Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.See Important Quotations Explained
Meursault, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, receives a telegram telling him that his mother has died. She had been living in an old persons’ home in Marengo, outside of Algiers. Meursault asks his boss for two days’ leave from work to attend the funeral. His boss grudgingly grants the request, and makes Meursault feel almost guilty for asking. Meursault catches the two o’clock bus to Marengo, and sleeps for nearly the entire trip.
When Meursault arrives, he meets with the director of the old persons’ home, who assures Meursault that he should not feel bad for having sent his mother there. The director asserts that it was the best decision Meursault could have made, given his modest salary. He tells Meursault that a religious funeral has been planned for his mother, but Meursault knows that his mother never cared about religion. After the brief conversation, the director takes Meursault to the small mortuary where his mother’s coffin has been placed.
Alone, Meursault sees that the coffin has already been sealed. The caretaker rushes in and offers to open the casket, but Meursault tells him not to bother. To Meursault’s annoyance, the caretaker then stays in the room, chatting idly about his life and about how funeral vigils are shorter in the countryside because bodies decompose more quickly in the heat. Meursault thinks this information is “interesting and [makes] sense.”
Meursault spends the night keeping vigil over his mother’s body. The caretaker offers him a cup of coffee, and, in turn, Meursault gives the caretaker a cigarette. Meursault finds the atmosphere in the mortuary pleasant and he dozes off. He is awakened by the sound of his mother’s friends from the old persons’ home shuffling into the mortuary. One of the women cries mournfully, annoying Meursault. Eventually he falls back asleep, as do nearly all of his mother’s friends.
The next morning, the day of the funeral, Meursault again meets with the director of the old persons’ home. The director asks Meursault if he wants to see his mother one last time before the coffin is sealed permanently, but Meursault declines. The director tells Meursault about Thomas Perez, the only resident of the home who will be allowed to attend the funeral. Perez and Meursault’s mother had become nearly inseparable before she died. Other residents had joked that he was her fiancé.
The funeral procession slowly makes its way toward the village. When one of the undertaker’s assistants asks Meursault if his mother was old, Meursault responds vaguely because he does not know her exact age. The oppressive heat weighs heavily on him during the long walk. He notices that Thomas Perez cannot keep up, and keeps falling behind the procession. A nurse tells Meursault that he will get sunstroke if he walks too slowly, but will work up a sweat and catch a chill in church if he walks too quickly. Meursault agrees, thinking, “There was no way out.” He remembers little of the funeral, aside from Perez’s tear-soaked face and the fact that the old man fainted from the heat. As he rides home on the bus to Algiers, Meursault is filled with joy at the prospect of a good night’s sleep.
She was right. There was no way out.See Important Quotations Explained
Meursault immediately reveals himself to be indifferent toward emotion and interaction with others. Instead of grieving at the news of his mother’s death, he is cold, detached, and indifferent. When he receives the telegram, his primary concern is figuring out on which day his mother died. The fact that he has no emotional reaction at all makes Meursault difficult to categorize. If he were happy that his mother died, he could be cast simply as immoral or a monster. But Meursault is neither happy nor unhappy—he is indifferent.
Though Meursault tends to ignore the emotional, social, and interpersonal content of situations, he is far from indifferent when it comes to the realm of the physical and practical. In this chapter, Meursault focuses on the practical details surrounding his mother’s death. He worries about borrowing appropriate funeral clothing from a friend, and he is interested in the caretaker’s anecdote about how the length of a vigil depends on how long it takes before the body begins to decompose.
Meursault takes particular interest in nature and the weather. Just before the funeral, he is able to enjoy the beautiful weather and scenery, despite the sad occasion. Similarly, during the funeral procession, Meursault feels no grief or sadness, but he finds the heat of the day nearly unbearable.
Meursault’s narration varies in a way that reflects his attitudes toward the world around him. When describing social or emotional situations, his sentences are short, precise, and offer minimal detail. He tells only the essentials of what he sees or does, rarely using metaphors or other rhetorical flourishes. These meager descriptions display Meursault’s indifference to society and to the people around him. Meursault’s narrative expands greatly when he talks about topics, such as the weather, that directly relate to his physical condition. When describing the effects of the heat during the funeral procession, for instance, he employs metaphor, personification, and other literary devices.
Meursault’s belief that the world is meaningless and purposeless becomes apparent in this chapter through Camus’s use of irony. Thomas Perez, the one person who actually cares about Madame Meursault, cannot keep up with her funeral procession because of his ailing physical condition. This sad detail is incompatible with any sentimental or humanistic interpretation of Madame Meursault’s death. Perez’s slowness is simply the result of his old age, and no grand or comforting meaning can be assigned to it or drawn from it. We frequently see such irony undercutting any notions of a higher, controlling order operating within The Stranger.