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.

Read the related motif of observation and eavesdropping in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


The Sun and the Heat

The sun plagues Meursault all throughout the novel, blurring his thoughts and paining him.  Overall, these bewildering encounters with the sun and heat represent the omnipresent and inescapable truth of the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death. The heat gets particularly bad in moments tied to mortality such as Meursault’s mother’s funeral, the murder of the Arab, and, of course, the trial itself, which both deals with murder and holds Meursault’s life in the balance. Heat plagues him at smaller moments too, as when the sunlight through the prison windows makes him feel dizzy and sick. Meursault’s bizarre statement that the sun made him murder the Arab again gestures to the meaninglessness of death and the ultimate absurdity of existence. This connection between death and heat gets made explicitly when Meursault remembers the nurse’s comment about the sun during the funeral procession. Just as the sun will get to you whether you move quickly or slowly, so will death come eventually whether your life is long or short.

Tied into the omnipresence of the sun and heat is the way characters constantly try to avoid it. If the pounding heat represents the reality of mortality, these repeated attempts to beat the heat demonstrate the way people try to escape the reality of death and meaninglessness. While at the beach, Meursault and Marie go into the water to cool off, often engaging in sexual activity. This expression of life and vitality happens when the water cools off the heat. In the courtroom everyone except for Meursault has a fan to cool them down. The attempts to cool down mirror how all of them are attempting to find a reason for Meursault’s actions. Sweating and uncomfortable, Meursault is the only one in the courtroom who is not trying to find meaning in the murder or in his own actions. He is forced to sit with the meaninglessness of what he has done, and worse, forced to listen to people project motives onto him. However, just as the consistent attempts to cool down the summer heat of Algeria are fleeting, so are all efforts, ultimately, to block out the truth of the absurdity of life.