Death and Absurdism in Camus's The Stranger

 

Alan Gullette

 

University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Spring 1979 (March 5, 1979)

English 3237: Fiction of the Absurd

Prof. Richard Penner

 

 

In his novel The Stranger1, Albert Camus gives expression to his philosophy of the absurd.  The novel is a first-person account of the life of M. Meursault from the time of his mother's death up to a time evidently just before his execution for the murder of an Arab.  The central theme is that the significance of human life is understood only in light of mortality, or the fact of death; and in showing Meursault's consciousness change through the course of events, Camus shows how facing the possibility of death does have an effect on one's perception of life.

The novel begins with the death of Meursault's mother.  Although he attends the funeral, he does not request to see the body, though he finds it interesting to think about the effects of heat and humidity on the rate of a body's decay (8).  It is evident that he is almost totally unaffected by his mother's death – nothing changes in his life.  In other words, her death has little or no real significance for him.  When he hears Salamano, a neighbor, weeping over his lost dog (which has evidently died), Meursault thinks of his mother – but he is unaware of the association his mind has made.  In fact, he chooses not to dwell on the matter but goes to sleep instead (50).

It is when he is on the beach with Raymond Sintθs and M. Masson and they confront two Arabs (who have given Raymond trouble) that Meursault first seems to think about the insignificance of any action – therefore of human existence.  He has a gun and it occurs to him that he could shoot or not shoot and that it would come to the same thing (72).  The loss of a life would have no significance – no affect on life as a whole; and the universe itself is apparently totally indifferent to everything.  Here he implicitly denies the existence of God, and thus denies morality, as well as the "external" meaning (if it may be so distinguished from the internal or individual existential meaning) of life and death.  (This latter, existential meaning is later affirmed, as we shall see.)  Meursault kills one of the Arabs in a moment of confusion, partially out of self-defense, but does not regret it eve though it means going to prison and, ultimately, being executed.  He has the fatalistic feeling that "what's done is done," and later explains that he has never regretted anything because he has always been to absorbed by the present moment or by the immediate future to dwell on the past (127).

In a sense, Meursault is always aware of the meaninglessness of all endeavors in the face of death:  he has no ambition to advance socio-economically; he is indifferent about being friends with Raymond and about marrying Marie; etc.  But this awareness is somehow never intense enough to involve self-awareness – that is, he never reflects on the meaning of death for him – until he is in prison awaiting execution.  Of course, the "meaning" of another's death is quite difference from the "meaning" of one's own death.  With the former, one no longer sees that person again; with the latter, one's very consciousness, as far as we know, just ends – blit! – as a television picture ends when the set is switched off.  Death marks all things equal, and equally absurd.  And death itself is absurd in the sense that reason or the rational mind cannot deal with it:  it is a foregone conclusion, yet it remains an unrealized possibility until some indeterminate future time.  The "meaning" of death is not rational but, again, is existential – its implications are to be found not in abstraction but in the actuality of one's life, the finality of each moment.

Before his trial, Meursault passes the time in prison by sleeping, by reading over and over the newspaper story about the (unrelated) murder of a Czech, and by recreating a mental picture of his room at home in complete detail, down to the scratches in the furniture.  In this connection, it must be admitted that he is externally very sensitive and aware, despite his lack of self-understanding and emotional response.  This is evidence by his detailed descriptions.  He is especially sensitive to natural beauty – the beach, the glistening water, the shade, the reed music, swimming, making love to Marie, the evening hour he like so much, etc.  He even says that if forced to live in a hollow tree truck, he would be content to watch the sky, passing birds, and clouds (95).

After his trial (in which he is sentenced to be executed), he no longer indulges in his memories or passes the time in the frivolous way he was accustomed to spend Sundays at home.  At first, he dwells on thoughts of escape.  He cannot reconcile the contingency of his sentence (Why guilt? Why sentenced by a French court rather than a Chinese one?  Why was the verdict read at eight pm rather than at five? etc.) with the mechanical certainty of the process that leads inevitably to his death (137).  When he gives up trying to find a loophole, he finds his mind ever returning either to the fear that dawn would bring the guards who would lead him to be executed, or to the hope that his appear will be granted.  To try to distract himself from these thoughts, he forces himself to study the sky or to listen to the beating of his heart – but the changing light reminds him of the passing of time towards dawn, and he cannot imagine his heart ever stopping.  In dwelling on the chance of an appeal, he is forced to consider the possibility of denial and thus of execution; therefore, he must face the fact of his death – whether it comes now or later.  One he really, honestly admits death's inevitability, he allows himself to consider the chance of a successful appeal – of being set free to live perhaps forth more years before dying.  Now he begins to see the value of each moment of the life before death.  Because of death, nothing matters – except being alive.  The meaning, value, significance of life is only seen in light of death, yet most people miss it through the denial of death.  The hope of longer life brings Meursault great joy.

Perhaps to end the maddening uncertainty and thus intensify his awareness of death's inevitability (therefore of the actuality of life), or, less likely, as a gesture of hopelessness, Meursault turns down his right to appeal (144).  Soon afterwards, the prison chaplain insists on talking to him.  Meursault admits his fear but denies despair and has no interest in the chaplain's belie in an afterlife.  He flies into rage, finally, at the chaplain's persistence, for he realizes that the chaplain has not adequately assessed the human condition (death being the end of life) – or, if he has, the chaplain's certainties have no meaning for Meursault and have not the real value of, say, a strand of a woman's hair (151).  Meursault, on the other hand, is absolutely certain about his own life and forthcoming death.  His rush of anger cleanses him and empties him of hope, thus allowing him finally to open up -- completely and for the last time -- to the "benign indifference of the universe" (154).  He realizes that he always been happy.

The idea of death makes one aware of one's life, one's vital being – that which is impermanent and will one day end.  When this vitality is appreciate, one feels free – for there is no urgency to perform some act that will cancel the possibility of death, seeing as though there is no such act.  In this sense, all human activity is absurd, and the real freedom is to be aware of life in its actually and totally, of its beauty and its pain.

 

[1] Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, 1954).  Page numbers refer to a later paperback edition.

 

 

 

Professor's Comment:

A thoughtful and carefully constructed paper.  As Wallace Stevens says in his poem "Sunday Morning," "Death is the mother of beauty." Grade: A. [Richard Penner]

 

 

Web Links and Further Information

 

Albert Camus [brief entry and links]

Fiction of the Absurd

http://alangullette.com/lit/absurd/#camus

 

Dr. Richard Penner (1936- ) was professor of English at the University of Tennessee.  His credits include: Fiction of the Absurd: Pratfalls in the Void (New English Library, 1980), Alan Sillitoe (Twayne's English authors series), and Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (Greenwood Press. Westport, Conn. 1989).  He also wrote the lyrics to "Ooby Dooby", performed by Roy Orbison and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

 

 

Alan Gullette > Essays