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]

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