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 caf├ęs, 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] 

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