Dialogue replaces the first-person narrative that dominated part one. This chapter revisits the events of part one but this time in the interrogative mood and with a concern to explain events for someone who did not live through them as we did.

Entering a Legal World

In my commentary on the opening chapters of The Stranger, I stressed the idea of a narrative world. I quoted a literary critic who observed that we begin as outside spectators of the narrative world but rather quickly become residents. Part two transports us to an entirely different world from part one, and the opening chapter of part two initiates us. It is a judicial and penal world governed by the protocol of legal proceedings. The physical locations for part two will be the prison and the courtroom, and the time span will be approximately one year. For me, no other literary work catch match this one for making me feel what it is like to be imprisoned and on trial.

For Meursault, too, life in prison is an initiation. He confides with a sense of novelty and surrealism, “I had read descriptions of scenes like this in books.” By the end of the chapter Meursault (after 11 months in prison) finds the examination routine so familiar that he feels as though he belongs to the same family with the magistrate and lawyer.

For reflection or discussion: One of the unifying strands in chapter one is the protagonist’s initiation into his new life as an accused criminal. He (being the narrator of the story) records the story of his early perplexity with prison life and legal proceedings and his eventual acceptance. What moments or statements by Meursault contribute to his story of initiation? What do we learn as he records his adjustment to this world? Additionally, if Meursault responds to the judicial and penal world, so do we. How? Although this world may be remote from ours, we can safely assume that the nature of judicial proceedings in chapter one is universal.

Trying to Make Sense of the Criminal and His Crime

A second stream that flows through chapter one is the attempt of society to explain the exact nature of Meursault’s crime and reach an understanding of the criminal. This attempt by society to explain the murder will keep building to a grand crescendo in the chapters that follow, culminating at the trial.

For example, Meursault’s behavior at his mother’s funeral emerges as a leading concern already in this chapter. The lawyer informs his client that an inquiry into events surrounding his mother’s funeral had yielded a verdict by observers in Marengo that Meursault had been unfeeling and insensitive. Further, the lawyer insists that it is important to his defense that Meursault offer a rebuttal to the charge of having been insensitive.

A litany of further questions belongs to the motif of society’s quest to find a logical explanation for Meursault’s behavior. Did Meursault love his mother? Why did Meursault fire five consecutive shots? Why did he pause between the first and second shots? Does Meursault regret what he did?

As readers we already know the answers to much of what the magistrate and lawyer attempt to discover. We know their questions miss the mark. The literary term for this discrepancy is dramatic irony. It results when readers know more than one or more characters in a story know. This chapter is a grand display of irony, as a conventionally minded society assumes certain things about Meursault and his behavior that we know to be wrong. Still, we can grant that under ordinary circumstances their presumptions would be valid.

For reflection or discussion: Trace (a) the implied explanations the magistrate and lawyer impose on the events of part one, and (b) the degree to which these explanations distort how Meursault experienced those events. Camus is pursuing a persuasive agenda of getting us to share his viewpoint toward society. What is that viewpoint, as embodied in an incipient critique of society’s misguided attempts to explain everything in conventional ways? In turn, how do you assess the magistrate and lawyer as they spin Meursault’s actions?

Social Critique

We also need to take an initial foray into something that will become a major preoccupation of the novel by the time it ends—-namely, the picture of the judicial system that Camus puts before us. I do not make any prejudgment about how individual readers will assess the court system of the novel. But I will make some preliminary points about it.

First, society obviously needs a system of prosecution, trial, and judgment as a prerequisite to civilization. Someone who commits murder needs to be arrested and imprisoned, and then he needs to be tried with as much data on the table as possible. In principle, then, as readers we respect figures of law like the magistrate and lawyer.

Second, though, we can hardly fail to be disturbed by much of what parades in front of us. As storyteller, Camus influences our responses simply by virtue of the details that he put into the story. The storyteller always controls what we see and don’t see. The question that the magistrate finds most crucial (and to which he continually returns) is why Meursault waited between the first and second shots. An irrelevant detail has been allowed to take “center stage” in the mind of the examining magistrate, and as readers we are duly critical.

Along these lines, the lawyer and magistrate themselves betray a note of cynicism about the legal proceedings. For example, when Meursault offers the opinion that his behavior at his mother’s funeral has no connection with the murder charge, the lawyer replies that this simply shows he has never had any dealings with the law. Late in the chapter we read that the magistrate seemed to have lost interest in Meursault’s case.

For reflection or discussion: Almost from the start of this story, a double judgment arises within us—-against Meursault and against his society. How do you respond to society as represented by the magistrate, lawyer, and larger social institution that we call “the law”?

Meursault Revisited

Every chapter I have covered thus far, including this one, winds its way to the ongoing characterization of Meursault as an absurdist hero. In fact, several moments in this chapter rank in memorability with Meursault asserting that “nothing had changed” with the death of his mother and telling Marie that they would get married if she was keen on it.

This chapter heightens the motif. When asked if he felt sadness on the day of his mother’s funeral, Meursault claims that “the question struck me as an odd one” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “The question caught me by surprise”). When asked if he was sorry for the murder he had committed, Meursault replies that he “felt kind of annoyed” (Gilbert: “less regret than a kind of vexation”). And then there are the now-customary references to Meursault’s inattentiveness due to the heat.

For reflection or discussion: Continue to view yourself as the observant companion of the protagonist. Whatever else Camus is saying in this novel, the most important aspect of that message is embodied in the protagonist. How do your understanding and assessment of the absurdist hero grow in this chapter?

The Case of the Crucifix-Toting Magistrate

The most unexpected and mysterious ingredient in this chapter is the major space allotted to the moment when the magistrate turns evangelist. Out of nowhere the magistrate pulls a crucifix out of his file cabinet, asserts that he believes in God, and proclaims the gospel of forgiveness in Christ exactly as a Christian believer would proclaim it. He then proceeds to ask Meursault if he believes in God and is exasperated when Meursault says that he does not believe.

