The Stranger, by Albert Camus: A Consideration

The Stranger
by Albert Camus

Commentary by Alan Nicoll

Copyright (text only) 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

The Stranger is a puzzling book. Because it allows many interpretations and evokes contradic­tory attitudes in the reader, it seems distinctly and intentionally paradoxical. I have no particular thesis to offer to explain the novel as a whole, though I think my comments about the ending are useful; otherwise, at best I can offer some comments and collect here the most fertile criticism from the sources I’ve examined.

References are mostly inadequate throughout this piece, which I originally wrote for my own understanding and not for publication. I believe that quotes from The Stranger are from the Matthew Ward translation; there’s a brief discussion at the end comparing Ward with the Stuart Gilbert translation. Understand, I do not read French.

Comments on McCarthy
(Camus: The Stranger, Landmarks of World Literature, by Patrick McCarthy, J. P. Stern (Series Editor), Cambridge University Press, 1988, ISBN 0521329582)

Camus’s “most obvious break with literary convention” according to McCarthy is “the use of the perfect instead of the past historic tense: ‘I have done’ instead of ‘I did.’” He goes on to say that by choosing this tense, Camus “was refusing one of the principal signs by which a text” declares itself as “literature.” {p. 22} He also notes that the tense used is “untranslatable into English.”

McCarthy says that the “journal form . . . . gives priority to the inner life.” {p. 26} Meursault, however, shuns introspection, and McCarthy sees this as Camus’s way of criticizing the form and demonstrating that “the supposed harmony of the work of art is an illusion.” {p. 26} This kind of abstracted self-consciousness in a novelist seems hard to credit.

[Later (2005) comment: critics are always offering cooked-up explanations of an artist’s intentions, explanations which typically have little to do with reality–as the writers themselves testify. McCarthy is simply doing what critics do; at the time I wrote the above, I was perhaps unaware of this.]

McCarthy says that the reader is unable to understand Meursault because his life contains “honesty as well as sterility, protest as well as alienation.” The reader is “unable . . . to feel for him the imaginative sympathy that he feels for a traditional hero.” {p. 29} “This is, in Sartre’s words, ‘A novel that does not explain.’” This lack of explanation is a barrier between the reader and any sympathy for Meursault, according to McCarthy. {p. 30}

He notes that “many observers have recognized parallels between Salamano and his dog and Meursault and his mother.” {p. 39} I find these parallels unconvincing, if not ridiculous. Most of McCarthy’s comments strike me as clever and fatuous at the same time–he’s clever to have had so many ideas, but foolish to have believed them.

Much of McCarthy’s book explores the themes in the following paragraph:

“Behind the seemingly random tales that are told in the first half of The Stranger there lies a logic. Far from being blithely indifferent, Meursault is still struggling against his mother. Hidden away in The Stranger lies a psychoanalytical novel, where the mother, although dead, continues to strike at her son who strikes back. However, with the introduction of Raymond’s Arab mistress a direct link has been established between the mother and the Arab, and the reader is aware that there is also a political novel in The Stranger.” {p. 41}

I find McCarthy’s entire thesis here far-fetched and insupportable. I find no “struggle against his mother” in the novel, anywhere. It also is my guess that Camus was far more interested in writing a novelistic treatment of his philosophy of the absurd than in making political statements about the Algerian situation. If anything, he seems to go out of his way to minimize or even avoid politics altogether. However, it must be granted that, given the setting of the novel, the murder of an Arab would be a politically provocative event.

McCarthy says that Brian Fitch argues “that the murder . . . is merely a pretext that allows Meursault to be technically guilty of a crime and hence condemned, while appearing innocent to the reader.” {p. 59} While McCarthy tends to support this view, I find it lacking. If “technical guilt” is all that is needed, why not have something easier for a reader to forgive than a seemingly pointless murder? Sophocles’s Antigone, for instance, offers a much less problematically sympathetic protagonist who is condemned. Meursault certainly does not “appear innocent,” and this is no novel of the unjust condemnation of an innocent man. On the contrary, what seems to me most compelling about the book is how I live and suffer with Meursault, how I experience what he experiences, even to the degree of feeling that it “doesn’t matter” whether he fires the gun or not. I feel no outrage that Meursault is convicted; rather, this outcome seems to me appropriate and necessary.

