Study Guide

The Stranger Passivity

By Albert Camus


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)

Meursault’s solution to this paradox is passivity. If you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, you should… do nothing.

When she was at home with me, Maman used to spend her time following me with her eyes, not saying a thing. For the first few days she was at the home she cried a lot. But that was because she wasn’t used to it. A few months later and she would have cried if she’d been taken out. She was used to it. (1.1.6)

After a while one can get used to, or accept, almost anything.

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)

Not only does Meursault not know the actual date, but he’s too passive to try to find out.

Part 1, Chapter 5

I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all. (1.5.3)

For Meursault, being "not dissatisfied" is the same as being happy.

Part 2, Chapter 2

I couldn’t understand why they had taken [the cigarettes] away when they didn’t hurt anybody. Later on I realized that that too was part of the punishment. But by then I had gotten used to not smoking and it wasn’t a punishment anymore. (2.2.12)

It seems that it’s difficult or impossible to punish a man like Meursault. Since he can be happy anywhere, prison isn’t an issue. Since he can get used to anything, no circumstance is trouble for him. Finally, since he approaches his death in exaltation, execution isn’t exactly a drag for him either.

It was only after Marie’s first and last visit that it all started. From the day I got her letter (she told me she would no longer be allowed to come, because she wasn’t my wife), from that day on I felt that I was at home in my cell and that my life was coming to a standstill there. (2.2.1)

At this juncture in the book, Meursault is at a crossroads, transitioning from free man to caged man.

Then I remembered what the nurse at Maman’s funeral said. No, there was no way out, and no one can imagine what nights in prisons are like. (2.2.17)

Wait a minute—here it looks like Meursault is feeling punished. What changed to cause this shift in attitude?

At that time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowing overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. (2.2.10)

Meursault, because of his passivity, can be content in any circumstance.

Part 2, Chapter 3

I answered that Maman and I didn’t expect anything from each other anymore, or from anyone else either, and that we had both gotten used to our new lives. (2.3.11)

Meursault and his mother had both gotten used to, and accepted, their lives away from the other.

Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something has changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day… as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent. (2.3.22)

Meursault justifies his passivity by saying there’s nothing you can do anyway. If you’re at the mercy of chance and bad luck, you might as well drift along bumper-car style.

Part 2, Chapter 4

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 fact. 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)

Society has judged that the crime of a passive, detached atheist is punishable by death. Meursault, having nothing to add, accepts the sentence. Passively. How fitting.

Part 2, Chapter 5

Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter. Therefore […] I had to accept the rejection of my appeal. (2.5.8)

Meursault has logically come to the conclusion that he must passively accept his death 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)

This is the most active we’ve seen so far, and a big part of his revelation. By bringing in emotions of "anger" and "joy," by "yelling," Meursault breaks away from his old, passive self.

For the third time I’ve refused to see the chaplain. I don’t have anything to say to him; I don’t feel like talking, and I’ll be seeing him soon enough as it is. All I care about right now is escaping the machinery of justice, seeing if there’s any way out of the inevitable. (2.5.1)

This doesn’t sound passive at all. Meursault is looking to escape, to act. Also, he cares about something, which is more than we’ve seen so far.

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)

Here’s the big switch. Meursault no longer passively accepts his death, but actively goes towards it. He is no longer passively content, but actively happy.