The storyteller plants devices of disclosure to guide a reader in the direction of a desired response. In fact, the author’s success in conveying the intellectual meaning of a work and persuading a reader to accept it as truthful depends on planting the right cues. I see nothing in chapter one that constitutes a device of disclosure in regard to the evangelistic magistrate. I do note, however, that at the end of the chapter Meursault records that “he didn’t talk to me about God anymore, and I never saw him as worked up as he was that first day.” The Gilbert translation renders it more vividly and with nuance: “He never mentioned God again or displayed any of the religious fervor I had found so embarrassing at our first interview.”

Much depends on the degree of credibility that we personally accord to the magistrate. But not everything depends on that judgment. The magistrate’s message accurately reflects Christian doctrine, regardless of how feel toward him. Equally, we are led to understand that rejecting Christian belief is part of the protagonist’s identity.

For reflection or discussion: It is hard to know what to make of the Christian note thrust so conspicuously into this chapter. Since we are left on our own to interpret, I’m eager to observe in the comments section what you think. At the very least we need to say that Camus shows a correct understanding of the gospel of forgiveness in Christ. But the novel does not say what Camus intended with this placement of the gospel into his story at an unexpected point. What do you think Camus intended?

Part 2, Chapter 2

Plot Summary

The preceding chapter was devoted to interrogation; we can label this follow-up chapter “life in prison.” We are led vicariously to experience the physical sensations, psychological pressures, and boredom of life behind bars. Meursault’s life in prison is recounted as a surrealistic phantasmagoria of unpleasant sounds, suffocating enclosed spaces, fellow prisoners, and visits from Marie (speaking through a grate 30 feet away). Meursault assigns a chronology to the phases—-first thinking like a free man and imagining doing the things he had done before, and then entering a phrase of thinking like a prisoner. We are given a litany of deprivations (of sexual relations with a woman, of cigarettes, of a sense of time) and of things that filled Meursault’s time (chiefly sleep as the days unfolded).

Life in Prison

As always, we need to begin at an observational level and relinquish any urge to make immediate ideational sense of what we are reading. Shakespeare’s Hamlet instructed the visiting troupe of players to “hold the mirror up to nature,” and that is what Camus does in this chapter. For people who will never find themselves imprisoned, this chapter comes as close as they will get to being there. The whole experience comes alive with such vividness that one might suppose that Camus had endured the experience of being imprisoned, but apparently the chapter is the product of his fertile imagination.

Our first responsibility with this chapter is to relive the experiences that it places before us as vividly as possible. When we do, we undergo a nightmare experience. What is the good of undergoing such an experience? Before I answer, I will observe that just as some of my best insights into works of literature have come from religious books and articles, so also some of my most helpful insights into the Christian life have come from literary critics in completely secular contexts. One of them comes from a literary critic writing about James Joyce’s craft of fiction in The Dubliners: “One constant and immediate effect may be said to characterize our reading experience: an enlarged sense of being more self-critical and at the same time compassionate” (Epifania San Juan, James Joyce and the Craft of Fiction, Farleigh Dickenson University Press, 1972, p. 246).

These are two of the benefits of absorbing chapter two. Reading the sickening account of life in a prison can enlarge our sense of compassion for people there. And to the extent that we never or rarely experience that compassion, we can allow our encounter with chapter two to make us more self-critical about such negligence.

For reflection or discussion: Out of the mass of details that the chapter places before us, which ones stand out? How would you apply the principle stated by the literary critic quoted above?

Incipient Symbolism

It can be readily demonstrated that the masters of literary realism do more than simply record the details of everyday life. They use those details to capture a larger sense of life. To adapt a metaphor that C. S. Lewis uses in his classic (and brief) essay entitled “On Stories,” the details with which a work of realism bombards us are a net whereby the author captures something universal.

To achieve this, writers of realism plant a latent symbolism in the details that they describe. For example, in a novel whose title is sometimes rendered as The Outsider, we naturally look for signs that the protagonist is an isolated figure. The scene early in chapter two when Marie visits Meursault provides an example. In the visitors’ room, visitors and inmates are not only have an iron grid in front of them, but between the grids “there was a gap of some thirty feet, a sort of no man’s land between the prisoners and their friends” (Gilbert translation). Even more symbolism emerges from this scene of separation when we read that “the babel of voices” (Gilbert; Ward: “sound”) was so confusing to Meursault that it made him dizzy.

Here is another example. During a conversation with the chief jailer, Merusault brings up the subject of being deprived of women. When Meursault protests that this is unfair, the jailer replies that this is the point, like hitting a man when he is down. When Merusault expresses perplexity, the jailer explains that the deprivation of liberty makes the experience a punishment. Merusault on his own initiative later attaches that same meaning to his being deprived of cigarettes (also noting that when he ceased to crave cigarettes, the deprivation ceased to be a punishment).

For reflection or discussion: Part of the artistry and profundity of literary realism is the symbolism that works its way into the text despite the realistic creed of merely recording the details of everyday life. Combing this chapter for examples is one avenue toward sensing the significance of Camus’s account of life in prison. The confining setting of the prison is itself a symbol for a pessimistic writer like Camus, sending the message that life is a prison.

Literary Naturalism

In an earlier section I defined naturalism as a literary movement and technique, and I labeled The Stranger a naturalistic novel. This resurfaces strongly in chapter two. I have already noted the sense of isolation that pervades Meursault’s life behind bars. The isolation of the individual is a constant theme in naturalistic fiction.

The most naturalistic thing about chapter two is the overwhelming sense of pessimism that Meursault expresses and that we feel as we read. The pessimism sets in right at the outset. Meursault tells us that in his early days in prison he did not feel like a prisoner. He always had “a vague hope that something would turn up, some agreeable surprise” (Gilbert translation). The Ward translation reads, “I was sort of waiting for something to happen.”

The momentary inoculation against feeling like a prisoner is shattered when Marie discovers that because she is not Meursault’s wife, she will not be allowed to visit him. Meursault immediately comes to the pessimistic conclusion that “this cell was my last home, a dead end, so to speak” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “I felt that I was at home in my cell and that my life was coming to a standstill there.”). From there to the end of the chapter we are weighed down by the pessimism of what we vicariously experience. Detail after detail is so haunting that the tears are right at the surface or above the surface as we read.

Where is the entertainment value of such fiction? I do not find it, but I nonetheless read the chapter because entertainment is only half of the literary equation. The other half is that literature is a window to the world, a bringer of knowledge in the form of right seeing (getting me to see life accurately), and an embodiment of important ideas (not all of which I accept as true).