That Meursault apparently is convicted of a lack of human feelings, rather than for the murder itself, lends both power and comedy to the outcome.

McCarthy suggests that in the scene of Marie’s visit to Meursault in prison, the Arab mother and son do not speak because “the mother-son bond is the deepest.” {p. 61} This seems a worthwhile comment; words are unnecessary to them, and indeed would seem almost to intrude on their mutual suffering.

McCarthy says, “The second half of The Stranger may be read as a comic novel.” {p. 71} While many scenes have the air of black comedy, the view of Meursault alone in his cell is mostly horrifying, not funny at all. McCarthy goes on to say that “By such comedy Meursault wins the reader’s sympathy.” On the contrary, it’s the scenes alone in his cell–where there can be no question of comedy–that move me to pity and sympathy. The comedy, it seems to me, is too often labored, not quite hilarious enough, and generally does little towards making me sympathize with Meursault.  Reading Peter Dunwoodie’s “Introduction” to the Everyman Library edition of The Stranger persuades me that Part 2 is intended as a satire on the justice system.

McCarthy makes the point that Meursault tries five times to escape facing his own death, but each time he is brought back to it. {p. 73} That is, he thinks of escape; he demonstrates that the penalty was imposed arbitrarily; he imagines being a spectator at the execution; he hopes that the guillotine might not work; and he thinks of it as being above ground, and therefore “an imposing and noble edifice.” {p. 74} I think, however, that two desires drive Meursault here; first is indeed the desire to escape death; but in addition, there is a desire to escape an insignificant death (or even, an insignificant life). The latter desire drives him to imagine the guillotine as a noble edifice, which will give him a noble death. I think Meursault hopes for meaning–either in life or in death–and I think it is this hope that is “washed away” by his rage at the end of the novel.

McCarthy goes on to say that “Meursault’s task . . . is to compel his sane mind to face death.” {p. 74} This points at Camus’s conception of the absurd, as McCarthy says:

“Meursault’s rigor is designed to compel man, a creature defined by his desire for immortality, to confront his mortality. This is what Camus will call ‘the absurd’ in The Myth of Sisyphus, where the confrontation will be handled differently. Here Meursault is tested by his conversation with the priest.” {p. 75}

Camus (per McCarthy) resolves the problem of the absurdity of life as follows:

“Having stressed common sense at the outset, he goes on to invoke the body. Although it suffers from the absurd–this is what constitutes ‘nausea’–the body refuses its own extinction in suicide. So it is a source of wisdom and, if man follows its suggestions, it will lead him to happiness. Just as The Stranger emphasized the body’s grace, The Myth shows its health and sanity . . . . Man can enjoy his own sexuality and the beauty of the natural world; he will avoid extremes; he will trust in his instincts.” {p. 85}

While this is perceptive and interesting, it is not enough. What Camus offers is hedonism and self-indulgence, practically an “unexamined life.” Solid accomplishment, other than Meursault’s work, is nowhere to be found; it is equally lacking in the following paragraph:

“Implicitly . . . this contrasts with the second and heroic direction of the essay: the road taken by the conqueror. Once more the starting point is lucidity, which leads man to admit that no political miracle can transform the human condition. Yet, while not believing in revolution, the conqueror engages in revolutionary action because the action rather than the goal is valuable. His is an ascetic, masculine code that emphasizes courage and sacrifice. Happiness is set aside in favor of bravery.” {p. 85-86}

“Bravery” in support of a cause not believed in! “Revolutionary action” valuable for its own sake! What, plant bombs for the sake of planting bombs? To die gloriously? Or print revolutionary tracts that criticize but offer no vision? This goes beyond merely insufficient philosophy, it’s appalling adolescent idealism. I’ll return to this problem of the response to the absurd later in this essay.

