Monday, 17 June 2013

Meursault and Kruschen Salts, humour in The Stranger

Albert Camus' The Stranger is not often read for its comedy value however Meursault the hero and narrator likes a joke. He tells us that Salamano's dog manages to wriggle out of his collar and escape while his owner was watching "the Escape king" [41] and he tells us of Raymond's silly hat that makes Marie laugh [50]. Marie's laughter is in fact what attracts Meursault to her and he makes 18 separate references to her laughing or smiling. Patrice Mersault, hero of A Happy Death (a kind of pre-run for The Stranger) is very attracted to mouths, 'lips' are mentioned several times in a sexual context but this is the subject for a future post. Meursault's humour is also dark, like the humour of many writers of 'the absurd' - check out the work of Daniil Kharms. A example of this is his claim to have not noticed the Arab nurse is missing a nose. After describing, in detail, the facial features of the old caretaker at the care home, Meursault claims to have not noticed that "Where her nose should have been the bandage was flat" [12]

One of Meursault's hobbies, he tells us, is to keep "an old exercise book where I put things that amuse me in the papers." [25] In chapter two he cuts out an advertisement for Kruschen Salts to go in this book. A quick internet search reveals the kind of advertisments this laxative company favoured. The suggestion in all these ads is that an productive session on the toilet is a cure for all ills. These ills range from things like rheumatism and fatigue to being overweight - all are cured, the last line of the advertising copy usually reveals, by a regular daily you-know-what. The accompanying pictures are always of men and women smiling gleefully because they go to the toilet regularly or frowning, gloomy individuals who don't. My personal favourite is a man who isn't getting on well at work - until the laxatives take effect - and he gets a pay rise.

How does knowing Meursault finds these advertisments amusing help us understand him as a character? 

Often the playful side of this character is forgotten, the fact that he plays with Marie in the water and runs exuberantly after the lorry with his friend Emmanuel, who ends up "laughing so hard he could hardly breathe" [30] He plays pool with Raymond and enjoys the friendliness he feels directed towards him. [40]

How and why does Meursault find advertisments for laxatives amusing? These ads do as much as they can to hide the reality of the product they're selling. For him to find them funny, he'd need to reflect on them a while rather than simply glance over them in the newspaper. Some have claimed that his focus on the Kruschen Salts is a indication of his interest in the trivial (these commentators also point to his mentioning the soggy towel in the bathroom at the office). However, Meursault doesn't not claim that he finds the towel amusing (he's annoyed, like I would be, because it's soggy) but he does explicitly say he finds these advertisements amusing. If amusement is an emotion (Robert A. Sharpe offers 7 reasons why it is in an article for The Journal of Value Inquiry ) then Meursault experiences this emotion - a problem for those commentators on The Stranger who argue that he is incapable of emotion.

Below are some advertisement for Kruschen Salts that must be similar to the ones Meursault would have read. I'll post the happy laxative users first.

Now the grumpy people who would benefit from a laxative

Finally, a non-Kruschen ad that Meursault might think worth putting in his exercise book

You don't want to stand too close to Laxative Merry-Go-Round

[Text by Simon Lea]

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Journal of Camus Studies 2012

The Journal of Camus Studies 2012 is now available for purchase. This is our biggest journal to date, just over 340 pages with 17 scholarly articles. The table of contents is listed below. The JCS is available in hard copy or as an ebook. You can found out more about our Journals on the Camus Society website. Due to the increased cost of printing we have had to raise our price from £10.00 to £13.95.

To purchase a copy of The Journal of Camus Studies please visit our storefront.


Paneloux's Turn: An Analysis of the Sermons of The Plague
By Eric Berg

Death in Oran : The Plague as Counter to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice
By Braden Cannon

Neoconservatism in the Political Thought of Albert Camus: A Preliminary Inquiry
By Jackson Doughart

Of Dogs and Men: Empathy and Emotion in Camus' The Stranger
By Ingrid Fernandez

Homo-Social Eroticness in “The Guest”
By Peter Francev

The Eternal Return of Sisyphus: Camus Interpreting Nietzsche
By Giovanni Gaetani

“Rien, rien n'avait d'importance et je savais bien pourquoi” (“Nothing, nothing mattered, and I well knew why”): The World According to Meursault—or A Critical Attempt to Understand the Absurdist Philosophy of the Protagonist of Albert Camus's The Stranger
By George Heffernan

Selfishness in Albert Camus' La Chute
By Emily Holman

Absurdism and Lyricism: Stylistic Extremes in Camus's Novels
By Peadar Kearney

Camus' Literary Criminal and the Law: Loathing the Outsider
By Stefan Lancy

Albert Camus: The Politics of Poverty and the Misery of Kabylie
By Jerry Larson

Meursault: Mad, Bad or Messiah?
By Simon Lea

Camus's Les Justes : A Rebuff to Sartre's Les Mains Sales ?
By Benedict O'Donohoe

‘My sensibility must speak, not cry out...': Form and feeling in the Making of Camus' L'Envers et l'Endroit
By Nicholas Padfield

Aestheticizing a Bacillus: Disease and Destiny in Albert Camus's The Plague
By Patrick Reilly

‘Némesis veille…': An Attempt to Understand Camus' Unfinished Essay
By Luke Richardson

Camus' Sense of the Sacred
By Ron Srigley

Thursday, 4 April 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day eleven


Meursault has been sentenced and he is now in a cell awaiting the day of his execution. At first he is preoccupied with finding a way to escape the guillotine. He spends most of his day on his bed staring up at his cell window through which he can only see the sky. Have prisoners ever escaped the guillotine? Meursault wishes he'd learned more about executions. He imagines making a mad dash for it, running away until shot down from a street corner. Meursault remembers a story his mother told him about his father who had witnessed a public execution. When his father returned he was sick half the morning. He imagines himself as one of the witnesses but the thought of being a free spectator, rather than the condemned man, fills him with such a flood of joy he feels poisoned. When he first imagined his execution he thought of himself walking up steps to the scaffold, something similar to images he'd seen of the French Revolution. But then he remembers a picture he’d seen of a modern execution in which the guillotine was flat on the ground and much smaller than he expected.

Meursault thinks about his appeal. If his appeal is granted then he will escape the guillotine. He is disturbed by contradictory ideas and feelings: he can think that it doesn't matter if he dies at thirty or seventy but then feel a sudden surge of joy at the idea of living another twenty years. Another obsession is the dawn. Meursault believes that when they come for him it will be at dawn. He can't sleep all night, waiting for dawn to break. Then when it does, every noise sets his heart pounding. He listens, with his ear pressed at the cell door, for any sign of people coming. Once the dawn passes and no-one has come, Meursault believes he has another twenty-four hours of life. He develops a kind of meditation pattern in which he concentrates on the idea that his appeal is rejected and he focuses on his belief in the meaninglessness of life. Then, and only then, he allows himself to imagine himself pardoned. He tries to remain calm and remember his reasoning, while in his body he feels joy at the thought of living. When he succeeds he experiences an hour of respite.

The prison chaplain has tried three times to see Meursault, who is refusing to see him. Unexpectedly the chaplain turns up at Meursault's cell and wants to talk to him. At first Meursault is frightened by the visit but then it becomes clear that the chaplain just wants Meursault to talk about God. Although he found him quite pleasant at first, Meursault becomes irritated by the chaplain and ends up raging at him, grabbing at the man and the warders have to pull them apart. After the chaplain has gone and Meursault is alone again he falls asleep. When he awakes near dawn he feels purged of his ills, he realizes that he'd been happy and was still happy. “My last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.”

“For the third time, I've refused to see the chaplain”

Commentators have drawn parallels between this and Jesus rejecting the devil three times. We noted previously that the examining magistrate asks Meursault three times why he fired the extra shots at the Arab and that he stays silent.

Desperate to escape the guillotine

Meursault has been moved to the condemned cell and may be taken to his death at any time without warning. He desperately wants to live and tries to think of any past incidents of someone escaping the guillotine. It is the absolute certainty of this fate, to die, that he can't take.

