[I read this 1942 novella in its two parts, writing about each part in turn. ]
24 October 2019
This is one of those books everybody thinks they know. Just before the end of Part 1, the first-person narrator does what we’ve been waiting for—he kills a man, for little or no reason. He has been carrying a revolver belonging to someone he’s been helping in a violent quarrel and, after it’s become very clear indeed how arbitrary the action is, he has pulled the trigger instead of simply walking away. But then… ‘I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.’
Meursault, the narrator, rarely sees beneath the surface of things, so his observation that the shots ‘left no visible trace’ is completely typical of him. There’s no description of the man he’s just killed, who is already no more than an ‘inert body,’ only of a vaguely surprising thing that Meursault has noticed about the wounds not being visible. He remarks on the noise made by the shots as well, but turns this into a comment not about their effect on the victim, but about himself. What is interesting for him is only that they represent his own ‘undoing.’
I’ve started with these two final sentences of Part 1 because they sum up everything we have learned about Meursault. He goes through his day doing things, or not bothering to if he doesn’t feel like it, but it’s as though he’s hardly an active participant at all. Instead of engaging with the outside world, he simply notices how it impinges on him and his consciousness. The shots he fires have rendered somebody inert, despite his inability to see the wounds. And they make a noise. At other times, other senses come into play. We know about how hot or cold he is, how tired, or hungry, or uncomfortable. In the moments leading up to the shooting, it’s the heat of the midday sun that has become intolerable to him—and, despite the bizarreness of his action, we’re not at all surprised by it. This is because his lack of engagement with the world includes all the people in it. There are a lot of other characters in this short novella, including a lover who wants to marry him, but it’s as though he hardly notices them.
In the 21st Century we’re quick to assign labels to people like Meursault. We might well say he’s on some kind of spectrum, and… and what? I don’t think that’s useful. Meursault is a character in a particular fictional universe, not in the real world, so such a conclusion doesn’t get us anywhere. This is a short and sparsely written novella, and nothing seems to be described, or even mentioned, if it doesn’t directly affect Meursault in the present moment. This is the most important point, because what we therefore get is a very particular version of the world. The narrator usually guesses what is expected of him, but rarely understands why. All he can tell us about is how he responds to a world that often seems strange and arbitrary to him, full of unnecessary pressures that people seem to impose on one another.
It’s easy to see why the existentialists wanted to welcome Camus as one of their own. Hasn’t he created an Everyman for the mid-20th Century? Meursault responds to the events around him as though nothing really matters, including death. The book opens with the death of his mother, which he treats with his usual lack of engagement. At the time of its publication, Europe was engaged in another war, largely brought about by the failure of the so-called victors in the first, and Paris was occupied by Fascists. What place is there for human decency in such an absurd universe? Of course, Existentialist philosophy is more complicated than that—but then, Camus’s novella is more complicated than that as well. He seems to be conducting a ‘what-if’ experiment, in order to ask what it would be like if a person didn’t understand what society deems as the norms of human interaction? Meursault is such a person, and those norms just seem arbitrary.
It starts with his response to his mother’s death, beginning with one of the most famous opening lines in fiction. ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday.’ The telegram from the care home is ambiguous, and he never tries to establish which day it was that she actually died. Why would it matter? He feels the need to explain that it’s reasonable for him to seek two days’ leave from his job, later speculating that his boss probably begrudges the fact that, together with the weekend immediately following these, he will have spent four days without working. He doesn’t get how anything works, so he makes guesses like this. He tells us why he put her in the home—she and he never used to talk in the rooms they shared, and someone (who?) said she would have a better time in a home. And he would have a better time too, although I don’t think he actually says this. He didn’t make visits because it would be a day out of his weekend, and the bus journey there was two hours each way.
He does whatever will cause him the least discomfort, or the least he can do of whatever it is that people seem to expect. He won’t have to buy a black tie because he knows he can borrow one from a neighbour with a close relative who died recently. He doesn’t say yes when asked if he wants to see his mother for the last time, although he can see that ‘the screws had been given only a few turns and their nickelled heads stuck out above the wood,’ a typical surface detail. When it’s clearly expected that he will sit through the night with his mother’s body he does so, alongside ten fellow residents of the home. His only observations about the people named by the warden as his mother’s friends are about the noises they make, or how old and worn-out they look. He complains about his discomfort and exhaustion.
