The Stranger

by: Albert Camus

Part Two: Chapters 3–4

Analysis: Chapters 3–4

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.