Meaningless of his death

Death seems to have no relation to life. It is meaningless. His sentence was read at five o'clock, would it have made a difference if it had been read at eight? What difference does it make that he is being killed in the name of the French people, rather than the Germans or Chinese? And what does it mean to die in the name of the French people anyway? Will our death occur as a natural consequence to the events that occurred in our lives, our will it just happen with no apparent link to the life we had?

Story of Meursault's father sick after witnessing an execution

This happened to Camus' father. Lucien Camus died in the First World War shortly after Albert was born, they only lived together for eight months. One of the stories about his father, Camus was told, was of his going to see an execution. Like Meursault's father, Camus' father was sick afterwards.

Not like 1789

In the popular imagination the guillotine is a towering killing machine, placed high on a scaffold. Meursault can almost accept ascending the steps to take his place in the machine. However the reality is far more mundane. Guillotines are quite small and placed on the floor, usually in some corner. (See the photo from Day ten). There will be no majesty in Meursault's death. For Camus death is banal.

Meursault's prison meditations

He develops a technique. First he focuses on his imminent demise and thinks about it rationally. He knows that in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter if he dies at thirty or seventy. He also knows that life is meaningless. A pointless death awaits all of us and all the events leading up to it won't change that fact or somehow give it a purpose or meaning. If life is absurd, then a life of thirty years is just as just as meaningless as one lasting seventy years. However, at the thought of living those extra decades Meursault feels a surge of joy in his body. His meditations involve first thinking about his certain death and thinking about the meaningless of existence. Once this is done, he then thinks about being pardoned and having decades more of life. What he achieves, through this mental discipline is an hour of respite. A hour of calm when he doesn't think about dying, now or sometime later, but in which he just lives.

The chaplain

The chaplain arrives out of the blue and uninvited. Naturally Meursault panics, what does this man's arrival mean? Is he about to read the last rites? It turns out that the man just wants to talk. At first Meursault finds the chaplain pleasant but he soon tires of him. The chaplain wants Meursault to agree with his understanding of God and the universe. Meursault gets angry but not, as suggested by some commentators, because the chaplain represents anything. Attacking the chaplain is not some kind of protest against society, or the Church, or false hope, or anything like that. Meursault has won himself a hour of 'respite' and the chaplain is wasting this precious time. “He started talking to me about God again, but I didn't have much time left. I didn't want to waste it on God.”

“I woke up a bit”

Meursault has spent most of his narrative saying how tired and sleepy he felt. Now he has awakened, at least a bit.

“I'd been right, I was still right, I was always right. I'd lived a certain way and I could just as well lived in a different way... Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. He too knew why.”

For Meursault nothing matters because we will one day die. His future death 'breathes' back through time rendering everything in his life pointless. It doesn't matter if he does this or that, nothing will finally justify the choices he makes. The chaplain also accepts that we are condemned to die, he tells Meursault as much (“it wasn't because I was condemned to death that he was talking to me like that; in his opinion, we were all condemned to death.”) However, the chaplain doesn't believe everything is meaningless. Meursault shouts a lot of questions at the man but we don't get to hear an answer.

What does it matter if he is accused of murder and then executed for not crying at hiss mother's funeral?

What does it matter that Salamano's dog was worth as much as his wife?

What does it matter that the robotic woman, Masson's wife and Marie are all condemned to death?

What does it matter that Raymond is just as much a friend to Meursault as Céleste, who is worth more than him, is?

What does it matter that Marie now has a new Meursault to kiss?

Meursault asks a lot of questions. He phrases his questions in a way that states his beliefs as fact. That is, he doesn’t ask if Salamano’s dog is worth as much as his wife, the question assumes as much. He says he is right, has always been right, but is he? What about the objections that he wasn't condemned for not crying at his mother's funeral but for senselessly killing another man or that Salamano's dog isn't worth as much as his wife? What if we accept that the robotic woman, Masson's wife and Marie will all one day die but ask 'so what?' The same goes for the question of Raymond's friendship and the idea of Marie having another 'Meursault’.

How well does Camus express Christian ideas? The examining magistrate and the chaplain put up extremely weak cases. In his notebooks Camus plays with the idea of a priest called to give comfort to a condemned prisoner and as a result loses his faith. His decision to use the first person for The Stranger means that we only get a one-sided account. Meursault ideas receive no challenge. Does Camus want the reader to challenge Meursault’s ideas or are we supposed to agree with him?

Note that the chaplain is the only person that Meursault talks to about his ideas. Prior to that he only talked to himself (“...and I realized that all the time I'd been talking to myself.”) and before that he kept his ideas to himself.

Meursault sleeps and wakes near dawn

Before the outburst he couldn't sleep at night because he so fears the dawn (and the possible coming of the executioner) but now he sleeps and wakes just before dawn. He feels peace.

“For the first time in a very long time I thought of mother. I felt I understood why at the end of her life she'd taken a 'fiancé' and why she pretended to start again.”

Meursault, facing his imminent death has started a new life. He has no hopes for the future and lives the time that he has. His mother seems to have done the same, in the home where death is all around her. Crying over her, lamenting the tragedy of her death, to Meursault, is denying the worthwhileness of the life, with Pérez, she had created.

“As if this great burst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes.”

Despite what he says about 'always being right' Meursault changes over the course the novel. He tells us that as a student he had to give up his studies (Mersault in A Happy Death had to do this because his mother was ill, Camus had to do this because he was ill, both are confronted with death) and that at some point he ceased to analyze himself. In prison, through his meditations, he learns to accept death and with his confrontation with the chaplain he finally purges his hope. Meursault evolves, Camus talks of The Stranger as 'a beginning', note that a fundamental step in his evolution was sharing his ideas with another person.

“For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that here should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.”

Just like Jesus' execution. Note that Meursault has already taken comfort in the idea of being executed on a scaffold in front of a crowd (as he has seen in pictures of the Revolution). But he knows that he'd be killed quietly in a corner of the courtyard. Meursault accepts that life is meaningless, that is death is meaningless but he still wants to give it some meaning.

[Text by Simon Lea]

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day ten


The chapter starts and ends in court. Meursault talks about the prosecutor talking about him and we get the thrust of the case against him. After the prosecutor's speech Meursault is given the opportunity to speak but he doesn't make himself understood and some people laugh at him. The session adjourns for lunch. When they get back Meursault's lawyer delivers a long speech. Meursault is distracted and doesn't listen to most of it. As evening approaches, Meursault is taken out while the jury deliberated upon the case. His lawyer seems confident and predicts that Meursault might get away with a few years in prison or hard labour. Meursault asks about the possibility of getting the sentence quashed if it's unfavorable. They wait for almost three quarters of an hour before being summoned back. Meursault is told he will be decapitated in a public square in the name of the French people.

“Even when you're in the dock, it's always interesting to hear people talking about you.”

However Meursault 'soon got bored with the prosecutor's speech'. During his own lawyer's speech he will get bored and distracted also. Is Meursault's boredom a sign of his emotional detachment or a description of what it's like to be on trial? Would most people find themselves drifting in and out of concentration? In the previous chapter Meursault expresses interest in the trial but the policeman, with a lot of experience of trials, replies 'but it ends up being boring.'

“Was there so much difference, anyway, between the two speeches?”

The prosecutor is arguing for guilt without mitigation. Meursault's lawyer is arguing for guilt with mitigation. There isn't a great deal of difference, not as much as there would be in a trial in which the prosecution are claiming premeditated murder and the defence are claiming total innocence. Bear in mind that Meursault isn't sitting there thinking that if things are going badly he'll end up sentenced to death. He thinks the case is relatively minor (as it would have probably been in real life at that time).

“Keep quiet, it's better for you.”

Meursault has been accused by some commentators of sitting by passively without taking much interest in his trial. However he does get annoyed at not being allowed to get more involved. He complains, “From time to time I'd feel like interrupting everyone and saying, 'But all the same, who's the accused. It's important being the accused. And I've got something to say!” Remember what he said to his lawyer before the trial (“all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones dead.”) not something you want him saying in court. And when he does get to speak later he makes a really bad job of it. If you were Meursault's lawyer, would you want him on the stand?

