Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Irrationality of the Universe
Though The Stranger is a work of fiction, it contains a strong resonance of Camus’s philosophical notion of absurdity. In his essays, Camus asserts that individual lives and human existence in general have no rational meaning or order. However, because people have difficulty accepting this notion, they constantly attempt to identify or create rational structure and meaning in their lives. The term “absurdity” describes humanity’s futile attempt to find rational order where none exists.
Though Camus does not explicitly refer to the notion of absurdity in The Stranger, the tenets of absurdity operate within the novel. Neither the external world in which Meursault lives nor the internal world of his thoughts and attitudes possesses any rational order. Meursault has no discernable reason for his actions, such as his decision to marry Marie and his decision to kill the Arab.
Society nonetheless attempts to fabricate or impose rational explanations for Meursault’s irrational actions. The idea that things sometimes happen for no reason, and that events sometimes have no meaning is disruptive and threatening to society. The trial sequence in Part Two of the novel represents society’s attempt to manufacture rational order. The prosecutor and Meursault’s lawyer both offer explanations for Meursault’s crime that are based on logic, reason, and the concept of cause and effect. Yet these explanations have no basis in fact and serve only as attempts to defuse the frightening idea that the universe is irrational. The entire trial is therefore an example of absurdity—an instance of humankind’s futile attempt to impose rationality on an irrational universe.
The Meaninglessness of Human Life
A second major component of Camus’s absurdist philosophy is the idea that human life has no redeeming meaning or purpose. Camus argues that the only certain thing in life is the inevitability of death, and, because all humans will eventually meet death, all lives are all equally meaningless. Meursault gradually moves toward this realization throughout the novel, but he does not fully grasp it until after his argument with the chaplain in the final chapter. Meursault realizes that, just as he is indifferent to much of the universe, so is the universe indifferent to him. Like all people, Meursault has been born, will die, and will have no further importance.
Paradoxically, only after Meursault reaches this seemingly dismal realization is he able to attain happiness. When he fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age. This understanding enables Meursault to put aside his fantasies of escaping execution by filing a successful legal appeal. He realizes that these illusory hopes, which had previously preoccupied his mind, would do little more than create in him a false sense that death is avoidable. Meursault sees that his hope for sustained life has been a burden. His liberation from this false hope means he is free to live life for what it is, and to make the most of his remaining days.
The Importance of the Physical World
The Stranger shows Meursault to be interested far more in the physical aspects of the world around him than in its social or emotional aspects. This focus on the sensate world results from the novel’s assertion that there exists no higher meaning or order to human life. Throughout The Stranger, Meursault’s attention centers on his own body, on his physical relationship with Marie, on the weather, and on other physical elements of his surroundings. For example, the heat during the funeral procession causes Meursault far more pain than the thought of burying his mother. The sun on the beach torments Meursault, and during his trial Meursault even identifies his suffering under the sun as the reason he killed the Arab. The style of Meursault’s narration also reflects his interest in the physical. Though he offers terse, plain descriptions when glossing over emotional or social situations, his descriptions become vivid and ornate when he discusses topics such as nature and the weather.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Decay and Death
The different characters in The Stranger hold widely varying attitudes toward decay and death. Salamano loves his decaying, scab-covered dog and he values its companionship, even though most people find it disgusting. Meursault does not show much emotion in response to his mother’s death, but the society in which he lives believes that he should be distraught with grief. Additionally, whereas Meursault is content to believe that physical death represents the complete and final end of life, the chaplain holds fast to the idea of an afterlife.
An essential part of Meursault’s character development in the novel is his coming to terms with his own attitudes about death. At the end of the novel, he has finally embraced the idea that death is the one inevitable fact of human life, and is able to accept the reality of his impending execution without despair.
Watching and Observation
Throughout the novel there are instances of characters watching Meursault, or of his watching them. This motif recalls several components of Camus’s absurdist philosophy. The constant watching in The Stranger suggests humanity’s endless search for purpose, and emphasizes the importance of the tangible, visible details of the physical world in a universe where there is no grander meaning.
When Meursault watches people on the street from his balcony, he does so passively, absorbing details but not judging what he sees. By contrast, the people in the courtroom watch Meursault as part of the process of judgment and condemnation. In the courtroom, we learn that many of Meursault’s previous actions were being watched without his—or our—knowledge. The Arabs watch Raymond and his friends with implicit antagonism as they walk to the bus. Raymond’s neighbors act as spectators to his dispute with his mistress and the police officer, watching with concern or petty curiosity. At times, watching is a mysterious activity, such as when Meursault watches the woman at Celeste’s, and later when she watches him in court. The novel’s moments of watching and observation reflect humanity’s endless search for meaning, which Camus found absurd.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In the courtroom drama that comprises the second half of The Stranger, the court symbolizes society as a whole. The law functions as the will of the people, and the jury sits in judgment on behalf of the entire community. In The Stranger, Camus strengthens this court-as-society symbolism by having nearly every one of the minor characters from the first half of the novel reappear as a witness in the courtroom. Also, the court’s attempts to construct a logical explanation for Meursault’s crime symbolize humanity’s attempts to find rational explanations for the irrational events of the universe. These attempts, which Camus believed futile, exemplify the absurdity Camus outlined in his philosophy.
The crucifix that the examining magistrate waves at Meursault symbolizes Christianity, which stands in opposition to Camus’s absurdist world view. Whereas absurdism is based on the idea that human life is irrational and purposeless, Christianity conceives of a rational order for the universe based on God’s creation and direction of the world, and it invests human life with higher metaphysical meaning.
The crucifix also symbolizes rational belief structures in general. The chaplain’s insistence that Meursault turn to God does not necessarily represent a desire that Meursault accept specifically Christian beliefs so much as a desire that he embrace the principle of a meaningful universe in general. When Meursault defies the magistrate by rejecting Christianity, he implicitly rejects all systems that seek to define a rational order within human existence. This defiance causes Meursault to be branded a threat to social order.
by I dont need a bluddy nick name, March 21, 2013
This Spark Note describes Meursault as being amoral. I completely disagree with this interpretation. It is not that Meursault does not understand right and wrong but rather that his ideas of right and wrong differ from those of society. This different moral code can be seen by the way he refuses to break his own morals. He may not value life but he does value honesty and his disbelief in a higher being. Throughout the book he never lies or pretends to have faith in God not even to save his life. His specific moral code is founded in Camus` ... Read more→
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by dmborong, April 11, 2013
Albert Camus' idea of morality in 'The Stranger' is completely unconventional and this can be seen through the protagonist who is a total embarrassment to the society in which he finds himself. This disparity between what is expected of Meursault and what he displays forms the basis of Albert Camus' philosophy of morality. There is a big question mark on conventional morality which the author finds to be absurd. He seems to be questioning the fabric of societal morality on grounds of motivation; are some of those values upheld merely for con... Read more→
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by OverseasTeacher, April 29, 2013
Morality is simply the way that an individual chooses between opposing values in a given situation.
So, lets say "Prolife" vs "Prochoice" as a moral issue. Regardless of your position, you are pushing values. The question isn't "is a fetus valuable?" or "is a woman's right to choose what happens to her body valuable?"
The vast majority of the world would answer yes to both. No, the question is... "which is more valuable if you can't have both?"
In this way, morality requires an active decision making.
This is wher