The Stranger

by: Albert Camus

Part Two: Chapter 5

Summary

[F]or the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. . . . 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.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

After his trial, Meursault only cares about escaping the “machinery of justice” that has condemned him to death. The newspapers characterize the situation of a condemned man in terms of a “debt owed to society,” but Meursault believes the only thing that matters is the possibility of an escape to freedom. He remembers his mother telling him how his father once forced himself to watch an execution. Afterward, Meursault’s father vomited several times. Now, Meursault thinks an execution is really the only thing of interest for a man. He only wishes he could be a spectator instead of the victim. He fantasizes about a combination of chemicals that would kill the condemned only nine times out of ten, because then at least he would have a chance of surviving.

Meursault also dislikes the fact that the guillotine forces the condemned to hope that the execution works on the first try. If the first attempt fails, the execution will be painful. Hence, the prisoner is forced into “moral collaboration” with the execution process, by hoping for its success. He further objects to the fact that the guillotine is mounted on the ground, not on a scaffold. The condemned is killed “with a little shame and with great precision.” Meursault counts himself lucky every time dawn passes without the sound of footsteps approaching his cell, because he knows that such footsteps would signal the arrival of the men who will take him to his execution. When he considers the option of filing a legal appeal, Meursault initially assumes the worst, believing any appeal would be denied. Only after considering the fact that everyone dies eventually does he allow himself to consider the possibility of a pardon and freedom. Whenever he thinks of this possibility, he feels delirious joy.

Against Meursault’s wishes, the chaplain visits and asks why Meursault has refused to see him. Meursault reasserts his denial of God’s existence. When the chaplain states that Meursault’s attitude results from “extreme despair,” Meursault says he is afraid, not desperate. The chaplain insists that all the condemned men he has known have eventually turned to God for comfort. Meursault becomes irritated by the chaplain’s insistence that he spend the rest of his life thinking about God. He feels he has no time to waste with God. The chaplain tells Meursault that his “heart is blind.”

Meursault suddenly becomes enraged. He shouts that nothing matters, and that nothing in the chaplain’s beliefs is as certain as the chaplain thinks. The only certainty Meursault perceives in the whole of human existence is death. In the course of his outburst, Meursault grabs the chaplain. After the guards separate them, Meursault realizes why his mother started her little romance with Thomas Perez. She lived in the midst of fading lives, so she chose to play at living life over again. He believes crying over her would simply be an insult to her. Meursault has finally shed any glimmer of hope, so he opens himself to the “gentle indifference of the world.” His only hope is that there will be a crowd of angry spectators at his execution who will greet him “with cries of hate.”

Analysis

While awaiting his execution, Meursault takes the final step in the development of his consciousness. Whereas during his trial Meursault passively observed the judgments leveled against him, in prison he begins to ponder the fact of his inevitable death. He begins to see his life as having a past, present, and future, and concludes that there is no difference between dying soon by execution and dying decades later of natural causes. This capacity for self-analysis is a new development for Meursault, and it contrasts greatly with his level of self-awareness earlier in the novel.

Once Meursault dismisses his perceived difference between execution and natural death, he must deal with the concept of hope. Hope only tortures him, because it creates the false illusion that he can change the fact of his death. The leap of hope he feels at the idea of having another twenty years of life prevents him from making the most of his final days or hours. Hope disturbs his calm and understanding, and prevents him from fully coming to grips with his situation.