John Valentine, Savannah College of Art and Design
One of the most enigmatic characters in modern literature is Meursault of Camus’s The Stranger. Is he an absurd hero or a dangerous psychological type? There are clearly two personifications in the novel: the Meursault of Part One, an embodiment of sensualism and carpe diem, a hedonist possessing minimal self-reflection; and the Meursault of Part Two, a condemned criminal, a heinous killer—in the eyes of society at any rate—whose existence has been converted into a series of stereotypical categories. Which is the real Meursault?
A useful guide in this search is the existentialists’ own distinction between existence and essence. The distinction is that between the freedom of human beings and the thinglike nature of objects, stereotypes, and essences.1 Humans have and make a history for themselves. Their existence is open to the possibility of choice and change, a project in the making. Objects, stereotypes, and essences, however, are exact opposites of the human type of being to the extent that they are frozen in a fixed and inert state.
The theme of prototypical existence and essence is a useful guide to The Stranger inasmuch as the novel clearly reflects Camus’s concern at the time with various atheistic existential motifs, such as the absurd nature of human existence, alienation from self and others via stereotyping, and the basic unavailability of essentialist answers (such as Christianity) to the question of meaningful life. The theme must be carefully explicated, though, precisely because of the potential for distortion in seeing The Stranger too closely through the eyes of Jean-Paul Sartre. The philosophical and political differences between Sartre and Camus are well known, and the existence/essence dichotomy is often associated only with Sartre’s thought. Accordingly, the theme as a hermeneutical guide is best used in its general philosophical form rather than in its specific form as found in works such as Being and Nothingness, where it is related to a particular ontology with which Camus was not in agreement. The generic form of the theme permeates the entire existentialist tradition, where it can be found in Jaspers and others.2
Certainly, a cautionary note here is that Camus was notoriously uncomfortable with the attribution of “existentialist” and with Sartre’s concept of human nature as a nothingness. In The Rebel, Camus argued (a) that there is a common human nature in terms of which all persons have the capacity for rebellion and for the solidarity resulting from such rebellion; and (b) that human nature has the value of being an end unto itself, so that any political system which treats individual persons as means rather than ends would be fundamentally flawed.3 In stressing these points, Camus was asserting that when the rebel says no to nihilism, violence, and totalitarian oppression, he or she is affirming the human characteristics of free will, potential solidarity in action, and intrinsic value as an end unto itself. But does this mean that Camus believed humans to have a fixed and immutable essence analogous to that of a physical object? Is it not possible, therefore, to apply the distinction between existence and essence to an analysis of The Stranger?
Notwithstanding the bitter Camus/Jeanson/Sartre disputes in the pages of Les Temps Modernes in the 1940s and 50s, Camus understood free will, potential solidarity in action, and intrinsic value as an end unto itself as structural aspects of human nature. When the historical rebel says no to totalitarianism, he or she reveals the ownmost human structures of metaphysical freedom, genuine dialogue or speech, identification with the entire community of humans (the structure: “I rebel, therefore, we are”), and the final value that each human has as an end unto himself or herself in the face of political tyranny. It is possible in this regard to think of Heidegger’s Existentialia, although Camus did not undertake Dasein-analysis in terms of the question of Being; his own project was still in the tradition of the Cartesian cogito. But just as Heidegger finds common structures of existence for any and all instances of Dasein—for example, situatedness, falling, discourse, and care—so does Camus recognize the earlier-mentioned structures as common to all human beings. Camus framed this notion of a common human nature in terms of his famous philosophy of limits: in saying no to violence and political terror, the rebel asserts a limit at which he or she refuses to arrive. The limit is precisely the nihilistic justification of murder and oppression in the name of a future secular utopia that reduces all mankind to the status of a cog in the machinery of historical necessity. Camus was unwilling, therefore, to conceptualize human nature as an infinitely malleable nothingness á la Sartre. He believed that such a view was at the heart of totalitarian ideologies of oppression. Similarly, Camus was clearly opposed to any philosophy that viewed human nature in terms of biological or political determinism. He did not see humans as mere products of genes or historical materialism. We are metaphysically free to establish our own destinies. But we are not blank slates either, which perhaps explains his flirtation with the classical Greek conception of human nature. The structures of free will, potential solidarity in action, genuine dialogue, and intrinsic value as an end unto oneself function somewhat like Existentialia in terms of what all humans have in common as humans, but not as an essence in the sense of the reification of human nature as just another object in the field of physically or politically determined objects.
