A literary psyop

What’s wrong with Meursault?

His mistress calls him peculiar. His defense attorney labels him a hardened soul. His judge nicknames him the Antichrist. In the final analysis of his worth, a prosecuting attorney tells the assembled jury, “I ask you for this man’s head. [I] look into [his] face and all I see is a monster.”

The Stranger
by Albert Camus
123 pages
Published in 1942

Society doesn’t care much for Meursault, the protagonist and anti-hero of the famous short novel The Stranger. Meursault is described diplomatically as “taciturn and withdrawn.” What does the reader think? Albert Camus, author of The Stranger, writes in a guarded style that makes judgments difficult. Meursault narrates his own story in a dry, stoic, matter-of-fact way. We aren’t given time to ponder his predicaments while Meursault recounts what has happened. Readers do know how these narratives work. In many novels, the protagonist is misunderstood. Extreme charges such as those Meursault faces are often unfair and unjust, even if the protagonist is never exonerated. 

First published in 1942, The Stranger followed Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon by two years. Another classic in the sub-genre of existentialist fiction, The Trial by Franz Kafka, was published in 1915. In these latter two novels, protagonists Rubashov and Josef K. are branded culpable of crimes against the state. They’re not guilty, per se, but their favored status in society makes them liable for the state’s charges. A major point of these novels, if not the entire point, is establishing their blameless condition in an archetypal tale of man versus the machine.

The Stranger is different because Meursault is guilty.

The Stranger is different because Meursault is guilty. He shot a man on a beach in cold blood. A damning detail is how forceful he was with the gun. Meursault downs his victim after the first shot, pauses, and then fires four additional rounds into the body. Killing a man appears to be his goal.

It appears to be, but Meursault says it was not premeditated. “I said [t]hat I never intended to kill the Arab.” It was a moment of indifferent chance, of bad luck, as Meursault’s friend Celesté says.

Do the facts support it? Upon his arrest, the examining magistrate asks a crucial question. “Why did you pause between the first and second shot?” It’s a fair question. Meursault fired at a man standing a distance away who had only a knife. The first shot felled the man. If the act were one of self-defense, why did Meursault fire again? If it were a slip of the finger, why four more?

Inexplicably, Meursault doesn’t offer a defense. “[T]his time I didn’t answer.”

In many ways, The Stranger is a mystery story. Why is Meursault the way he is? The opening sentences introduce us to a man at odds with his humanity. He feels no emotion at the news of his mother’s death. Unsure of the day she died, he reasons that it doesn’t really matter. Albert Camus drops us into a seminal event in the life of an adult: the passing of a remaining parent. He is now alone in the world, but as we see in his lack of emotion, his isolation is a long-standing condition. Watching Meursault go through the motions of grieving is awkward and painful. His only interest is going home to bed. The nature of Meursault’s societal, economic, or spiritual disorder forms the basis for reading. It’s a macabre fascination. Why is Meursault so screwed up? 

The reader will venture a guess only to remain unsatisfied. The motive isn’t so easy to grasp. 

One might blame his society. Is The Stranger a dystopian novel? Has Meursault become dehumanized to the degree of Winston in 1984? There are clues. Meursault spends the latter half of the book in jail. He’s put on trial and subjected to withering scrutiny. His character is attacked, his personal life mocked, and his motivations found wanting. Only the dystopian formula we’re used to is missing. The State is not to blame for Meursault’s issues. 

Quite the opposite; Meursault lives a pleasant, sensual life. He’s young and single, a Frenchman living in sunny Algiers. At the time The Stranger was published, France was occupied by the Nazis. Meursault makes no note of it. Life is quite ordinary. He works in a commercial office, swims at the beach, and eats often at his favorite restaurant run by his gregarious friend Celesté.

The State is not to blame for Meursault’s issues.

Meursault runs into Marie, a woman who once worked at his office, and they strike up an affair. They swim together and then lay about, drying off. Meursault notes, “I had the whole sky in my eyes and it was blue and gold. On the back of my neck I could feel Marie’s heart beating softly.”

Sometime later, Meursault is offered an opportunity to advance his career. His boss suggests he move to Paris, where they’re opening an office. He’d be able to travel and work directly with big clients. Meursault tells Marie about it. She’s excited by the idea. Marie also lets him know she’s interested in getting married. It would appear young Meursault has the world at his feet. 

Instead of walking into a promising life as many his age would do, Meursault apathetically rejects it all. Without seeming direction, he gets mixed up with a callous rogue living in his apartment building. It’s shifty Raymond who entangles Meursault in a battle with local thugs. It’s Raymond’s gun Meursault carries. It’s Raymond’s sordid plan that Meursault willingly joins.

