Study Guide

The Stranger Society and Class

By Albert Camus

Society and Class

Part 1, Chapter 1

Then he offered to bring me a cup of coffee with milk. I like milk in my coffee, so I said yes, and he came back a few minutes later with a tray. I drank the coffee. Then I felt like having a smoke. But I hesitated, because I didn’t know if I could do it with Maman right there. I thought about it; it didn’t matter. I offered the caretaker a cigarette and we smoked. (1.1.13)

Although Meursault feels a twinge of self-consciousness here, unsure whether he is doing the right thing, he ultimately excuses it as something meaningless. This can be seen as detachment or remorselessness, depending on the context.

On their way out, and much to my surprise, they all shook my hand – as if that night during which we hadn’t exchanged as much as a single word had somehow brought us closer together. (1.1.18)

Meursault does not subscribe to society’s rules about closeness and relationships; he does not easily attach or identify with anyone.

It was then that I realized they were all sitting across from me, nodding their heads, grouped around the caretaker. (1.1.15)

The strategic opposing placement of Maman’s friends and Meursault betrays Meursault’s foreign status. Already, he is an outsider, a stranger.

I thought he was criticizing me for something and I started to explain. But he cut me off. "You don’t have to justify yourself, my dear boy. I’ve read your mother’s file. You weren’t able to provide for her properly." (1.1.5)

In the beginning of the novel, Meursault feels compelled to explain away or account for negative judgment.

Part 1, Chapter 2

I told her Maman had died. She wanted to know how long ago, so I said, "Yesterday." She gave a little start but didn’t say anything. I felt like telling her it wasn’t my fault, but I stopped myself because I remembered that I’d already said that to my boss. It didn’t mean anything. Besides, you always feel a little guilty. (1.2.2)

Meursault possesses some semblance of a societal conscience—at first.

Part 1, Chapter 5

Then he said, very quickly and with an embarrassed look, that he realized that some people in the neighborhood thought badly of me for having sent Maman to the home, but he knew me and he knew I loved her very much. I still don’t know why, but I said that until then I hadn’t realized that people thought badly of me for doing it, but that the home had seemed like the natural thing since I didn’t have enough money to have Maman cared for. (1.5.9)

Old Salamano’s apologetic comment is the first instance of society’s negative opinion of Meursault of which he is directly made aware.

I had dinner at Celeste’s. I’d already started eating when a strange little woman came in and asked me if she could sit at my table. Of course she could. Her gestures were jerky and she [was] meticulous […]. Then she stood up, put her jacket back on with the same robot like movements, and left. I didn’t have anything to do so I left too and followed her for a while. […] I thought about how peculiar she was but forgot about her a few minutes later. (1.5.6)

Unknowingly, Meursault identifies with this woman—who is obviously a societal outcast, much like himself.

Part 2, Chapter 1

Without working up to it, he asked if I loved Maman. I said, "Yes, the same as anyone," and the clerk, who up to then had been typing steadily, must have hit the wrong key, because he lost his place and had to go back. (2.1.9)

Either detachment, ignorance (about the concept of love) or logic accompanies Meursault’s answer. The clerk’s reaction represents society’s judgment that Meursault’s answer is due to detachment, or sociopathy.

He [the attorney] didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness. (2.1.6)

Ironically, Meursault truly believes that he is as much of a constituent of society as any other person. He is unaware of his nonconformity.

Then he looked at me closely and with a little sadness in his face. In a low voice he said, "I have never seen a soul as hardened as yours. The criminals who have come before me have always wept at the sight of his image of suffering." I was about to say that that was precisely because they were criminals. But then I realized that I was one too. It was an idea I couldn’t get used to. (2.1.12)

Meursault struggles to come to terms with society’s judgment of his criminality.

The investigators had learned that I had "shown insensitivity" the day of Maman’s funeral… He [the lawyer] asked if I had felt any sadness that day. […] I answered that I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself and that it was hard for me to tell him what he wanted to know. I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything. At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead. Here the lawyer interrupted me and he seemed very upset. He made me promise I wouldn’t say that at my hearing or in front of the examining magistrate. (2.1.4)

Characteristically, Meursault’s honest answer betrays just how detached and apathetic he seems toward certain affairs or concepts. He refuses to adopt the perception that is approved by society; he refuses to lie to save himself.

Part 2, Chapter 2

To get to the visiting room I went down a long corridor, then down some stairs and, finally, another corridor. […] The room was divided into three sections by two large grates that ran the length of the room. Between the two grates was a space of eight to ten meters which separated the visitors from the prisoners. I spotted Marie standing at the opposite end of the room… Because of the distance between the grates, the visitors and the prisoners were forced to speak very loud. (2.2.3)

The physical layout of the visiting room symbolizes the huge gulf between upstanding citizens of society and immoral criminals in prison.

Part 2, Chapter 3

He gave the policeman a warm handshake. I noticed then that everyone was waving and exchanging greetings and talking, as if they were in a club where people are glad to find themselves among others from the same world. That is how I explained to myself the strange impression I had of being odd man out, a kind of intruder. (2.3.4)

Meursault observes society with a nearly scientific detachment.

It was then that I noticed a row of faces in front of me. They were all looking at me; I realized that they were the jury. But I can’t say what distinguished one from another. I had just one impression: I was sitting across from a row of seats on a streetcar and all these anonymous passengers were looking over the new arrival to see if they could find something funny about him. (2.3.3)

The jury represents society’s principles by which Meursault is judged.

I think that at first I hadn’t realized that all those people were crowding in to see me. Usually people didn’t pay much attention to me. It took some doing on my part to understand that I was the cause of all the excitement. (2.3.4)

The courtroom spectators represent society—they also judge Meursault.

For the first time in years, I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me. (2.3.14)

Meursault’s first tears! If he doesn’t care about society, why does he cry? Perhaps he has begun to assimilate their values: his tears aren’t because they hate him; they are because he hates himself.

The reporters […] all had the same indifferent and somewhat snide look on their faces. One of them, however, much younger than the others, wearing gray flannels and a blue tie, had left his pen lying in front of him and was looking at me […] examining me closely without betraying any definable emotion. And I had the odd impression of being watched by myself. (2.3.7)

The courtroom spectators represent society, and are there to judge Meursault, the detached, nonconforming outsider. Ironically, however, the spectators are a rather detached group themselves. Even more ironically, Meursault identifies with one of them, signifying that he is also beginning to judge himself using society’s rubric.

[The caretaker] answered the questions put to him. He said I hadn’t wanted to see Maman, that I had smoked and slept some, and that I had had some coffee. It was then I felt a stirring go through the room and for the first time I realized that I was guilty. (2.3.15)

Meursault begins to assimilate society’s judgments of him.

Part 2, Chapter 4

"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)

Painting Meursault as an alien to mankind—passive, detached, emotionless—the prosecutor urges the society of jurors to find Meursault guilty of premeditated murder.

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)

Meursault wonders why everyone is so concerned with his affairs.

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)

The prosecutor asks for the death penalty... but because of Meursault’s nonconformist attitudes, not because of his murder.

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)

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. He looks forward to leaving behind and triumphing above society and its worries.