“But when I thought about it, I didn't really have anything to say.”

That's true. There's not a lot he could say. Unless he's prepared to lie. He could say that he controlled his feelings at the funeral and that's why he looked unemotional. He could say that the Arab came at him with the knife and he had to shoot in self-defense. He could talk about his eternal guilt over taking the life of another human being. But he won't because he sticks to his ethic of sincerity. Those readers believing him to be apathetic or even a nihilist might wonder what business he has with an ethic, let alone refusing to compromise it.

The prosecutor's argument

The murder was premeditated. Meursault is a bad character. This is shown by his behaviour at his mother's funeral and his picking up a girl on the beach the day after. He hangs around with other men of 'dubious morality', referring to Raymond, and involves himself in sordid activities such as writing the letter to Raymond's mistress. Meursault targeted the Arab on the beach. He sought them out and engaged them in a fight. He later went back, this time armed with a gun he'd borrowed from his friend, found the Arab and shot him. Meursault intended to kill. He fired four more shots to make sure his victim was dead. Finally, Meursault expresses no regret. He doesn't regret killing the man because it was no accident; he sought him out intending to kill.

The prosecutor argues for the death penalty

First he attempts to establish that Meursault has no soul. His lack of soul means that Meursault has no access to humanity or morality. There's no room for pity in this case, no compassion for a man born in this condition because his 'heart is so empty that it forms a chasm which threatens to engulf society.' This is a pretty strong accusation: the prosecutor is calling Meursault evil. He then hammers the point home going on about Meursault's mother for a long time. He then segues into the trial scheduled for the next day, the murder of a father. Invoking the horror of this crime he accuses Meursault of being 'morally responsible' for his mother's death. Having established that Meursault is guilty of a crime every bit as serious as the crime being tried the next day, he asks for the same punishment. He calls for the death penalty saying Meursault's case is as fully deserving of the punishment than any other such case he's had in the past. Meursault is 'nothing but a monster'.

“Mixing up my words a bit and realizing that I sounded ridiculous, I said it was because of the sun.”

Meursault, given the chance to speak, can not explain himself. Some people laugh at him. His lawyer just shrugs.

The lawyer's defense

He plays the prosecutor's game and starts talking about his client's soul. Note that game-playing appears continually throughout The Stranger. The lawyer peers into Meursault's soul and finds an honest chap (true), a regular and tireless worker (no reason to believe this isn't true), popular with everyone (true) and sympathetic to the misfortunes of others (true, think Salamano and his dog). He talks about Meursault's duties to his mother carried out to the best of his abilities and ends by saying that his client was stricken with eternal remorse (definitely not true).

“I agreed, but it was hardly a sincere compliment, because I was too tired.”

The lawyer’s colleagues come over after his speech to congratulate him, calling his performance magnificent. Of course it wasn't magnificent. He's rubbish as a lawyer. It's surprising that Meursault, an uncompromising follower of an ethic of sincerity offers the man an insincere compliment.

“And the utter pointlessness of what I was doing here took me by the throat and all I wanted was to get it over and go back to my cell and sleep.”

Meursault mentions sleep again. Is this a metaphysical statement about the meaninglessness of the universe or the acknowledgment that his trial is going on without him. The lawyers are spending all day trying to outdo themselves with hyperboles on the state of his soul. All the while he has to sit and watch in a stiflingly hot courtroom. Much has been made of his paying more attention to the sound of the ice-seller's trumpet and thoughts about Marie's dresses but couldn't anyone who is sat in one room listening to long speeches be able to give you detailed accounts on the room's ceiling, the pattern on the carpet and the noises from the street outside?

“He thought I'd get off with a few years in prison or hard labour. I asked him whether there was a chance of getting the sentence quashed if it was unfavourable.”

Meursault is not expecting a harsh sentence. He definitely is not steadfastly refusing to play by society's rules and willing to pay the price with his life.

“… that strange sensation I had when I discovered that the young journalist had looked away.”

The young journalist (aka Camus) has been looking at Meursault throughout the trial. Meursault last caught his eye after his defence lawyer has finished speaking. Now Meursault’s about to be sentenced he’s looking away.

“… the judge told me in a peculiar way that I would be decapitated in a public square in the name of the French people.”

Meursault has not described the trial in thrilling nail-biting fashion. It hasn’t been thrilling. Unlike a good court drama in which a man’s life hangs in the balance, with the guilty/not guilty verdict suspensefully drawn out, the verdict – guilty with mitigation/without mitigation – is revealed almost surreptitiously.

Tomorrow - Day 11 (Final Day)

[Text by Simon Lea]

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day nine


Chapter three covers one day, from seven in the morning until the evening. It is the first day of Meursault's trial. He is taken from the prison in a police van and is surprised to find the courtroom crowded when he gets inside. It is summer time and the room is stifling. By the end of the day the judges, the jury, the legal teams and the journalists will all be issued with straw fans. Spectators fan themselves with newspapers. Before the trial begins one of the reporters tells Meursault that they've blown his case up a bit. Meursault notices that the policemen who brought him into the courtroom, the journalists and the legal teams are all very friendly towards each other and Meursault gets the impression that they are all in some kind of club together. As the trial is starting, he notices one of the journalists is different to the others, he is younger and instead of picking up his pen he looks right at Meursault. The names of the witnesses are called out, none of them are Arabs but all European Algerians, people from the home and Meursault's friends. He notices the strange robotic woman from the restaurant sitting next to Céleste. The presiding Judge sets the tone of the trial when he immediately asks Meursault about his relationship with his mother. Meursault is confused by the proceedings and is taken back to the prison when the session breaks for lunch. When he returns that afternoon, he hears the witnesses testimonies. Meursault is greatly moved by Céleste's attempt to paint him in a positive light. The warden and the caretaker from the home are encouraged by the prosecutor to say damning things about Meursault's behaviour and the accounts his friends give of him are torn apart. The lawyer for Meursault puts up a feeble defence. The hearing is adjourned and Meursault is packed into the van and driven back to prison. On the way he hears the familiar sounds of the town he loves at a time of day he used to feel happy.

“I said to the policeman, 'What a lot of people!' He replied that it was because of the papers and he pointed to a group standing by the table under the jury-box. He said, 'That's them.'”

Meursault's trial is supposed to be a small affair that will be cleared away quickly, according to his lawyer. The next case up is a parricide and that's going to be a big one. However, the papers must be publishing some intriguing stuff about Meursault, more than the simple story we'd expect, ‘Arab killed in fight with European on the beach’. In 1930s Algiers, this wouldn't be too sensational a story. So how is Meursault's case being presented in the papers to draw such a crowd? We don’t know because Meursault doesn’t know.

“... the journalist turned to me and smiled. He told me that he hoped everything would go well for me. I thanked him and he added, 'you know we've blown your case up a bit.'"

Meursault doesn't know, he hasn't been given the papers to read. The journalist appears a bit two-faced, he's smiling and wishing Meursault good luck but has probably written some sensational, and damning, articles about him. Note that the journalist is playing the game, it is summer silly season with no good news stories, so the papers just have to make them up.

The special correspondent from the Paris papers

He's in Algiers to cover the parricide but has now been asked to send a report on Meursault's trial too. A fight on the beach between a pied-noir and an Arab in Algeria is not going to interest Parisian readers. Meursault's case must have really be sensationalized for the Paris papers to become interested.

The friendly club house atmosphere

Meursault remarks on the friendly way the policeman, reporters and lawyers treat each other. They all seem to be members of the same club, all “happy to find themselves in a familiar world.” Is it all just fun and games for them?

“And I had the peculiar impression of being watched by myself.”

Camus writes a little cameo for himself. He was a court reporter and was younger than the other journalists. He also wore a blue flannel suit. Camus would take the side of the defendant and expose court corruption when he saw it. In The Stranger Camus writes himself as different to the other reporters. They all have pens poised, his is left lying in front of him as he looks at Meursault.

The strange robotic woman

She's at the trial too, watching Meursault. He will be conscious of her, and the young reporter, watching him throughout the trial.