Because of the heat, the funeral and burial are to be next day. Perez, a resident who had been so fond of Meursault’s mother that people had joked about his ‘fiancée’, is the only one allowed to attend. Meursault notices how, in the heat of the day, the old man lags further and further behind as they walk to the cemetery, and only reaches it with the others because he knows short cuts. It would be funny if it weren’t so ghastly. Then, after spending pages on the lead up to the funeral, Meursault passes over it in a single sentence. ‘I can remember the look of the church, the villagers in the street, the red geraniums on the graves, Perez’s fainting fit — he crumpled up like a rag doll — the tawny-red earth pattering on Mother’s coffin, the bits of white roots mixed up with it….’ The same six- or seven-line sentence has him back in the city, with the ‘little thrill of pleasure when we entered the first brightly lit streets,’ and twelve hours of very welcome sleep.
It’s all like this. It’s as though he does what he does because that’s what everybody else does. Camus is describing, from the inside, a human organism that responds to its needs by doing whatever it has to, as though there is no real will involved. He works because he needs to in order to pay for his basic needs. He eats when he is hungry, is glad when a neighbour offers him food because he won’t have to go to the trouble of cooking, doesn’t say no when the man asks a favour in return. He has a lover who seems to enjoy being with him in the Algerian summer. They can go to movies, swim in the sea, have sex. His response when she asks him if he loves her is unsurprising. ‘I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t. She looked sad for a bit….’ But, after a while, ‘she brightened up and started laughing.’ No speculation on her interior life, obviously, just her sad look, then her brighter look. Emotionally, could it be any more flat?
Possibly. Later she asks him if he wants to marry her. ‘I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.’ She asks him again if he loves her. ‘I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing—but I supposed I didn’t.’ She doesn’t give up, and it’s at about this point that I began to wonder. Are most relationships like this, really? Or, at least, is Camus inviting us to wonder whether Meursault is really so untypical. Is he an Everyman after all? Whatever, she pursues it: ‘Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her—I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me—would you have said yes to her, too?’ Guess what he says. ‘Naturally.’ So much for love in Meursault’s world-view…
…but what about murder? The one that ends Part 1 comes about in more or less the same way as everything else in Meursault’s life. He is so enclosed in the bubble of his own basic needs that he never even thinks about other people, either what they might be thinking and feeling, or how anything he does might affect them. As for their possible motives, he has absolutely no interest—so he is clueless. Usually, this doesn’t really matter. For instance, his boss offers him a job in the new branch they are opening in Paris. He is mystified when the boss seems put out when he decides not to, and makes irrelevant remarks about his lack of ambition. He knows Paris and found it dull when he lived there. Why should he want to move back? Later he decides he will go, because Marie, his lover, likes the idea. He doesn’t suddenly want to go, it’s just that she seems to want to and he doesn’t care one way or the other.
OK, we get that. We get it right from the start because Camus makes it so clear. But in order to make that apparently motiveless murder appear plausible, an author has some work to do. He starts to lay the groundwork quite early, through Sintes, that neighbour of Meursault’s who offers him a meal. There’s the meal, a simple enough affair, and a bottle of wine for each of them. Meursault can’t see, but we can, how he is being softened up. Sintes says they will be ‘pals for life’ if Meursault helps him with something. He tells a story about a man who wanted to pick a fight with him on the street—then asks Meursault’s opinion of the beating he gave the man before explaining any of the background. Meursault nods that yes, Sintes had been in the right.
Sintes isn’t being straight with him. Perhaps realising that it won’t be difficult, he wants Meursault on his side before asking for a very particular favour. First he mentions that it’s all to do with his girlfriend, that the man he had a fight with is her brother—and that she has been cheating on him. Only now does he begin to offer some details. He knows what the neighbours think about him—Meursault has already told us they call him a pimp—but says it isn’t true. He describes what the relationship was really like before he broke it off, how he felt the woman was happy to spend his money but refused to get a job herself. When he finds things of hers that he knows he didn’t buy, and that she’s spent money he hasn’t given her, he decides she must be seeing another man. He ‘gave her a good hiding’ as he puts it, ‘and told her some home truths….’ As he describes it, he’d beaten her till the blood came. Before that he’d never beaten her. ‘Well, not hard, anyhow; only affectionately-like.’
