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]

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