The warden's testimony

He tells the court that Meursault's mother had reproached her son for sending her to a home. He had just said that the residents would often complain about their relatives but when the judge asks him to be specific about Meursault's mother reproaching him he just says 'yes' without repeating the further detail that all residents make similar complaints. He says that Meursault hadn't wanted to see his mother, but we know that he did ask to see her straight away but was told by the caretaker that he had to see the warden first. The warden goes on to give other details such as Meursault not crying or knowing his mother's exact age.

“... for the first time in years, I stupidly felt like crying because I could tell much all these people hated me.”

An emotional response from a previously unemotional Meursault. Feelings must be running pretty high in the courtroom for Meursault to feel this hate so keenly. If Meursault believes nothing matters and everything is pointless then why does what others think of him upset him?

The caretaker and Pérez

The caretaker provides more details about Meursault's behaviour at the funeral. He talks about the coffee and cigarettes and this is used against Meursault. His lawyer tries to suggest that since the caretaker offered the coffee and also smoked that Meursault can't be blamed but the prosecutor merely points out that the caretaker was not the deceased son and doesn't have the same duty towards her. Why does Meursault's lawyer play the prosecutor's game; instead of quibbling why not reject this line of questioning as irrelevant and absurd?

“Here we have the epitome of this trial. Everything is true and yet nothing is true!”

Meursault's lawyer is right. None of what has been said is untrue but none of it concerns the truth they are here to ascertain, what exactly Meursault is guilty of and his proper punishment. The lawyer is protesting the prosecutor’s approach but is not being active himself.

Meursault's friends
It is a testament to Mersault that he has friends who are willing to try and speak up for him. Everyone we have been introduced to, except for Emmanuel and Meursault's boss are present in court. Emmanuel means ‘God is with us’ – is his absence Camus’ way of saying God is not with them? Céleste, who is Camus' favourite character, tries to speak up for Meursault and tells the court that the killing was a mishap. Marie is made to say the truth that she met Meursault the day after the funeral, saw a comedy and when back to his apartment but tearfully attempts to convince the jury that the picture being painted by these brute facts is distorted. Her testimony is quite damaging to Meursault and the people don't pay attention to Masson, who says Meursault is honest and decent, or to Salamano who tries to correct the distorted image of Meursault's behaviour towards his mother. Raymond is used by the prosecutor to damn Meursault by association. It's surprising that Meursault's lawyer doesn't use Raymond's testimony to establish that the Arab was armed, dangerous and had already violently attacked one of Meursault's friends, slashing him in the face.

“But after all, is he being accused of burying his mother or of killing a man?”

The lawyer draws attention to the absurdity of the trial and people laugh, like they laughed when he pointed out that if Pérez hadn't noticed Meursault cry he hadn't noticed him not cry either. But it's not enough. The prosecutor manages to quickly swing the room back round to his way of thinking.

“As if a familiar journey under a summer sky could as easily end in prison as in innocent sleep.”

As he leaves to court to the sounds and smells of the town Meursault loves are all familiar to him. They are the same as they were long ago when he was traveling home to go to bed and fall into an easy sleep. But this time he is going back to his cell, to spend the night before returning the court the next day. He used to be happy during these summer evenings but although this summer evening is no different to those previous ones, Meursault is not happy now. Why can't Meursault be happy now? Is it just because he is locked in the police van, could he be happy if they let him walk back to the prison, through the town? Could we then imagine Meursault happy as Camus asks us to imagine Sisyphus happy as he walks back down the mountain to pick up his rock?

Tomorrow - Day 10

[Text by Simon Lea]

Monday, 1 April 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day eight


Meursault is in prison awaiting trial. When he first arrives he is put in a room with other prisoners, most of whom are Arabs. They laugh at him until Meursault tells them why he's in there; then they help him lay out out his bed. After a few days he his confined to his own cell. One day a warder tells Meursault he has a visitor, Meursault guesses this must be Marie, and he is right. The visiting area is a large noisy room full of prisoners, mostly Arabs, and their visitors. It takes Meursault some moments to adjust to the bright and loud room compared to the dark quiet of his cell. Marie keeps on smiling and puts on a confident front. She sends Raymond's regards and tells Meursault that he must keep on hoping. Meursault admires her beauty and wants to reach out and squeeze her shoulders through her dress, which of course he can't. The other prisoners and their visitors are a continued distraction for Meursault and he finds it hard to concentrate and understand what Marie is saying; she is talking about their getting married when he gets out. After the visit Meursault goes through a difficult time adjusting to prison life. He can't stop thinking like a free man: he'll suddenly want to go for a walk on the beach or become suddenly aware of how closed in he is behind the walls. He is tormented by sexual desire for women and craving for cigarettes. This lasts for a few months. Then then adjusts to prison life, looking forward to daily walks in the courtyard and the visits of his lawyer. A big problem is coping with the boredom. He develops a technique of using his imagination and memory to kill time. An additional problem is sleeping but this too he deals with, going from hardly being able to sleep to sleeping sixteen to eighteen hours a day. He finds a scrap of newspaper between his mattress and bed-plank and reads and re-reads the article over again. One day the warder tells him that he's been in prison for five months.

Meursault's adjustment

He had a difficult time for the first few months and gradually manages to cope with his environment. Instead of having sudden urges to walk on the beach and finding the walls closing in on him, he looks forward to his daily exercise in the yard. He craves cigarettes and sucks on bits of stick as a substitute. He also craves sexual contact with women but unlike the other prisoners, he doesn't resort to the natural substitute to remedy this. The warder explains to Meursault that being separated from women is all part of the punishment; Meursault agrees and the warden replies, 'Right, you understand things, you do. The others don't. But they end up doing it by themselves.'

Marie's visit

Marie is putting on a mask of optimism, constantly smiling and talking about Meursault's release and planning for marriage. Rather than having any meaningful conversation, they are playing a game, Meursault unsure of his role: “Then it was my turn. Marie blew me a kiss. I looked round before disappearing. She was standing quite still, with her face squashed up against the bars, and wearing the same strained, disjointed smile.” In this chapter Meursault will talk about adjusting to a different environment, the world outside of prison and his new place in prison. The visiting area is the border between the two with Marie on the one side and Meursault on the other. She has come from the bright, sunny world of beaches and cafés, he from the dark and silent prison cell. What is more important, the fact that she has visited him, what she has to say, her forced optimism or her physical beauty?

The newspaper article

The article Meursault reads about covers the story of Camus' play Cross Purpose. There are some differences, differences which shed more light on the play than on The Stranger. The man has a child as well as a wife; Jan in the play has no child. Meursault says, or the article presents the facts in this way, that the man doesn't identify himself to his mother and sister for 'fun'. Jan has a more profound reason for his deception in the play. The mother and sister club him to death in the article but he his drugged in the play. The sister throws herself down a well in the article and her mother hangs herself. In the play, the sister hangs herself and her mother drowns herself in the same weir they threw the drugged Jan into.

Note how the decision to pretend, to lie, of the man in the article contravenes Meursault's ethic of sincerity and he decides that “the traveller had deserved it really and that you should never play around.” Note also the lack of sympathy for the man (or his killers); sympathy has no part in Meursault's ethics. Yet at times Meursault shows sympathy for others, Salamano and his lawyer for example.

Meursault's reflection

Mirror images appear in all three of Camus' absurds. Caligula obsesses with his reflection in the mirror and in The Myth of Sisyphus Camus talks about the stranger that meets us in the mirror and in photographs. For Meursault there is a clash between how he thinks – or how he is trying to think – and his reflection in the spoon. “I smiled and it looked sad and severe.”

Talking to himself

What is the significance of Meursault's realization that he'd been talking to himself for days on end? Who is he talking to now, as he recounts his story? When is he talking?