Where is the edification of chapter two? It exists at multiple levels, though it is up to me to read from a Christian viewpoint to reach that destination. My preferred way into this line of inquiry begins with the second question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism:

How many things are necessary for you to know, for you to live and die happily? Three; the first, how great my sins and misery are; the second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.

A piece of fiction like chapter two lays out the misery of the fallen condition, and it moves me to gratitude for what I have been delivered from.

In an earlier posting I quoted a line from T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. The final choral speech of that play is a song of praise modeled on the Old Testament genre of the praise psalm. One of the lines is, “The darkness declares the glory of light.” I regularly invoke this line when teaching modern literature, making the additional point that the statement is of comfort and use only to those who are in Christ.

Obviously I have resorted to an approach to literature called reader response criticism. Its premise is that we assimilate literature in terms of what we bring to the text, including our worldview. Camus belongs to what one literary critic calls the pessimistic consciousness of modern European literature. Knowing that, we can safely conclude that Camus offers the pessimism of this novel as his assessment of life’s possibility. He writes a story about an anti-hero because that is his estimate of what life in the modern world offers. A Christian does not agree.

For reflection or discussion: The commentary above barely scratches the surface regarding the pessimism that settles into the novel in this chapter; what other haunting examples do you find? How do you as a reader assimilate such pessimism?

Making Connections

Northrop Frye, the dominant literary critic in the last half of the 20th century, was an advocate of archetypal criticism and attuned to the recurrent conventions of literature. One of his most helpful observations was that when we read a work of literature we do not remain within the world of that particular work. As we read we are continuously reminded of other literary examples of the same genre or image or character or plot motif.

My repertoire of prison fiction is nearly non-existent, but I am hoping that my readers can expand the canon of such fiction. The only other novel that I teach that portrays life in a prison and a courtroom trial is The Brothers Karamazov, in which Dmitri Karamazov ends up in prison and on trial when he is accused of murdering his father. The parallels to The Stranger are numerous.

But I am not limited to fiction for connections. The moment I read that Meursault struck up a friendship “with the chief jailer” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “head guard”), I zoomed in my imagination to the story of Joseph in prison as narrated in Genesis 40. Of course the contrast between Joseph and Meursault packs the punch, a contrast between being an agent of God’s redemptive providence and a life of mere existence.

Joseph is not the only person who lived a godly and redemptive life in prison. As the author and teacher of a correspondence school course on the Bible as literature, I have had a steady stream of students who take the course while being incarcerated. They are often talented students of the Bible. Occasionally these correspondents become long-term friends. One of them, now living in freedom, writes me an annual Christmas letter that is enough to give me a spiritual “high” for weeks. When I reread Camus’s depressing picture of Meursault’s life in prison, I do so with awareness that being in Christ or not being in Christ is the great gulf not only for prisoners but for all people.

For reflection or discussion: I wonder if my readers can expand my awareness of works of fiction, biography, or autobiography that portray life in prison. If so, how does Camus’s masterpiece of realism in this genre stack up?

Part 2, Chapter 3

Plot Summary

The subject of this long chapter is the first day of Meursault’s trial. We are never allowed to lose sight of the fact that it is a hot day. The events that make up the chapter are familiar to any real-life or fictional trial: entry of the accused into the courtroom, a panorama of various people and groups in the courtroom, the official protocol of calling witnesses, questioning by lawyers, interspersed commentary by lawyers, gradual assembling of data by the prosecution. Storytellers love courtroom scenes because of the human drama they contain, and Camus “works” the situation to the maximum by inventing a long trial scene. Not wishing to become interpretive in this brief plot summary, I will nonetheless note that this chapter has a hidden plot conflict in addition to the obvious conflict between the accused and the prosecutor. It is the conflict between how Meursault experienced the events covered in part one of the novel and the sinister and fanciful twist that the prosecutor places on those events.

Courtroom Drama

The courtroom trial genre of chapter three is well-defined and extremely popular. From one point of view, the courtroom trial has all the ingredients of a good story. The essence of plot is conflict, and in a trial scene the conflict is a variation on the martial theme of single combat, as the focus of hostility is the interaction between the accused (the defendant) and the accuser (the prosecutor). The stakes of combat—-life and death—-are momentous.

Other plot staples are also highlighted in trial scenes. The elements of suspense and surprise explode in a good trial scene. When the trial begins, we have no clear picture of what evidence will emerge and what interpretations will be placed on it. We are repeatedly surprised. But what if we already know the eventual verdict? In his classic essay “On Stories,” C. S. Lewis used the formula “ideal surprisingness” to name a quality of stories like Little Red Ridinghood to denote a perpetual quality of surprise in good suspense stories. Additionally, all good trial scenes have something of the riddle at their core.

Good plots possess a quality of discovery that gradually unfolds with events. Things keep changing. As readers, we begin chapter three assuming that we know everything about Meursault and the murder, but in fact we learn a fair amount of new information as the chapter progresses. We experience the novel along with the first-person narrator, and if we follow Meursault’s account of the trial we can see that he, too, discovers a lot: people in the courtroom loathe him, and the prosecutor is manipulating the evidence in ways that could not have been imagined.

In addition to all of the riches of plot that I have been noting, we can consider the characters in this courtroom drama. They are vividly portrayed and varied. Storytellers love battle and courtroom stories because they allow for the portrayal of character under pressure. The characterization of the prosecutor is a story all by itself, and his chief trait is cleverness in manipulating data.

Courtroom protocol is yet another level of excitement in a trial scene. The list is extensive: entry of persons, call to order, choosing of the jury, reporters with fountain pens poised, preliminary questioning of the defendant, calling and questioning of witnesses, responses of observers, addressing of the jury, and so on.

For a reader eager to get to the “message” of this novel, my emphasis on the dynamics of plot and characterization might seem a trivial exercise. But it is not. One of the purposes of literature is to be entertaining and provide the materials for rewarding leisure. There is more to chapter three than what I have covered, but that is where we need to start, and not to feel apologetic about enjoying a really good trial scene.

