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.
Spoken by Meursault, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, these are the opening lines of the novel. They introduce Meursault’s emotional indifference, one his most important character traits. Meursault does not express any remorse upon learning of his mother’s death—he merely reports the fact in a plain and straightforward manner. His chief concern is the precise day of his mother’s death—a seemingly trivial detail.
Mersault’s comment, “That doesn’t mean anything,” has at least two possible meanings. It could be taken as part of his discussion about which day Madame Meursault died. That is, Meursault could mean that the telegram does not reveal any meaningful information about the date of his mother’s death. However, the comment could also be read more broadly, with a significance that perhaps Meursault does not consciously intend; Meursault might be implying that it does not matter that his mother died at all. This possible reading introduces the idea of the meaninglessness of human existence, a theme that resounds throughout the novel.
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.
The nurse speaks these words to Meursault during the long, hot funeral procession in Part One, Chapter 1. On a literal level, the nurse’s words describe the dilemma the weather presents: the heat’s influence is inescapable. But Meursault’s comment, “There was no way out,” broadens the implications of the nurse’s words. As Meursault eventually realizes, the nurse’s words describe the human condition: man is born into a life that can only end in death. Death, like the harsh effects of the sun, is unavoidable. This idea is central to Camus’s philosophy in The Stranger, which posits death as the one central, inescapable fact of life.
A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.
In this passage from Part One, Chapter 4, Meursault relates an exchange he has with Marie. With characteristic emotional indifference and detachment, Meursault answers Marie’s question completely and honestly. Always blunt, he never alters what he says to be tactful or to conform to societal expectations. However, Meursault’s honesty reflects his ignorance. His blunt words suggest that he does not understand fully the emotional stakes in Marie’s question. Also, in Meursault’s assertion that love “didn’t mean anything,” we see an early form of a central idea Meursault later comes to understand—the meaninglessness of human life.
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.
This quotation is Meursault’s response in Part One, Chapter 5, to his boss’s offer of a position in Paris. Meursault’s statement shows his belief in a certain rigidity or inertia to human existence. His comment that “one life was as good as another” maintains that although details may change, one’s life remains essentially constant. The comment also implies that each person’s life is essentially equal to everyone else’s.
At this point in the novel, Meursault offers no explanation for his belief in the equality of human lives. In the novel’s final chapter, he identifies death as the force responsible for the constant and unchangeable nature of human life. A comparison of this quotation to Meursault’s ideas following his death sentence highlights Meursault’s development as a character whose understanding of the human condition deepens as a result of his experiences.
As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, 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. 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.
These are the last lines of the novel. After his meeting with the chaplain, whose insistence that Meursault turn to God in the wake of his death sentence puts Meursault into a “blind rage,” Meursault fully accepts the absurdist idea that the universe is indifferent to human affairs and that life lacks rational order and meaning. He moves toward this revelation through the course of the novel, but does not fully grasp it until he accepts the impossibility of avoiding his death. Meursault realizes that the universe’s indifference to human affairs echoes his own personal indifference to human affairs, and the similarity evokes a feeling of companionship in him that leads him to label the world “a brother.”
As opposed to earlier in the novel, when Meursault was passively content at best, here Meursault finds that he is actively happy once he opens himself to the reality of human existence. Meursault finds that he is also happy with his position in society. He does not mind being a loathed criminal. He only wishes for companionship, “to feel less alone.” He accepts that this companionship will take the form of an angry mob on his execution day. He sees his impending execution as the “consummation” of his new understanding.
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