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The stranger: existential martyrdom

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The death of a loved one is typically one of the most emotionally distressing events people face, particularly when that person is a parent. In most societies, it would be considered taboo for a son to respond to his parent’s demise with indifference. However, in The Stranger, readers first meet the protagonist when he tells them, “ Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know” (3). This seemingly impassive statement typifies the ostensible lack of emotion and detachment that the main character, Meursault, exhibits throughout the novel, and for which he is unfairly vilified and condemned. In the first chapter of Camus’s novel, Meursault speaks of his mother’s funeral in terms of the itinerary he must follow to fit it into his schedule, as though he is bothered that it is interrupting his usual routine. He says he must travel “ about 80 kilometers” on the “ two o’clock bus…. That way I can…come back tomorrow night.” He assures himself that after the funeral, “ the case will be closed, and everything will have a more official feel to it,” expressing his notion that the funeral is like a business dealing that he can take care of and then file away (3). This seems to suggest not that Meursault is void of all emotion, but that the daily tedium of his job has reduced him to indifference. He is merely one component of a system, and is only valued as such; therefore, this has become what he views himself as, and leads him to a feeling that he has no real individuality or significance. This can be inferred from his anxiety about asking his boss for time off to attend the funeral, an allowance most people would find not only appropriate but also deserved. Meursault, however, gauges that his boss is “ not too happy about it,” and offers a sort of apology, awkwardly saying, “ It’s not my fault” (3). Meursault seems to have become trapped in a state in which methodical and predictable duties provide him a sense of comfort, and in disrupting that normality, even if only briefly, he experiences apprehension. The sense of needing to conform that he has adopted through years in the work force has dulled his emotional faculties. When Meursault initially arrives at the nursing home where his mother spent her last years, he tells the reader, “ I wanted to see Maman right away” (4). However, as he first waits for and then talks to the director of the home, he begins to grow a bit distant and weary, saying, “ The director spoke to me again. But I wasn’t listening anymore.” When the director asks if he would like to see his mother, he responds with silence and simply follows him to the mortuary (5). The caretaker arrives shortly thereafter to unscrew the casket, but Meursault tells him to stop. He does not want to see his mother, he suddenly decides, but says, “ I don’t know” when asked why (6). Because it is usually expected that those left behind wish to see the deceased one last time before the interment, the fact that Meursault not only declines the opportunity to do so, but that he has no reasonable explanation for this decision, is rather strange. Moreover, in the succeeding pages, he drinks coffee and smokes in front of his mother’s casket. This is viewed as both disrespectful and inappropriate, but Meursault sees nothing wrong with it, explaining, “ Then I felt like having a smoke. But I hesitated, because I didn’t know if I could do it with Maman right there. I thought about it; it didn’t matter. I offered the caretaker a cigarette and we smoked” (8). Meursault’s apathy toward proper social conduct is seemingly the issue, but he does at least briefly consider that perhaps he should not do these things in the presence of the casket. He reasons that it does not matter, but not because he is insolent or does not care about her. Rather, he feels drained from all the formalities the funeral entails and the emotions people expect him to show. However, as the reader sees later in the novel, Meursault says, “ Everybody knows life isn’t worth living. Deep down I know perfectly well that it doesn’t matter much whether you die at thirty or at seventy…. Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter” (114). It can be seen, then, that Meursault acts in what appears a callous manner because he sees death (as well as life) as wholly unimportant. Therefore, he feels the entire affair of the vigil is an unnecessarily formal and sacred manner, and so sees no offense in his actions. During the funeral procession itself, Meursault makes repeated remarks as to how hot and uncomfortable he feels. He describes the countryside they bear the casket through as “ inhuman and oppressive” because of the scorching “ sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimmer with heat” (15). At one point, a man in the procession asks Meursault if his mother was old, and he guiltlessly admits to the reader, “ I didn’t know the exact number” (16). This information, to him, has no true importance, but is merely a rather absurd source of proof to a stranger of his concern (or seeming lack thereof) for his mother. Throughout the procession, Meursault seems more distracted by his own physical discomfort than with his mother’s death or the funeral itself. However, this, again, is not because he is cold and uncaring, but because he does not see any of it as having any real consequence. As he says later in the novel, Meursault’s mind is “ always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow,” and because his mother has died, she is now a part of that past to which he gives no thought or substance – not because she does not mean anything to him, but because the past and the matters of life and death do not. These events form the true basis for which Meursault is judged and castigated when he is on trial for having killed an Arab, a matter that is hardly discussed during the proceedings at all. Rather, he is really on trial for what is considered the abhorrent and unthinkable social crime of not crying at his mother’s funeral, an offense that is misunderstood because Meursault is being judged on the basis of mores to which he does not subscribe. He is convicted, not for shooting an Arab on the beach one day, but for failing to fulfill society’s expectations of what is proper behavior for a son who has lost his mother. Essentially, that Meursault remains true to his unique sensibilities and attitudes about life and the world in general is the real, larger reason for his execution, becoming a sort of misunderstood martyr.

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