For reflection or discussion: All I have done so far is name the ingredients of a good courtroom story; the payoff comes when we are aware of those elements as we read. What are the noteworthy instances of conflict, suspense, surprise, and discovery that you relish? How does Camus exploit the resources of characterization? What draws you into this episode?

Clever Prosecutor

I propose that the central character of chapter three is the prosecutor. Once the trial gets started, he instigates the action. We first notice his assertiveness in pursuing an apparently pre-planned line of inquiry designed to yield a guilty verdict. He pushes witnesses around under his relentless questioning. He is like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello in stage-managing characters, getting them to do what he wants.

In addition to this assertiveness, the prosecutor is adept at distorting evidence. Later I will theorize about what Camus intends with the prosecutor’s line of reasoning, but for the moment I would like my readers to go with the flow of what unfolds. I don’t think the prosecutor is devoted to uncovering the truth. He seems rather to be engaged in a personal vendetta against Meursault. For readers who agree, the dynamic of what is happening is one that storytellers often employ. Camus creates a situation in which readers or spectators want to intervene and rein in a character who is in the process of destroying someone. The more we feel a need to do so and simultaneously feel our own helplessness, the more the story exerts its power over us.

I am claiming a deviousness about the prosecutor. Yet there is complexity even in this. It is entirely just that Meursault be found guilty. He is a murderer and deserves to be punished. Why, then, does the prosecutor build a case on irrelevant details? Because Camus has a philosophic or worldview agenda that he is pushing.

For reflection or discussion: I have presented my view of the prosecutor. I invite my readers to record their “take” on the prosecutor.

Absurdist Worldview from a New Angle

In my commentary on part one, I repeatedly offered Meursault as an absurd hero—-a protagonist who embodies an absurdist view of life. Camus himself accorded Meursault a much fuller definition of hero. In the introduction to an American edition of the novel that I referenced in earlier articles, Camus expressed his view that Meursault is “heroic” and someone who “agrees to die for the truth.”

At several earlier points I also asserted that a double judgment arises in us as we read—-against Meursault but also against his society. But until now the judgment against Meursault’s society is a verdict on its moral depravity and evil. Something new enters with chapter three.

It now emerges that more than Meursault is absurd; so is his society. We get the same message from two angles. I am reminded of a similar strategy in T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot embodies his Christian viewpoint in two forms—-in the life of an exemplary Christian martyr, and in the coming to saving faith of the chorus (identified as the poor women of Canterbury). In a parallel manner, the absurdist view of The Strangerresides in the central character and also in the society that he inhabits.

We get premonitions of absurdist society in this chapter. It is mainly situated in the behavior of the prosecutor and consists of the case that he builds against the accused. This theme first surfaces when the prosecutor asks Meursault why he sent his mother to a retirement home. Then Meursault’s failure to weep at his mother’s funeral is paraded before the jury as condemning evidence against the defendant. He had smoked at his mother’s wake and drunk coffee. And that is only the beginning of absurdities, which culminate in the prosecutor’s claim that Meursault was “already a criminal at heart” (Gilbert translation). There is a sense in which all people are murderers (or something else) at heart, but it is absurd to put a person on trial for that.

For reflection or discussion: Earlier I praised chapter three as a suspense story possessing one surprise after another; tracing the unpredictable logic of the prosecutor is one way to relish Camus’s skill in creating a story of surprises. I also offered the view that by composing a story in which a man is on the verge of being convicted on irrelevant grounds is pressed in the service of asserting an absurdist view of the world; how does this work itself out as the chapter unfolds? What are the most absurd details in the prosecutor’s statements?

Meursault in New Light

A great story keeps asking us to revise our understanding as the story unfolds. I believe that is true in regard to our assessment of Meursault, starting in chapter three. I cannot see that up to this point Meursault has any redeeming qualities. He is sensual, unfeeling, hedonistic, incapable of attaching normal human meaning to the events in his life, enslaved to immediate sensation, in many ways living a subhuman existence.

This indictment of Merusault continues in the trial scene of chapter three. I consider it to be the subordinate theme in the characterization of Meursault in this chapter, but we need to trace it as the chapter unfolds. Meursault remains abnormally sensitive to heat, and the familiar references to his inability to follow what is happening continue. Surely we believe that Meursault’s quick dismissal of his mother’s death on the weekend after he took up with Marie reflects deficient behavior.

But we come to sympathize with Meursault as we see him victimized by the bullying prosecutor. I believe Camus composed the chapter to generate sympathy for Meursault from start to finish. Virtually the first thing that Meursault learns is that “the court will dispatch your case as quickly as possible, as it isn’t the most important one” (Gilbert translation).  In keeping with what I said in an earlier posting about an incipient symbolism at work in the story, we can see here the belittling of the individual that Camus protests.

But the huge surge of sympathy that Camus generates for his protagonist comes when the prosecutor bases his case against Meursault on irrelevancies. One example out of many is the prosecutor’s claim that when offered a cup of coffee at the funeral home Meursault should have refused it out of respect to the mother who brought him into the world.

Two other strands are introduced to make us sympathize with Meursault. One is the loyalty of friends who testify on his behalf. We instinctively side with them and against the prosecutor. Additionally, we can see that Meursault is being unfairly cast in a negative light by the prosecutor. As readers we were privy on the basis of part one of the novel to many of the events misrepresented by the prosecutor (and sometimes correctly presented by Meursault’s friends on the witness stand).

For reflection or discussion: Make a mental or marginal note of the places in the chapter where you sympathize with Meursault. What do you think Camus intends with this shift in our attitude toward Meursault?

Part 2, Chapter 4

Plot Summary

The action centers on the last day of Meursault’s trial. It is the climax not only of the trial but also of the novel, inasmuch as the preceding chapter left us hanging in regard to the outcome of the trial and the next chapter (the last) strikes us a tying up the lose ends (the technical name for which is denouement). A sense of doom hovers over the chapter. The prosecutor sums up his case against Meursault, the lawyer for the defense raises counter arguments, Meursault intermittently shares his responses to what is happening, and the jury’s verdict is stated (a determination that Meursault was “to have [his] head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people”). Analysis of the chapter falls naturally into four subjects: (1) the continuing courtroom drama, (2)  the perverseness of the prosecutor in interpreting the data in ways contrary to how events actually happened, (3) the critique of the judicial system that is evident in all of the proceedings, and (4) the continuing characterization of Meursault.

