Study Guide

The Stranger Mortality

By Albert Camus

Mortality

Part 1, Chapter 1

She said, "If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church." She was right. There was no way out. (1.1.27)

If Meursault initially believes there is "no way out" of the human condition, he later reverses this thinking—it is his own awareness that lets him escape.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: "Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours." That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday. (1.1.1)

Meursault treats his mother’s death with the same casual demeanor with which he will later treat the death of the Arab. How does this compare, though, to the way he will eventually address his own impending death?

That way I can be there for the vigil and come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and there was no way he was going to refuse me with an excuse like that. But he wasn’t too happy about it. I even said, "It’s not my fault." (1.1.2)

Considering that death is the linchpin of Meursault’s big ol' revelation at the end of the text, this is a pretty casual treatment of death. He obviously has a long way to go. 123 pages, to be exact.

Part 1, Chapter 3

He was with his dog. The two of them have been inseparable for eight years. The spaniel has a skin-disease—mange, I think—which makes almost all of its hair fall out and leaves it covered with brown sores and scabs. After living together for so long, the two of them alone in one tiny room, they’ve ended up looking like each other. […] They look as if they belong to the same species, and yet they hate each other. (1.3.4)

Ah-ha! Meursault has actually hit on his eventual revelation here, but is too ignorant to see it yet. What is it that makes Salamano and his dog look alike? The fact that they are both decaying—both dying. Meursault’s conclusion at the end of the text—that all creatures are made equal by death—is actually right here in front of his face. Too bad; that could have saved a lot of pages, one murder victim, a victim of domestic abuse, and a visit to the guillotine. Maybe next time.

Part 1, Chapter 5

Just for something to say, I asked him about his dog. He told me he’d gotten it after his wife died […]. He hadn’t been happy with his wife, but he’d pretty much gotten used to her. When she died he had been very lonely. So he asked a shop buddy for a dog and he’d gotten this one very young. He’d had to feed it from a bottle. But since a dog doesn’t live as long as a man, they’d ended up being old together. "And," he added, "you didn’t know him before he got sick. His coat was the best thing about him." Every night and every morning after the dog had gotten that skin disease, Salamano rubbed him with ointment. But according to him, the dog’s real sickness was old age, and there’s no cure for old age. (1.5.8)

Argh! Here it is again! Salamano’s dog is directly compared to his wife, suggesting that they are in fact equal. Again, Meursault can’t make the connection.

Part 1, Chapter 6

The sun glinted off Raymond’s gun as he handed it to me. (1.6.18)

Check out the connection between the gun and the sunlight—Meursault identifies both of these as the impetuses for his killing the Arab, rather than accepting personal responsibility himself.

Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness. (1.6.24)

Why does Meursault shoot four more times? Maybe because, in his mind, the Arab is no more dead once he's been shot than he was when he was alive. Check out the line Meursault shouts at the chaplain, when he accuses him of living "like a dead man."

[…] the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead. At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids all at once and covered them with a warm, thick film. My eyes were blinded behind the curtain of tears and salt. All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave. (1.6.24)

At the Arab’s death, Meursault gives agency to the trigger, not to himself.

Part 2, Chapter 1

At first, I didn’t take him seriously. I was led into a curtained room; there was a single lamp on his desk which was shining on a chair where he had me sit while he remained standing in the shadows. I had read descriptions of scenes like this in books and it all seemed like a game to me. […] On my way out, I was even going to shake his [the policeman's] hand, but just in time, I remembered that I had killed a man. (2.1.2)

Because Meursault doesn’t yet take death seriously, he can’t take the accusation seriously. He hasn’t developed his understanding of mortality—that doesn’t come until the very end of the novel.

Part 2, Chapter 3

To another question [the director of the home] replied that he had been surprised by my calm the day of the funeral. He was asked what he meant by "calm." The director then looked down at the tips of his shoes and said that I hadn’t wanted to see Maman, that I hadn’t cried once, and that I had left right after the funeral without paying my last respects at her grave. (2.3.14)

Meursault is convicted not because of his crime, but because of his casual attitude toward death.

Part 2, Chapter 4

He stated that I had no place in a society whose fundamental rules I ignored and that I could not appeal to the same human heart whose elementary response I knew nothing of. "[…] For if in the course of what has been a long career I have had occasion to call for the death penalty, never as strong as today have I felt this painful duty made easier, lighter, clearer by the certain knowledge of a sacred imperative and by the horror I feel when I look into a man’s face and all I see is a monster." (2.4.5)

It's interesting that the prosecutor calls Meursault a monster, because Meursault will later argue that there is no difference between a dog and a man (and therefore, between any living creature and any other).

"First, in the blinding clarity of the facts, and second, in the dim light cast by the mind of this criminal soul." He reminded the court of my insensitivity; of my ignorance when asked Maman’s age; of my swim the next day – with a woman; of the Fernandel movie; and finally of my taking Marie home with me. (2.4.2)

To convince the jury to find Meursault guilty, the prosecutor paints him as more of an alien or a robot than a man—passive, detached, and emotionless.

The presiding judge told me in a bizarre language that I was to have my head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people. Then it seemed to me that I suddenly knew what was on everybody's face. It was a look of consideration, I'm sure. The policemen were very gentle with me. The lawyer put his hand on my wrist. I wasn't thinking about anything anymore. But the presiding judge asked me if I had anything to say. I thought about it. I said, "No." (2.4.11)

Meursault assigns his own detached nature to those around him; his own execution having just been announced, he believes the crowd dons (pretty mild) expressions of "consideration."

Part 2, Chapter 5

As if that blind rage has washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, I that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much life myself - so like a brother, really - I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate. (2.5.26)

It’s important to note that death is not Meursault’s escape from the shackles of society—this revelation is. He is free now, here, at this moment, not at the moment of the execution.

The chaplain knew the game well too, I could tell right away: his gaze never faltered. And his voice didn't falter, either, when he said, "Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?" "Yes," I said. (2.5.15)

The chaplain expects Meursault to be afraid of death. It’s obvious that the holy man, who "[knows] the game well," has in the past had success with this line of questioning. It seems then, that fear of death (and the potential nothingness that comes afterwards) is a typical driving force for religious belief (at least in the world of The Stranger).

[…] the way he saw it, we were all condemned to die. But I interrupted him by saying that it wasn’t the same thing and that besides, it wouldn’t be a consolation anyway. (2.5.15)

In his atheist glory, Meursault has accepted death as his—and everyone else’s—final sentence.

Then, I don’t know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart […]. He seemed so certain about everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man […]. But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. (2.5.25)

Meursault’s claim that the chaplain is "living like a dead man" is rooted in the chaplain’s lack of awareness. According to Meursault, the chaplain isn’t really alive until he accepts the fate of his own death—without turning to God for consolation.