Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger by Albert Camus (1946), hears news of his mother’s death. Meursault is a pied-noir. What is a pied-noir? A “pied-noir” is a European citizen of colonial Algeria who has lived in Algeria too long. Throughout The Stranger (1946) Meursault is noncommittal and nonconformist. He is honest, maybe too honest for his own well being.
In essence, The Stranger (1946) is about Meursault’s suicide. Meursault commits a passive, instead of an active, suicide. It is not his intention to commit suicide, just his honesty. Meursault’s death is less a matter of what he did, than it is a matter of what he did not, do. It is interesting that the reader of The Stranger (1946) never learns Meursault’s surname. To a great extent, Meursault is Every Man.
Meursault’s mother, we never learn her name, has died. Meursault receives the news of her death with mild annoyance. It is now necessary for Meursault to attend his mother’s funeral. He therefore must ask his boss for two days leave. It is the custom, in the Algeria of the time, for the bereaved to sit an all night vigil by the coffin of the dearly departed. At the vigil and during the funeral the following day, Meursault shows no grief, sadness or even regret. Meursault is very honest about what he feels. He doesn’t see the need to lie about things in order to conform with society’s morals. This is the exact reason Meursault didn’t shed ‘false tears’ at his mother’s funeral.
Among its characters in The Stranger (1946) there are several revealing relationships. The relationship that Thomas Perez has with Meursault’s mother is one of the few in The Stranger (1946) that show a real emotional attachment. This is a contrast to the relationship that Meursault had with his mother. Whereas Meursault shows indifference to her death, Thomas is truly hurt.
The following day, back in Algiers, Meursault goes swimming in the sea and meets a girl, Marie, whom he knows vaguely. That evening they go to the cinema together to see a comedy; afterwards they go back to Meursault’s apartment to have sex.
Here a relationship, of sorts, develops during which Meursault shows no more feeling or affection towards Marie than he displayed at his mother’s funeral. One day Marie asks Meursault to marry her and he accepts (advising her that it’s all the same to him whether they marry or not). We never learn Marie’s maiden surname.
Meursault works in an office in Algiers, unenthusiastic about his career and showing disinterest in the news of a prospective promotion and the transfer to Paris that accompanies the rise in position. At home, as well as his relationship with Marie, he develops a relationship with Raymond Sintes, his unsavory neighbor, a gangster who beats women. Meursault is as disinterested in the friendship with Sintes as he is with his romance with Marie.
One day, this friendship leads Meursault to a beach where he kills an Arab with five shots of Sintes’ revolver. The two men had come across the Arab and his friends earlier in the day and a fight had broken out, one of the Arabs had a knife. Later on Meursault is walking alone on the beach and comes across one of the Arabs. Through chance Meursault is carrying Sintes’ gun. The sun on his head and the flash of that sun on the blade of the Arab’s knife somehow results in Meursault killing the man with a single shot and then firing four more bullets into the inert body.
The remaining half of The Stranger (1946) is concerned with Meursault’s trial and subsequent execution for the murder of the Arab. During the trial Meursault shows the same disinterested attitude he has displayed throughout the book. Meursault maintains the same detached indifference until the day before his execution. He continues to exhibit the same reluctance to pretend to have emotions he does not feel.
Much to the frustration of the lawyers, Meursault will not plead self-defense in the face of his murder charge. In the Algeria of the time such a plea would probably see him escape punishment. Neither will Meursault express emotion or remorse for his victim. Meursault is warned by his lawyer that the prosecution will make use of his unusual behavior at his mother’s funeral. In the same way Meursault refuses to express histrionic remorse over the Arab he won’t weep over his mother during the trial. The only explanation for killing the Arab Meursault will, or can, offer is “because of the sun.” The judge informs Meursault of the final decision: he will be publicly decapitated.
The time arrives when Meursault must confront the prison Chaplain who attempts to take his confession and read him his rites. Stung by the mans promises of ‘another life’ after this one, he throws the cleric out of his cell. Meursault is convinced that this life alone is certain and the inevitability of death removes all significance.