Further Drama in the Courtroom

When we started to read the novel, there was nothing to suggest that the second half would be a trial story. There are plausible reasons why Camus chose a story of trial as the vehicle for expressing his absurdist philosophy. For now, we need to go with the flow and open ourselves to the excitement of the trial in its final stages. I always read the chapter with my attention riveted on the drama of the last day of the trial.

Everything is at a white heat of emotion in this chapter. Right at the start of the chapter, both the defense lawyer and the prosecutor histrionically raise their hands as they speak in defense and accusation of the accused. And that is only the beginning of the fireworks. We can hardly avoid being intrigued by the way in which the prosecutor weaves together the events with which are familiar into an absolutely sinister sequence of crime committed by Meursault. The charges become increasingly outrageous, and as readers we are powerless to stop the momentum of the steamroller against Meursault.

We are only slightly less captivated by the defense lawyer’s alternative way of interpreting the defendant’s character and the events leading up to the murder. A good plot is built around an intense conflict, and the two opposing interpretations of Meursault and his crime meet that criterion. Then the suspense builds still more as the jury retires for nearly an hour, a bell rings, doors bang, silence pervades the courtroom, the punishment of decapitation is announced (somehow the pronouncement of guilt is omitted), and the defendant refuses to say anything when given the opportunity. For exciting courtroom action, it is hard to beat this.

For reflection or discussion: Literary portrayals of courtroom trials always tend toward the melodrama (heightened and sensational action). At this point both the unsophisticated reader and the literati are on equal footing: they simply enjoy a good story. As the lawyers present their opposing views of the defendant and his crime, we as readers inevitably and imperceptibly become jurors. We are busy agreeing or disagreeing with the dueling lawyers, and we subconsciously view the defendant in a positive or negative light as the evidence is paraded. The grip of such a story over us is irresistible. How does this work itself out for you?

The Prosecutor You Hope Never Gets Hold of You

For me, the prosecutor who accuses Meursault is in a very elite circle of great character creations that I label “ideally villainous villains.” Perhaps some of my readers will find him less offensive. Quite apart from his manipulation of the evidence, there is his surge of antagonism against Meursault. Destroying Meursault seems more important than ascertaining the truth.

Of course, most important are the prosecutor’s accusations and the logic of thinking. As the chapter unfolds, we have a case study in how to twist the data. Of course we need to acknowledge the accuracy of the events that are assembled. The defense lawyer agrees that these things happened. As readers we should become a courtroom lawyer: how would we interpret the events that the prosecutor puts on the table? Would we find any of these data relevant to a murder trial? The really relevant piece of information is that Meursault shot a man to death, but that is hardly mentioned.

The prosecutor uses the events to assassinate Meursault’s character. At the more extravagant moments of the prosecutor’s ravings we hear about Meursault as “a menace to society” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “an abyss threatening to swallow up society”), and as “a criminal devoid of the least spark of human feeling” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “a monster”). Over against such exaggeration we hear the picture painted by Meursault’s lawyer: “an honest man, a steadily employed, tireless worker . . . well liked, and sympathetic to the misfortunes of others. . . [someone who] had lost control of himself for one moment.” Surely this comes closer to the facts than the prosecutor’s speeches do.

For reflection or discussion: I have offered my opinion about the flimsiness of the prosecutor’s case and his skill in misrepresenting data; I wonder how others respond to the prosecutor and his case. Literary authors regularly create villainous characters for at least two reasons: (1) they give body to our own fears about forces of evil in our world, and (2) they are predictably effective in awakening strong reactions in readers or viewers. How does this apply to the portrayal of the prosecutor in chapter four?

Critique of the Judicial System

We know that Camus was what we call a social activist. He was variously a pacifist, communist, and anarchist. I am inclined to view his negative portrayal of the court system in this novel not so much as a grievance against the legal and judicial institutions specifically, but more against society and its institutions generically. Three things stand out in Camus’ portrayal of the judicial system in The Stranger.

The first thing to note in reading chapter four is the tone of mockery that underlies the portrayal. Tone is admittedly subjectively felt. I find the early gestures and verdicts of the two lawyers laughably robot-like: “Counsel for the defense raised his arms to heaven and pleaded guilty, but with extenuating circumstances [Ward translation: “with an explanation”]. The Prosecutor made similar gestures; he agreed that I was guilty, but denied extenuating circumstances.” Meursault is on trial for his life, and yet “there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings” (Gilbert translation). Meursault is understandably perplexed when his lawyer speaks of his client in the first person: “It is true I killed a man.” Meursault’s lawyer “seemed ridiculous” to him. As late as the retirement of the jury to reach a verdict, the lawyer babbles to his client “that the outcome will be favorable.”

Second, Camus composed the trial scene in such a way as to highlight the miscarriage of justice. It is not a miscarriage of justice that Meursault be found guilty, but virtually everything else that the prosecutor weaves into his seemingly logical argument is false. We know that from being privy to what was narrated in part one. For example, Meursault’s murder of the Arab was not premeditated. The truth is closer to what Meursault claims, which seems preposterous: “I blurted out that it was because of the sun.” Meursault’s arranging for his mother to enter a retirement home does not make him “morally guilty of killing his mother.” The chapter gradually becomes (like the preceding chapter) a masterpiece of irony.

Third, I propose that we should view this farcical trial as intended in a metaphoric sense. I am not aware of any reason to believe that Camus was on a crusade against the court system. In this novel Camus writes as an exponent of the view that the universe is absurd (and as will emerge in the next chapter, an exponent of existentialism). He is also a writer of social protest, in the larger sense of protesting the institutions (not just judicial) by which modern society absurdly runs its affairs. I would just observe that trial stories lend themselves to metaphoric and symbolic purposes, as when Shakespeare in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice weighs the merits of the Judaism based on the premise of law and Christianity based on an ethic of mercy.

For reflection or discussion: I have cited only a few points in support of my claim that a tone of mockery permeates the chapter; more examples reveal themselves. Similarly, the injustice in the court room is the main action. How do the prosecutor and jury represent a conspiracy against justice? How do the defense lawyer’s statements serve as a foil to that injustice?

