1. The objective facts that the book gives us about Meursault


In fact, we do not know much about him.  We do not even know his first name.  Throughout the book he is simply: Meursault.

The facts we do have:

His home
He is now living in Algiers but previously he has lived in Paris.  Since the time when his mother moved into an old people’s home in Marengo, he has lived alone in their apartment.  He moved all his things into his own bedroom, but in fact he has very little furniture and very few personal belongings.  The other rooms in his home are empty.  We see that he has very modest needs.  We see in him an indifference to material possessions.

His career
He discontinued his education and is now working as clerk with a shipping company.

His friends and associates:
Besides his two neighbours, he has a colleague at work called Emmanuel.  The girl he goes around with, Marie, used to work at the same firm and that is where he started to fancy her.
Céleste, the owner of the café, where Meursault has lunch, looks on him as a friend.

His appearance

His physical appearance is never described.  We assume he is quite young- perhaps in his thirties.  He doesn’t like people with too white skin.


B) Meursault’s personality

Meursault’s defence counsel lists his qualities;
J’étais un honnête homme, un travailleur régulier, infatigable, fidèle à la maison qui l’employait, aimé de tous et compatissant aux misères d‘autrui.

  1. A decent chap.  He was indeed “un honnête home” as described above.

(Page 7 Summary notes)  After Salamano has lost his dog, Meursault is sympathetic with him.  He even pays the scabby dog a compliment and tells Salamano how sorry he is about the dog.
As a man of good will, he is bewildered at times by the ill will, which his circumstances bring upon him after the murder.
e.g. he found himself about to shake the Examining Magistrate’s hand on leaving.
e.g. he felt he should explain to his counsel that he was just a man like everyone else.

ii) Meursault is popular. His defence had said he was :aimé de tous et compatissant aux misères d‘autrui. »
Céleste, the owner of the café where Meursault dines, a kindly man, calls Meursault his friend.  He is in despair at the trial because he cannot speak effectively in Meursault’s defence.

Page 105 : Il avait l’air de me demander ce qu’il pouvait encore faire.  Moi, je n’i rien dit, je n’ai fait aucun geste, mais c’est la première fois de ma vie que j’ai eu l’envie d’embrasser un homme.

Old Salamano also went to court to speak in his favour.  He put his foot in it by repeating Meursault’s explanation to him that he had put his mother in the home because he had nothing more to say to her.  Salamano saw how badly this was received but he was bundled out of the witness box when he tried to defend his friend by saying how these feelings were understandable. (Page 107 Summary notes)

Meursault’s other friend Emmanuel is apparently a little backward :
(Page 5 Summary notes) When Meursault goes to the cinema with him, he has to explain the plot of the film to Emmanuel. (Note the considerate nature of Meursault)

(iii) Mersault is intelligent

The prosecutor (See page 16 Summary notes)  tells the jury that Meursault is an intelligent and literate man.  On these grounds, he rejects the idea that Meursault did not know what he was doing.


(iv) Meursault the hard-working employee.- un travailleur régulier, infatigable, fidèle à la maison qui l’employait » according to his defence.

Meursault tells us himself that he is hard-working.  He tells us that he worked hard all week at the office (Page 5 Summary notes)
We can see that his efforts are appreciated, because it was Meursault that his employer chose when an attractive post became available in Paris.
Meursault stays on, probably doing work beneath his ability, because he has no ambition left.  He is fatalistic and thinks that one life is the same as another.
Meursault’s attitude seems to be based upon a previous disappointment.
He explains that when he was a student, he had ambition to get on, but having had to give up his studies, he realised now that these ambitions were unimportant.  He would seem to have a philosophic cannot be dazzled by human ambition.

(v)  Meursault the private reticent man

a) The Examining Magistrate tells Meursault that people depict him as being taciturn and uncommunicative;
Page 82 Il m’a d’abord dit qu’on me dépeignait comme étant d’un caractère taciturne et enfermé.

b)Meursault shows his unwillingness to express his feelings when he avoids having lunch at Céleste’s on the Sunday following the funeral :
Page 38 : Je ne voulais pas déjeuner chez Céleste comme d’habitude parce que, certainement, ils m‘auraient posé des questions et je n’aime pas cela.

c)Meursault’s employer was displeased that he did not get a straight answer when he offered Meursault the Paris job and he found that typical :
Page 58 : Il a eu l’air mécontent,m’a dit que je répondais toujours à côté.

d)Meursault’s reticence is seen at the trial. (See page 16 my notes)  Sometimes, he felt that he should speak, but then, on reflection, he realised that he had nothing to say.
When the Prosecutor asks Meursault to confirm that Raymond was his pal, Meursault’s self-interest is to explain fully the limits of his association with a criminal.  Instead, Meursault damages his case with his laconic « Yes » in reply.

