Study Guide

The Stranger Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

By Albert Camus

Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

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)

The nurse speaks of both the weather and human condition. The sun’s heat is inescapable, just as death is inescapable. There was no way out except through acceptance.

That’s when Maman’s friends came in. There were about ten in all, and they floated into the blinding light without a sound. They sat down without a single chair creaking. I saw them more clearly than I had ever seen anyone […]. But I couldn’t hear them, and it was hard for me to believe they really existed. (1.1.15)

Meursault is content being a spectator in life, and may even be slightly solipsistic. (Solipsism is the belief that yourself is the only thing you can truly know exists—you know you’re not a figment of the imagination... but you can’t say the same for everyone else around you.) If this is true, it explains why he finds it difficult to sympathize or empathize in any way.

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)

The opening sentences of the novel embodies Meursault’s absurdist outlook on life, his emotional indifference and detachment to people, and his passive but quiet alienation from the rest of society. It’s also a big flashing clue that our protagonist is unaware and apathetic. He doesn’t even know which day his mother died, and to him, it "doesn’t mean anything" anyway.

Meursault

[A] soldier […] smiled at me and asked if I’d been traveling long. I said, "Yes," just so I wouldn’t have to say anything else. (1.1.4)

Super typical of his particular brand of passivity and/or detachment (i.e., Absurdism), Meursault does something just so he won’t have to do something else.

Part 1, Chapter 2

It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed. (1.2.11)

Meursault is able to say that "nothing […] changed" after Maman died since he wasn’t living with her anyway. This makes sense practically, but not emotionally (like many of Meursault’s beliefs).

Part 1, Chapter 3

I tried my best to please Raymond because I didn’t have any reason not to please him. (1.3.12)

Meursault himself, on the other hand, doesn’t feel any of these normal emotions himself.

He [Raymond] asked if I thought she was cheating on him, and it seemed to me she was; if I thought she should be punished and what I would do in his place, and I said you can't ever be sure, but I understood his wanting to punish her. (1.3.11)

Meursault’s response to Raymond’s question signifies his belief that one can never be sure about anything in life (much less the sex life of Raymond's mistress).

[H]e asked me again if I wanted to be pals. I said it was fine with me: he seemed pleased. (1.3.7)

Meursault observes the emotions of others with a strange and almost scientific detachment. "He seemed pleased," he records, as though he’s watching through a fish tank.

Raymond Sintes

"I’ve got some blood sausage and some wine at my place. How about joining me?" I figured it would save me the trouble of having to cook for myself, so I accepted. (1.3.6)

Typical. Meursault joins Raymond for dinner not because he has a good reason... but because there is no reason compelling a different response.

Part 1, Chapter 4
Raymond Sintes

"I’m not drunk, officer. It’s just that I’m here, and you’re there, and I’m shaking. I can’t help it." (1.4.4)

Raymond’s explanation appeals to the notion that sometimes behaviors just are—they exist without rationality.

He told me that I’d have to act as a witness for him. It didn’t matter to me, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. According to Raymond, all I had to do was to state that the girl had cheated on him. I agreed to act as a witness for him. (1.4.5)

Meursault is basically amoral; he doesn’t seem to have any issues testifying to the "character" of a completely questionable dude. If there’s "no good reason not to," you could get Meursault to do anything.

Part 1, Chapter 5

I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn't see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn't unhappy. When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered. (1.5.3)

Meursault is so dispassionate here that he can’t identify much of a difference between "unhappy" and "happy." He’s neither; he’s just "content," middle of the road.

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)

Meursault’s response to his boss’s offer of a position in Paris betrays his belief that a certain hopelessness surrounds change and human existence. His comment also implies that each person’s life is essentially equal to everyone else’s, and that there is no sense in changing your own life. This is super-important; Meursault comes back to this notion of omni-equality at the end of the novel, at which point he declares the reason for it (namely, that everyone will die, just the same). Think of this as a half-way point for his transformation.

Part 1, Chapter 6

The heat was so intense that it was just as bad standing still in the blinding stream falling from the sky. To stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing. A minute later I turned back toward the beach and started walking.

There was the same dazzling red glare. The sea gasped for air with each shallow, stifled little wave that broke on the sand. I was walking slowly toward the rocks and I could feel my forehead swelling under the sun. All that heat was pressing down on me and making it hard for me to go on. And every time I felt a blast of its hot breath strike my face, I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists in my trouser pockets, and strained every nerve in order to overcome the sun and the thick drunkenness it was spilling over me. With every blade of light that flashed off the sand, from a bleached shell or a piece of broken glass, my jaws tightened. (1.6.19-20)

The description of the heat accompanies Meursault’s rising annoyance perfectly, foreshadows the impending conflict exactly, and illustrates just how nutso-irrational his coming actions will be.