In a comparison with Sartre’s Childhood of a Leader, McCarthy says, “Meursault gradually becomes aware of what separates him from the social and metaphysical order and ends the novel as a rebel.” {p. 89} I once thought “rebel” accurately reflected Meursault’s stance at the end of the novel, but I now find that idea dubious. For my current thinking, see “Meursault as Christ,” later in this essay.

McCarthy sums up:

“ . . . The Stranger’s importance does not come from its appeal to a French avant-garde. Rather, it lies in the way that the novel has caught the fundamental traits of modern individualism: the determination to trust one’s own experience while distrusting the many and varied forms of authority, the attempt to face the absence of transcendence and to enjoy this life, and the recognition that it is difficult to use language to say even the simplest things.” {p. 102}

While this analysis is persuasive, I’d be more inclined to say that Camus has “caught the fundamental traits of modern” alienation or even nihilism–that moral standards are meaningless, that personal responsibility for one’s actions takes second place to expedience, that social cohesion is unimportant, and that, finally, nothing matters but one’s own pleasure.

Meursault’s Emotions
Meursault is ordinarily viewed as quite unemotional, detached, and often he suggests that nothing matters. Yet, within the first six pages of the novel, he takes pains to defend himself, he wants to influence the opinion others have about him:

1. Page 2–he says to his employer, “It’s not my fault,” regarding taking time off from work for his mother’s funeral.

2. Page 4–speaking to the director of the home, who just said, “You were her sole support,” the text is, “I thought he was criticizing me for something and I started to explain.”

3. Page 6–he tells the caretaker that he doesn’t want the casket opened. Then, “I was embarrassed because I felt I shouldn’t have said that.”

It’s clear that, at least at the beginning of the novel, Meursault cares about what others think of him. Yet, as the novel progresses, this sense largely disappears.

One similar thing does take place on pages 55-56, with his lawyer. Meursault feels he has made his lawyer angry, and he wants to repair the relationship–”I wanted things between us to be good . . . .”

After the testimony by the director of the rest home, Meursault says, “ . . . for the first time in years I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me.” (p. 89-90) Later, of course, he hopes to be greeted at the guillotine with “cries of hate.” (p. 123) This is one of the two important paradoxes I find in The Stranger.

Finally, after the testimony of Celeste, he says, “ . . . it was the first time in my life I ever wanted to kiss a man.” (p. 93) All these actions suggest an emotional character; others suggest the opposite.

Meursault’s thoughts are often emotional, too, during his days and nights in prison. While it’s clear that Meursault is very undemonstrative and somewhat wooden, he is not completely unfeeling. What is completely lacking in him, aside from any moral sense, are the feelings others think he should have, and he rarely takes pains to hide this fact. This can be viewed as rebellious honesty in the face of institutionalized hypocrisy, or as peevish bad manners. If, indeed, man’s life is absurd and all his actions are meaningless, there doesn’t seem to be an urgent need for going about pointing this out to all and sundry.

Contemporary Literary Criticism
The article in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 69 (author not named), had this to say in part:

“Like Sartre, Camus concluded that atrocities such as those committed during the World Wars proved that modern existence is irrational and therefore absurd. As a metaphor for the human condition, Camus proposed the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was fated by the gods to repeatedly push a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down again. For Camus, life, like Sisyphus’s task, is a senseless burden that inevitably forces the individual to choose between the act of suicide and the more liberating decision ‘to accept such a universe, and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.’“ {p. 102}

Drawing strength from the universe suggests becoming angry at it, raging against its indifference, and using these emotions to drive–something . . . our love for others? our enjoyment of the body?