Of course, it must also be stressed that at the time Camus was writing The Stranger (the late 1930s) he was hardly a full-blown critic of Sartre’s existential ontology, which itself had not yet appeared. On the contrary, these were the early days of French existentialism and many of the themes explored in The Stranger were subsequently transformed in works such as The Fall and The Rebel. This does not mean, though, that the theme of existence and essence had not occurred to Camus. It appears that it had, at least in prototypical form. It is, therefore, appropriate to explore The Stranger from the perspective of this theme, keeping in mind that the exploration has limited parameters and is not meant to settle any later philosophical disputes between Camus and Sartre. As Hazel Barnes says:
Sartre and de Beauvoir explicitly deny the existence of any human nature. Camus, to be sure, suggests in a passage to which critics have attached undue importance, that perhaps, after all, the Greeks may have been right in ascribing reality to some sort of underlying idea of man. But aside from the tentative and incomplete quality of this remark, Camus makes no use of the concept of human nature in any way that would constitute of it a determining force. For him it is an idea of what “humanity” is which serves to explain why men will revolt, placing a higher value on an ideal to be attained than on life itself. It is the basis also for the sense of human solidarity. To my mind, this is only another way of saying that man transcends himself in his projects…Be that as it may, neither Camus nor any other existentialist philosopher holds that man’s moral traits are predetermined or determining….4
The dialectic of existence and essence is highly evident in The Stranger. Part One of the novel is a depiction of prototypical human existence. It presents the tale of a solitary man who is inexorably drawn into a tightening web of events which culminates in a scene at the beach where he shoots a man five times, with each successive shot representing “another loud, fateful rap” on the door of his undoing.5 In developing the character of Meursault, Camus introduces numerous themes of human existence.
Meursault’s indifference to events shows the amoral aspect of existence, distantly echoing Nietzsche’s claim that there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena.6 Meursault does not make moral evaluations, nor is he inwardly affected by them: “Of course, I had to own that he was right; I didn’t feel much regret for what I’d done…I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.”7 Also:
He [the prison chaplain] said he felt convinced my appeal would succeed, but I was saddled with a load of guilt, of which I must get rid. In his view man’s justice was a vain thing; only God’s justice mattered. I pointed out that the former had condemned me. Yes, he agreed, but it hadn’t absolved me from my sin. I told him I wasn’t conscious of any “sin”; all I knew was that I’d been guilty of a criminal offense. Well, I was paying the penalty of that offense, and no one had the right to expect anything more of me.8
These depictions are the literary equivalent of a basic point for the existentialists; namely, that morality is a derivative human activity, it is not an a priori structure. Moral judgments are essentialist in nature. They subsume particular acts and situations under universal laws. The character of Meursault, however, suggests that existence cannot be easily caught, if at all, by such means. He is a unique existent and hardly reducible in his actions to categorical imperatives or theistic commandments.
Meursault’s sensitivity to light and heat, as well as to other sensory stimuli,9 indicates Camus’s interest in the issue of the lived body. This is the body as we directly and non-inferentially experience it independently of the reconstructions of science.10 The post-Cartesian philosophical tradition and the modern programs of the physiological sciences de-emphasize and de-value the lived body. As Michel Haar says (in explicating Nietzsche’s theory of the body):
To philosophize by taking the body as the “abiding clue” amounts to revealing the “self” as an instrument, an expression, an interpreter of the body. It also amounts to revealing the body (in opposition to our petty faculty of reasoning, where only surface “causes” make their appearance) as the “grand reason”—i.e., as the totality of deeply buried causes in their mobile and contradictory diversity. Philosophy has never ceased to show disdain for the body; it has not wished to recognize that it is the body that whispers thoughts to the “soul,” and that consciousness is only a superficial and terminal phenomenon. Psychology has always idolized superficial unities for fear of facing the unsettling multiplicity at the depths of being.11
Husserl had already explored the idea of the lived body in his distinction between the Newtonian/Cartesian body (Körper) and the pre-reflective, instinctual, sensing, and oriented body (Leib).12 According to Husserl, the latter operates in the life-world and forms the basis in the first place for our understanding of the body as an objective, measurable thing. In like manner, Merleau- Ponty analyzed the structures of behavior in terms of the lived body’s gestural intentionality, which operates in a gestaltist manner under the aspect of a motor “I can” rather than a Kantian “I think.”13 Meursault’s attention to the details of his body-states suggests the importance of the lived body in Camus’s sketch of existence. For instance, at one point Meursault comments to his lawyer that “…my physical condition at any given moment often influenced my feelings.”14 Meursault also has remarkably attuned powers of sense perception. He frequently notices stimuli on the horizons of his consciousness: two hornets buzzing against the skylight during his mother’s vigil, a passing steamer far out on the ocean during his fateful encounter with the Arab, the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street during his counsel’s courtroom summation, and so on. Additionally, he is able to train himself in prison to remember the exact details of every article in his bedroom, and concludes: “So I learned that even after a single day’s experience of the outside world a man could easily live a hundred years in prison. He’d have laid up enough memories never to be bored.”15 Similarly, it is clear that Meursault is a sensual hedonist in the extreme. He enjoys the “surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh.”16 He tells the chaplain that none of his (the chaplain’s) certainties “was worth one strand of a woman’s hair.”17 And when asked how he pictured the life after the grave, Meursault bawls out: “A life in which I can remember this life on earth. That’s all I want of it.”18 Moreover, at the end of the novel, Meursault has no interest in spending his final moments on speculations concerning God, an afterlife, or the soul. He has lived through and for his conscious body and knows that this commitment has been right for him. He was and is happy. In the character of Meursault, we are not yet at the narcissistic contemporary cult of the body, but certainly far removed from Platonism’s and Christianity’s perennial cult of the anti-physical.