Note that Meursault mentions that during this period things happen that he doesn't like talking about and after Marie's letter those things started. What we then have is a description of Meursault's troubles adjusting to prison life. We don't get any account of his emotions during this troubling period. Life sounds hard and he tells us his face is sad and severe but he doesn't talk about feeling sadness, or fear, worry, etc. We know that he is capable of feeling fear because he later tells the chaplain that he is afraid. Is it possible that Meursault is telling himself things that he doesn't share with us? If he wasn't aware he was talking he wouldn't be aware of the need to remain silent on those things he'd rather not talk about.

As we read The Stranger it is important to bear in mind that (a) Meursault, as he readily admits, isn't good at communicating his ideas, and, (b) As the narrator he doesn't share everything with his readers.

“I then remembered what the nurse said at mother's funeral. No, there was no way out and no one can imagine what the evenings are like.”

The nurse said, “If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast you perspire and then in the church you catch a chill.”

Tomorrow - Day 9

[Text by Simon Lea] 

Sunday, 31 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day seven


Meursault has been arrested, it is not clear how much time has passed since the killing. He's been to the police station to be processed and a week later is being interviewed by the examining magistrate. The first meeting with this man seems unreal to Meursault, like something he's read about in books. The following day he is visited in prison by a lawyer who tells him that while the case is tricky he's confident of success. The lawyers asks Meursault about his private life, including events that took place at his mother's funeral. He asks, somewhat embarrassed, whether Meursault felt grief on the day of the funeral. Meursault gives a strange answer that makes the other man uncomfortable. The lawyer attempt to get Meursault to change his answer into something more acceptable for the court but he refuses.  Meursault's refusal angers the lawyer who doesn't turn up to the next meeting with the examining magistrate. During this meeting the magistrate is concerned with one detail of the case, why Meursault fired four times into the body of the dead Arab. Meursault doesn't give an answer which provokes the man into reaching for his crucifix. Brandishing the cross at Meursault, the magistrate tells him that he must fully confess if he is to be pardoned by God. Meursault tells him that he doesn't believe in God to which the magistrate replies with indignant outrage. Finally Meursault is asked if he feels regret for what he's done; he replies that he feels a kind of annoyance. The attitudes of the magistrate and Meursault's lawyer change after this. There are many more meetings but the two other men barely talk to him, unless the conversation is about something general. They are not unkind to Meursault and even friendly at times. The investigation lasts eleven months.

“The first time at the police station, nobody seemed very interested in my case.”

The murder seems shocking to us, we were there. For others, Meursault shot and killed a man who was armed and who had just previously slashed and wounded another man in the face. Add to this the fact that in European dominated Algiers, a white European who killed an Arab (whether in self-defense or not) would not be considered a heinous criminal. Conor Cruise O’Brien asks us to compare this killing with, for example, the killing of a black man by a white man during the civil rights era in the US.

Note that Meursault himself does not take his crime too seriously, not just in his attitude towards the trial but with the sentence he expects – just a few years and possibly avoiding hard labor as well. We will discuss this later.

“I’d read similar descriptions in books before and it all seemed like a game.”

More games, everyone acting out their designated role.

“On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but I remembered just in time that I’d killed a man.”

Meursault finds it difficult to play his part as ‘the criminal’.

The lawyer asks Meursault if he’d felt any grief on the day of his mother’s funeral

“This question really surprised me and I thought how embarrassed I’d have been if I’d had to ask it.”  Meursault empathizes with the lawyer, who has just expressed his embarrassment at having to ask the question. Meursault is sympathetic towards some characters in the novel and, seemingly, not to others (Raymond’s girlfriend and her brother, for example).

It’s worth remembering that modern readers of The Stranger come to the book knowing that Meursault’s behaviour during the funeral will play an enormous part in the coming trial. The lawyer bringing up his mother isn’t a surprise for us.

“I replied though that I’d rather got out of the habit of analyzing myself and that I found it difficult to answer his question. I probably loved mother a lot, but that didn’t mean anything. To a certain extent all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones were dead.”

The first thing to notice is that Meursault used to analyze himself – he used to and no longer does. Remember his saying that he used to have ambition back in his student days.

The second thing is that what Meursault says is quite uncontroversial, most of us would agree that he’s expressing some kind of truth. The strangeness comes from when he is saying it. The situation is totally inappropriate for this kind of discussion. The lawyer isn’t seeking a philosophical discussion on the nature of love and Meursault – who is not an idiot – would know this. So why say it?

“But I explained to him that by nature my physical needs often distorted my feelings. On the day of mother’s funeral I was very tired and sleepy. So I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on.”

Most commentators put great store in the things that Meursault says. However, by Meursault’s own admission he isn’t very good at explaining things. Think of his later failure to communicate in court (“Mixing up my words a bit and realizing that I sounded ridiculous, I said quickly that it was because of the sun.”) and his reluctance to discuss his ideas with others (not telling the others his suspicions on how the Arabs knew where to find them on the beach) or to even speak unless he has something to say. Meursault is struggling to express an idea with the lawyer but failing. The problem here is one of communication. In the end Meursault can’t be bothered to continue in trying to get his ideas across. “I wanted to assure him that I was just like everyone else, exactly like everyone else. But it was all really a bit pointless and I couldn’t be bothered.” Does Meursault mean something like ‘everything is pointless’ and ‘I can’t be bothered with anything’ or is he simply referring to his attempt to communicate a particular idea to this other man?

“He thought for a moment. Then he asked me if he could say that I’d controlled my natural feelings that day. I said, ‘No, because it’s not true.’”

Why not let the lawyer lie? Meursault will have to know that this lie will help him in court and what harm could it do? The answer usually offered his that to lie violates Meursault’s ethic of sincerity. It would. But the question is, in a meaningless universe, why does Meursault have an ethic at all? For those commentators wanting to consider Meursault a nihilist this is an big problem. It is odd, to say the least, to think of Meursault as believing everything is pointless but steadfastly abiding by an ethical rule.

“He [the examining magistrate] told me first of all that people described me as being taciturn and withdrawn”

Was he withdrawn when he ran with Emmanuel to leap onto a moving truck? Was he withdrawn when he spotted Marie in the water, seduced her, took her out and back to his apartment? Was he taciturn as he chatted with the old caretaker at the care home or with old Salamano? Or when he complimented Masson and his wife on their beach chalet? Céleste and Raymond consider Meursault a ‘man of the world’. For sure, Meursault doesn’t engage people in philosophical conversations or discuss  his emotions but his reluctance to do this hardly makes him ‘taciturn and withdrawn’. It is more likely that inquiries into the character of a man on trial for killing someone have produced the ‘weird loner’ and ‘kept himself to himself’ stereotype that always comes out in these cases.

“’Why, why did you fire at a dead body?’ Once again I didn’t know the answer.”

Why did Meursault fire those extra shots? Note that the magistrate actually asks him several times and Meursault remains silent. Commentators have observed similarities between this and Jesus standing before Pilate. We can believe that Meursault doesn’t know why he fired the extra shots, he doesn’t know why he fired the first one. The question is why Camus chose to put them in.

Meursault, in summarizing the magistrate’s position, says “the rest was alright” – everything that occurred prior to the extra four shots (including the first shot that killed the Arab) – “but this [extra shots] he could not understand.” This reiterates the point that no-one, not Meursault nor the arresting police-officers, the magistrate, even later Meursault’s friends in court, take the killing of the Arab to be very troubling. Commentators, notably Conor Cruise O’Brien, have accused Camus of creating a myth that a European in Algiers would receive a strong sentence for killing an Arab but the point is made, several times over, that no-one really cares about the killing itself.

“Do you want my life to be meaningless?”

Surely the faith of a committed Christian would not suffer too greatly from the failure of one man to elaborate on his crime? Why is Meursault’s attitude so troubling for the magistrate?

“I thought it over and said that, rather than true regret, I felt some kind of annoyance. I had the impression that he didn’t understand me.”

Why does Meursault feel neither regret nor remorse for taking another man’s life? We have touched on this previously, that Meursault may not consider the Arab a man at all but more like a block of stone, but this isn’t very satisfactory. It is difficult for the magistrate to understand him and it is difficult for us to understand him. Meursault has admitted in his account to us (bear in mind that The Stranger is a first-person account) that he doesn’t follow the magistrate’s argument. Meursault also failed to communicate his ideas to his lawyer.

