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.
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