At first glance, the plot of Albert Camus’ The Stranger seems to comprise a sequence of random events in the life of the protagonist, Meursault. However, the novella’s events suggest a dark and forbidding meaning: in a universe that is irrational and indifferent to human suffering and experience, people desperately struggle to explain experience in a rational way, and they often fail. Sometimes, they abandon attempts to understand it altogether. Meursault embodies this response to an absurd existence. He is indifferent to pivotal events in his life and assumes that he has no control over them. As an existential hero, he does not succeed.

Throughout the story, Camus uses Meursault’s first-person perspective to reveal the character’s lack of emotional attachment to people and relationships. He is, as the title suggests, always a stranger. For example, at the work’s outset, Meursault dwells on his mother’s death and funeral, yet he is detached; he thinks only about the day his mother died, how his boss allowed him to take two days off for the funeral, and the weather. 

Mersault’s struggle, a conflict he feels between social belief in a rational existence and his own perception that actions and experiences are meaningless, forms the work’s major conflict. Other characters feel and react appropriately to situations. Their actions contrast starkly with Meursault’s. For example, Salamano tells Meursault that he must have loved his mother even though he sent her away, to which Meursault replies very matter-of-factly. He states objective facts about how he could not afford to care for her and says that his mother was bored talking to him. Meursault has no reason to speak or feel as indifferently as he does, serving to show Camus’ emphasis on the effects of living in an absurd and irrational universe.

In the novella’s inciting incident, Meursault finds a companion in his neighbor Raymond, who serves as a foil to Meursault. Where Meursault is indifferent to morality, Raymond is openly immoral, as is evident in his abuse of his girlfriend. He asks Meursault to write a letter to his girlfriend as revenge, to which Meursault agrees. Meursault’s reactions are characteristically matter-of-fact and socially illogical. Any effort to explain his reactions rationally will fail; his amorality is symbolic of Camus’ idea that human existence is absurd: his behavior makes no sense. 

As the events of the rising action unfold, Meursault continues to be a detached observer, watching people and things happening around him without judgment. Using observation as a motif, Camus emphasizes the human search for meaning in a universe that offers none, save that of physical existence. Meursault’s affair with Marie focuses on the tangible, such as how Meursault’s hand felt around Marie’s waist and how they swam in the water. There is almost no mention of feelings and emotions. At the beach house, Meursault reflects on how the sun feels warm and pleasant on his face as he and Marie swim in the sea. 

As the heat increases, so does tension in the plot, drawing toward its climax, the Arab’s pointless murder. Camus uses figurative language to describe the oppressiveness of the heat on the beach, as Meursault finds himself under the “blinding light falling from the sky.” His response, a choice as to whether to stay at the beach or to leave, indicates his sense that he has no control. Any action on his part, insofar as he is concerned, would be pointless because it “came to much the same.” Again, Camus emphasizes the meaninglessness of human life. 

In the climax, Meursault finally decides to walk to the cool spring where he and Raymond had encountered the Arab. Blinded by his own sweat and struggling in the heat, Meursault shoots the Arab five times. There is no rational explanation for this murder. One can speculate about why he acts as he does—perhaps it is simply the weather or his friendship with Raymond—but that would impose a reasoned and rational explanation for Meursault’s actions. Instead, those actions are as absurd and illogical as existence, according to Camus, happens to be.

During the falling action, other characters try to understand Meursault’s actions, yet they cannot. Attempts to explain and rationalize his behavior are impossible, since they were, at root, absurd and illogical. The magistrate’s failed attempt to bring Meursault into his belief system, one in which God ordains order in the universe, propels him to call Meursault “Monsieur Antichrist.” The prosecutor points to Meursault’s lack of grief at his mother’s funeral as a sign of his soulless character, as if that might explain the murder. Finally, at the trial’s conclusion, Meursault is condemned to execution. His sentence, decapitation, can be argued to be a symbol for his irrationality, as the brain usually represents logic and thought.

Meursault, as the novella reaches its resolution, comes to terms with his impending death. By refusing to maintain hope for a reprieve, he accepts the inevitability of death, be it through execution or natural causes. He does not feel remorse because Meursault is amoral, rendering the trial and punishment futile. In the end, he feels free because he perceives the world’s lack of concern for human beings as “gentle indifference.” Through Meursault, Camus claims that perceiving the world honestly, accepting the idea that it is devoid of order and reason, is the only way to be happy and free.