  1. He is not an insensitive man.

 The critic Germaine Brée had said of Meursault that he was a man with a narrow perspective, with limited spiritual capacity. Camus replies to this in the Avant-propos, which he wrote to the 1955 edition of L’Etranger. Camus says that he does not see Meursault as a social derelict as some readers do. He specifically denies the charge that Meursault is insensitive.

To counter these misconceptions about his character, Camus points out the philosophical significance of Meursault : his passionate commitment to the truth about being and feeling.
Loin qu’il soit privé de toute sensibilité, une passion profonde, parce que tacite l’anime, la passion de l’absolu et de la vérité.

c) The philosophical outlook that explains Mersault’s behaviour

To do justice to Meursault, we have to understand his philosophical outlook.

(i) The absurd
Meursault is a man who is highly conscious of the absurdity of the world.  In his narrative, his eye picks out and dwells on the absurd characters:
Salamano and his ritual with his dog
The odd little automaton of a woman.(Page 7 summary notes)
He is fascinated by the quirks of character.
The habit of the concierge in the Old Folk’s home of calling the inmates the « old folk » even though he was as old as they were.  He felt detached because he had an official position
Meursault relishes absurd items and stories. See Page 3 Summary Notes
He cuts out absurd items from newspapers and sticks them in an exercise book.
In prison (page 13 of summary notes) his treasured reading was an old newspaper clipping that told the story of a Czechoslovakian who had returned home after 25 years, a rich man, intending to surprise his mother and sister.  Not recognising him they had murdered him for his money.
He enjoys these absurdities of life.  He is even capable of enjoying the final cruel absurdity of his life, which will be his execution:
Page 133-
Il me restait à souhaiter qu’il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon exécution et qu’ils m’accueillent avec des cris de haine.

When he looks back on his life before the execution, Meursault describes it as absurd :
Page 131 toute cette vie absurde que j’avais menée

(ii) His conviction that pure experience is the only truth in the world
Meursault believes that pure existence (i.e. being and feeling) is the only truth.  He lives from day to day, completely in the present.
He believes that all the conventional human values are pure deception. 
Notions of friendship and love
Thus he rejects hypothetical notions like 1) friendship and 2) love.  These are ideas created by human society and whether he becomes the friend of the crook, Raymond, or the lover of Marie is a matter of the way things happen and does not need these social constructs.   Human love is a poor inadequate thing Time destroys love and human communication is always a difficult thing.  Thus, as his mother aged, Meursault found that they had little to say to each other
Page 23 –
C'etait vrai. Quand elle était à la maison, maman passait son temps à me suivre des yeux en silence.

Finally Mother and son lived independent lives and expected nothing more.  Meursault tells the Prosecutor at the trial:
 Page 101:
ni maman ni moi n'attendions plus rien l'un de l'autre ni d'ailleurs de personne, et que nous nous étions habitués tous les deux a nos vies nouvelles.

Meursault after a night of passionate love with Maria, whose beauty he admires and whose laugh delights him, tells her he does not love her.  He says this because, to him, love is a concept that has no meaning.
Page52 :
 Un moment après, elle m'a demandé si je l'aimais, Je lui ai répondu que cela ne voulait rien dire, mais qu'il me semblait que non. Elle a eu l'air triste.


Further lofty notions he rejects are:

The priest asks Meursault why he has refused to see him :
Page 127 J’ai répondu que je ne croyais pas en Dieu.  Il a voulu savoir si j’étais bien sûr et j’ai dit que je n’avais pas à me le demander : cela me paraissait une question sans importance.

Survival after death
The only reality to Meursault is the life we lead.  Any idea of survival of the soul is mere speculation.  When the priest insists that Meursault should describe another life than this, Meursault replies :
Page 130 « Une vie où je pourrais me souvenir de celle-ci » et aussitôt je lui ai dit que j’en avais assez.

The story of Meursault’s trial depicts the travesty of human justice.  Meursault sums up the arbitrary nature of the sentence :
Page 121
Le fait que la sentence avait été lui a vingt heures plutôt qu' à dix-sept, le fait qu'elle aurait pu etre tout autre, qu'elle avait ete prise par des hommes qui changent de linge, qu'elle avait été portée au crédit d'une notion aussi imprécise que le peuple français (ou allemand, ou chinois), il me semblait bien que tout cela enlevait beaucoup de sérieux à une telle décision.

v) Guilt
To Meursault, questions of guilt are meaningless,  because, in the end there is only one life that we live.  He tells the priest:
Page 113:
 J'aurais voulu essayer de lui expliquer cordialement, presque avec affection, que je n’avais jamais pu regretter vraiment quelque chose. J'étais toujours pris par ce qui allait arriver- par aujourd'hui où par demain

Page 113:
 J’avais vécu de telle façon et j’aurais pu vivre de telle autre.  J’avais fait ceci et je n’avais pas fait cela. Je n’avais pas fait telle chose alors que j’avais fait cette autre.  Et après ?