Meursault at the End of His Tether

In this chapter the ongoing characterization of the protagonist makes its usual appearance. We should not overlook the repeated references (yet again) to the heat, the sun, and Meursault’s professed inability to concentrate or think clearly because of that oppressive physical environment. While these references primarily reinforce Meursault’s status as an anti-hero (a literary protagonist who lacks the conventional traits of a hero), by the time Camus mingles in phrases like “utter pointlessness” (Ward translation; Gilbert: “futility”) and “emptiness” and “interminable” (Gilbert), it is not a stretch to imagine that we are reliving the “under the sun” passages in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Second, the moral inadequacy of Meursault continues to revolt us. He admits the prosecutor’s claim that he “didn’t feel remorse” for the murder but expresses surprise by how relentless the prosecutor regards his lack of regret. That, then, expands into a broader acknowledgement from Meursault himself: “I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything. My mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow” (Ward translation; Gilbert: “I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.”).

Countering this strand of inhumanity, though, is a continuation of what we saw in the previous chapter as well, namely, the portrayal of a sympathetic side to Meursault. This sympathy consists primarily of the way in which the prosecutor and jury victimize Meursault by “throwing the book at him” on the basis of irrelevant and false data. We do not like to see anyone lied against and convicted on false data; in fact, a primal protest arises within us. But there are more positive grounds for our sympathy with Meursault as well. The courtroom loyalty of Meursault’s friends is moving. Additionally, there is that marvelous catalog of Meursault’s remembered pleasures evoked by the sound of an ice-cream vendor from the street outside the court room.

For reflection or discussion: What familiar motifs make a reappearance in the characterization of Meursault in this chapter? What deficiencies appall us yet again? Cutting the other way, at what moments in the chapter do you find yourself strangely moved to sympathy for Meursault? What do you theorize Camus intends with this ambivalent portrait of his protagonist (whom he considered a hero, we need to keep reminding ourselves)?

Part 2, Chapter 5

Plot Summary

The long last chapter is devoted to Meursault’s life in prison after his trial. While the trial scene ending with Meursault’s conviction is the climax of the story, it would be wrong to regard the last chapter as unimportant. On the contrary, Camus saved some of his most important philosophic material in the novel for the concluding chapter. The main action is interior and consists of Meursault’s thinking about his situation and about life. The only extended external event is a long conversation with the prison chaplain. It is easy to think that Meursault becomes the author’s alter ego in this chapter. The main subjects, in the order in which they are covered, are these: the idea that life is a machine in which the individual is trapped; the inevitability and finality of death; the importance of dawn in the daily routine; rejection of the Christian faith; the futility and meaninglessness of life.

Fictional Prison Memoir

Probably all of my readers are familiar with the genre of prison memoirs that recount the experiences and reflections of someone incarcerated in prison. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison is a familiar example. Chapter five chronicles the thoughts of a condemned prisoner on death row. Camus does a marvelous job of inventing what such an experience is like. I will record again the usefulness of a literary critic’s observation that our reading experiences should enlarge our sense of compassion.

One the themes of Meursault’s reflections is the sense of finality. He compares his imprisonment to a machine that dominates everything. Merusault reflects on the guillotine that will eventually execute him and concludes that the great injustice of the guillotine is that offers no chance of escape. In short, Meursault is highly conscious of life closing in on him and the end being near.

A minor thread in these fictional memoirs is Meursault’s recollections of his life in his parental home. He recalls statements of his mother that there is always something for which to be thankful, and as he builds his daily routine around being awake to see the dawn, he agrees with her. He recalls that when his mother settled in at the home she made a new start. He remembers that his father (whom he had never seen) once went to view an execution and upon arriving at home was sick in his stomach. This leads to Meursault to conclude that if he were ever to regain his freedom he would go to every execution that came along and go home and vomit; in fact, the very thought of it fills Meursault “with a wild, absurd exultation” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “wave of poisoned joy”).

The theme of the common life has been prominent in the novel (another link with the book of Ecclesiastes, where the positive passages repeatedly affirm the merest commonplaces of life), and it is kept alive in Meursault’s prison reflections. Despite the prevailing pessimism of this last chapter, our imaginations revive when Meursault describes the sounds and light of dawn, and the brief moment when Meursault lies down to enjoy the summer evening just before the chaplain arrives unannounced, and the starlit sky of the novel’s last paragraph.

For reflection or discussion: I have noted some of the reflections of Meursault about his prison existence, but others are present as well; what are they? It is nearly always a good exercise to put a given instance of a genre or archetype alongside other members of the same literary family. Meursault’s prison reflections are those of a secular unbeliever; comparisons to the prison writings of the apostle Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Charles Colson and Richard Wurmbrand will yield a lot.

"The Stranger" as an Existentialist Novel

It is common knowledge that The Stranger is an existentialist novel, and I have said nothing about this facet until now. While some of what I covered under the rubric of absurdism could have been pressed into the service of existentialism, I believe that this aspect of the novel is concentrated in the last chapter. A primer on existentialism would list the following overlapping traits:

  • Growing out of the individualism and subjectivism of 19th-century romanticism, an elevation of subjective experience as the standard of reality, with an attendant focus on individual consciousness.
  • Belief in the centrality of the individual human (a form of humanism), with an accompanying rejection of God and the Christian supernatural.
  • Obsession with the finality of death; living life under the shadow of death, with a resultant conviction that this robs life of meaning and makes all actions permissible; anxiety is important to some versions of existentialism (so-called existential angst).
  • Freedom to assert oneself without responsibility; belief that authenticating oneself in action is the essence of human existence.
  • Life itself as the goal of human existence.

This is a brief list; more extended definitions are readily available in print and online.

It is easy to see the degree to which Camus embodied an existentialist worldview in the life of his protagonist Meursault. The subjectivity of reality is mediated through the first-person narrator of the novel. Virtually everything in the book is a display of subjective consciousness, implying that this is what constitutes reality. Further, Meursault’s vision of reality is unique to him, as other characters as well as the reader are repeatedly baffled by his responses.

