Meursault, the main character of Albert Camus' The Stranger, is so passive and indifferent, he simply lets life happen to him, and what happens isn’t good. He tells his story as if he’s an uninterested and slightly befuddled spectator watching things happen to someone else.
Meursault lives in Algiers. The year is around 1942, though the events of the war in Europe don’t impinge on the story. Meursault lives in a simple apartment and, working as a clerk in a shipping company, earns just enough to get by. He doesn’t much care for his job, or anything else.
His mother dies, and his reaction is whatever.
His girlfriend, Marie, asks him to marry her. Ok, whatever.
His pimp neighbor want his help luring a young woman to his apartment so he can beat her up. Meursault: Yeah, sure. Whatever.
The the pimp wants his help beating up the young woman’s brother on the beach. Yeah, sure. Whatever.
OK, so you’re not going to exercise any judgment about who you hang out with or what you do. Is it any surprise you get into trouble?
Meursault is a stranger to himself. When a magistrate asks about his feelings, he replies that he stopped trying to keep track of his feelings some years ago. So now, his only answer to “How do you feel about such and such” is “I don’t know.”
He keeps forgetting how much he likes Marie until he sees her. She has to be right in front of him or she doesn’t register as an entity.
Meursault is conscious of only the most basic animal feelings in himself. He is sometimes hungry, and sometimes he craves a cigarette. He is often hot, and he is often sleepy, and like an animal, he simply follows the dictates of his body. He finds shade in the heat. He sleeps when he’s sleepy.
He’s alienated from the society around him. If he’s expected to feel or act a certain way in the wake of his mother’s death, he doesn’t know it. At his trial, when his own life is on the line, he often tunes out because the words of the lawyers who will decide his fate bore him. He’s surprised at the negative picture the prosecutor paints of him, but one has the sense that he’d be surprised that anyone had any opinion of him at all.
Camus wrote this book at a crisis point in Western history. Science had displaced religion as the explainer of the universe, and where religion had described a world of immortal spirits and a God who was the beginning and end of all things, science described humanity as an accident in an indifferent universe–a doomed accident, arising from and collapsing into nothingness.
How could anyone care about their life in such a world? Why even tune into it? In this purely mechanical universe where you’re nothing more than a body, what else is there to pay attention to beyond your animal instincts and sensations?
On his final ride from the courthouse back to his prison cell, Meursault, who is now condemned, is aware most keenly of the sounds and scents of the city at evening. The animal senses of the material world eclipse the spiritual sense of his impending doom.
Alone in his prison cell with nothing to do but think, Meursault has the same painful awareness as the character in Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. It’s the awareness of the gaping void of nothingness that underlies a purely material, spiritless world. Hemingway famously conveyed it as a rewrite of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…”
In a world without meaning, why not destroy everything? Decades earlier, Europe had engaged in a colossal orgy of murder and destruction and was now doing it again. Meursault, a child of that materially rich and spiritually poor civilization, spends his final wish hoping for a huge crowd to watch his execution, to loudly and enthusiastically affirm his pointlessness.
It’s a nihilistic conclusion that the reader is free to accept or reject. Yes, in the purely materialistic view of science–the dominant ideology of Western civilization–we come from nothing and return to nothing, and on the vast scale of universal time and space, our experiences, feelings and actions amount to nothing.
The priest and the magistrate, both of whom have a strong Christian faith, are as puzzled by Meursault as he is by them. Their worldviews are entirely alien to each other. The priest and magistrate dwell in meaning; Meursault in meaninglessness. In the world view of the former two, death, followed as it is by judgment and consequence, affirms the meaning of all we do in life. For Meursault, death obliterates meaning.
The unfolding of the story is the stripping down of the man, layer by layer, to his nihilistic base. Camus starts by showing us a person who acts and thinks in certain ways, a person not very in tune with or engaged with his world or himself. There are a lot of people like Meursault in our world. Camus takes everything from the man, stripping him down to the core belief that shapes his worldview and guides his actions. What is at the core of this alienated being? An awareness of impending nothingness, and a certain amount of rage and hopelessness at his inability to reconcile himself, his life and his world with that emptiness.
The culture in which Meursault lives no longer provides the sense of meaning that previous cultures provided to their members, and Meursault is adrift in a way that the priest and magistrate are not. As Emily Dickinson put it:
Knew where they went—
They went to God’s Right Hand—
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found—
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small—
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all—