A synopsis of The Stranger reads like an American noir driven by lust and greed. The crime novels of Chandler, Hammett, and Thompson are trashy but explore the ideas of sin and morality. Noir revels in vice while yearning for piety. French existentialists do the opposite. They promote a joyless self-discipline and then pine for the pleasures they’ve denied themselves.

It would explain why The Stranger is a solemn exercise, a heavy read with little vicarious enjoyment outside of psychoanalyzing Meursault. So why was it legendary? Why is it popular? 

As is often the case when writers find fame, Camus was lucky, with the right voice at the right time. In the midst of World War II, the French experienced an identity crisis. The French people had been conquered for the second time in half a century. Many questioned the justness of life. Existentialism became a framework that atheists could accept without accepting anything more.

An existentialist could nobly question life’s meaning and morality, leaning toward there being none. Camus would capture his country’s grand disillusionment in The Stranger.

Subsequent generations discovered the novel in college. It’s almost required reading for this age group. Meursalt’s rejection of societal norms, his apathy toward fitting in, and his focus on short-term pleasure appeal to the liberated college student. Reading The Stranger as an adult is not as revelatory. It’s a short book that takes work and some level of imagination to get through. 

Camus would capture his country’s grand disillusionment…

The freshman is fascinated with Meursalt. “What bold living is this?” An adult grows impatient with his behavior, which comes across as petulant. Why not marry an attractive girl and move to Paris? The reasons aren’t given. A poorly written book would signal the author forgot something. Camus is a masterful writer. He’s not absent-minded. Something else is at play.

Adding a degree of difficulty for a reader is a stylistic choice. The Stranger is blandly written. It’s a first-person account in the authentic style of a non-writer. Which is to say, Meursault is not a master wordsmith. “I worked hard at the office today. The boss was nice,” begins Chapter Three.

France is the birthplace of Flaubert and Proust, legendary prose craftsmen. Camus declined this route and instead wrote road signs that lead us to a place with little beauty. Camus explained he sought to emulate the “American style” of Hemingway. He believed short, declarative sentences fit his colorless character. Whereas Hemingway wrung emotion out of simple sentences, Camus missed this potential. His prose feels simplistic.

Fans of Camus grind their teeth at such critiques. Having fun with The Stranger is not even a point of debate. Camus was drawn to universal ideas, they say. Beautiful writing would weaken the tension in his narrative. The goal of an ambitious writer, an existentialist, is to uncover an inner struggle, which Camus did achieve. It’s a valid argument for any fan of the genre, from Kierkegaard to Dostoevsky. And yet, were Flaubert and Proust really lacking in mortal angst for being great writers? Is it possible Camus is too much of an idealogue, a zealot, to be an effective novelist? His most remembered works (The Myth of Sisyphus, The Fall, The Rebel) were more polemic than literary.

One of the sharpest teachers of literature would concur. Vladimir Nabokov believed a great writer needed to enchant a reader, not simply teach or spin a tale. “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” (Lectures on Literature.)

Camus was clearly a professor with a message. The Stranger is his parable. What’s the point?

There is cause to call The Stranger an anti-novel, and Meursault an anti-character. Neither dynamic nor thoughtful, revolting nor appealing, Meursault is an unremarkable man who lives like a robot and accepts his environment without curiosity. It’s impossible to identify a goal or a desire that drives him. He’s a cipher, doing the bidding of others without agreeing or disagreeing. He’s the man in the parable who buried his talent in the ground. He’s a waste of time and space.

Camus drained the personality from Meursault as a taxidermist would remove fluids before embalming. The result is a prototype of a modern man. Meursault is separated from family, religion, and a sense of civic identity. He’s a husk. Camus succeeds in inhabiting this viewpoint. The soullessness of Meursault is itself an artistic achievement, as uninspiring as such a man is.

He’s the man in the parable who buried his talent in the ground.

Meursault makes a series of inexplicable, self-defeating decisions that betray a deadened conscience. He agrees to marry his mistress while admitting he doesn’t love her. He writes a letter that he knows will cause a young woman to be mistreated. When Meursault witnesses violence, whether from his neighbor Salamano beating a dog, or Raymond beating his unfaithful mistress, Meursault doesn’t flinch. He views it only as a remote conflict.