My God. It isn’t only liberal-minded 21st Century readers who are going to hear alarm bells. Meursault, we know, never passes judgment, and it’s his words we are reading. But what he is describing, both in the behaviour of Sintes and that of other people in his block, is morally questionable by any standards. Meursault doesn’t pass judgments but, it seems, neither does anybody else. They complain about Sintes and his supposed activities, as they complain about the way an old man treats his dog, but that’s all they do, complain. In fact, the old man and his dog are interesting as features in a novel dealing with dysfunction on various levels. The man seems to treat the dog and its needs as though they are merely inconveniences in his life, swearing at it and pulling hard on its lead. But when it falls ill and dies, he is distraught. He explains to Meursault that the dog was all he had after the death of his wife.
It’s striking how there is absolutely no love in this book. It isn’t merely that Meursault doesn’t see it—all relationships appear to be based only on need. Men and women, men and their friends, men and their dogs…. it always seems contingent. As Meursault has told Marie, if another woman had come along instead, he would have agreed to marry her in the same way. Other people in the book don’t seem to have very different ideas—Meursault doesn’t really seem to be an ‘outsider,’ as the British translation has it.
But to get back to Sintes. He has a plan to get his own back on his girlfriend. If he writes to her to invite her back, he can pretend everything’s OK—and then spit in her face. Meursault doesn’t think this is a bad idea, and agrees to write the letter for Sintes. What was I saying about alarm bells? Sintes is actually asking for him to become involved in a very murky tit-for-tat exchange not only with the man’s girlfriend but her brother. The squalid little ruse works, but it goes wrong when she reacts badly—what did Sintes expect?—and he ends up beating her up. Neighbours hear the struggle and call the police, Sintes is arrested, and later has to appear in court. And guess what? Meursault is willing to act as a witness, testifying that the woman had been cheating on Sintes. The case is dismissed…
…and Meursault is more deeply involved than ever. Sintes has his new pal, and the brother now has a grudge against both of them. I didn’t mention that Camus has thrown something else into the mix: the woman and her brother are Arabs, in a country under French colonial rule. The next time Sintes and Meursault see the man he is with a friend, looking at them as they go for the bus one bright Sunday morning. Sintes has invited Meursault and Marie to the beach bungalow of a friend and, for a few pages, Camus describes a totally conventional French day out. There’s swimming, wine, the new friend and his wife get on well with Meursault and Marie…. But the Arabs are there, and Sintes feels threatened. He is right to—they have a knife, and a confrontation ends with him being cut in two places.
This is near the end of Part 1, and the way things go from now on is described in nightmarish terms. Sintes had taken a revolver with him, and Meursult has already taken it from him so he doesn’t act rashly. Meursault’s next move is based on a chance decision. Sintes has been bandaged up and is back at the bungalow. We can only guess that Meursault is feeling unsettled. ‘To stay, or to make a move—it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.’ As the long morning moves towards midday, the sun climbs higher in the sky, and his mood becomes inextricably linked to the growing heat. ‘I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.’ Oh dear.
When Meursault sees that the Arab is now lying in the shade behind a rock, he is mystified. He had ‘considered the incident closed’ and, already unable to think rationally, he seems to be drained of control. ‘It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. The man reaches in his pocket, and ‘a shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead.’ We know from experience how hypersensitive he is to sensation, and a crisis is inevitable: ‘I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.’ His own hand is on the revolver in his pocket, and we know what happens next.
‘Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm.’ I love the way he seems to have ceded any sense of his own agency. The trigger gave, the butt jogged my palm. Yep, that’s how it goes. But try explaining that to the court.
He doesn’t really. Try explaining that to the court. It’s not the kind of thing our man does, not when he’s distracted by the way people look, by trying to gauge whether they like him or not—and by the way he feels it’s all out of his hands. When he does get a chance to speak, both when he’s on the witness stand and when he’s asked if he has anything to add to his lawyer’s summing-up, he can’t really say what he means. Like everything else in the world, once the machinery of the law comes into action, it seems arbitrary and almost incomprehensible to him. What strikes him most about his days in court is how hot it is. And we aren’t a bit surprised that when he’s about to be sentenced, he realises that he hasn’t looked at Marie at all since her short spell on the witness stand, though she’s been in plain view all the time.