This interpretation is directly contradicted by Meursault, however:

“I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself–so like a brother, really–I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” (p. 122-123)

Although the “cries of hate” suggests a rebellious attitude, everything that comes before it talks of happy acceptance of man’s condition. Perhaps Camus sees life as a “senseless burden” but it’s clear that Meursault does not, at least not at the end of the novel–”I felt ready to live it all again” (p. 122) Seemingly, then, if the article in CLC is correct, Meursault has made “the more liberating decision to ‘accept such a universe’“ and this renders life less burdensome. Meursault’s bland indifference to others is indeed like that of the universe (his “brother”); yet he feels alone.

There is a sense that Meursault would return the crowd’s hate with a gentle love, again recalling Camus’s description of Meursault as Christ.

“Later scholars, including Conor Cruise O’Brien, modified the notion of Meursault as a defender of truth in pointing out that Camus’s protagonist lies at several points in the novel–for example, when concocting the letter to Raymond’s mistress–but not in regard to his own ‘sacrosanct’ feelings. ‘They are the god whom he will not betray and for whom he is martyred.’” CLC 69, p. 102

Camus himself said in his Preface {ibid., p. 337} that “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.” And, of course, Meursault refuses to pretend to feelings he does not have even when he has reason to suspect that it could save his life.

But Meursault also lies to the magistrate in Part 2, Chapter 1, when he “pretended to agree” simply because he had gotten bored with the conversation. (p. 69) I think Meursault refuses to lie when by lying he would be supporting convention. He uses truth as a weapon in his revolt against convention. Yet, as noted above (“Meursault’s Emotions”), he also takes pains on numerous occasions to explain himself or to apologize for his bad manners and maintain good feelings–thus he attempts to support convention. Paradoxical.

“In Makari’s view, the Arab represents the self-centered indifference Meursault would like to attain, as well as serving as a surrogate for the father figure he never knew. Subconsciously interpreting the Arab’s gestures with the knife as a threat of castration, Meursault fires at the father, ‘filled with rage towards the mother who has in death recapitulated her symbolic abandonment of her son in life.’” CLC 69, p. 103

Recall that Meursault is also essentially accused of parricide at the end of the trial. “Mother’s abandonment of son in life” seems to be insupportable, however, given that it was Meursault who put her in the home and reduced his visits to her. Her abandonment of him was at worst only in having nothing to say to him; when the final separation came, she was against it. To consider her death as an abandonment of her son is virtually a commonplace, but nonetheless ludicrous.

The section devoted to The Stranger in Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 69 is forty pages long, largely because it includes extracts and quotes from many critical articles and books. Here’s a quote from Justin O’Brien:

“‘A world that can be explained even with false reasons is a familiar world,’ Camus writes in his Myth of Sisyphus. ‘But in a universe suddenly deprived of illusions and enlightenment, man feels himself a stranger. This exile is irremediable, since it holds no recollections of a last home or hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is indeed the feeling of absurdity.” Here, then, in a philosophical study published a few months after The Stranger is the key to the novel. Meursault, the unintentional murderer, enacts a parable of man’s fate. Since there is such a thing as free will, he must have been free to kill or not to kill. But he cannot see it that way: if there was no other coercion there was that of the dazzling sun . . . . As each act pushes him to another apparently insignificant act, he becomes ever more clearly a microcosm of human destiny.” CLC 69, p. 106-107

“False reasons” in the first sentence clearly includes religion. Science, etc., has deprived us of “illusions and [false] enlightenment” and the “promised land.” It has not offered anything in its place. With this I am in agreement to a point, though I personally find in science and art a consolation I never found in religion.

But Meursault is a puppet. He is pushed from “insignificant act” to “insignificant act” because Camus wants it that way; Meursault has no free will because he is a character in a story. Even on the novel’s own terms, his one, seemingly only, significant act of free will is to fire the last four shots into the Arab, and it is this act of free will that knocks on the “door of unhappiness.”

