the culpability of moral estrangement

stranger-camusA Critical Look at The Stranger:
The Culpability of Moral Estrangement

Dr. Regis Martin
Clayton Emmer
Thursday, July 9, 1992
Honors Seminar VIII – Honors 402

The Stranger begins with Monsieur Meursault, the narrator and protagonist of the book, traveling to a home for the elderly to attend his mother’s funeral. He treats the whole event with indifference and, returning to his home in Algiers, immediately begins an affair with Marie Cardona, an acquaintance from work. Later on that week, Meursault befriends his neighbor, Raymond Sintes, a man who has discovered that his Moorish lover is seeing another man. When Raymond asks Meursault to help him to achieve revenge, he complies with the request. On the following Sunday, Raymond invites Meursault and Marie to join him at a friend’s seaside cottage. The brother of the Moorish girl and another Arab have followed them to the beach. Raymond, after handing his revolver to Meursault, begins a brawl with one of the Arabs. Raymond is wounded. Later that afternoon, Meursault finds himself again facing one of the Arabs. Pulling out Raymond’s revolver, he shoots the man five times.

The second half of the book describes Meursault’s imprisonment and trial. His interrogators are shocked by his failure to show any vestige of moral sensibility. In one scene, the magistrate makes a fruitless appeal to the accused man using a crucifix in his office. In the pages that follow, Meursault describes his efforts to cope with incarceration. Finally, the day of the trial arrives. The Prosecutor mounts a strong case against Meursault, who is consequently sentenced to death. Before the execution takes place, the chaplain of the prison unsuccessfully attempts to lead the convict to repentance. The novel ends with the prisoner rationalizing himself into a peaceful resignation to his fate.

One of the main questions that surfaces in the novel is this: What sort of a criminal is Meursault in light of his atheism? Can he be expected to obey a code of morality when he expresses disbelief in the existence of such a code? An examination of the character of Meursault may illuminate these important questions.

In the early part of the novel, Camus focuses on Meursault’s lack of moral passion. Meursault shows great indifference to the moral significance of his attitudes and actions. While in the midst of his affair with Marie, he admits without compunction that he does not love her. Similarly, he shows no surprises or disgust at Raymond’s plan for revenge; instead, he becomes an apathetic accomplice in the plan. His indifference to morality is related to his atheism; since he does not believe in a transcendent order, he thinks that his choices carry no moral weight. For him, feelings take the place of moral values. When Raymond suggests an outing to a brothel, Meursault refuses only because he doesn’t feel like it. It is noteworthy that when his lawyer defends him later in the book, Meursault is described not as a moral man, but as one who is sympathetic.

In fact, until late in the novel, Meursault shows little emotion of any sort. His affair with Marie is characterized by a lustful addiction, not affection. When in jail, he mentions that the two things he misses most from his day as a free man are women and cigarettes. Camus artfully highlights Meursault’s apathy in one scene by placing him beside a woman who is frantically making notes in a radio program; in this situation, Meursault’s great indifference to the moral sphere is contrasted with the woman’s trivial excitement. However, Meursault’s apathy is not portrayed as a fault. In the novel, passion is seldom characterized as a positive quality. While Marie is a passionate woman, she has a certain admiration for Meursault’s stoicism. For the most part, passion is portrayed in a negative light. Raymond’s relationship with the Moorish girl is passionate, but it is a destructive passion; in a parallel and almost comic way, Salamano’s friendship with his dog is passionate. Although Meursault finally expresses some passion in the last part of the novel–the passion to save his own life—it is a passion he manages to subdue before his execution so that he may die in peace. Indeed, Meursault is a hero because of his indifference: He is portrayed as a figure of Christ who bravely navigates a passionless passion. One is reminded of Christ when Meursault, brought before a sympathetic magistrate, shows no desire to defend himself and no regret for what he has done. This deliberate messianic allusion continues when the prisoner is referred to at the end of the chapter as “Mr. Antichrist” before being handed over to the jailers. In a sense, this title is very appropriate: While Christ saves men from damnation, Meursault appears to save the same men from any need of redemption. He has come to abolish the law, not to fulfill it.

It seems that Camus is preparing the reader to disagree with the Prosecutor, who has pronounced Meursault to be guilty because he has no moral passion. From the perspective of the novel, Meursault is innocent for the very same reason; because he does not believe in God, he has no duty to respond to moral values. His atheism seems heroically logical and self-assured when counterpoised by the irrational and defensive appeals from the Christian magistrate.

However, upon closer examination, one observes that even Meursault is not wholly indifferent to the moral life. How can one explain Meursault’s desire for self-preservation except by admitting some impulse of morality within him? One may call it an instinct, but it is an instinct that recognizes value—namely, the value of life. If Meursault were truly ignorant of all values, he would have to ignore even the value of his own life. Furthermore, Meursault betrays feelings of guilt in dealing with his employer and Marie: He feels the need to apologize to his employer for taking time off and, later in the novel, he has an impulse to tell Marie that his mother’s death wasn’t his fault. In each instance he quickly dismisses this impulse. Nonetheless, a certain moral sensitivity exists within him, despite his efforts to repress it. Indeed, Meursault cannot escape from a moral vocabulary, even in his thoughts. Near the end of the book, he speaks of having the “right” to consider the alternative outcomes of the trial. It makes no sense to speak of rights unless one speaks in the context of some sort of moral order. In short, it is impossible from Meursault to escape the world of values.

In all fairness to Camus, the novel champions an amoral hero with some success. However, perhaps unwittingly, the story actually testifies to the existence of a moral order. Even when Meursault expresses total indifference to morality, this indifference is a choice, and in making this choice, Meursault has exercised his free will. It seems that Camus tries to mask this exercise by portraying Meursault as a passive man. Passivity is a choice, however. When one stands still amidst a current of choices, one does not as a consequence become exempt from the force of those choices. As an old aphorism states, not to decide is to decide. Meursault does make decisions precisely through his passivity; indeed, he holds up indifference as a good, which is an action imbued with moral significance. Moreover, in the last sentence of the book, he speaks of hope, a concept that has no meaning apart from some good worthy of anticipation.

Meursault does exhibit a moral sensitivity and does exercise his free will; therefore, he can be held accountable for his actions. Indeed, the task of escaping from a moral framework is a task too great even for Meursault: As a man endowed with a free will, he makes choices and expresses preferences. Although he may consider himself a stranger in the land of morality, he still has to make his way down its streets.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Random House, 1946.

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