I haven’t changed my mind about this novel. Whilst the prosecution, without using the word, wants to present Meursault as a calculating psychopath, I still see this whole novella as a what-if thought experiment. And if Part 1 is about the narrator’s failure to engage with people in society in any conventional way, Part 2 is about how such a man would deal both with the hard facts of society’s laws and, when he is found guilty, with the approach of his own death. Those laws seem strange to him—he sometimes has to remind himself that all this is happening to him because he killed a man, and wonders about the absurdity of pretending that his is a crime against ‘the French people’—and as for death… in the last few pages, the nature of the narrative changes, as Meursault, or Camus, contemplate the reality of it. What is death, when all’s said and done?
Good question, always worth asking, and I’ll come back to it. But there’s Meursault’s arrest, questioning and trial to come first. And I suppose what’s both remarkable and entirely unsurprising from the start is how he focuses only on surface details. His first interview with the examining magistrate is typical. ‘At first I didn’t take him quite seriously. The room in which he interviewed me was much like an ordinary sitting room….’ People are civil, he wonders whether one or other of them might even rather like him. He’s put in a holding cell with some Arabs, he tells them what he’s done. But all we know of any conversation they might or might not have is that they show him how to make a makeshift pillow from his bed-roll. Next day, he’s in his own bare cell, so he can tell us about that now. At least he won’t have to spend another night on the floor.
By now, there’s little that Meursault can say or do that is going to surprise us as Camus takes his narrative through the eleven months before the trial. We find out how, after a while, Meursault gets used to his cell. He regrets not being out in the city, especially in the evening or at the sort of times when a swim would be enjoyable, but he’s surprised how quickly time passes. He doesn’t keep a tally of the days, as though the calendar is as irrelevant to him as any other human construct. And, from time to time, he has meetings with his lawyer and whoever the system seems to think he ought to see. ‘It struck me as an excellent arrangement that the authorities should see to details of this kind….’ It’s another aspect of his indifference, or anomie, or whatever it is that he has no curiosity about anything. And he never attempts to piece together a working narrative either of why events unfold as they do, or what his part in them might be.
Camus moves things in a different direction when he has the magistrate attempt to take a religious line with Meursault. He takes out a crucifix from a cabinet, and ‘told me he believed in God, that even the worst of sinners could obtain forgiveness of Him…’ and so on. ‘As a matter of fact, I had great difficulty in following his remarks, as, for one thing, the office was so stiflingly hot and big flies were buzzing round and settling on my cheeks; also because he rather alarmed me.’ Before this, and after, he has no reason to dislike this chap who seems to be doing his best. But he is as mystified by what he calls the man’s ‘religious fervour’ as the other is of his own lack of belief. The magistrate says he has never met a wrongdoer who didn’t repent and find God a great help… and, at one level, it’s an encounter like any other in the book. Meursault doesn’t know what on earth people mean when they talk about things like this.
But this same meeting moves things on in a different way too, and it’s to do with how Meursault’s actions will be presented and interpreted. The magistrate asks him about something we already know about first-hand: why the delay between the first shot and the other four? We know exactly what he is getting at, especially when he says that Meursault’s reasons could make ‘all the difference.’ In the early 1940s, enough people had experience of guns and the stress of battle for it to be common knowledge that ordinary men could behave irrationally. Five shots, fired off in quick succession, could be seen as the outcome of terrible stress in the face of a threat to life. This would be news to Meursault who doesn’t get it at all. Nor does he understand, in the courtroom, why irrelevant questions are asked about his treatment of his mother and his behaviour at her funeral.
This, through Camus’s pronouncement on it in 1955, has become the most famous aspect of the book: ‘I summarised The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.’ Meursault, of course, doesn’t play the game because he doesn’t understand any of it. Camus’s thought-experiment depends on exactly this, which is why I said from the start that it’s irrelevant to try to place Meursault on any psychological or behavioural spectrum. He’s a made-up character in a world of other made-up characters, but whereas they have a conventional understanding of the game, he doesn’t.
And, once the trial begins, it becomes clear how, in his fictional world, the author has carefully stacked the odds against his narrator. It might be a moral point he’s making about how society’s judgments can be seen as arbitrary, but in order to do this he needs some plot points in there too. As the prosecution unpacks them, we can see how Camus has carefully included enough circumstantial details to turn any jury against Meursault. Exhausted after the funeral, he looked forward to a relaxing weekend—a visit to the beach, a comedy movie with his girlfriend, making love afterwards—but, coming just after the funeral, these can easily be made to look callous rather than simply of the moment, as Meursault always lives his life. (He had done his best to explain this to his lawyer long before the trial: ‘I explained that my physical condition at any given moment often influenced my feelings. For instance, on the day I attended Mother’s funeral, I was fagged out and only half awake’. As we would expect, this does not get the lawyer on his side.) One problem, I’ve just realised, is that Meursault’s behaviour seems to be in somewhat poor taste. Is his tastelessness one of the things that condemns him?
