The following summer, Meursault's trial begins. Meursault is surprised to find the courtroom packed with people. Even the woman he saw checking off radio programs at Celeste’s is there. The press has given his case a great deal of publicity because the summer is a slow season for news.
The judge asks Meursault why he put his mother in a home. Meursault replies that he did not have enough money to care for her. When the judge asks Meursault if the decision tormented him, Meursault explains that both he and his mother became used to their new situations because they did not expect anything from one another.
The director of the home confirms that Madame Meursault complained about Meursault’s decision to put her in the home. The director says that he was surprised by Meursault’s “calm” during his mother’s funeral. He remembers that Meursault declined to see his mother’s body and did not cry once. One of the undertaker’s assistants reported that Meursault did not even know how old his mother was. Meursault realizes that the people in the courtroom hate him.
The caretaker testifies that Meursault smoked a cigarette and drank coffee during his vigil. Meursault’s lawyer insists the jury take note that the caretaker had likewise smoked during the vigil, accepting Meursault’s offer of a cigarette. After the caretaker admits to offering Meursault coffee in the first place, the prosecutor derides Meursault as a disloyal son for not refusing the coffee. Thomas Perez takes the stand and recalls being too overcome with sadness during the funeral to notice whether or not Meursault cried. Celeste, claiming Meursault as his friend, attributes Meursault’s killing of the Arab to bad luck. Marie's testimony reveals Meursault’s plan to marry her. The prosecutor stresses that Marie and Meursault’s sexual relationship began the weekend after the funeral and that they went to see a comedy at the movie theater that day. Favorable accounts—of Meursault’s honesty and decency from Masson, and of Meursault’s kindness to Salamano’s dog from Salamano—counter the prosecutor’s accusations. Raymond testifies that it was just by chance that Meursault became involved in his dispute with his mistress’s brother. The prosecutor retorts by asking if it was just chance that Meursault wrote the letter to Raymond’s mistress, testified on Raymond’s behalf at the police station, and went to the beach the day of the crime.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor cites Meursault’s obvious intelligence and lack of remorse as evidence of premeditated murder. Reminding the jury that the next trial on the court’s schedule involves parricide (the murder of a close relative), the prosecutor alleges that Meursault’s lack of grief over his mother’s death threatens the moral basis of society. In a moral sense, the prosecutor argues, Meursault is just as guilty as the man who killed his own father. Calling for the death penalty, the prosecutor elaborates that Meursault’s actions have paved the way for the man who killed his father, so Meursault must be considered guilty of the other man’s crime as well.
Meursault denies having returned to the beach with the intention of killing the Arab. When the judge asks him to clarify his motivation for the crime, Meursault blurts out that he did it “because of the sun.” Meursault’s lawyer claims that Meursault did a noble thing by sending his mother to a home because he could not afford to care for her. Making Meursault feel further excluded from his own case, Meursault’s lawyer offers an interpretation of the events that led up to the crime, speaking in the first person, as though he were Meursault. Meursault’s mind drifts again during his lawyer’s interminable argument. Meursault is found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to death by guillotine.
In The Stranger, Camus seeks to undermine the sense of reassurance that courtroom dramas typically provide. Such narratives reassure us not only that truth will always prevail, but that truth actually exists. They uphold our judicial system as just, despite its flaws. Ultimately, these narratives reassure us that we live in a world governed by reason and order. Camus sees such reassurance as a silly and false illusion. Because there is no rational explanation for Meursault’s murder of the Arab, the authorities seek to construct an explanation of their own, which they base on false assumptions. By imposing a rational order on logically unrelated events, the authorities make Meursault appear to be a worse character than he is.
Camus portrays the process of accusation and judgment as hopeless, false, and irrational. Society demands that a rational interpretation be imposed on the facts and events of Meursault’s life, whether or not such an interpretation is possible. Meursault’s lawyer and the prosecutor both offer false explanations, leaving the jury with a choice between two lies. The prosecutor manufactures a meaningful, rational connection between Meursault’s trial and the upcoming parricide trial, even though no actual link exists between the two cases. However, the prosecutor has no trouble imposing enough meaning to convince the jury that a link does in fact exist, and that Meursault deserves a death sentence.
During his trial, Meursault comes to understand that his failure to interpret or find meaning in his own life has left him vulnerable to others, who will impose such meaning for him. Until this point, Meursault has unthinkingly drifted from moment to moment, lacking the motivation or ability to examine his life as a narrative with a past, present, and future. Even during the early part of trial he watches as if everything were happening to someone else. Only well into the trial does Meursault suddenly realize that the prosecutor has successfully manufactured an interpretation of Meursault’s life, and that, in the jury’s eyes, he likely appears guilty. Meursault’s own lawyer not only imposes yet another manufactured interpretation of Meursault’s life, but even goes so far as to deliver this interpretation in the first person, effectively stealing Meursault’s own point of view when making the argument.
The trial forces Meursault to confront his existence consciously because he is suddenly being held accountable for it. As he hears positive, negative, and neutral interpretations of his character, he recognizes that part of his being evades his control, because it exists only in the minds of others. All the witnesses discuss the same man, Meursault, but they offer differing interpretations of his character. In each testimony, meaning is constructed exclusively by the witness—Meursault has nothing to do with it.