In the end everyone is equally guilty and equally worthy:
Page 132:
 La petite femme automatique était aussi coupable que la Parisienne que Masson avait épousée ou que Marie qui avait envie que je l’épouse.

In the final analysis, life is just life.

iii) Meursault’s extreme honesty
As he tells his story, Meursault describes phenomena pure and simply.  He will not make claims that he cannot justify or talk in terms of abstractions like love- right- wrong.
Thus the death of his mother is just one reported event:
Page 21 –
Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

Honesty carried to such an extremity could pass as eccentricity in normal circumstances but in the circumstances of a person charged with a capital crime, its effects are devastating.

When the magistrate asks him if he loved his mother, Meursault replies with merciless honesty "Oui comme tout le monde" and the clerk of the court in shock hits the wrong keys. 
81/15 The defending counsel wishes to say that Meursault had controlled his feelings. But Meursault refuses as this is false. He says it has no bearing on the case - but the lawyer says Meursault doesn't know the law.

He asks Meursault if he regrets the act. To play the game and win over the sympathies of the jurors, he should have expressed his emotion at having taken a human life and
having deprived a family of a son, a brother and so on.  Yet he chooses to describe his feelings precisely, making himself seem callous and heartless. 

Page 85 - J'ai réflechi et j'ai dit que, plutôt que du regret veritable, j'éprouvais un certain ennui. J'ai eu l'impression qu'il ne me comprenait pas.

Similarly he could have reassured the court about the deep distress that he held back on the death of his mother but he refuses to overstate his feelings.
Page 81 - Sans doute, j'aimais bien maman, mais cela ne me voulait rien dire. Tous les êtres sains avaient plus ou moins souhaité la mort de ceux qu'ils aimaient

There were easy lies that he could have used to save his neck.  His line should have been that of course he missed his mum when she went to the old folks’ home and he badly wanted to see her.   His relations with Marie were platonic and she had stayed with him just to console him as an old friend.  Instead he told the truth indifferent to the outcome for him.

He should have denied any friendship with Raymond  and made a false claim of intimidation.  Instead he is satisfied to confirm that this disreputable underworld figure is his pal and leave it at that

He could have claimed to have fired the shots at the Arab in a terrified panic.  Instead Meursault insists on confining himself to a factual account, with an explanation that it was the fault of the sun.  He was immediately aware of the feebleness of his case, but felt the obligation to tell the truth as he had experienced it.

On most of the character issues that were to condemn him, Meursault had the chance to misrepresent events and facts and this would be the normal in the preparation of a legal defence.  Meursault chooses absolute honesty, whatever the consequences. 

  iv) Meursault believes that man has to be seen as a thing existing in nature

The Existentialists stress that mind and body form one entity and they emphasise the unity of the individual in the world.

Meursault acts as he does because he is sensitive to the physical environment and because his physical sensations impinge upon his reasoning:
Page 81 –
j’avais une nature telle que mes besoins physiques dérangeaient souvent mes sentiments. Le jour où j’avais enterré maman, j’étais très fatigué et j’avais sommeil

On both the day of the funeral and the day of the shooting, it was the heat and the sunlight, which oppressed him.
Page 74-
C’était le même soleil que le jour ou j’avais enterré maman et, comme alors, le front surtout me faisait mal et toutes les veines battaient ensemble sous la peau.

(v) The passion for living gained from this philosophy      
a) Far from being spiritually limited or insensitive, Meursault is excited by his philosophy of life.  He has a passion for reality in its truth, stripped of the trappings of abstraction.  To the priest, he expresses his certainty in this truth:
Page 131:
 Moi, j’avais l’air d’avoir les mains vides. Mais j’étais sûr de moi, sûr de tout, plus sûr que lui, sûr de ma vie et de cette mort ­qui allait venir. Oui, je n’avais que cela. Mais du moins, je tenais cette vérité autant qu’elle me tenait.

Life as seen by the Existentialists was irrational, poor and unsatisfactory.  Yet in contrast with the ever-present reality of death, its meagre joys were a privilege.  Meursault rejects the lifestyle of the Priest, which he sees as a living death.
Il n’était même pas sûr d’être en vie puisqu’il vivait comme un mort.