I specify the last four shots only, because I think, again on the novel’s own terms, that the first shot is “because of the sun,” as Meursault states at the trial. (p. 103) That this is rejected by everyone, including Meursault himself, strongly suggests to me that Camus is here presenting the truth, or as much truth as can be presented. During the shooting scene itself, sun and heat exert tremendous pressure on Meursault:

“The scorching blade [of light from the Arab’s knife] slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.” (p. 59)

After the first shot, he “shakes off the sweat and sun.” He cannot blame the last four shots on the sun; unlike the incident of the letter, he cannot say that he wanted to please Raymond; when asked why he paused or why he shot, (p. 67-68), he cannot say why. His actions on the beach are never clearly explained, and this is quite intentional.

But given Meursault’s complete and disturbing indifference to the plight of Raymond’s mistress, it seems to me that the shooting is another example of this indifference to moral concerns. He never thought about the future; as he explained to his lawyer, “I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself” and “my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings.” (p. 65) His speech to the priest (p. 121) is a rejection of all conventional moral values, and all of the priest’s certainties are not worth “one hair of a woman’s head.” (p. 120) “I was guilty, I was paying for it, and nothing more could be asked of me.” (p. 118) He recognizes that he is subject to man’s law, but he sees nothing beyond that. Meursault believes it doesn’t matter that he shot the Arab–or it matters only because it later deprives him of Marie and his other pleasures, which probably is what leaves him “annoyed.” (p. 70) He recognizes this loss of freedom as part of the punishment (p. 78), but he has nothing to fear from God.

Is Meursault “a microcosm of human destiny,” as O’Brien says above? Does he enact “a parable of man’s fate”? No. He talks, impressively, about death and the way we all must face it. But he brings his own death on himself sooner than he needs to, and because of his own moral indifference–which is a direct result of his incompetent philosophy. Meursault does what he wants to do, from moment to moment, and he is happy (though he doesn’t notice this until the end of the novel). But he is not moral.

S. John, also quoted in CLC 69, talks in terms somewhat similar to O’Brien’s:

“The entire novel is an allegory of the absurd universe which Camus has described elsewhere . . . in philosophical terms. Meursault is the symbol of man perpetually estranged in the world and this conception is reinforced when Camus, lending the sun this potent destructive influence, absolves man from responsibility–and hence from guilt–by reducing him to something less than man, to the status of an irresponsible element in nature. In this way, the notion of the absurdity of life, which is the central and governing irony of so much of what Camus has written, is underlined and given dramatic color.” CLC 69, p. 113-114

Of course, I have argued above that the sun is “responsible” for the first shot, and Meursault for the other four, so I don’t believe he is absolved from guilt. Such absolution would, I think, also be contrary to Camus’s existentialist spirit. Man is “condemned to be free,” in Sartre’s words, and assigning responsibility to the sun suggests bad faith at work.

During the trial, as Meursault is led back to his cell, he reflects, “ . . . as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.” (p. 97) He knows that “something had changed,” but he doesn’t seem to know what, although he said earlier “for the first time I realized that I was guilty.” (p. 90) He has only a feeble grasp on the connection between his guilt and his imprisonment–that’s why he can say, “just in time, I remembered that I had killed a man.” (p. 64). But this is a connection the reader is constantly aware of.

Meursault makes a conscious “moral choice” very early in the story, at the side of his mother’s coffin:

“Then I felt like having a smoke. But I hesitated, because I didn’t know if I could do it with Maman right there. I thought about it; it didn’t matter. I offered the caretaker a cigarette and we smoked.” (p. 8)

Perhaps it “didn’t matter” because Meursault can see only the pseudo-objective “absurdity” of man’s place in the universe. But it does matter, very much, to Meursault’s own character and to the very fabric of the society that makes human life possible, human life as opposed to the animal life that Meursault tends to lead. Meursault rejects what he sees as the window dressing of society, the tact, the etiquette, the careful phrasing of words to spare the feelings of others, without seeing that he rejects the very mechanisms and conventions that allow us to live in comparative happiness with one another. We can, indeed, lead “absurd” lives, if we choose to do so in the name of a spuriously “objective” view of our place in the universe.