In existentialism, it is considered important that people authenticate themselves by doing whatever they want, and Meursault does. An incipient rebellion against the conventions of society is part of the picture. I think that we would all agree that Meursault flouts the conventions of society in both this thoughts and his actions.

The finality of death is perhaps the most strongly emphasized point of existentialism in the final chapter of the novel. Halfway through the chapter Meursault asserts, “Well, so I’m going to die. Sooner than other people will, obviously. But everybody knows that life isn’t worth living.” Again, “whether I died now or 40 years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably” (Gilbert translation). The inevitability of death and the way in which that inevitability robs life of meaning surfaces repeatedly in the debate with the priest.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his review of this book that helped to make it famous, was enthusiastic about Meursault as an existential hero. Sartre stressed the collapse of moral values that results from existential assumptions. Since God does not exist and people die, Sartre wrote, one experience is as good as another. Nothing characterizes Meursault more than this observation.

While existentialism is regarded as a modern movement, the humanistic impulse to make people central is as old as human existence. The dominant thread in Meursault’s make-up is his denial that life has meaning. But there is a subordinate strand that affirms life. Throughout the book there is a background chorus of passages in which Meursault records his pleasure in the commonplaces of life, especially nature. He keeps surprising us in this regard. On the last page of the novel we hear Meursault claiming that he had “been happy, and . . . was happy still” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “happy again”).

For reflection or discussion: I trust that my readers sense what a large subject for reflection, discussion, and application the traits of existentialism noted above have opened up. While some of the traits permeate the entire novel, chapter five provides adequate data to explore the existentialism of the book.

Rejection of Christianity

It would have been possible for Camus to espouse his existentialism without highlighting his rejection of Christianity. Instead he introduces that rejection into the last chapter very aggressively. Most of the leading voices of existentialist philosohpy made the rejection of Christianity an important part of their creed, probably because Christianity was the dominant belief system that needed to undergo a ritual slaying before any other belief system could be established.

The form in which Christianity is raised and refuted is the visit from the prison chaplain. The chapter opens with the announcement that Meursault has refused for the third time to see the prison chaplain. But in the last major event of the book, the chaplain visits Meursault without invitation. I do not find the chaplain an appealing person, but he makes a reasonable presentation of the facts of the Christian faith: the need to believe in God; the ever-present opportunity to turn to God in time of need; the acknowledgement that all people are under sentence of death and need the consolation of God in their final hour; the fact that all people are sinners and that divine justice (not human justice) is what matters; the certainty of an afterlife.

Meursault’s rejection of this Christian message is violent. At first he simply denies the doctrines that the priest sets forth. Then he becomes more aggressive in asserting his rejection. Finally he grabs the priest and starts shaking him and shouting at time about the finality of death and the meaninglessness of life.

For reflection or discussion: Two questions need to be answered about the introduction of Christianity into this chapter. (1) How adequate is the priest’s explanation of the Christian faith to a condemned man? (2) Exactly what aspects of the Christian faith does Meursault reject (and Camus through him)?

The Outsider

Chapter five is not only the last chapter of the novel; it is also the “last chapter” of our acquaintance with a famous fictional character. One of the ground rules of storytelling is that much of what the author intends to assert about life is embodied in the character and life of the protagonist. What are the metaphoric “famous last words” that Camus utters regarding his protagonist?

First, he portrays Meursault as a trapped and hopeless person, and in doing so offers his own pessimistic assessment of life’s possibilities. Meursault’s meditations early in the chapter repeatedly refer to the system of justice and his own life as a condemned prisoner to a machine from which no escape is possible. This, in turn, instills a sense of existiential despair and hopelessness. At the end of the chapter, after Meursault has assulated the chaplain, he concludes that “blind rage had . . . rid me of hope.”

Mainly, though, our final experience of Meursault is that of an outsider—-an alienated individual in the universe. That is where Camus’s choice of a crime story fits his worldview so thoroughly. Camus was a spokesman for the pessimistic European consciousness. Of course a story about an imprisoned man will be the story of a solitary outsider. This comes out strongest in the final sentences of the novel, which are only slightly less famous than the opening sentences. Emptied of hope, Meursault looks up at the night sky and opened himself to “the gentle indifference of the world” (Ward translation; Gilbert: “the benign indifference of the universe”). Even more striking, the last sentence of the novel is a picture to total alienation from society: “all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration” (Gilbert translation; Ward: “cries of hate”).

For reflection or discussion: What are your final feelings toward the protagonist of the novel? What aspect of the universal human condition are you willing to see in this picture of the outsider? Do you see it as a paradigm of the fallen human condition, and/or the New Testament picture of believers as aliens in the world?

Last Look

Ten Questions

Throughout my chapter-by-chapter guide through The Stranger, I have espoused the view that stories are literary wholes and that we must resist the urge to reach closure on what a book is saying until we have finished it. This is not to say that we cannot profitably raise worldview and moral vision questions along the way. If stories must be read as wholes, it is important to go one more step after we have read the last sentence. This last posting on The Stranger is a putting-it-all-together venture. Without taking this step, our experience of the story is incomplete.

In this retrospective on our analysis and discussion of The Stranger, I will pose ten clusters of questions accompanied by prompts. Then I will present catchy quotations from secular critics and Christian critics.

Question 1

In The Stranger, Camus is a storyteller first and a philosopher second. This is not a comment on the relative importance of those two but on the chronology by which we experience them. Whatever the novel says philosophically is embodied in the story. This means that we first need to absorb the story. My preferred entry point for getting a class to unify its experience of a literary author is to ask, What do you think this author is best at? With The Stranger as our example, what does Camus do best as a novelist?

Question 2

We then need to narrow the field slightly and focus on the genre of a work, in this case narrative or story. The question by which we can unfold this aspect of The Stranger is, What makes this work a triumph of storytelling? This, in turn, leads to questions about the three main ingredients of a story, starting with plot. A plot must be based on what I call “good story material,” and it must be striking, suspenseful, and gripping. What makes the plot of The Stranger successful in these and other ways? Second, the unjustifiably slighted topic in many readers’ analysis of stories is setting and atmosphere (a quality that C. S. Lewis praised in his classic essay “On Stories”). As you cast a retrospective look on The Stranger, what scenes come alive in your imagination? Third, the characters are often the central element in a story. Meursault is one of the great character creations on record, but the supporting cast in this novel turns out to be more memorable than we might have guessed. What evidence do we have in this novel for Camus’s skill at character creation?