We [Raymond and Meursault] stared at each other without blinking, and everything came to a stop there between the sea, the sand, and the sun, and the double silence of the flute and the water. It was then that I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot. (1.6.18)

Even if there is no meaning to life, every person faces a choice in every situation. (No fate and no controlling deity = radical personal freedom.) At this point in the novel, however, Meursault’s sense of detachment prevents his thinking or acting rationally. So while he recognizes that choice exists, he isn’t yet able to commit to making one. (Think of it as a halfway point in his evolution.)

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 squeeze my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave […]. (1.6.24)

Nature unleashes its fiery inferno against Meursault, and he becomes irrationally (though probably unintentionally) violent. Of course, because he is the narrator, we really can’t trust this description any more than the members of the court can trust his absurd defense that "the sun made me do it!"

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)

Without explanation or motivation, Meursault shoots four more times at the dead body before him. This behavior is ridiculously irrational and can only be committed by a total misanthrope... it's the result of serious detachment from mankind.

The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. That sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the sun. It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. (1.6.24)

The powerful sun pains Meursault and compels him, by pure chance, to take a step towards his absurd fate. According to him, he doesn’t make a decision to step forward; he is compelled to step forward.

Part 2, Chapter 1

And I can say that at the end of the eleven months that this investigation lasted, I was almost surprised that I had ever enjoyed anything other than those rare moments when the judge would lead me to the door of his office, slap me on the shoulder, and say to me cordially, "That’s all for today, Monsieur Antichrist." I would then be handed back over to the police. (2.1.13)

The magistrate has begun to acknowledge Meursault’s nonconformity in Christian society, and Meursault has started to revel in it.

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. (2.1.2)

Meursault can’t take the investigation seriously; he feels that he has done nothing wrong. It proves difficult for him to view himself as a criminal, because he truly believes in the simplicity of his case—he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was all a matter of absurd [bad] luck.

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)

Meursault feels little or no personal remorse for having killed the Arab; however, he presently knows that he has done something wrong according to society’s standards. Again, unable to feel emotion himself, he categorizes it scientifically and objectively.

[…] drawing himself up to his full height and asking me if I believed in God. I said no. He sat down indignantly. He said it was impossible; all men believed in God, even those who turn their backs on him. That was his belief, and if he were ever to doubt it, his life would become meaningless. "Do you want my life to be meaningless?" He shouted. As far as I could see, it didn’t have anything to do with me, and I told him so. But from across the table he had already thrust the crucifix in my face and was screaming irrationally, "I am a Christian. I ask Him to forgive you your sins. How can you not believe that He suffered for you?" (2.1.11)

The magistrate places the meaning of his existence on his faith in God. Meursault rejects that proposition that the rest of society seems so bent on accepting, and dismisses it instead as irrational.

Part 2, Chapter 2

On the one hand it wasn’t very likely. On the other, it was perfectly natural. Anyway, I thought the traveler pretty much deserved what he got and that you should never play games. (2.2.15)

Referring to the story about the Czechoslovakian, Meursault’s reasoning lays out the basic tenet of Absurdism: Life is meaningless—so don’t rely on any logic-based "rules" to get you through it.

Part 2, Chapter 3
Meursault

The prosecutor […] would like to know whether I had gone back to the spring by myself intending to kill the Arab. "No," I said. Well, then, why was I armed and why did I return to precisely that spot? I said it just happened that way. (2.3.12)

Meursault truly believes that his killing the Arab was incidental—due only to some absurd chain of irrational events over which he had no control.

And my lawyer, rolling up one of his sleeves, said with finality, "Here we have a perfect reflection of this entire trial: everything is true and nothing is true!" (2.3.16)

Meursault’s defense attorney has just uttered the perfect epigraph to The Stranger.

Celeste put his hands on the edge of the box, and you could tell he had something prepared. He said, "The way I see it, it’s bad luck. Everybody knows what bad luck is. It leaves you defenseless. And here it is! The way I see it, it’s bad luck." (2.3.17)

Celeste’s outburst in trial puts a further spin on the concept of absurdity, and emphasizes just how irrational Meursault’s crime was.

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)

With much detachment and passivity, Meursault begins to accept his fate.