“That’s all for today, Mr. Antichrist.”

The magistrate and Meursault’s lawyers have several meetings. We don’t get to hear what is being discussed because Meursault is left out of the discussions. The investigation, for what appears a very straightforward case, has lasted eleven months. What is going on? Why is so much time and interest being spent? We will learn, later on, from a journalist that the case has been ‘blown up’ but why?

Tomorrow - Day 8

[Text by Simon Lea]

Saturday, 30 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day six


It's Sunday and Meursault is having trouble getting up. Marie manages to get him out of bed and they go down, knocking on Raymond's door on the way. The days is hot and sunny and Marie is in high spirits, Meursault is feeling better but the sun hit him like 'a slap in the face', They are off to Masson's chalet, to spend the day at the beach. The day before Meursault, with Raymond, had gone to the police station to file his witness statement. Raymond is nervous when he spots the group of Arabs but relaxes once they are on the bus and not being followed. Masson is a huge fellow and his wife is friendly, they have a nice wooden chalet near the beach. Masson, Marie and Meursault all go off to the beach for a swim and a doze on the sand. Back at the chalet they have a lunch of fried fish and lots of wine. After lunch the three men go for a walk while the women stay behind. The trio bump into two Arabs, one of them the brother of Raymond's girlfriend. There is a fight with Raymond and Masson on one side and the two Arabs on the other. Masson quickly deals with his man and Raymond gets the better of his but when he turns, to show off to Meursault, the Arab pulls a knife and slashes Raymond's arm and mouth. The Arabs escape and Masson takes Raymond, who is only superficially injured, to a nearby doctor. Meursault returns to the chalet to tell the women what has happened. Raymond is in a bad mood when he returns and walks off down the beach on his own with Meursault following after him. They bump into the same Arabs but this time Raymond pulls a gun. Meursault persuades his friend to hand over the gun, telling him that it would be unfair to use it. The Arabs retreat and Raymond feels better. He and Meursault walk back to the chalet. However, when they get there Meursault doesn't want to go inside and talk with the others. He turns around and heads back out to beach. This time he bumps into the Arab and it's just the two of them. Raymond's gun is still in Meursault's pocket and the Arab still has his knife. The sun is beating down on his head and he steps towards the other man who draws his knife. Meursault's gun is drawn, the trigger gives and he fires. And then he fires four more times into the now lifeless body of the Arab.

“That Sunday I had trouble waking up.”

Sleep and fatigue. When Meursault walks out on the beach with Masson and Raymond he will ‘feel sleepy’.

“I had a bit of a headache [...] the bright morning sunshine hit me like a slap in the face.”

Sounds like a hangover. The previous day Meursault had been out with Raymond. On all previous occasions when those two have gotten together, they've drunk alcohol.

Raymond's beach clothes

Camus paints a ridiculous picture of Raymond. “He'd put a straw hat on, which made Marie laugh”. On the bus Marie will ignore him but glance at him every so often and laugh. Meursault also points out Raymond's white forearms which leave him feeling disgusted. Note that Meursault ends his negative description of Paris to Marie with “The people all have white skin”. In his essay “Summer in Algiers” Camus idealizes the young beach-going working class men of Algiers as 'tawny gods' – Raymond is no tawny god.

“Raymond told me that the second one from the left was his man, and he looked worried [...] Raymond informed me that the Arabs weren't following us [...] We caught the bus. Raymond, who seemed altogether relieved, kept on cracking jokes for Marie.”

Raymond is clearly very nervous. This is contrasted with his macho anecdote in chapter three and willingness to beat his girlfriend.

“They [the Arabs] were looking at us in silence, but in their own special way, as if we were nothing more than blocks of stone or dead trees.”

The Arabs looked at Meursault and his friends like they weren’t people but objects. Meursault will later shoot and kill one of these Arabs, feeling no more remorse at firing into the man’s body than if he had fired at a block of stone or a dead tree.

“I told him [Masson] how much I liked his house.”

Meursault is polite and friendly, When he and Marie return from swimming Masson “immediately announced to his wife that he liked me.” Meursault is a pretty sociable guy, he doesn't turn up to a man's holiday home and make strange observations, he isn't withdrawn, he's personable and complimentary. Note that Masson will stand up for him in court, telling the jury that Meursault is an honest and 'decent' chap. Meursault has to be one hell of a charming guy – imagining standing up in court for a guy you've met only once and that was on the day he turned up to your house for lunch and murdered a guy!

“Masson drank a lot of wine and kept on filling my glass. By the time it came to the coffee, I had a rather thick head and I smoked a lot.”

Everyone is drinking heavily, Meursault suspects Marie has had a bit too much to drink also. When he walks off on his own, just before he bumps into the Arab he will kill, Meursault talks of tensing his whole body “in defiance of the sun and of the drunken haze it was pouring into me.”

“Raymond said, 'If there's a fight, Masson, you take the one on the right. I'll take care of my man. Meursault if another one turns up, he's yours.'”

In 'Summer in Algiers' Camus offers some rules of the 'highway code' the working men of Algiers follow – one of these, that you look after your mother, we have already mentioned – another is that you don't gang up on someone, 2-to-1. Raymond observes this rule, there are three of them and only two Arabs so he tells Meursault to hang back. Picking Masson was a wise choice, Meursault has mentioned the man's enormous size twice already and Masson deals with his man in two punches.

Note that although, according to the code, it's dirty to gang up on someone 2-to-1, there doesn't seem to be a problem with other power imbalances such as a man hitting a woman or drawing a gun on a knife. (It's also worth mentioning that in the essay, just after mentioning that 'you're not a man' if you gang up 2-to-1 on someone, Camus talks of the sympathy the people feel when they see a man sandwiched between two policeman. Meursault, you'll remember, doesn't like policemen.)

“Raymond turned to me and said, 'You wait till I've finished with him.'”

Raymond shows off, wants to impress Meursault, and pays the price. He left the Arab's sister bloody, the Arab leaves him bloody. The wound in his mouth bubbles with blood and spit – it was his mouth that Raymond used to humiliate his girlfriend. First the policeman and now the brother, for a second time he is left shamed.

“It annoyed me to have to explain things to them [the women]”

Is Meursault annoyed that not only did he not take part in the fight but was left with the women while the two male combatants went off together? Hard-drinking Meursault, who hangs out with local bad boys and doesn't like cops, left with the women while the men go off.

Meursault skillfully disarms Raymond

Meursault has been considered, by some commentators, as a passive simpleton. However, on this day he twice shows us his intelligence. Not only is he the only one who works out how the Arabs knew where to find Raymond (“I thought they'd probably seen us getting on the bus with the beach-bag”) but he quickly and efficiently gets the gun off Raymond without provoking him into firing (“Raymond asked me, 'Shall I let him have it?' I thought if I said no he'd get himself worked up and be bound to shoot.”)

“I realized at that point that you could either shoot or not shoot.”

A reflection on the meaningless of taking a life or the ease, speed and efficiency at which a human life can be extinguished? A third option: Raymond in the heat of the moment could easily take a life; it is Raymond that is the focus of the observation; is Meursault reflecting on how events can lead up to one moment that changes your life forever? Nothing in this observation can convince us, as some commentators will have us believe, that Meursault thinks that killing a man is neither here nor there, flip a coin, shoot or not, etc.

The killing of an Arab

The murder has been crafted in such a way as to be impossible to understand. We know why Meursault has a gun in his pocket (and why he isn’t pleased to see the Arab) but there is no description of when the gun leaves Meursault’s pocket and points at the other man. The Arab puts his hand to his pocket, where Meursault knows he carries a blade. Meursault, naturally, grips the handle of the revolver in his pocket. But the shooting, the gun comes out without him noticing (at least he doesn’t think it worth mentioning) and the trigger gives way – rather like the gun fires itself instead of a man pulling the trigger.

Note that Meursault now describes things in a different way. The waves move like they are lazy, the ocean is molten metal, the knife is like a flashing sword, the cymbals of the sun clash. Before then, trams are just empty, street lamps come on, the sky has red streaks in it – they are not empty, or come on or have red streaks like anything.