But Meursault would escape the guillotine if he could; at this point he doesn’t say “it doesn’t matter,” though he does try:

“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter. Therefore (and the difficult thing was not to lose sight of all the reasoning that went into this “therefore”), I had to accept the rejection of my appeal.” (p. 114)

“Difficult” indeed! In fact, it’s inescapable that it matters very much “when and how” we die. As he says earlier, “How had I not seen that there was nothing more important than an execution, and that when you come right down to it, it was the only thing a man could truly be interested in?” (p. 110) It seems that “when and how” matter very much here. No wonder he loses sight of his “therefore”: he doesn’t really believe it. When a chain of reasoning leads to a conclusion we reject on intuitive grounds, we must reject the chain of reasoning as well. Regardless of where our reason leads us, even to the concept of the absurdity of life, we still lead our lives in spite of it. Meursault refuses to reject that reasoning. So “when and how” perhaps don’t matter to Meursault when he’s pulling the trigger five times, but they matter very much when he’s panting at the door of his cell, straining to hear the first steps of his executioner. (p. 113)

Because we all must die, because, viewed cosmically, our life is absurd, is not sufficient reason to hasten our own end and–unforgivably–end the life of another. Because morality has no absolute, objective basis is not sufficient reason to abandon all moral concern, reflection, and judgment. Because the “death of God” leaves us without cosmic purpose is not sufficient reason to become indifferent to the future. Rather, these brutal facts can be taken as a call to create a new morality, a man-centered morality, a morality that will enhance human lives here and now. No morality we create can be objectively justified or proven–no morality can be “the truth”–but if it improves our lot, makes us happier, advances the welfare of the species, that is sufficient justification. “Man’s purpose” is sufficient; we don’t need a “cosmic purpose” that we never really had to begin with.

There can be higher values than “one hair of a woman’s head” if we choose to define them through our aspiration and commitment to them. If these cannot be “absolute” values, they can still be “relative” values. If man’s life cannot have absolute meaning, it can still have relative meaning. If our rationality cannot offer a completely convincing understanding of the universe, it can offer ever improving partial tries at understanding.

On the Absurd
Thomas Nagel has responded to Camus in an essay that is worth quoting at length and reading in its brief entirety. I’ll extract here only the conclusion. (In his book, Mortal Questions.)

“The final escape [from the absurd] is suicide; but before adopting any hasty solutions, it would be wise to consider carefully whether the absurdity of our existence truly presents us with a problem, to which some solution must be found . . . .

“Camus . . . rejects suicide and the other solutions he regards as escapist. What he recommends is defiance or scorn. We can salvage our dignity, he appears to believe, by shaking a fist at the world which is deaf to our pleas, and continuing to live in spite of it. This will not make our lives un-absurd, but will lend them a certain nobility.

“This seems to me romantic and slightly self-pitying. Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance. At the risk of falling into romanticism by a different route, I would argue that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistemology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight–the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.

“If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises), then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? Like the capacity for epistemological skepticism, it results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” {p. 22-23}

Although I find Camus’s response to the challenge of existentialism to be inadequate, his presentation of that challenge in The Stranger makes a uniquely powerful reading experience.

Meursault as Christ
My one original conception regarding this fascinating novel is in the interpretation of the ending. Camus called Meursault “the only Christ we deserve”, but there seems to be little evidence in the novel itself to support this interpretation.

I think the key to understanding the ending is in understanding why Meursault wants to be greeted at the scaffold with “cries of hate” (p. 123). This seems to make no sense; it seems to suggest that he wishes to be recognized as a rebel, though his rebellion throughout the preceding hundred pages is largely negligible (he refuses to show emotions he does not feel). It’s easy to say that this “rebellion” makes him a martyr to the guillotine, but it could also be viewed as simple bad manners.