Question 3

When I first conceptualized my guide to The Stranger, I planned to wax eloquent about the styl. I am surprised that I have not gotten to the topic until this last posting, but it is an appropriate place to raise the subject. Camus’s confidant in making The Stranger famous in its own day, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, was an enthusiast for the book’s style.  n particular, Sartre praised the spare, chiseled, often aphoristic quality of Camus’s sentences. More generally, and taking into account Camus’s way with words, descriptive flair, and simple rather than embellished style, what makes The Stranger a triumph of prose style?

Question 4

I am enthusiast for the archetypal approach to literary analysis. Archetypes are the recurrent plot motifs, character types, and images/symbols/settings of literature and life. I might have introduced archetypes more aggressively into my running commentary, but they are equally useful as a way of unifying our experience of a work as we look back. What archetypes unify The Stranger and help to give it universality? Some examples are crime and punishment, murder story, anti-hero, and trial/courtroom story. The pay-off with archetypal criticism is partly that it allows us to relate the specific instance of an archetype in the work that we are reading to other literary experiences.

Question 5

For all the narrative excellence of The Stranger, we sense that Camus composed this novel as the means of disseminating his view of the world and getting readers to agree with that vision. I have stressed three philosophic of ideational traditions at work in The Stranger: (1) naturalism, with its pessimism, emphasis on what is ugly and marginalized in society, determinism, and focus on the isolation and vicitimization of the individual; (2) absurdism, with its denial of meaning in life; and (3) existentialism, with its elevation of individual consciousness, obsession with death, rejection of Christianity, and belief that individuals must authenticate themselves in action.

Reading each of these traditions, we can profitably ask three questions: (1) What aspects of the novel embody each tradition? (2) How does Camus work out his rhetorical or argumentative or persuasive strategies for getting readers to share his commitments? How does he invent details that commend the three traditions I have named? (3) How might a Christian reader assess Camus’s philosophic positions?

Question 6

Writers work from a worldview (as just noted), but so do readers. If writers make truth claims, readers also have their standards of truth. How truthful is The Stranger? I will recall a framework that I introduced long the way: modern literature repeatedly tells us the truth (small t) without telling us the Truth (capital T, meaning the gospel and the doctrines of the Christian faith). I encourage my students not to press for a single answer to the question, Does this work tell the truth? but instead to use a flexible framework that allows us to discern potential levels of truth in literature.

At least three levels of truth are evident in The Stranger: (1) truthfulness to life and human experience (the reality principle); (2) general truth—-ideas expressed at a sufficiently general level that most people would assent to them; (3) ultimate truth, based on a worldview and moral vision. How does The Stranger present these levels of truth? I would encourage a sense of balance on the truth question: we do not need to completely reject a work whose worldview and moral vision we find deficient, and conversely we can find much common ground with works at the first two levels that I have named even if we find the worldview abhorrent. We can also affirm works with which we find ourselves in ideational conflict at the level of literary form, technique, and beauty.

Question 7

What theological doctrines of the Christian faith are most relevant to The Stranger? What doctrines provide good glosses on The Stranger, even though Camus does not signal his awareness of those doctrines?

Question 8

Is The Stranger pre-evangelistic? Is it an implied or unintended apologetic for the Christian faith? Is the book a Christ-shaped vacuum (as one commentator calls the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes)?

Question 9

In my classes dealing with modern literature, I sometimes use the following quotation from T. S. Eliot’s essay “Religion and Literature” as a springboard for discussion: “So far as we [Christian readers] are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from what good it has to offer us.” Eliot’s statement is nicely balanced and speaks of (a) the gulf between Christians and the literature of unbelief, (b) the potential harms of such literature, and (c) the potential good that such literature stands read to offer us. What forms do these three take in The Stranger?

Question 10

We cannot make final sense of Camus and his novel without exploring what Camus meant in his own interpretation of his protagonist. The statement (one more time) is this:

The hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this respect he is foreign to the society in which he lives. . . .  He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened. . . .  One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth (Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. Philip Thody, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Alfred A. Knop, 1968, pp. 335-337).

Meursault as hero? As Christ figure? As martyr for the truth? What truth? Camus’s statement of intention tells us as much as the novel does about what Camus endorsed at this early stage (age 29) of his literary career. Left to my own designs, I would interpret The Stranger as a satire and novel of protest in which the author creates a protagonist whom we are intended to repudiate. What do we make of the fact that Camus instead offered this anti-hero as a hero?

Concluding Epigraphs

I am a devotee of catchy quotations and epigraphs, so I have collected some that can foster reflection or discussion. Because I offer them as epigraphs, I have included author and work without further documentation.

  • “Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible. . . .  Confronted with this ‘quantitative ethic’ all values collapse; thrown into this world, the absurd man, rebellious and irresponsible, has ‘nothing to justify.’”  Jean-Paul Sartre, “Camus’s The Outsider
  • “What the first readers noticed about L’Etranger . . . was its simplicity and directness. It hardly seemed to be literature, because its style was so plain, so natural, so ordinary.”  English Showalter, Jr., The Stranger: Humanity and the Absurd
  • “Reduced to its simplest expression, Camus’s thought is contained in a single question: What value abides in the eyes of the man condemned to death who refuses the consolation of the supernatural? Camus cannot take his mind off this question.” Rachel Bespaloff, “The World of the Man Condemned to Death”
  • “Those who have read only the literary works of Albert Camus have surely been struck by the essential role which the Christian faith plays in these works. In both his novels and his plays there emerges at some point an element of Christianity, either in the form of an idea or in a person or both. . . .  It is a curious thing about the thought of Albert Camus that he has not estranged himself from Christian readers.” Thomas L. Hanna, “Albert Camus and the Christian Faith”
  • “Albert Camus: The Dark Night before the Coming of Grace?” Title of an essay by Bernard C. Murchland
  • “Christianity runs entirely contrary to any negation of the world and man; but Camus never came to know this ‘versant’ of joy and hope, illuminated by the love of God.” Jean Onimus, Albert Camus and Christianity