The descriptions of the killing sound apocalyptic, like something out of the Revelation according to John. The sea sweeps forth fiery breath and flames rain down in sheets from the sky. Camus, in his preface, refers to Meursault as a ‘Christ’. There are parallels between Meursault’s story and that of Jesus of Nazareth (we’ll elaborate on this in later notes).

“And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.”

Why does Meursault fire the gun four more times, after the first bullet has already killed the man? And what does he mean by the door of unhappiness?

Tomorrow - Day 7

[Text by Simon Lea]

Friday, 29 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day five


Raymond phones Meursault at his office to invite him to a friend’s chalet the following Sunday. He also warns Meursault that a group of Arabs, including the brother of his former mistress, has been following him (Raymond) around all day and wants Meursault to keep an eye out for them. After the call Meursault's boss asks to speak to him about a possible promotion that will involve a move to Paris. Much to the man's surprise and consternation Meursault turns him down. That evening Marie asks Meursault if he wants to marry her. He, hardly enthusiastically, replies that he doesn't mind. They walk through the town and she turns down dinner at Céleste's due to a prior engagement. In the restaurant Meursault observes and the follows a strange 'robotic' woman. Back home he bumps into Salamano who tells him that his dog is definitely lost and then opens up about his late wife and how he ended up with the dog. The chapter ends with Salamano revealing how some local people thought badly of Meursault for putting his mother in a home.

Raymond's phone call

Raymond begins the call with an invitation to his friend's beach chalet the following Sunday. It is during the visit to this chalet, after lunch, that Meursault will shoot the Arab with Raymond's gun. The real purpose of the call is to get Meursault's help. Raymond is worried by the brother of his former mistress (and his friends), these men have been following him around. In the next chapter we will see just how scared Raymond is of these men.

Note that Raymond has always made the first move in approaching Meursault and that he always seems to have an ulterior motive. He invites him in to his room so that Meursault will write the letter. He comes to Meursault's room after dishing out the 'punishment' to get Meursault to act as a witness for him (and to check what his neighbour thinks of him after the humiliating incident with the policeman). He invites Meursault to the chalet so that he won't have to travel alone and so that he enlist Meursault's help in staking out his building, checking for Arab threats.

The offer of promotion

Meursault's boss is surprised at his lack of ambition especially his turning down an offer to relocate to Paris. However, as we soon learn, Meursault has already been to Paris and he hates the place. Much has been made of his supposed lack of ambition however not many commentators have considered how good (or bad) the offer really is. If Meursault (a) doesn't particularly like his job, and (b) definitely doesn't like Paris, how great is an offer to move to Paris to continue doing his job? In addition, Meursault has lots of loyal friends in Algiers.

Note that Meursault mentions: “When I was a student, I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered.” We don't know why Meursault had to give up his studies. In A Happy Death Patrice Mersault had to give up his studies because his mother falls ill with diabetes. Camus had to give up his studies at 17 because he fell ill with TB. However, what we do know is that something happened during Meursault's student days that made him reassess his values. And that he does have values. If he didn’t, then why bother rejecting the promotion? In a meaningless world, Paris is a good as Algiers, and both are as good as a camel’s backside. Meursault doesn’t just shrug a ‘whatever’ to his boss, he tries to explain his motives for staying put.

There will be plenty of references to ambition in The Stranger, in fact it is one of the key themes of the novel. As we will see, the ambitious journalists and lawyers at Meursault's trial will play an important role in his fate.

Meursault notices the beautiful women

He points this out to Marie. She is a candidate for his long-term affection, the presence of other women puts her position in question. His decision to point this out just the women is game-playing on his part. Marie responds in kind by creating a rival for Meursault. She is somewhat successful. “She looked at me. 'Don't you want to know who what I'm doing?' I did want to know, but I hadn't thought of asking and now she seemed to be reproaching me for it.” As on other occasions, this courtship play ends with Marie laughing. Meursault is not doing too badly.

It is worth contrasting with Meursault's reaction the extreme jealousies that not only Patrice Mersault in A Happy Death but Camus himself felt when a woman he was involved in looked at other men.

The robotic woman

Most commentators have considered her to be a reminder of how we can fall into habit. She acts like an automaton, going through the motions – in Meursault's eyes. Perhaps she is supposed to ‘secrete the inhuman’. Is she like the man talking on the phone behind a glass partition, described in The Myth of Sisyphus? She will turn up again at as a spectator at Meursault's trial.

“I told old Salamano that he could get another dog but he rightly pointed out to me that he’d got used to this one.”

Meursault suggests that one dog is a good as another but Salamano ‘rightly’ points out that this is not the case. Note that the relationship between the old man and his dog has been juxtaposed throughout the novel with other couplings (Raymond and his mistress, Meursault and Marie); Just before this scene Meursault has pointed out other woman to Marie – she is just one woman among others – but as Salamano rightly observes other beings aren’t interchangeable.

“But according to him, its real trouble was old age and there’s no cure for old age.”

We discussed old age in our previous notes. Salamano’s wife gets old, his marriage gets old. She dies and the marriage is over. The puppy is young and vibrant but it too gets old. Death and decay are ‘real troubles’ for Camus.

“I told him that he could stay, and that I was upset about what happened to his dog”

Wait a minute! Meursault the nihilist, Meursault the man who cares only for his physical sensations allows a man who was “annoying” him, who was keeping him up, to stay with him? Not only this compassion but Meursault is upset over the disappearance of the dog! Camus noted that people often missed the ‘good will’ of Meursault.

Meursault’s relationship with this mother is now explicitly brought up. He hasn’t managed to feel upset by her death but he does feel this way about the dog. Compare Meursault’s treatment of the bereaved Salamano with the treatment he received from the care home staff.

Tomorrow - Day 6

[Text by Simon Lea]

Thursday, 28 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day four


It is Sunday. Meursault's been at work all week and gone out to the cinema a couple of times with Emmanuel. During the week Raymond stopped by to tell Meursault that he'd given the letter to his mistress. Yesterday, on the Saturday, he and Marie went out of Algiers to spent the day at the beach. She stays the night and they plan to have lunch together. On his way to the shop to get food Meursault hears a woman in Raymond's room and later the dog in Salamano's room. When he gets back Marie asks him if he loves her. Meursault replies that love doesn't mean anything. She looks sad but then she laughs as they prepare lunch. At this point they hear a commotion from Raymond's room. Raymond is carrying out the 'punishment'. Due to the loud screams coming from Raymond's room, Marie asks Meursault to call the police, which he refuses. Someone has called the police because a policeman arrives at Raymond's door.  Raymond tries to act coolly, in front of his neighbours, but the policeman humiliates him with a slap. Marie has gone off the idea of lunch so Meursault eats most of it. She leaves and he takes a nap. Raymond knocks on his door at three to discuss what happened and ask Meursault to act as a witness for him. Meursault agrees and they go out together ending up in a bar. Later they bump into Salamano who has lost his dog. That evening, after he has said goodnight to Raymond, Meursault gets a knock at his door. It is Salamano looking for some piece of mind over his missing dog.

Meursault and Marie

The chapter opens on a Sunday but Meursault talks briefly about the day before. That Saturday was spent at the beach with Marie. The previous Saturday he met her and picked her up on a different beach. Although he knew of her, she worked in his office, he has only gotten to know her for one week. So when she starts talking about love it's a bit premature. Some commentators have made much of Meursault's indifferent comments on love at this point but considering how early on the two are in the relationship (are they even in a relationship at this point?) his response isn't all that strange. Indeed, even though Marie looks a bit sad she is soon laughing again. It is much more likely that rather than showing Meursault's 'alienated, detached or emotionally numb' response to love, Camus is commenting here on the 'games' young lovers play. Jan, in Cross Purpose, in a misguided attempt to reach out to his mother, plays a game that has deadly consequences. Meursault himself will comment on this in chapter two of the second half of The Stranger. In the next chapter Marie will ask Meursault if he wants to marry her. This has often been interpreted as a marriage proposal but it is more likely to be closer to trying to work out Meursault’s future ‘intentions’. Later on Marie will play other ‘game’, testing to see if Meursault would be jealous if she had a date with another man.

