The Stranger: The Importance of Emotional Adherence to Societal Integration
The question of the meaning of life has been a predominant theme among philosophers throughout the ages. Over the millennia, man has cited God, science, relationships and even numbers (42) as an answer. The Stranger, in contrast to other philosophical works, examines the meaninglessness of life. Albert Camus and Meursault operate under the notion that life is absurd and purposeless. That, in essence, “nothing really matters.
” Man superimposes significance upon absurd situations in a desperate search for meaning and then men agree on emotional responses and those responses become a societal norm. Deviation from this arbitrary set of emotional guidelines, apathy, labels one as an outcast, a sociopath; it diminishes one’s humanity. One becomes a stranger to society. In The Stranger, Camus juxtaposes the actions of Meursault with the expectations of society and examines the integral role that emotional responses play in one’s humanity and societal integration. “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know ” (Camus 3).
It is Camus’ famous first line, and for good reason, for its tone strikes the reader as quite odd. Rather than the introspective, poignant tone with which most protagonists would react to something as emotional as a mother’s death, Meursault responds with an overwhelming attitude of bluntness, concision and apathy. As the book progresses, Meursault’s emotional lethargy and disinterest towards life becomes a motif. On page thirty-five we read about Meursault’s interactions with his girlfriend. “A minute later she asked me if I loved her.
I told her it didn’t mean anything but I didn’t think so”(Camus 35). In addition to these life events the reader is allowed to observe the very mundane aspects of Meursault’s existence ” . . . .I washed my hands.
I really like doing this at lunchtime. I don’t enjoy it much in the evening, because the roller towel you use is soaked through: one towel has to last all day” (Camus 25). It is in the comparison of these two types of experiences in Meursault’s life that Camus lays the main basis for his absurdist theme. Meursault’s world is one without order, not chaotic, but without the normal, man-made hierarchy of the intrinsic values and meaning of certain events over others. In Meursault’s world, the fact that he likes to wash his hands before lunch holds the same or more importance than his mother’s death or his girlfriend’s love for him. It is into this worldview that the reader must immerse himself or herself in order to examine the subsequent themes of the novel.
The Stranger operates under the thesis that humans cannot tolerate living in a world without reason, as Meursault does. Society cannot function under the idea that the world, life itself and the events that construct it, are meaningless. In response to the universe’s apathy, humanity has developed a reality to give reason to a world without order. These reasons often manifest themselves as God and societal relationships. Man becomes obsessed with death, love, happiness, hope, grief and sadness.
In a word, emotion. The Stranger suggests that this need to give meaning to events concerning such things as death and love is, to society, perceived as simply a quality of being human. Man has devised reactions to certain events. It is only natural, man says, to cry after a death or to feel joy at being loved. It is requisite that one acts appropriately to such situations. When Meursault is being put on trial for his murder of the Arab, It is against these societal values that Meursault is being held.
Rather than pursuing a line of inquiry pertaining to the events by which he has found himself there (killing the Arab with no apparent motive), the prosecutor examines Meursault’s lack of adherence to the social construct of emotions. He asks more about Meursault’s reaction to Maman’s death than about the fateful day on the beach or Meursault’s motives for murder. The jury is asked to convict Meursault instead on the character of his person, his humanity. During the trial the director of the funeral home where Maman died is questioned. He responds to questions concerning Meursault’s behavior on the day of Maman’s death: The director then looked down at the tips of his shoes and said that I hadn’t wanted to see Maman, that I hadn’t cried once, and that I had left right after the funeral without paying my last respects at her grave.
And one thing had surprised him: one of the men who worked for the undertaker had told him I didn’t know how old Maman was. There was a brief silence. . . for the first time in years I had the stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me (Camus 91). In the novel’s context, this is the moment that the reader assumes that Meursault will be judged guilty of murder.
The courtroom is shocked into silence not at the crime, the gunshots nor the murder, but at the lack of emotion expressed at an unrelated event. The crowd emits tangible hatred. Later on in the proceeding the prosecutor gives his final speech: . . .
the prosecutor started talking about my soul. He said that he had peered into it and had found nothing, gentlemen of the jury. He said that the truth was that I didn’t have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men’s hearts, was within my reach . . .
It was then that he started to talk about my attitude towards Maman. But it went on much longer than when he was talking about my crime . . . He stated that I had no place in a society whose fundamental rules I ignored and that I could not appeal to the same human heart whose elementary response I knew nothing of (Camus 101-102).
Meursault is sentenced to death as expected. Camus has made it clear to the reader that Meursault has been prosecuted on his inability or refusal to adhere to society’s set of arbitrary emotions and responses. In the final pages of the novel, he waits in his cell, condemned to die and although the state and a law have given up on his soul, there is still an institution that has hope for his fate and his humanity: religion. Days before his execution, a chaplain comes to visit Meursault. He is kind, compassionate and earnestly wishes to save Meursault with faith and trust in God.
The chaplain appeals to Meursault to see God, to have faith and to believe that although there is condemnation for him on Earth it will not be so in God’s kingdom. “‘God can help you'” (Camus 116). Meursault responds in his usual philosophical vein. ” As for me I didn’t want anybody’s help and I just didn’t have the time to interest myself in what didn’t interest me” (Camus 117). To this exclamation the priests gently echoes the prosecutor, the jury and the rest of society and much of his response to Meursault is a parallel to the law’s interaction with Meursault. He points out Meursault’s imminent death and cites the fear he must be feeling for the ‘impending end’.
“‘Every man I have known in your position has turned to Him.” (Camus 117). Every man faced with execution turns to God just as every man cries at his own mother’s funeral. Meursualt’s position still doesn’t change—one’s own death, perhaps the most emotionally charged that we will face, is just another event in the course of an absurd life, earning as much importance as washing your hands before lunch. Rather than denying his soul, that chaplain points out Meursault’s sin.
His sin, and unwillingness to have faith, is separating him from the kingdom of heaven just as his apathy and social immorality separate him from society on earth. The prosecutor and the Chaplain both appeal to him to take an initiative in his life—to show some interest in life’s proceedings. Show remorse, repent, cry or have faith. Any of these emotional responses will integrate him back into humanity. Meursault staunchly refuses—he cannot take interest and his violent opposition heralds his final condemnation from humanity. He attacks the chaplain and screams his thesis that life is meaningless, that he has lived and that is all, and that his death is just another event.
He is happy with the way his life has been and he needs no help from anybody or anything. When he is finished the chaplain acts as a sympathetic and pitying jury, delivering a guilty verdict. “[He] looked at me for a moment without saying anything. His eyes were full of tears. Then he turned and disappeared” (Camus 122). He has given up on him.
Even at the most emotional events in his life, his own death, Meursault is unable or unwilling to adhere to social norms and responses. Because of this inability, he is excluded from those institutions of society, both by the pragmatic law and the well-meaning church. Without emotion he cannot escape death and he cannot be saved. Meursault’s apathy has estranged him, and although he is content he cannot function regularly in society. Sadness, love, fear, hope and faith are the tenets of humanity, and, whether or not they are superimposed on an absurd life, they are integral to societal inclusion.