Meursault’s consciousness, to the extent that it is plausible to isolate it, is wholly non- Cartesian. He is not a deliberate or rational man, not a res cogitans. Rather, he lives in the pre- reflective, childlike buzz of the moment:
What is it that makes the Stranger so strange? Camus himself admitted that his character was built deliberately…He does not reveal the gimmick, but there is a gimmick. The reader soon discovers that Meursault’s strangeness is the result of a lack. What Husserl calls the “meaning endowing faculty” was skillfully removed from him. He registers facts, but not their meanings; his consciousness is purely instantaneous; he lacks the principle of unity and continuity…Accordingly, Meursault has desires and affects but no sentiments. He has neither memory nor projects, and his synthetic faculties do not operate above the immediate physical level.19
Meursault does what he feels like doing, nothing more nor less. He does not have elaborate cognitions; there is no philosophical or psychoanalytic depth to him. Serge Doubrovsky has referred to his fundamental “animality,”20 but this suggests that there is such a dimension to us all—a daily, pre-cognitive, lived and bodily consciousness, the prototype of which is revealed in Meursault.
Meursault is not an essence in Part One of The Stranger. He breathes, gets bored, makes love, swims, goes to work, enjoys the beach, buries his mother, and so on. He cannot be subsumed under forms or categories lacking contingency and freedom. It is interesting to note in this regard that the authorities in Part Two of the novel are constantly seeking to establish Meursault’s identity. They want to know who (or what) this creature is. One is thereby reminded of the Socratic dictum “Know Thyself” and of the high value placed on reflective self-knowledge in the subsequent intellectual traditions of the Western world. The authorities try to define Meursault in essentialist terms, however, which do not coordinate at all with his actual states of mind or existence. Meursault finds all of this very odd, as he is unused to “identifying” himself. Thus, the attempt definitionally to fix Meursault fails before it begins because definitions distort the very phenomenon under investigation, a kind of existentialist indeterminacy principle.
The theme of existence versus essence continues in Part Two of the novel, but with the important added dimension that, in the eyes of society, Meursault is completely transformed into a series of essences. After all, he has murdered a man. It is inevitable, Camus seems to be suggesting, that Meursault will be seen as a stereotype. The transformation occurs in the following stages.
The examining magistrate tries to impress upon Meursault the fact of his criminality. He interrogates him repeatedly about the number of shots fired at the Arab, and tries to shame Meursault with a crucifix and talk of religion. Meursault dimly senses the change in his status, but he cannot accept that he is a criminal and nothing else:
“Never in all my experience have I known a soul so case-hardened as yours,” he said in a low tone. “All the criminals who have come before me until now wept when they saw this symbol of our Lord’s sufferings.” I was on the point of replying that was precisely because they were criminals. But then I realized that I, too, came under that description. Somehow it was an idea to which I never could get reconciled.21
A thing or a stereotype is nothing more or less than what it is; a human being, however, is a contingency, a non-objectifiable project.