Raymond’s punishment backfires

The intention was to lure his girlfriend back into his arms and then to humiliate her at the crucial moment. However, things don’t go according to plan. Instead of playing her part, the woman is outraged and fights back. The police are called and it is Raymond who is left humiliated with a slap to the face from the cop. He is truly a pathetic character. In chapter six, Marie will laugh at the slight of him. Raymond wants to be thought of as a man but instead is a figure of fun – a little man in a silly hat going to the beach with pasty white skin.

Call the cops!

Marie asks Meursault to call the police on Raymond but he refuses. Why? Because he doesn’t like policeman. This is an odd value-judgment for a character who is supposed (by some commentators) to believe he lives in a meaningless universe.

Salamano’s escape-artist dog

Camus was very concerned about the humiliation of infirmity and old age. Salamano is suffering from both. The elderly become ‘strangers’ living alone and ignored by society. In ‘Summer in Algiers’ Camus writes about how a man has basically played all his cards by the time he is thirty. In an earlier essay ‘Irony’ we read about the humiliation of various elderly people. The absurd has a sense of the ridiculous about it; note how Salamano’s dog wriggles out of his collar while his master is distraction by ‘the Escape King’.

Note that Meursault bothers to help the old man, to talk to him and share his problem. Salamano will choose Meursault to come to that evening. Perhaps he knocks on Meursault’s door because their isn’t anyone else’s he can knock on but still, he feels Meursault is someone he can turn to.


Camus keeps drawing our attention to different kinds of relationship couples: Meursault and his mother, Meursault and Marie, Meursault and Raymond, Raymond and his mistress, Salamano and his late wife, Salamano and his dog. Previously, we have had Meursault’s mother and Thomas Perez; we will have Masson and his wife. There is also the Arab and his sister and even the young court reporter and the robotic woman.

Tomorrow - day 5

[Text by Simon Lea]

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day three


Meursault returns to work. His boss asks after him and his mother. Emmanuel, a friend from the office, and Meursault go to lunch together at Céleste's. Because he has drunk too much wine, Meursault goes home to sleep it off before returning to work. After work we walks home feeling happy. On his way up to his apartment he bumps into his elderly neighbour Salamano and his mangy dog. Another neighbour, Raymond Sintès, appears and invites Meursault into his room to eat and drink. To save himself from having to cook his own dinner, he accepts, and over wine Raymond tells Meursault of his problem with his girlfriend. The chapter ends with Meursault writing a letter for Raymond that will draw this woman into a humiliating trap.

“I worked hard in the office today. My boss was kind. He asked me if I wasn't too tired and he also wanted to know how old mother was. I said 'about sixty,' so as not to get it wrong and for some reason he seemed to be relieved and to regard the matter as closed.”

There are three things to observe in this opening paragraph. Firstly the boss asks if Meursault wasn't 'too tired'. For him to ask this, Meursault must be looking fatigued. Is this part of Camus' focus on his character's sleeping/tiredness or is the boss mistaking a hangover (Meursault drinks heavily the day before) for grief?

Secondly, Meursault isn't sure how old his mother is, she's 'about sixty'. Is this a sign of his lack of concern about her or something perfectly normal? I can never remember exactly how old my mother or father is. If put on the spot I can say my father is about seventy.

Finally, notice that the boss appears relieved to have got the 'greeting a recently bereaved colleague' game over and done with.

The roller towel

Some commentators have made a big deal about this. Meursault makes an observation about the hand drying facilities available in the office wash room. He likes to use the roller towel at lunchtime but not in the evening because by the end of the day it has gone soggy. When he points this out to his boss he is told that it's 'detail which didn't matter'. Does this detail matter? Most of us have made similar complaints about facilities at work. It is not unusual that Meursault notices the soggy roller towel, nor it is unusual that he enjoys the ritual of washing his hands before lunch. His bringing the issue up to his boss would only be unusual of they were in the middle of an unrelated conversation but we don't know about that. Meursault tells us that he brought it up once, and that is all. The only unusual thing about Meursault's experience with the roller towel is that he brings it up to us in the narrative.

Chasing after the lorry with Emmanuel

This event appears in A Happy Death.

Salamano and his dog

Salamano is Meursault's elderly neighbour. He lives alone with only his dog for company. Both the dog and the man are covered in blotches and scabs. They also resemble each other in how they walk. Both the man and the animal appear to hate each other. Salamano walks the dog twice a day, the dog dragging on the lead with the old man stumbling after him. When it's too much, Salamano will beat the dog, who then cringes and needs to be pulled along. After a while the dog forgets the beating and starts running ahead and the cycle repeats. Salamano won't wait for the dog to urinate and then shouts at the dog when it relieves itself in the apartment.

“In eight years they haven't changed their route.”

Camus highlights routine and habit throughout the novel as well as in The Myth of Sisyphus. In chapter 5 Meursault will tell us about the strange robotic woman. When he finishes following her the next person he meets is Salamano.

“It's been going on like that for eight years. Céleste always says, 'Its dreadful,' but in fact you never can tell.”

Camus repeats the fact that this routine has gone on in exactly the same way for eight years.  Other people are quick to judge Salamano; we hear Céleste's view and shortly Raymond will repeat the idea and ask Meursault if it doesn't disgust him. Meursault, however, doesn't judge.

“He's [the dog] always there.”

But he won't be for long. The dog escapes in the next chapter. He wriggles out of his collar, ironically, while his owner is distracted by an escape artist.

“Local people say he [Raymond] lives off women. When you ask him what he does though, he’s a 'warehouseman’. Most people don't like him much.”

Is Raymond a pimp? Most commentators seem to accept that he is. I have my doubts and have written about this elsewhere. In his notes for The Stranger Camus writes that there is something tragic about Raymond. He is certainly a pathetic character. I imagine that the people (who don't like him) call him a pimp more as an insult rather than a description of what he does for a living.

“He told me he'd had a fight with a bloke who was looking for trouble.”

Raymond's anecdote is the same as one Camus once overheard on the tram.

“There was this girl ... she was sort of my mistress.”

She is the sister of the man he'd been fighting with. Her brother will be the Arab Meursault shoots on the beach. Raymond tells Meursault that he is keeping the girl but denies that he is a pimp. He then goes on to talk about how she'd been deceiving him. She gets all her money from him but he finds a lottery ticket he hasn't paid for and a pawn ticket for two bracelets.

“So I left her. But first I hit her. And then I told her a few home-truths. I told her that all she was interested in was putting it about.”

However, he doesn't feel like he's punished her enough. He wants her to come back to him so he can kick her out again, only this time in a more humiliating fashion. Odd, if she is supposed to be a prostitute that Raymond would accuse her of 'putting it about'. Raymond appears hurt that she has cheated on him as a mistress not as an employee.

“He wanted to write a letter 'which would really hurt and at the same time make her sorry'. Then, when she came back, he'd go to bed with her and 'right at the crucial moment' he'd spit in her face and throw her out.'”

Throughout his work, and in his private letters, Camus makes quite a few references to humiliation (sexual and otherwise) involving spitting.

“When he told me the girl's name I realized she was Moorish.”

I've heard people say that Meursault only agrees to write the letter after he discovers that the victim is an Arab. This isn't the case. He already has pen in hand and is beginning to write when Raymond tells him the woman's name.

“I wrote the letter. I did it rather haphazardly, but I did my best to please Raymond because I had no reason not to please him.”

Haphazardly because he was drunk, but could he really find no reason not to write this letter?

“I must have looked tired because Raymond told me not to let go of myself.”

Tiredness and fatigue again.

“But in old Salamano's room, the dog whimpered feebly.”

The story of Raymond and his beaten girlfriend is sandwiched between Meursault's account of Salamano and his beaten dog. Are we supposed to think Raymond is disgusting or to think that you never can tell?

Tomorrow – day 4

[Text by Simon Lea]