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In Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the main character, Mersault, is confronted with life’s absurdity after killing a man at a beach in Algiers. Mersault spends his days absorbed in living for the moment, granting little import to the past or future, until the day when his world is shattered by this inexplicable act of violence. Despite continuously claiming that one path is the same as another and that nothing in life truly matters, Mersault frequently reveals thoughts and actions to the contrary; indeed, even his decision to commit murder can be viewed as an intentional attempt to upend his world. For the majority of the novel, in fact, it’s unclear whether the main character is candidly living by his proclaimed beliefs or is just convincing himself of this in a doomed attempt to avoid the burden of emotion. When the trial following the protagonist’s crime finally hurls Mersault face-to-face with his own beliefs, he’s compelled to reexamine his values. As Mersault arrives at a gradual acceptance of life’s harsh realities, the reader, too, is obliged to scrutinize the passions ruling his own existence.
The first oddity a reader may note in The Fall is the lack of dialogue. Rather than allowing insight into the main character’s conversations, the audience is granted an almost God-like view of the minute details of Mersault’s life. In the first page of the novel alone, for example, Mersault informs us that the day is hot; that he ate lunch at Celeste’s, as usual; that he’ll be taking the two o’clock bus to Marengo so as to return in the afternoon, and so forth. Perhaps the reader is given such in-depth access into Mersault’s day-to-day activities because the present is the only thing about which the main character desires to be concerned. This fact is made glaringly obvious within the first two lines of the novel: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (3). At a question from his boss, Mersault is also forced to disclose that he’s unsure of his mother’s age. Only one who places little to no importance on the sequence of events could be so cavalier about the age or the date of death of a family member. At a later point, Mersault declines an offer to work in Paris because “people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another” (41). The past, then, simply doesn’t matter, while decisions made in the present don’t affect to the future—this, at least, is what Mersault would have the reader believe.
As a result of this outlook, the majority of Mersault’s decisions appear to be based simply on the path of least resistance. When Mersault’s friend Raymond comes to him for help in writing a threatening letter to an ex-girlfriend, the protagonist asserts that his agreement to aid Raymond is not because he cares a great deal for his friend, but rather because he “didn’t have any reason not to please him” (32). It’s this same mentality that causes the protagonist to agree to testify that Raymond’s girlfriend has been unfaithful, despite knowing full well that there is no real evidence to support his friend’s claims. Later still, when Mersault’s girlfriend asks if he wants to marry her, he agrees merely because “it didn’t really matter” (41).
Alternately, it’s possible to view Mersault’s earlier refusal of the relocation to Paris as opposition to change; and if, as he claims, one life is as good as another, than why not go to Paris? After turning down his boss’ proposal, the main character is accused of utterly lacking the purportedly essential business trait of ambition. Mersault regrets upsetting his boss but still stands by his resolution. In this instance, then, it seems that rejection was not the easier path. Moreover, Mersault eventually divulges that when he’d agreed to marry his girlfriend, he hadn’t grasped the meaning behind his words; not until he sees his friend Masson’s wife does he understand how his actions will alter his life.
Also, while Mersault’s decisions in regard to his friend Raymond’s circumstances certainly appear to be based on a genuine lack of caring, other incidents show evidence to the contrary. For example, one night Mersault hears his neighbor, Salamano, sobbing piteously because his long-standing canine companion has vanished. This causes the protagonist not only to think of his recently deceased mother, but also to experience a lack of appetite for the first time since her funeral.
The main character’s lack of insight into his own habits surfaces when he is joined by a strange woman during a lunch at his favorite restaurant, Celeste’s. Mersault freely expresses his fascination with the woman’s frantic pace and driven attitude. So absorbed is he, in fact, with her robot-like demeanor, that he decides to follow her for a short time. Oddly, Mersault shows signs of the same need for constant activity himself. “I remembered that it was Sunday,” Mersault grieves at an early point in the novel, “and that bothered me: I don’t like Sundays” (21). Though he never specifically states his reasons, Sunday is the only day of the week when Mersault is left without structure. The day is passed watching the activity in the street below and pondering that his apartment has become too large since his mother moved out. Much further on, when Mersault is imprisoned, the passing of time becomes a constant torment. It’s due to these lengthy, empty hours of the present that the protagonist finds he must devote thought to the past and the future. It seems possible, then, that Mersault’s earlier aversion to idleness was a result of his evasion of self-reflection.
