Saturday, 30 March 2013

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

Summary

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]

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