In the novel the Stranger by Albert Camus, the protagonist Meursault is characterized as emotionless, uncaring, and indifferent, though he is actually an understanding, insightful man who is pleased with a simple, modest life. His lack of emotion towards the superfluous and superficial, along with his lack of judgment for other people’s choices do not make him indifferent; they in fact show how he demonstrates Albert Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism. It is through the characterization of Meursault that the greater theme of Absurdism and the absurdity of life are conveyed.
Meursault is often seen as cold and impassive towards others. He is actually characterized in this detached way to personify and embody Camus’ philosophy, and his rejection of the established and predictable. One day when Meursault is spending the day with Marie, she asks him if he would marry her and he says “it didn’t make any difference” and that they “could if she wanted to” (41). Most view marriage as an important occasion with many consequences and a lifetime commitment.
Meursault’s reaction to Marie’s question is honest and straight forward, and his nonchalance serves to weaken the importance of institutionalized principles. Later, Marie wonders to herself if she loves him, and Meursault says that “there is no way [he] could know that” (42), as it is not possible for Meursault to know what others feel. This implies that a person’s emotions are determined by the individual, and demonstrates the Absurdist thought that no two people can have the exact same emotions and beliefs, and therefore there can be no shared meaning concerning an emotion.
When speaking with his lawyer, Meursault is asked how he felt about his mother’s death, and he says that he “would rather Maman hadn’t died” (65), which shocks his lawyer. Meursault could be perceived as cold and indifferent for not expressing more emotion towards his mother’s death, but he is simply expressing the absurdist belief that one can have many different emotions and that having a mold or standard for a way a person should feel during a specific situation is absurd.
Meursault is simply conveying that emotions he felt for his mother such as love are too intangible to define. Camus portrays Meursault as being very non-judgmental and blase towards other characters actions. This is not because Meursault is emotionless or apathetic, but because it conveys Camus’ belief in personal meaning instead of shared meaning imposed by society. Raymond asks Meursault if “he’d mind writing him a letter right then… [And he] said no” (32), even though the letter would eventually hurt Raymond’s ex girlfriend.
Meursault agrees, not because he is rude or uncaring, but because he is just doing his friend a favor, and because he doesn’t judge others based on a standard set of morals. Before Meursault is scheduled to be executed, the Chaplain attempts for the second time to convince Meursault to embrace Christianity like others before him so that he may be saved. Meursault “acknowledg[es] that that was their right” (117), but does not agree because he is acting in the Absurdist mindset that judging others based on your own principles is wrong.
Meursault goes on to try to convince the Chaplain that a person’s value is not measured by society, for one person could see him as very bad, where as another views him as very good. Meursault’s nature and ability to understand that it is up to the individual to build their own beliefs and values demonstrates the Absurdist belief that every person has the right to assign personal meaning to a part of their life, rather than take from the meaning imposed on their life by society.
Camus defines Absurdism as “the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand – and the silent, cold universe on the other”. Meursault, who is capable of embracing the universe’s silence, especially when facing his own death is what makes him the Absurd hero, and ultimately humanize the Absurd philosophy. Camus uses the character of Meursault to convey the message that it is up to the individual to assign meaning to their life through embracing reality, and to avoid becoming trapped by societal ideals and the “shared meaning” imposed by humanity. One should not allow fear to limit them.