Regardless of Mersault’s sincere motivations, it’s his stubborn focus on the present that seems to fuel his apparent disconnect with the world around him. At his mother’s funeral, Mersault watches his mother’s friends enter the room and laments that he “saw them more clearly than I had ever seen anyone, and not one detail of their faces or their clothes escaped me. But I couldn’t hear them, and it was hard for me to believe they really existed” (9). In a later chapter, when Mersault’s friend Raymond advises the protagonist to keep his head up about things, it takes Mersault a moment to realize that his friend is trying to comfort him about his mother’s death; although only two days have passed since the funeral, Mersault hasn’t been giving her any thought at all.
In the first chapter of the novel, in fact, the protagonist instead fixes attention on the fact that the day is very hot; so hot that it causes Mersault to fall asleep on the bus en route to Marengo. A short time later, he notes that he declines the caretaker’s offer of food because he’s not hungry, but accepts coffee with milk and also partakes in a cigarette. Such a relaxing experience was the coffee-drinking and smoking, in fact, that the main character once again dozes off. While Mersault visits with his neighbor, Raymond, further on, the main character luxuriates in drinking wine and smoking. This attention to physical sensation continues throughout the novel, rapidly building the impression that physical needs, for Mersault, are given higher priority than emotional needs.
It becomes clear a short time later that the protagonist is not just focused on the corporeal; at certain times, particularly during times of stress, he becomes a slave to it. First evidenced during his trip to his mother’s gravesite, when the main character claims that “the glare from the sky was unbearable” (16) and that “all of it—the sun, the smell of leather and horse dung from the hearse, the smell of varnish and incense, and my fatigue after a night without sleep—was making it hard for me to see or think straight” (17), the same pattern is evidenced again on the pivotal day that irrevocably alters Mersault’s life.
When Mersault agrees to travel to the beach at Raymond’s invitation, he’s unknowingly setting into motion the events that will lead to the overturning of his worldview. While at the beach, Mersault and Raymond run into relatives of Raymond’s ex-girlfriend—the same ex-girlfriend to whom Mersault agreed to write an insulting letter, which provoked the girl to a visit and subsequent beating at Raymond’s hands. The relatives, of course, took offense to her abuse and have been haunting Raymond since. The reader learns that the Arabs even follow the group to the beach, and when Mersault’s faction first confronts them at this location, Raymond ends up getting sliced with a knife. The group returns to their cabin, but Mersault decides to take a solo walk back down to the beach.
Up until this point in the novel, Mersault has carefully tailored a specific impression of his character. He portrays himself as a man living for the moment; one who takes pleasure from the basic bodily functions of food, drink, sleep, and sex. He makes decisions based on the path of least resistance, giving no thought to the past or future. But is this picture also the reality, or simply what Mersault would have us believe? This question, in turn, may be answered by a final inquiry: when Mersault kills the Arab, is he purely following his normal pattern of being ruled by the physical? Or do his reasons run deeper?
The morning of the shooting, the protagonist has a difficult time waking up. Immediately upon arriving outside, Mersault laments that “the day, already bright with sun, hit me like a slap in the face” (47). The reader knows by now that this foreshadows a tragic turn of events, and it almost seems like the main character is aware of this, too, as Mersault confesses that “it occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and that would be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back” (58). In illustrating the circumstances, Mersault claims that as a result of the assault of fiery brightness in his environment, his “whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave” (59). In this sense, the reader is swayed to believe that Mersault’s decision to shoot is based on the physical. The shooting was not so much an intentional firing of the weapon, but more of a gut reaction to physical stimuli: his eye is suddenly pierced with light, he flinches, and his finger presses the trigger.
On the other hand, Mersault develops a keen awareness of time for perhaps the first occasion in the novel: “It was the same sun, the same light still shining on the same sand as before. For two hours the day had stood still; for two hours it had been anchored in a sea of molten lead” (58). In addition, just before the moment that alters his world, Mersault reacts in ways not purely related to the physical. Despite knowing that forward movement toward the Arab will do nothing to bring him out of “the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead” (59), Mersault still chooses to come a step closer, and it’s this monumental step that causes the Arab to draw the knife whose glare overwhelms Mersault’s vision.
