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The Sun as a Symbol for Meursault’s Awareness in Albert Camus’ The Stranger
In his novel “The Stranger,” Albert Camus uses the relentless Algerian sun as a metaphor for the awareness of reality that pursues his main character, Meursault, throughout the novel. The plot is fashioned around three deaths: those of Meursault’s mother, the Arab, and Meursault himself. At each of these key points in the novel, the sun, the symbol of awareness, presses upon Meursault. The purpose of the sun, it seems, is to make Meursault realize the absurdity of his existence.
Even the book’s setting in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, underlines the thematic importance of the sun. The Algerian climate is typically hot, dry, and relentlessly sunny. As critic Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “Camus likes bright mornings, clear evenings, and relentless afternoons. His favorite season is Algiers’ eternal summer. Night has hardly any place in his universe” (3). Thus, Meursault is confronted by the sun at every turn. At times he basks in the sun; at other times, he runs from it. His world is one of black and white, light and dark. In this world, the sun serves as a metaphor for Meursault’s self-awareness. He is repeatedly confronted with the presence of life, the inevitability of death, and the absurdity of existence; but, repeatedly, he attempts to avoid these strands of awareness.
Meursault’s inner conflict is represented not only by his struggle with the sun, however, but also by his reaction to heat, bright light, and the color white. For example, the book opens with a telegram indicating the death of Meursault’s mother. At first glance, it appears that Meursault is not affected by his mother’s death as he prepares himself for the night long vigil by her coffin. Then, however, Meursault explains, “The keeper switched on the lamps, and I was almost blinded by the blaze of light” (Camus 9). The lights replace the sun in the role of persevering truth, with all the “symbolic and metaphorical associations that exist between light and consciousness” (Manly 89). Meursault believes he is uncomfortable because of the lights, although he is, in fact, uncomfortable with his mother’s death. He is not fully aware of death’s consequences and does not wish to be. Meursault asks the caretaker if some of the lights can be turned off, but it is not possible. The lights must either be all on or all off. This polarity “suggests that we either live in light or dark; that is, we either grasp the reality of death or we don’t, we either live in the moment of the perceptive now or we don’t-there is no middle ground” (McGuire). In Camus’ world, in other words, there must be knowledge or ignorance. It is telling that, rather than face his mother’s death, Meursault shuts his eyes to the light and drifts to sleep, symbolizing the blissful unconsciousness in which he lives his life. Similarly, during the funeral procession, Meursault tries to block out what is going on around him, but is continually brought back to reality by the blazing sun.
Later, while attending his mother’s funeral, Meursault sees a nurse with a colorful scarf around her head. Until it is pointed out to him, he does not notice that the nurse has a large bandage covering most of her face; she is dying from a tumor. In fact, “one saw hardly anything of her face except that strip of whiteness” (7). The bandage is white, a color “traditionally linked with knowledge, [and] is here the knowledge of death which humans cannot face” (McCarthy). Thus, Meursault ignores the surrounding death until he is forced to see it, whether by whiteness, bright lights, or the sun.
Meursault’s continuous denial of life’s difficulties makes him approach his life as if he were a child. For example, he exhibits awareness only of sensory experiences. As one critic writes, “drying his hands on a crisp towel at midday is just as important as being promoted to a better job” (Thody 2). His life centers on meaningless details, and he seeks only his personal comfort. He cannot comprehend emotions such as love or hate, or understand how they enter into his daily life. When Marie asks him if he loves her, he replies that the question means “nothing or next to nothing [to him]” (52). Similarly, he cannot make simple connections between events and his emotions. When he hears his elderly neighbor Salamo weeping for his lost dog, he thinks of his mother “for some reason…I don’t know what” (50). Thus, he proves unable to make the logical leap between another man’s sense of loss, and his own.
His inability is particularly apparent when Meursault is on the beach, before he murders the Arab. Again, it is symbolized by the sun. He feels overwhelmed by the scorching sunlight and seeks refuge from it, but can find none. Meursault describes the light as a “thudding in [his] head” (Camus, 72). The implication, of course, is that he is not simply fighting the external; he also is fighting, within himself, for his own version of reality. As he writes,
I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on (Camus, 73).
Thus, Meursault refuses to be beaten. But beaten by what? He is not actually in combat with the sun, but with the awareness of death and the absurdity of life that threatens to destroy his world. Later in court, he tells the judge that he killed the Arab “because of the sun” (Camus, 130). Mistaking the Arab for his assumed enemy, the sun, he fires the gun. The shot “marks the end of the primordial ordinariness that has been the basis of his seemingly uncomplicated happiness” (Gay-Croisier, 89). As Manly writes, “the suggestion that a symbolic waking to consciousness is at issue in this crucial scene is reinforced by the descriptive details of the actual shooting. Unsettled by the sun and not fully in control, Meursault shoots the Arab five times” (3). Meursault senses that something has changed. He has begun his journey into the light. He knows that he has “shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of [the] beach on which [he] had been happy” (76). He then fires four more shots into the Arab’s corpse, “and each successive shot was another loud fateful rap on the door of my undoing” (76).
Meursault’s awareness continues to increase throughout his court trial. For example, he realizes the ridiculousness of the proceedings, saying, “I wasn’t to have any say and my fate was to be decided out of hand” (124). Eventually, he realizes that this absurdity exists not only in the courtroom, but everywhere in life, as individuals attempt to make sense out of random, meaningless events. Meursault’s “consciousness and self-consciousness are awakened and continue to develops the trial proceeds” (Gay-Croisier). During the trial, he spends endless days and nights in his jail cell trying to occupy himself. After the guilty verdict is reached, he uses this time to obsess about his impending execution. At times, he tries to console himself. He tells himself that “on a wide view, [it] makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten-since, in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before” (143).
Meursault also becomes obsessed with the hours before dawn. “They always came for one at dawn; that much I knew,” he confesses, “all my nights were spend in waiting for that dawn” (141). Of course, the dawn he speaks of is both literal and figurative. His whole life has led up to the moment of his death, and to his realization that, someday, he will die. Meursault’s life was once a question of how to spend his evening. Now, it is a question of whether he will live or die to see another day. Only then can he understand that death is the only true experience that one can have; without death, life is pointless. Meursault realizes that, “viewed from one angle, [an execution] is the only thing that can genuinely interest a man” (138). When the priest visits and Meursault finally gets to argue his point of view and express the thoughts he has developed, he tells us, “I now had my back to the wall and light was flowing over my forehead” (148). This symbolizes his impending acceptance of the truth of the absurdity of life. Finally, in his jail cell, Meursault accepts his impending death. He can now face his execution, and he can now face the dawn. He is no longer running from the light. The sun will rise, and he will die in its light.
Ultimately, “The Stranger” is a story of one man’s awakening. Meursault awakes from the darkness and “consequently becomes aware of the blood-stained mathematics which command our lives” (Manly 90). Meursault’s ultimate resolution comes with the knowledge that any search for meaning can never be fully completed, and that the only fulfilling life is one in which there are no more illusions.
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