The Stranger

by: Albert Camus

Guilt and Punishment

1

And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began . . . I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

Meursault describes the turning point of the novel, the moment he murders the Arab who drew a knife. The disruption of the calm beach setting by the gun reports echoes Meursault’s transition from innocence to guilt. Meursault’s consciousness registers each shot as portending his own ruin. His cold-blooded account of shooting the man four more times after he posed no threat conveys the meaningless of the homicide. Readers learn that Meursault doesn’t murder the man in a fit of passion, but instead kills him due to a cacophony of physical sensations from the sun, the water, the beach, and his own physical discomfort.

2

From the day when I got her letter telling me they wouldn’t let her come to see me any more, because she wasn’t my wife—it was from that day that I realized that this cell was my last home, a dead end, so to speak.

Meursault describes what it was like to learn he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. His realization of his situation grows little by little, and here he reflects on how he reacts to learning Marie can’t visit him anymore. Marie’s visits allowed Meursault to hold on to a false hope. All along, he accepted his day-to-day reality without really considering his ultimate fate. However, this event creates a crack in his self-delusion, marking the beginning of his understanding the consequences of his actions.

3

“Liberty,” he said, “means that. You’re being deprived of your liberty.” It had never before struck me in that light, but I saw his point. “That’s true,” I said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be a punishment.”

Meursault converses with the chief jailer, with whom he has become friendly, another step in his process of realization. He complains that being in jail feels unfair, and the jailer replies that depriving prisoners of their comforts is the whole point of prison. The jailer explains that loss of liberty equates with punishment. Meursault understands then that confinement has taken away the pleasures he took for granted, the company of women and the freedom to smoke.

4

It was then I felt a sort of wave of indignation spreading through the courtroom, and for the first time I understood that I was guilty. They got the doorkeeper to repeat what he had said about the coffee and my smoking.

At the trial, Meursault reflects on his growing understanding of his guilt. The realization sets in just after he hears the doorkeeper of the Home tell the prosecutor that Meursault smoked, slept, and drank coffee during his mother’s funeral and that Meursault also declined to view his mother’s body. Meursault realizes that all the people in the courtroom hate him, probably even his own lawyer. He accepts that their judgment of him as guilty will be based on his behavior as a son.

5

I was returning to a cell, and what awaited me was a night haunted by forebodings of the coming day. And so I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep.

Meursault’s consciousness takes another step toward self-realization as he returns to his prison cell after the first day of his trial. He admits that he once loved the hour of dusk when he felt content and anticipated a night of easy sleep. Now, he begins to realize how dramatically his life has changed. He wakes up to the reality that he will never again experience the simple contentment of easy sleep.