The Gentle Meursault of Camus’s The Stranger (The Outsider)
In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Meursault, the protagonist, could be seen as immoral if he were judged on the basis of his actions alone. However, through Camus’s use of a first person narrative, we begin to understand Meursault as not an immoral man, but simply an indifferent one. Meursault
is a symbol of the universe, and so in understanding him we understand that the universe is also not evil, but instead a place of gentle indifference.
At first glance, Meursault could be seen as an evil man. He shows no grief at his mother’s funeral, worrying more about the heat. His first reaction to his mother’s death is not sadness, it is a matter-of-fact, unemotional acceptance of the situation. “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Later on in the story, Meursault kills an Arab on the beach, and his only concern is that he has ruined the calm
, pleasant day he was having. When he is in jail, the magistrate comes in an attempt to save Meursault’s soul, but instead of cooperating, Meursault simply confounds the magistrate by refusing to believe in God. Even at his trial, Meursault doesn’t show any remorse for having killed the Arab. Based on this evidence alone, how can we not see Meursault as evil?
In the novel, we are given a more complete view of Meursault. The story is told from his point-of-view, which allows us to understand the situation as Meursault perceives it. Looking at the situation in this light, we can see Meursault as not evil, but simply indifferent and detached from life. He doesn’t attempt to get wrapped up in emotion or relationships, he just takes things as they come, doing whatever is easiest for him. He becomes friends with Raymond and agrees to marry Marie simply because he doesn’t have a very good reason not to. Seeing the story from Meursault’s viewpoint, we understand that even killing the Arab wasn’t an act of malice or evil intent. As Meursault puts it, “My nature is such that my physical needs often get in the way of my feelings.” With this in context, things begin to make more sense. Meursault’s seemingly cryptic statement that he murdered the Arab “because of the sun” can be taken as truth. Meursault does things that society judges as wrong not because he is evil or wants to appear immoral, but because the sun and heat, symbols for Meursault’s emotional state, cause him to become uncomfortable and act “inappropriately.” The sun is present at his mother’s funeral, when he refuses to grieve. It is also at he beach, and it is the sun in his eyes that causes him to shot the Arab. Finally, the sun is present at Meursault’s trial, when he doesn’t repent or show any kind of remorse for anything he has done, and is therefore condemned.
Because Meursault is a symbol for the universe, people’s misunderstanding him parallels the way we misunderstand the way the world and the universe work. Both religion and the judicial system see Meursault as evil, and both these establishments misunderstand the universe. This is important in the second theme of The Stranger
, which is that conformity through establishments such as religion and the court system leads to a blinding to the truth, rather than the path to the truth it is supposed to provide. Both the court and religion condemn Meursault not only because he is indifferent, but because he is different. When we can see beyond their prejudices and see Meursault, not as an evil man, but as a man who simply is gently indifferent, we can at last understand the universe as well. Meursault himself comes to this realization at the end of the novel. “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself - so like a brother, really - I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.” Through understanding Meursault, we can also reach this existentialist conclusion and find happiness, not in empty systems like religion, but instead in ourselves.