The most essential lines, however, come directly after Mersault pulls the trigger for the first time; particular stress should be placed on the opening sentence: “I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace” (59). At last, Mersault purges himself of physical affects; it’s only after he shakes off the sweat and sun that he chooses to fire four times more. This represents the first time that Mersault purposefully overthrows material influence. Further, in acknowledging that the bullets left no mark on the body but destroyed the peace of the day, the audience sees a complete reversal of Mersault’s prior views: a choice having no physical affect, but having an emotional affect—and a rather profound one at that—nonetheless.
In the second part of the novel, which starts with Mersault already arrested for killing the Arab, Mersault appears to have recovered his supposed equanimity. When being questioned by his lawyer, Mersault answers honestly that his mother’s death didn’t do much to dampen his happiness. The lawyer leaves frustrated, and the main character shows his returned loss of a sense of a future when he expresses that “I wanted things between us to be good, not so that he’d defend me better but, if I can put it this way, good in a natural way… But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness” (66). When being lectured by a magistrate about the need to earn God’s forgiveness, Mersault exposes his relapse into physical distraction by divulging that “I had found it very hard to follow his reasoning, first because I was hot and there were big flies in his office that kept landing on my face” (68). When the magistrate harangues Mersault to admit that he believes in God, Mersault reveals his decline back into the path of least resistance when he agrees with magistrate only because “whenever I want to get rid of someone I’m not really listening to, I made it appear as if I agreed” (69). Mersault’s renewed detachment from the world around him is evident when he has to remember that he’s killed a man.
Gradually, though, the protagonist acknowledges change. After being in prison for a few months and being forced to find ways to fill the time, he stumbles upon a solution: “Eventually, once I learned how to remember things, I wasn’t bored at all…I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison” (78). At last, the past has achieved significance; the future gets its due recognition when Mersault admits that “Only the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ still had any meaning for me” (80). He regrets that he didn’t bother reading more stories about executions: if even one had told of an escape from the inevitable, he might have obtained some hope for the future.
While before the main character lacked the ability to examine his own actions—he admits at his first meeting with his lawyer that he “had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself” (65)—Mersault regains this capability when he notices a particular reporter present at his trial: “All I could see in his slightly lopsided face were his two very bright eyes, which were examining me closely without betraying any definable emotion. And I had the odd impression of being watched by myself” (85). Mersault also confesses to caring what impression he makes on others when he admits that “for the first time in years I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me” (90). The main character’s prior sense of detachment now comes back to haunt him when he becomes agitated that the trial is developing without his participation: “In a way, they seemed to be arguing the case as if it had nothing to do with me… There were times when I felt like breaking in on all of them and saying ‘Wait a minute! Who’s the accused here? Being the accused counts for something’” (98).
During this final part of the book, Mersault is fully confronted by the absurdity of life. It starts to dawn on him that there is no destiny; that “familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent” (97). He mourns the ridiculousness of the entire trial, chiefly that not a single witness called to the stand had anything to do with the murder. Mersault is being judged for the way he lived in the past, not for the crime itself. He notes with surprising objectivity that both of the lawyers’ explanations for his crime are plausible: that he could just as easily be a coldhearted killer as a remorseful everyman. One quote from Mersault’s lawyer can be seen as Mersault’s newfound realization of the ways of life: “Everything is true and nothing is true” (91)! The court even manages to turn a good quality into a bad one.
Mersault’s decisive epiphany comes after a discussion with a priest. The priest, he realizes after a lengthy discussion, places importance only on the hereafter; the protagonist, though, still refuses to give in. He maintains that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife or in God, which horrifies the priest: what, then, is the point of living? Unlike the priest, Mersault has come to grips with the fact that life is absurd, and one cannot force meaning upon something inherently meaningless. To regret the past or worry about the future is futile; neither can be controlled. Instead, each individual must create meaning for himself. Mersault may have been condemned for not conforming to society’s standards in mourning his mother, but in his own mind, he has been exonerated from his crime: no one should grieve for his mother, and he expects no one to grieve for him. In the end, both of them seized the day, and that’s the best possible outcome for which anyone could wish. Whether he is deliberately fooling himself throughout the first half of the novel or not, one thing is true: Mersault finds the courage to confront the absurdity of life, and with it, the means to be truly alive.
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