In contrast, Meursault is in total communion with nature.  He does what he feels like doing at the moment he feels like doing it.  He swims in the sea with Marie on the day after his mother’s funeral.  The lovers are filled with an urgent desire as they embrace in the sea.
Page 52 –
Je l’ai tenue contre moi et nous avons été pressés de trouver un autobus, de rentrer, d’aller chez moi et de nous jeter sur mon lit. J’avais laissé ma fen être ouverte et c’était bon de sentir la nuit d’été couler sur nos corps bruns

b) His enjoyment of normal everyday experiences:
He responds to his natural needs and finds happiness in this.  Meursault enjoys the ordinary pleasures of life. (Page 5 summary notes)

He loves to swim in the cold sea;
Page 66 –
L’eau était froide et j’étais content de nager. Avec Marie, nous nous sommes éloignés et nous nous sentions d’accord dans nos gestes et dans notre contentement.

He enjoys his evening with Raymond.  A glass of brandy and a close game of billiards – Raymond is nice with him and what more could he wish?
Page 55 -  Je le trouvais très gentil avec moi et j’ai pensé que c’était un bon moment.

He enjoys feminine beauty and annoys Marie by talking about the other beautiful women of Algiers.      

He relishes the smallest experiences : He loves to wipe his hands on the small dry roller towel at lunchtime at the office.

He is nostalgic about twilight in Algiers (Page 16 summary notes)  In the black police van in which he is being taken back to his prison cell, he finds again the familiar sounds of a summer evening in the city:
Page 109 –
j’ai ‘retrouvé un à un, comme du fond de ma fatigue, tous les bruits familiers d’une ville que j’aimais et d’une certaine heure où il m’arrivait de me sentir content.

While the Defence lawyer is concluding his final plea, Meursault is distracted by the trumpet of an ice-cream man and recalls the simple pleasures of his former life:
Page 117 – j’ai été assailli des souvenirs d’une vie qui ne m’appartenait plus, mais où j’avais trouvé les plus pauvres et les plus tenaces de mes joies : des odeurs ‘d’été, le quartier que j’aimais, un certain ciel du soir, le rire et les robes de Marie.

D) The strangeness of Mersault

The critic, Conor Cruise O’Brian tells us that he found that the character of Meursault had a great fascination for the university students whom he taught.  Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that to average, conventional people his ways would appear strange.  He would seem happy in his own little world of his office, his apartment, his local district, the port.  If he has a day off he likes to spend it on his balcony.
He has a very limited circle of friends.  He has lunch at Céleste’s café every day without exception.

His refusal to be judgemental gives him an air of detachment from people and events around him.  His good-hearted friend, Céleste, was disturbed by Salamano’s cruel treatment of his own dog.  Meursault merely reports the habits of Salamano without giving his judgement
Page 44 –
Il y a huit ans que cela dure. Celeste dit toujours que c'est malheureux, mais au fond. personne ne peut savoir.

Meursault has the same attitude of detachment at his trial.  It is as if he is watching a play, appreciating the dramatic skills of the speakers and noting the behaviour of the journalists.  On this occasion, however, it is something more than those around being aware of Meursault’s detachment.  Meursault himself finds it difficult to relate to the judicial charade around him and has the feeling that lawyers are dealing with his business in his absence.
Page 97 Je me suis expliqué aussi la bizarre impression que j’avais d’être de trop, un peu comme un intrus.
Another strange habit of Meursault is his propensity to fall asleep.  He dozes off on the bus that takes him to the old folk’s home and then when seated by the coffin.  When he leaves Marengo, he looks forward to having twelve hours sleep.  He finds it hard to get out of bed in the morning and when Raymond knocks on his door at three in the afternoon, he is asleep.

The strangeness of Meursault’s character, habits and philosophy of life set him apart  and he lived, largely, as an outsider to human society.  This was no real problem until an irrational event, the shooting of the Arab, intervened.  Then Meursault found himself put on trial for what he was and for the ideas he held.  As Meursault’s character and philosophy of life were unconventional, the judicial process highlighted his character as an outsider, preventing the necessary sympathy of judge and jury and putting his life at mortal risk.

The Court Prosecutor concludes that Meursault does not know the essential rules of this society and warns that society is threatened by such men.  He advises against tolerance of  moral evil of this kind: (Page 114)… surtout lorsque le vide du coeur tel qu'on le découvre chez cet homme devient un gouffre où la société peut succomber.

In spite of the death sentence hanging over him,  Meursault chooses to remain consistent to himself and his ideas.  He conducts his rebellion against conventional values without any bravado. When the examining Magistrate tries to arouse his remorse, Meursault does not mount an idealistic counter-attack.  Instead his reaction is one of boredom and discomfort.

