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Russian author Leo Tolstoy once said, “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless.” This idea rings true in “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, which revolves around both the cyclical and absurd nature of existence, as well as the indifference of society to human suffering. Through Meursault’s isolation and apathetic mindset, Camus reveals the burden that societal conformity places on human nature in their search for meaning, which ironically accounts to nothing.
The novel immediately begins with Meursault receiving a telegram about his mother’s death.
He doesn’t recall when his mom died, it could have been “today, or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Meursault is immediately seen as emotionally detached, and is unable to mourn over his mother’s death. Rather, he complains that the it “took up his Sunday,” which gave him “trouble getting to the bus.” Meursault’s reaction and inability to process the emotional connection with his mom is part of the reason for his isolation in society.
Because he doesn’t behave as society tells him to, he becomes emotionally detached, as seen through his insensitive reaction to his mother’s death. This, in turn, makes him different in the sense that he sees no purpose in mourning over his mom’s death, because in the end she is still dead and mourning over her will not bring her back. Meursault is an early realizer of this, which is part of the reason why his mom’s death was so impersonal to him.
This scene also establishes the indifferent nature of Meursault towards anyone around him, as well as his emotional and social isolation. Emotionally, Meursault is wired to be a rational human being with little to no feeling of anything that occurs around him. Camus utilizes his psychological conflict as a way to parallel human nature’s constant struggle for meaning, which ironically Meursault has already accomplished. He is an early realizer of the great fate of death, as well as the meaningless nature of existence. His mom’s death only served as an inconvenience to him, which is a parallel to the selfish nature of humans. Meursault ponders about the inconvenience that it will cause him, which is socially unacceptable. In a way, Meursault is the emotionless human being that is idolized, yet feared. He doesn’t conform to societal norms, and it is through this that the ironic nature of life is revealed; that the constant search for purpose ultimately accounts to nothing.
Furthermore, the ironic nature of the novel can be seen during his visitation with his mom in the casket, he notes the room being “filled with beautiful late afternoon sunlight.” The pristine setting establishes irony, as seen through his mom’s death juxtaposed with the sunlight. Again, Meursault is very concerned with the physical aspects surrounding his mom’s death, such as the weather. Through Meursault’s indifference and unconcerning nature towards his mom’s death, it further reveals his ability to rationalize despite the situation. Meursault is representative of a brutally honest version of human nature, who lack the ability to have a clear mind while under emotional stress. His mom’s death only served as an inconvenience to him, which is why he tries to pass the time by noting practical aspects such as what he wears and what the weather was. Meursault is a constant defier of social norms as seen through his apathetic reaction to his mom’s death, and it is through this that he is finally faced with the meaningless nature of existence, as well as the one true fate: death.
Camus also utilizes the symbol of the sun as an extended metaphor of the constant burden of societal conformity. This can be seen as he describes the weather during his mom’s funeral as [the sun] “beginning to bear down on the earth and it was getting hotter by the minute,” even further saying it was “inhumane and oppressive.” Camus uses the symbol as the sun, initially being a positive source of light for Meursault, but further developing into being unbearable. In this sense, the sun is representative of the societal glare that is always upon people. Camus utilizes the sun in order to reveal that no matter what one’s actions are, the influence of societal conformity is always surrounding them, as seen through Meursault. The transition of the sun being a positive source of light to oppressive can also be seen as transition from innocence to maturity. Meursault, ironically enough, represents the big idea of the indifference that people have towards human suffering, and is already the very mature and grounded individual that is idolized. The sun, first being a positive source of light, can be paralleled to innocent youth, eventually being corrupted by the burden that is society. In this interpretation, Meursault represents the almost too-mature human that is completely indifferent to human suffering. Meursault only truly cares about himself, and it’s ironically what makes him both a stranger to himself, and society as well.
Meursault’s isolation and realization of the meaningless nature of life can also be seen through his actions before, during, and after his affair with Marie. She is the object of Meursault’s affection, in whom he met swimming at a beach after his mom’s funeral. Meursault and Marie’s relationship is seen as somewhat lustful in the beginning, as he “fondles her breasts” and is very physical with her from the beginning. Meursault, being the emotionless human being that he is, did not care to emotionally connect to Marie before pursuing an affair with her. Part of the overall theme that Camus is trying to persuade is human nature’s lustfulness, which is a bigger part of the objectified nature of relationships. For example, one day when Marie and Meursault were at Masson’s house, she asks if he loves her, and he nonchalantly replies with “it didn’t mean anything, but I probably didn’t love her” and that it “didn’t make any difference” if they got married. His perspective upon relationships is non-conforming to society in the sense that he sees no meaning in relationships, as well as having lacking the passion that is associated with relationships. In this sense, society is burdening Meursault by giving him a stigma of relationships to follow. But, since he is a defier of social norms, it therefore makes him isolated, which is part of the reason of his affair. In addition, Meursault can also be seen as a stranger in society due to his perspective on relationships. He is only with Marie to fill a physical void, and his nonchalant apathy towards Marie proves his indifferent attitude towards human nature. Meursault, in a sense, sees the replaceability of humans as part of the cyclical nature of life, as seen through his relationship with Marie. He sees fate as bringing them together, and it is through this relationship that he is truly seen as an outcast in society. It can also be seen that Meursault doesn’t see a purpose in relationships, besides their physicality which is evident through Camus’ vivid descriptions of the physical nature of their relationship. It is through this that the social norm of relationships is also something that Meursault defies. Ultimately, he sees no purpose in relationships due to the replaceability of humans, and the absurd nature of existence.
Another example of Meursault’s societal conformity leading to nothing is his relationship with his neighbor, Raymond. Raymond has a mistress whom he constantly abuses, and throughout the narrative Meursault seems to be indifferent to the abuse. It is obvious that Meursault only cares about his friendship with Raymond, and doesn’t seem to care for the abuse. This can be seen as the two devise a plan to get back at his ex girlfriend, and Meursault agrees to this plan, even saying he had “no reason not to please him.” This little phrase that Meursault mentions reveals his belief in the lack of order in anything that happens around him. He is completely an outsider, and he doesn’t see any purpose in anything he does. This same idea can be seen as during the shooting scene with the Arab, in which Meursault had shot the Arab four times just because he could, like “knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.” These two scenes portray Meursault as a firm believer in the absurd nature of existence, as well as the fate of death for everyone. Society sees death as scary, but to Meursault it is part of existence, and it signifies the end of a life. In this sense, his friendship with Raymond only serves to help him pass the time in order to reach his death, as seen through the “four quick times to the door of unhappiness.” Meursault can be seen as being somewhat sarcastic, since he was previously seen as an early realizer of the fate of death anyways. In addition, the scene of Meursault shooting the Arab can also be seen as his encounter with the absurdity of existence. It is not socially acceptable for Meursault to shoot anyone in cold blood, especially since he did it multiple times. His inability to differentiate between shooting once and shooting four times portrays his belief in the lack of order and any system that provides such. The shooting scene was a catalyst for Meursault’s final encounter with the absurd nature of existence, and it helped him realize that there is no true meaning in life since death is the great equalizer.
The meaningless nature of existence as well as the fate of death for everyone are two main concepts that Camus is portraying with Meursault and his various relationships and actions throughout the novel. He leaves readers pondering the true nature of human existence, and seeks to show readers the true, undisguised version of society.
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