The long months in prison cause Meursault to accept his assigned role as a prisoner with the corresponding loss of freedom and privileges. He does not, however, accept his guilt in any absolute sense. Rather, he admits only to a sort of vexation over his deed.22 Guilt is a moral concept which presupposes complex metaphysical judgments; vexation, though, is a feeling of confusion and frustration. Meursault knows that “because of the sun” he has killed a man.23 The deed has disrupted the simple harmony of his world, and he concedes that he must answer for it. But he refuses further to acquiesce in society’s attempt to judge him in essentialist terms.
The prosecuting attorney at his trial depicts Meursault as a hardened, heartless criminal who is responsible not only for the death of the Arab, but also for the death of Meursault’s mother and for the parricide which ensues on the court docket:
…I tried to follow what came next, as the Prosecutor was now considering what he called my “soul.” He said he’d studied it closely—and had found a blank, “literally nothing, gentlemen of the jury.” Really, he said, I had no soul, there was nothing human about me…He proceeded to discuss my conduct toward my mother, repeating what he had said in the course of the hearing. But he spoke at much greater length of my crime…A moment came when the Prosecutor paused and, after short silence, said in a low, vibrant voice: “This same court, gentlemen, will be called on to try tomorrow that most odious of crimes, the murder of a father by his son.”…“This man, who is morally guilty of his mother’s death, is no less unfit to have a place in the community than that other man who did to death the father that begat him…indeed, the one crime led on to the other…Yes, gentlemen, I am convinced that you will not find I am exaggerating the case against the prisoner when I say that he is guilty of the murder to be tried tomorrow in this court….”24
Meursault is, after all, a man who smoked cigarettes at his mother’s funeral and took a lover after returning to Algiers, facts of an ad hominem nature which become considerably more important at the trial than the killing of the Arab itself.
The defense attorney, on the other hand, depicts Meursault as a decent fellow, a conscientious worker and a dutiful son:
“I, too,” he said, “have closely studied this man’s soul; but, unlike my learned friend for the prosecution, I have found something there. Indeed, I may say that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book.” What he had read there was that I was an excellent young fellow, a steady, conscientious worker who did his best by his employer; that I was popular with everyone and sympathetic in others’ troubles. According to him, I was a dutiful son who had supported his mother as long as he was able.25
Meursault drifts in and out of the ceremonies, feeling vaguely troubled and threatened by these essentialist stereotypes. He even has the distinct impression of being excluded from the trial—of being de trop—as he tires of “the endless days and hours they had been discussing my ‘soul,’ and the rest of it.”26
Finally, in the climactic confrontation with the chaplain, Meursault faces the ultimate stereotype of being portrayed as a sinner. He is no longer an existent being; he is seen as an eternal essence. That is, he is told that he has a soul, and that for the good of this soul he must repent. The confrontation causes anger and a final rebellion in terms of which Meursault achieves a kind of reflective authenticity. He accepts his fate and the dialectic of existence and essence in his life.27 He accepts, that is, his life in terms of what he has done and what he is now: a condemned man facing his execution just as all humans are “condemned” to face death. Meursault thus becomes a hero of the absurd.28
Other incidents in the novel reinforce Meursault’s external transformation into a mere category or essence. For instance, at the trial a young journalist and the little “robot” woman are obsessed with Meursault and transfix him with judgmental stares, a phenomenon which is foreshadowed at his mother’s vigil when one of the mourners gazes continually at him. Also, when he first faces the jury members, Meursault has the distinct impression of being reified in the manner of one who has just boarded a streetcar as the others “stare at you in the hope of finding something in your appearance to amuse them.”29 It is clear from these and related passages that Camus was well aware of the problems involved in any attempt to convert human existence into social essence. Categories such as “dutiful son” or “inhuman monster wholly without a moral sense” are virtually essences in the classical Platonic sense. That is, they are idealizations lacking historicality and contingency of being. We can never fully become such idealizations because they are conceptually and existentially incompatible with our free being as humans.
The abrupt transition from Part One to Part Two of the novel is made clearer by the theme of existence and essence. For instance, many commentators have noted the lack of a plausible reason for Meursault’s firing four additional shots after the initial one. The action has been variously attributed to his mental disintegration because of the heat and sunlight or to a surd factor in his existence. Such theories are, of course, underdetermined by the textual evidence.30 The theme of existence versus essence, however, suggests that the additional shots are a literary technique to ensure that Meursault will be converted into a series of essences in Part Two.31 One shot could be excused as self-defense; after all, the Arab had produced a knife and had already attacked Meursault’s friend Raymond in an earlier scene. The additional shots, however, preclude such a defense. Meursault will now be analyzed and condemned in psychological and societal terms which seriously conflict with the realities of his existence as described in Part One of the novel.
