Summary: Chapter 1

Meursault has been arrested and thrown into jail for murdering the Arab. Meursault’s young, court-appointed lawyer visits him in his cell and informs him that investigators have checked into Meursault’s private life and learned that he “show[ed] insensitivity” on the day of Madame Meursault’s funeral. The lawyer asks if Meursault was sad at his mother’s burial, and Meursault responds that he does not usually analyze himself. He says that though he probably did love his mother, “that didn’t mean anything.” The lawyer departs, disgusted by Meursault’s indifference to his mother’s death. Meursault says, “I felt the urge to reassure [the lawyer] that I was . . . just like everybody else.”

That afternoon, Meursault is taken to meet with the examining magistrate. The magistrate asks Meursault whether he loved his mother, and Meursault replies that he loved her as much as anyone. The magistrate asks why Meursault paused between the first shot at the Arab and other four shots. Nothing about the crime bothers the magistrate aside from this detail. When Meursault does not answer, the magistrate waves a crucifix at him and asks if he believes in God. Meursault says no. The magistrate states that his own life would be meaningless if he doubted the existence of God, and concludes that Meursault has an irrevocably hardened soul. During the course of the eleven-month investigation that ensues, the magistrate takes to calling Meursault “Monsieur Antichrist,” with an almost cordial air.

Summary: Chapter 2

Meursault describes his first few days in prison. The authorities initially put him in a cell with a number of other people, including several Arabs. Eventually, Meursault is taken to a private cell. One day, Marie comes to visit him. The visiting room is noisy and crowded with prisoners and their visitors. Marie wears a forced smile, and tells Meursault that he needs to have hope. She says she believes that he will be acquitted, and that they will get married and go swimming. Meursault, however, seems more interested in the mournful prisoner sitting beside him, whose mother is visiting. Marie leaves, and later sends a letter stating that the authorities will not allow her to visit Meursault anymore because she is not his wife.

Meursault’s desires to go swimming, to smoke cigarettes, and to have sex torment him in jail. He becomes accustomed to his confinement, however, so it ceases to be a terrible punishment. Only the early evenings seem to trouble him. He sleeps as many hours as possible, and kills time by recalling the tiniest details of his apartment and thinking about a story on an old scrap of newspaper he has found in his cell. The story involves a Czechoslovakian man who left his village at a young age. After making his fortune, he returned to his village in disguise to see his mother and sister, who were running a hotel. He planned to surprise them by revealing his identity after showing off his wealth. Unfortunately, his mother and sister killed him and robbed him before he could reveal himself. When they discovered their mistake, the two women both committed suicide.

Analysis: Chapters 1–2

The magistrate, when he waves a crucifix at Meursault, introduces the notion that Meursault and his attitudes represent a threat to society. Meursault’s atheism and indifference to his mother’s death implicitly challenge the magistrate’s belief in a rational universe controlled by God—the belief that gives his life meaning. By associating Meursault with the devil and calling him “Monsieur Antichrist,” the magistrate attempts to categorize Meursault in terms of Christianity, the magistrate’s own belief system. The magistrate incorporates Meursault into his ordered world view and then dismisses him as evil, thereby preventing Meursault from undermining his rational structure of belief.

Read more about the symbolism of the courtroom and the crucifix.

For the most part, Meursault reacts to his confinement in prison with characteristic indifference. Most important, his imprisonment does not incite any guilt or regret over what he has done. As at his mother’s funeral, Meursault focuses on the practical details of his life in prison rather than on its emotional elements. For instance, he thinks the fact that the court will appoint an attorney for him is “very convenient.” He also enjoys the examining magistrate’s friendly demeanor in their subsequent meetings, and does not treat him as an adversary. Not surprisingly, the physical aspects of confinement weigh most heavily on Meursault’s mind. His unsatisfied longings for nature, the ocean, cigarettes, and sex constitute, in his mind, his punishment. He notes that though he thinks about women, he does not think about Marie in particular. This statement underscores the physical, unemotional character of their relationship.

Read important quotes by Meursault about guilt and punishment.

At the end of Part Two, Chapter 2, Meursault, staring at his reflection in the window, notes the seriousness of his face and suddenly realizes that he has been talking to himself. Meursault’s actions signal his emerging self-awareness and self-consciousness. In prison, he is growing to understand himself and his beliefs more and more. He decides that he could get used to any living situation, even living in a tree trunk, for example.

Read more about the character development of Meursault over the course of the novel.

Most important, Meursault begins to gain insight into the irrational universe around him. In his mind echo the words of the nurse who speaks to him in Part One, Chapter 1, during the funeral procession. She told Meursault that he would get sunstroke if he walked too slowly, but would work up a sweat and catch a chill in church if he walked too quickly. At the time, Meursault agreed that “there was no way out,” but now he understands for the first time the full implications of these words: there is no way out of prison, and there is no way out of a life that inevitably and purposelessly ends in death. When Marie comes to visit Meursault, her hope that Meursault’s trial will end happily contrasts strongly with Meursault’s growing affirmation of an irrational universe.

Read more about the irrationality of the universe as a theme.

The news article that Meursault studies about the Czechoslovakian man serves to comment and expand upon the themes of absurdism that Camus illustrates in The Stranger. Camus’s absurdist philosophy asserts that the events of the world have no rational order or discernible meaning. The story of the returning son murdered by his mother and sister fits perfectly into such a belief system. There is no reason for the son to have died. His terrible, ironic fate is not compatible with any logical or ordered system governing human existence. Like Meursault’s killing of the Arab, the son’s death is a purposeless, meaningless tragedy that defies rationalization or justification.

Read more about the absurdist notion that all human lives are equally meaningless.