The Prosecutor secures the condemnation of Meursault, by concentrating on his interpretations of Meursault’s character and motives.  This becomes the more important aspect of his two pronged attack.  The Prosecutor explains that his case rests, firstly, on the events of the murder and, secondly, on the understanding of Meursault’s criminal psychology

Page 112. J’en ferai la preuve messieurs, et je la ferai doublement.  Sous l’aveuglante clarté des faits d’abord et ensuite dans l’éclairage sombre que me fournira la psychologie de cette âme criminelle.

Mersault had become conscious during the final pleas of the balance of thes two factors :
Page 111. Pendant les plaidoiries du procureur et de mon avocat, je peux dire qu’on a beaucoup parlé de moi et peut-être plus de moi que de mon crime.

In his final rhetorical flourish the Prosecutor asks for the death penalty and speaks of the horror he feels before the face of Meursault :
Page 115 : l’horreur que je ressens devant un visage d’homme où je ne lis rien que de monstrueux.

 How the prosecutor got it wrong

The condemnation of Meursault’s character by the Prosecutor was unjustified

Meursault is not a murderer
a) Never does he show approval of Raymond

He was not Raymond’s accomplice as the Prosecutor claimed.  When Raymond told him about his despicable cruelty towards his Algerian girlfriend, Meursault refused to express an opinion, with his characteristic detachment:
Page 49 ; il voulait savoir ce que je pensais de cette histoire.  J’ai répondu que je n’en pensais rien mais que c’était intéressante.

He wrote the letter to Raymond’s mistress casually when he was probably drunk.  Certainly at the end of the evening Meursault had difficulty standing.

Raymond was just a neighbour, a companion for a drink and a game of billiards

Meursault had previously stopped Raymond from shooting the Arab in cold blood.

b) He did not wish to murder the Arab.
Irrational pressures explained the murder (See previous notes on Reality).  Meursault cannot explain satisfactorily but probably most readers will accept that Meursault is telling the truth in his account of what happened:

Page 115  J’ai dit rapidement en mêlant un peu les mots et en me rendant compte de mon ridicule, que c’était à cause du soleil

c) Meursault is a loving son
A major part of the Prosecutor’s case is based upon Meursault’s supposed insensitivity to his Mother.  The Prosecutor even accuses Meursault of a crime comparable with the case to be heard the following day where the accused is charged with parricide. Yet, in Meursault’s defence we should note:
Meursault had no choice but to put his mother in the old folks’ home.  We have no right to assume that he wished to be rid of her.  He had done what he felt he had to do do, as he would not be able to look after her any longer.  Besides, she was happier in the end with people of her own age.

Meursault’s conduct at the funeral was explained by his fatigue and the oppression of the physical sensations of light and heat

 Meursault is reticent but there are statements of his love for his mother, even though he is afraid to overstate his feelings.  When the Examining Magistrate asks him if he loved his Mother , Meursault replied :
Page  Oui comme tout le monde ( A reply that shocked the court stenographer)

d) Meursault had a genuine affection for Marie
The Prosecutor describes their love affair as shameful debauchery.  Yet Meursault had known Marie prior to their meeting on the beach.  Having first got to know her at the shipping office where he worked.  Meursault shows real love, even though he is hesitant about the term.  There is certainly sensual passion between them, but there is also spiritual harmony.  He expresses admiration for her beauty.  He loves her smile
He feels a need for her presence.

e) Meursault is the modern martyr

In his avant-propos, Camus recalls that he had previously described Meursault as:“le seul Christ que nous méritions” and he defines his role in life as an outsider.  Camus says that Meursault is man who refuses to play the game and in that sense : il est étranger à la société où il vit, il erre en marge, dans les faubourgs de la vie privée, solitaire, sensuelle.

  Our study shows that Meursault is condemned for what he is and for what he believes.  He accepts to die for the truth but without any false heroics.  He has no illusions about his forthcoming execution and is terrified of the dawn when they will come for him.

We have seen how Meursault stands apart because of his individualistic character : taciturn and withdrawn, happy to be in his private world, to enjoy its sensual pleasures.  However, he is also an outsider in a sense that involves us all, as, to some extent we are all outsiders in an alien world.

In his final days, Meursault recognises that even in this world without meaning there is a sweet fraternity in the mutual indifference of men and the world and from this came a realisation of happiness.

Page 133 –
Je m'ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde. De l’éprouver si pareil a moi, si fraternel enfin, j'ai senti que j'avais été heureux, et que je l'étais encore.