Finally, we might well ask what Camus himself thought of Meursault. He responded in the preface to the American University edition of The Stranger:
I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark that I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this respect, he is foreign to the society in which he lives; he wanders, on the fringe, in the suburbs of private, solitary, sensual life. And this is why some readers have been tempted to look upon him as a piece of social wreckage. A much more accurate idea of the character, or, at least, one much closer to the author’s intentions, will emerge if one asks just how Meursault doesn’t play the game. The reply is a simple one: he refuses to lie…He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened…One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth….32
Meursault is the quintessentially authentic outsider who refuses to lie about his actions and feelings, and remains steadfastly indifferent to society’s multifaceted and essentialist games. Thus, the real Meursault does not exist as a fixed state or thing. His persona at the end of the novel involves a synthesis of contingency and stereotype, but his innermost being is clearly that of a singular, free existent. To that extent, Camus seems to be suggesting, he is Everyman. The theme of existence versus essence provides an important key in unlocking one of the most significant works of the existentialist movement.
Barnes, Hazel E. An Existentialist Ethics. New York: Knopf, 1967.
Bree, Germaine. Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Camus, Albert. “Preface to The Stranger.” Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus. Ed. Philip Thody. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1946.
Camus, Albert. “Summer in Algiers.” Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus. Ed. Philip Thody. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
Doubrovsky, Serge. “The Ethics of Albert Camus.” Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Ed. Bettina L. Knapp. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988.
Erickson, John. “Albert Camus and North Africa: A Discourse of Exteriority.” Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Ed. Bettina L. Knapp. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988.
Haar, Michel. “Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language.” Trans. Cyril and Liliane Welch. The New Nietzsche. Ed. David B. Allison. New York: Dell, 1977.
Hanna, Thomas. The Thought and Art of Albert Camus. Chicago: Gateway, 1958.
Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Trans. David Carr.
Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
Macquarrie, John. Existentialism. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press, 1962.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Explication de L’Etranger.” Situations I. Paris: Gallimard, 1947.
Tisson-Braun, Micheline. “Silence and the Desert: The Flickering Vision.” Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Ed. Bettina L. Knapp. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988.
- See John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 41-55.
- Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), pp. 250-252.
- Hazel E. Barnes, An Existentialist Ethics (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 116.
- Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, 1946), p. 76. Hereafter abbreviated TS.
- See Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), Section 108.
- Albert Camus, TS, pp. 126-127.
- Ibid., p. 148.
- See Thomas Hanna, The Thought and Art of Albert Camus (Chicago: Gateway, 1958), p. 57. Hanna refers to Meursault’s extreme sensitivity to light, which “is indicated to us no less than fourteen times previous to the murder.”
- See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), Part One.
- Michel Haar, “Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language,” trans. Cyril and Liliane Welch in The New Nietzsche, ed. David B. Allison (New York: Dell Publishing, 1977), p. 18.
- Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), Part II and III.
- See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Part One.
- Albert Camus, TS, p. 80.
- Ibid., p. 98.
- Ibid., p. 132. See also Albert Camus, “Summer in Algiers,” trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy in Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, ed. Philip Thody (New York: Vintage Books, 1970). This essay captures much of the ambience of the world of Meursault.
- Albert Camus, TS, p. 151.
- Ibid., p. 150.
- Micheline Tisson-Braun, “Silence and the Desert: The Flickering Vision,” in Critical Essays on Albert Camus. ed. Bettina L. Knapp (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988), p. 49. Hereafter abbreviated CE.
- Serge Doubrovsky, “The Ethics of Albert Camus,” in CE, p. 155.
- Albert Camus, TS, p. 87.
- Ibid., p. 130.
- Ibid., pp. 127-128.
- Ibid., p. 131.
- Ibid., p. 132.
- Ibid., pp. 151-152.
- See Thomas Hanna, The Thought and Art of Albert Camus, pp. 46-64.
- Albert Camus, TS, p. 103.
- For various interpretations of Meursault’s character and his actions on the beach, see Germaine Bree, Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliff, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962). See also Jean- Paul Sartre, “Explication de L’Etranger,” in Situations I (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), pp. 99-121.
- For a different reading of the shooting of the Arab, see John Erickson, “Albert Camus and North Africa: A Discourse of Exteriority,” in CE, pp. 73-86. Erickson’s thesis is political and plays on Camus’s ambivalence about the Algerian question.
- Albert Camus, “Preface to The Stranger,” trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy in Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, ed. Philip Thody (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), pp. 335-337.