It gets worse when Meursault’s so-called friendship with Sintes is dealt with. The prosecution paints a very dark picture of Sintes, suggesting Meursault’s guilt by association. His reputation as a pimp is described as ‘common knowledge’ but never proved; it is alleged that the letter Meursault wrote on his behalf was to facilitate an assault on the girlfriend—which, it is suggested, was what Meursault wanted—and that his testifying on Sintes’s behalf before a magistrate was obviously part of a conspiracy. Camus makes the prosecutor, society’s representative in court, seem small-minded and vindictive. OK, Meursault’s habit of never judging people leads him into some strange places, but the reader is definitely not on the prosecutor’s side. However, we know long before the verdict that the jury will be swayed. Society, eh? Camus has rigged the game so that Meursault has no chance.
I’ve hardly mentioned the details of how the court deals with the actual killing because, really, it’s not what the trial is about. The prosecution case is built on character assassination, and by the time maybe half-a-dozen witnesses have been called, none of whom except Sintes have anything to say about the circumstances of the killing, Camus’s work is done. This isn’t a trial for murder, it’s a trial about whether a man plays the game, to use Camus’s own phrase, according to society’s rules. Meursault, as we know, just doesn’t get it. And he doesn’t know he’s in a novel by an author with a case to prove, so he doesn’t know he had no chance from the start. By the time he is given the chance to speak on his own behalf at the very end it’s hopeless. ‘I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was only too conscious that it sounded nonsensical, and, in fact, I heard people tittering.’
Of course, he doesn’t know that the verdict is never going to be in his favour, doesn’t realise that the time the members of the jury spend in their deliberations is very short indeed. Back in the courtroom, his lawyer speaks to him: ‘The foreman of the jury will read out the answers. You will be called on after that to hear the judgment.’ From now on, as shown in the next lines, he appears to be in a bubble of his own: ‘Some doors banged. I heard people hurrying down flights of steps, but couldn’t tell whether they were nearby or distant. Then I heard a voice droning away in the courtroom.’ We don’t realise, because Meursault isn’t telling us, that the voice is that of the jury foreman giving the verdict. ‘When the bell rang again and I stepped back into the dock, the silence of the courtroom closed in round me, and with the silence came a queer sensation when I noticed that, for the. first time, the young journalist [who had been looking at him throughout] kept his eyes averted. I didn’t look in Marie’s direction. In fact, I had no time to look, as the presiding judge had already started pronouncing a rigmarole to the effect that “in the name of the French people” I was to be decapitated in some public place.’
Guess what goes through Meursault’s head at this moment. ‘It seemed to me then that I could interpret the look on the faces of those present; it was one of almost respectful sympathy. The policemen, too, handled me very gently.’ The sympathetic looks, the gentle touch. Is it a master-stroke? Or is it, in fact, another example of Camus’s sleight of hand? He, Camus, carefully selects what Meursault does and does not notice, so that he hears and understands the lawyer then, immediately, only perceives ‘droning’ voice and background noise. Then, having just heard that he’s under a death sentence, all Meursault can notice is people’s treatment of him.
Has Camus succeeded in what he tells us was always his aim? To prove that if we don’t behave in the arbitrary ways that society expects, we’re in danger of being condemned to death? At a literal level, I suppose, no. Meursault is condemned because he breaks a fundamental moral law, one that we can’t pretend is arbitrary: he can’t see beyond what is impinging on him in the moment, and he has no interest in how others might be affected by his actions. That’s bad, but doesn’t deserve a death sentence. So Camus has added another layer, having Meursault’s lack of empathy lead to a complete indifference to the life of another human being. Even if his firing of five shots wasn’t an act of evil but perfectly understandable of a man with his mental makeup, it would take a clever lawyer to explain away that gap after the first shot. He might have been able to do it, but the fact that Meursault is indifferent to everything including human life is what really sets him apart.