Part 2, Chapter 4

Meanwhile, the sun was getting low outside and it wasn’t as hot anymore. From what street noises I could hear, I sensed the sweetness of evening coming on. There we all were, waiting. And what we were all waiting for really concerned only me. (2.4.9)

It’s almost as if Meursault doesn’t understand why everyone else cares so much. It’s his life—why the big deal? Why are these people waiting around to hear a decision that doesn’t concern them?

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. Why doesn’t Meursault have anything to say? Possibly because he realizes response is futile, possibly because he can’t think of anything, and possibly because it’s hot in that courtroom and he’d really like to get back to his prison cell as quickly as possible.

The utter pointlessness of whatever I was doing there seized me by the throat, and all I wanted was to get it over with and get back to my cell and sleep. (2.4.8)

Meursault isn’t able to take his trial seriously. Think back to the scene at the nursing home, when he felt like the elderly residents were "there to judge [him]." For a man who is used to being constantly evaluated against normative behavior (when his behavior is anything but normal) this trial is just another day in the life.

Fumbling a little with my words and realizing how ridiculous I sounded, I blurted out that it was because of the sun. People laughed. My lawyer threw up his hands […]. (2.4.6)

An element of nature and an absurdist, Meursault finds himself in quite a bind: he has no explanation (regardless of its truth) that society would find valid. But this doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an explanation that—in his mind, if nowhere else—is cogent.

I was listening, and I could hear that I was being judged intelligent. But I couldn’t understand how an ordinary man’s good qualities could become crushing accusations against a guilty man. At least that was what struck me […]. "Has he so much as expressed any remorse? Never, gentlemen. Not once during the preliminary hearings did this man show emotion over his heinous offense." (2.4.4)

Meursault realizes the paradoxical fact that he was being penalized for being intelligent and remorseless—not for the murder itself.

But all the long speeches, all the interminable days and hours that people had spent talking about my soul, had left me with the impression of a colorless swirling river that was making me dizzy. (2.4.7)

Meursault is uninterested in any discussion as to the condition of his soul; to him, such matters are totally nonsensical.

Part 2, Chapter 5

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)

Look at the differences here: the chaplain cannot escape death, yet Meursault accepts death; the chaplain lives for the afterlife, yet Meursault has lived his life in the present; the chaplain’s world is meaningless without Christianity, but Meursault has no such reliance on anything external.

"I know that at one time or another you’ve wished for another life." I said of course I had, but it didn’t mean any more than wishing to be rich, to be able to swim faster, or to have a more nicely shaped mouth. It was all the same. (2.5.23)

The chaplain is looking for some sign of remorse, but the best Meursault can come up with is that wishing he didn’t kill the Arab is no different than wishing for a nice six-pack.

"Then God can help you," he said. "Every man I have known in your position has turned to Him." I acknowledged that that was their right. It also meant that they must have had the time for it. As for me, I didn’t want anybody’s help, and I just didn’t have the time to interest myself in what didn’t interest me. (2.5.14)

Uninterested in relying on any external authority or source for meaning, Meursault lays bare his atheism for the chaplain to see. The chaplain is not amused.

Despite my willingness to understand, I just couldn’t accept such arrogant certainty. Because, after all, there really was something ridiculously out of proportion between the verdict such certainty was based on and the imperturbable march of events from the moment the verdict was announced. The fact that the sentence had been read at eight o’clock at night and not at five o’clock, the fact that it could have been an entirely different one, the fact that it had been decided by men who change their underwear […] all of it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the decision. (2.5.2)

The uncertainty surrounding Meursault’s death sentence disturbs him as an absurdist. Because the ultimate sentence is meaningless, the obsession over it is ridiculous.

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)

With these, the closing lines to the book, Meursault finally accepts the absurdist tenets that the world is indifferent to human affairs and that life itself lacks rationality and meaning. His journey has been one of enlightenment, from passive contentment to a new absurdist understanding of the world. Interestingly enough, Meursault views his execution as an affirmation of his newly acquired philosophy. He looks forward to leaving behind and triumphing above society and its worries. We guess this is kind of uplifting?

Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why […] what did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him […]? Couldn’t he see, couldn’t he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too. What would it matter if he were accused of murder and then executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral? Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife. (2.5.25)

Okay, we’re good with the claim that all men are equal—but then Meursault pushes it one step further: he says Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife. Hold up. This seems shocking at first, but not when you look at the reason for Meursault’s initial claim that people are all equal: they’re all going to die. Well, so are dogs. So the life of a man can’t be more privileged than the life of a dog (or an amoeba, actually), since all are made equal by death.

Meursault

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)

Meursault is clearly the toughest nut the chaplain has come up against. Their interaction is so interesting to watch because it represents a larger struggle; that of religion against absurdist philosophy.