The power of Meursault’s character is one of negation. He accepts actions but rejects their intentions. In essence, he says, “You can have my physical body. You can’t have my will.” As a character, Meursault is unable to fulfill the vicarious needs of a reader. He’s a symbol, a mannequin. And so the reader turns to Camus. We observe the author crafting an object lesson. The narrative signals a point is coming. The novel is deliberately plotted. Camus presents a story that dutifully hits its marks, one key moment after another until Meursault’s doomed predicament is complete. Camus shows no favoritism toward any one character, least of all Meursault. He articulates the sad mistakes and weak motivations of his narrator. Meursault’s antagonists eloquently describe his faults. Enemies of the Camus philosophy are given powerful arguments.

We know Meursault is against family, marriage, career, and what atheists consider to be petty moralities. His enemies, then, are those in the novel who espouse these traditional virtues. Camus gives these other characters a fair say in their critiques. Marie is visibly shaken when she learns Meursault is in mourning over his mother while they frolic on an afternoon. She is upset when Meursault is willing to carry on an affair without a thought to a commitment. Meursault’s boss is likewise perturbed when Meursault rejects a promotion for no real reason. And the violence Meursault helps to stage on behalf of Raymond shakes the neighbors, but not him.

Later, Meursault is judged morally after his arrest for murder. Camus gives the examining magistrate a powerful speech. The magistrate questions why Meursault has no remorse for taking a life. He pleads with him to turn to God for forgiveness. The magistrate tells Meursault such an act of contrition would surely help his legal case. Meursault finds the suggestion irrelevant and useless. As if the magistrate speaks another language, Meursault refuses.

He questions how any man can live as callous a life as Meursault.

Meursault ends up in court. The prosecutor picks up where the magistrate left off, questioning how any man can live so callous a life. The people Meursault has crossed paths with appear at the trial as witnesses. They detail his disregard for human convention. They don’t understand why he didn’t mourn for his mother. Murdering the man on the beach seems to be the natural outcome of an existence that attacks the mores of a civilized world. 

A person like this must be put to death, the prosecutor says, “Especially when the emptiness of a man’s heart becomes, as we find it has in this man, an abyss threatening to swallow up society.”

Camus makes Meursault pay for his nonconformity. He’s no stand-in for the author. He’s a pawn in a larger game. Vladimir Nabokov believed his characters existed to serve a purpose. Camus allows Meursault’s detractors to dissect, label, and dispose of him because it will prove Camus’s point. 

This point becomes clearer at the end of The Stranger. Found guilty of murder, Meursault waits in his cell for death. The chance of an appeal is remote. He refuses to see the prison chaplain for some unknown reason, when Meursault has been amenable to nearly everyone. The chaplain is an exception. As is hinted by Meursault’s aversion to Sundays, and his sensory deprivation when exposed to the light of the sun, Meursault betrays an anger toward the Biblical God. He becomes animated in the face of the chaplain. He shouts at him and roughs him up. The chaplain’s promise of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life is distasteful to Meursault. He has found one thing he believes in, even at the end of life, and that is to believe in absolutely nothing.

Meursault betrays an anger toward the Biblical God.

Throughout The Stranger, Camus makes a strong case that nothing is the antithesis of life. Nothing is also the enemy of self. It’s an enemy Meursault chooses. It’s an enemy he prefers.

A reader watches Meursault pass through extreme circumstances that serve no real purpose but to demonstrate one thing. Nihilism works. It can handle any crisis. It remains intact. Camus doesn’t make a case that nihilism is better than belief. He makes a case that it’s a valid choice. He wants nihilism to be legitimized, given its due. He promotes a belief system that can answer the atrocities of World War II and all the other unimaginable crises humanity has brought on itself. It’s a belief man can do all by himself.

Why is Meursault peculiar, hardened, an antichrist? Camus shows his hand by the end. Meursault is an apostle in the church of Nihilism. He doesn’t proselytize, doesn’t teach. Nihilism is about anti-action, withstanding the appealing pleasures that lead to belief in a benevolent God. To avoid this temptation, Meursault rejects marriage, career, and family. He embraces chaos and evil.

Camus identifies the enemy within that seeks to live on its own terms.

In The Stranger, Camus identifies the enemy within that seeks to live on its own terms. His hero yields to this enemy. In the eyes of everyone around him, he becomes a monster. In the logic of nihilism, he stays true to himself. As Meursault says in his condemned cell, “I had been right, I was still right, I was always right.” Meursault will die. In the twisted logic of nihilism, he wins.

The Stranger remains perennially popular. Fewer people read today, but the anti-choice Meursault makes is now everywhere. People without hope choose the victory of self-will. It may seem that Camus was a prophet. It’s possible the bleakness of World War II provided the clarity to see the absurdity of life. And yet, not everyone subscribed to this viewpoint, even back then when the bombs were falling. At the very same time Camus wrote his nihilist masterpiece, C.S. Lewis wrote a very different book: The Case for Christianity.

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