Or it doesn’t. This is my view of a made-up character in a made-up scenario, and I know there’s nothing literal going on here at all. Camus has the prosecution bang on and on about Meursault’s ‘callousness,’ citing his behaviour at the funeral time and again, and the jury buy it. At the level of fiction, point made. Maybe all I’m really complaining of is the way Camus’s methods are sometimes too easy to unpack. Albert, I’m thinking, I can see what you’re doing.
So. Meursault is condemned, and the final pages are all about his time awaiting execution. At first he thinks of nothing but fantasies of escape. ‘I am always wondering if there have been cases of condemned prisoners escaping from the implacable machinery of justice at the last moment, breaking through the police cordon, vanishing in the nick of time before the guillotine falls.’ Then it’s the ‘machinery’ he muses on, ‘the unalterable sequence of events starting from the moment when that judgment was delivered.’ There’s no stopping it, and its implacability seems ‘disproportionate.’ In other words, to nobody’s surprise, he only thinks about the consequences for him, not the nature of what he has done. Why would he want to speak to the chaplain who has asked to see him three times?
But if this really is the thought-experiment I keep saying it is, what is Camus telling us about the nature of being human? I think he must have been asking himself the same question because it’s now time for Meursault to face the fact of his own mortality. At first he keeps getting trapped in mulling over the sort of details a man like him would think of. If escape or a successful appeal don’t come about, what if the rules could be changed? Failing that, what if the guillotine could still be mounted on a high scaffold as it used to be, not some efficient, floor-level machine? Wouldn’t that give a better sense of closure? Or he pretends it’s unimportant. ‘I reminded myself, it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow. And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten … whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.’ This doesn’t work: ‘somehow this line of thought wasn’t as consoling as it should have been.’ No.
It can’t go on like this, so Camus has the chaplain come into the cell unannounced. As in the magistrate’s attempt much earlier, the straightforward Christian line gets nowhere with Meursault—‘I explained that I didn’t believe in God’—and, while the chaplain becomes almost exasperated, Meursault is merely bored. He admits to feeling fear and, like the magistrate, the chaplain thinks this is an opening. ‘God can help you. All the men I’ve seen in your position turned to Him in their time of trouble.’ And so on, with Meursault trying to explain that there is nothing for him after death. ‘I’m sure you’ve often wished there was an afterlife,’ says the chaplain, and Meursault is utterly dismissive. ‘Everybody has that wish at times. But that had no more importance than wishing to be rich, or to swim very fast, or to have a better-shaped mouth.’
The level of debate isn’t deep. It doesn’t have to be because, finally, Camus is on territory that any thinking person will recognise. For a believer, the idea of oblivion is unthinkable. For an atheist, any arguments against the idea are a waste of time. This is what I meant when I suggested a change in the nature of the narrative. This is still Meursault, a character in a novella, describing his life and thoughts, and he is still in the same cell as before—but, for me, the way he starts to describe his thoughts about death seem far more universal than anything he’s ever come out with before. He finally becomes so exasperated with the chaplain’s pointless arguments that he loses his temper. This is another first. Up until now, he has been one of the most passive characters in fiction, but now we see some passion. And it’s possible to imagine that a great deal of what he says comes straight from Camus. One section could be held up as the atheist manifesto, or the Existentialists’ manifesto:
‘I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x, whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.’
Death as a slow, persistent breeze. It’ll do for me, and I’m tempted to leave it there. But, this being Meursault talking, he goes further than you or I would—or than Camus would, I assume: ‘And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end?’ Once you’re dead, you’re dead, whatever you’ve done. Fine. But it seems as trivialising an argument as the chaplain’s…
…and maybe that’s why Camus has included it. In the end, Meursault’s argument is that a lack of engagement in life can be justified by the inevitability of everybody’s eventual death. Well, he would say that. But eventually, after the guards have intervened to protect the chaplain from the tirade and Meursault has looked up to the stars through the cell window, he reaches a kind of epiphany: ‘for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.’ Camus could have ended it there, but perhaps he felt the need to demonstrate that Meursault hasn’t reached as contented a place as this might sound. The final sentence is different: ‘For all to be accomplished, 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.’
I don’t actually believe that. I don’t believe that a final defiant flourish could originate from a man like Meursault…. But if it’s in the nature of thought-experiments that they demand engagement from the reader, then this has worked for me.