But I think this interpretation is faulty. Read again the last part of the final paragraph:

“So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself–so like a brother, really–I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” (p. 122-123)

Meursault is “washed clean” of hope by his rage; he has lost hope, but hope of what? My only guess–and this is not supported by the text–is hope of meaning, hope of making a difference; and because he can now give up the quest for meaning, he is free to be happy. And he wishes this freedom to become available to all, so he will then be fulfilled by becoming the target of the crowd’s “cries of hate” which, in turn, will wash them clean of that same hope and open the same road to happiness that he has found. And it is this vision of a redemption of all mankind that makes Meursault “the only Christ we deserve.”

My Relationship with The Stranger
I first read The Stranger when I was a teenager. I remember finding it compelling, hideously attractive, a reaction I cannot recall having to any other reading experience. (Years later I had a vaguely similar reaction to The Mothers by Vardis Fisher, a novel of the true story of the Donner Party cannibalism tragedy. But although I found this novel “hideously attractive,” it never meant anything to me beyond that superficial similarity.)

I identified with Meursault, particularly with his apparent lack of emotion and his refusal to pretend to emotions he did not feel. Yet I was somewhat ashamed of liking the book and never recommended it to anyone–there seemed to be little that was praiseworthy about Meursault and much to dislike about him. The murder scene I found particularly hypnotic, and I strongly felt that it was I committing the murder along with Meursault. I have felt this way on every reading of this scene, until recently.

After that first reading, I have since read the book an additional six or seven times, including two complete readings in the last four months. Over the past couple of weeks I have been intensely involved with the novel and with the McCarthy book, plus additional material. But never, until the very evening that I wrote these words, was it that I saw Meursault as disturbingly inhuman.

Meursault’s willingness to participate in Raymond’s evil plot against his mistress strikes me as grotesquely unfeeling and uncaring. Meursault does not fall into evil; he does not get dragged into it; he simply cannot be bothered to resist–it makes no difference to him whether he does evil or not. This is repulsive, moreso than the almost forgivable murder of the Arab, given the circumstances of that crime. But when he writes the letter for Raymond, he can have no excuse. “I didn’t have any reason not to please [Raymond]” is his final statement about why he wrote the letter. (p. 32) It simply never occurs to him that acting as accomplice in the humiliation and probable beating of a woman might raise any moral questions.

Given this view of Meursault, how do I feel about the book now? Well, I can’t say that this is my only view of him. I still see myself reflected in him in many ways. Given my now much more intimate knowledge of the book and my exposure to some of the relevant criticism, I have greater respect for it as a work of art. After many readings I still find it fascinating. I think its unique merit is that it challenges the reader to respond to the unsettling and philosophically important picture of reality it presents.

In this paper I’ve said nothing about the time confusions, sequence “errors,” and shifting point of view, and little about Camus’s striking and memorable scenes and images. Some of the images are profound. The sound of Salamano’s dog rising through the darkness is poignant; the salt on Marie’s lips is erotic; the sky splitting open and raining down fire is a thunderclap; the howling mob is shocking. Doubtless there are many other aspects that would repay close attention.

About the Translations
Regarding the English translations available, I strongly recommend that of Matthew Ward. I read the Stuart Gilbert version first and seldom gave a thought to whether it might be distorting Camus’s intentions. But having read Ward’s version, I find I can no longer accept the too-precious diction of Gilbert. Gilbert’s final three words are “howls of execration” where Ward has “cries of hate.” The latter is much more blunt, vigorous, and true.

Regarding the choice between Gilbert’s “mother” and Ward’s “Maman,” although Ward discusses the choice in his preface I find his reasons less than compelling. It seems clear that Meursault’s relationship with his mother is at the heart of the book, and a proper understanding of it is essential. Anyway, it pleases me to speculate about the stunning difference that a less exotic and more colorful–though improbable–translational choice than “Maman” would make: “Mommy.”

A detailed comparison of the available translations would be useful and instructive. Perhaps some other time.