The Stranger Summary and Analysis
by Albert Camus
Part One, Chapters 1-3
Chapter 1 Summary:
Mersault is notified by mail that his mother has died, though he is not sure of the exact date. He asks for two days off from his boss and takes the bus to the old people's home, Marengo, two hours away. He sleeps on the way. At the home, the caretaker and then director speak with him. The director mentions that his mother was happier at the home than with Mersault because she was with people her own age. He agrees.
After the director explains the funeral arrangements, Mersault moves inside the mortuary to see his mother. He requests not to be shown the body and sits by the coffin. The caretaker stays and tells him about his life, explaining how he is not a resident at the home and the differences with a Paris funeral. Mersault decides, hesitating at first because of his mother, to have a smoke. He nods off until Maman's friends come in to sit at the vigil. They all sit on the other side of the coffin with the caretaker and Mersault feels as if he is being judged. When a woman continues to cry softly the caretaker explains that his mother was the only friend the woman had. Mersault perceives that perhaps all of the friends feel very little toward his mother. He falls asleep as do most of the friends and the night passes.
In the morning, Mersault cleans up a bit before the funeral procession. Mersault refuses to look at his mother before the casket is sealed, signs forms, and the procession in underway. It consists of himself, the nurse, the director, the undertaker's men, the priest, and Monsieur Pérez, a member of the home who is allowed to attend because of his closeness to Maman. The procession walks along the long road to the village, nearly an hour away. Mersault feels he can understand his mother better when he is told that she and Pérez would take walks often to the village. Pérez begins to fall behind but catches up using shortcuts. Mersault complains of the heat. He notes that the entire funeral moved so fast and deliberately that he remembers nothing except a comment of the nurse and the image of Pérez crying.
The first sentence of the novel, "Maman died today", is one of the most famous in literature. What is especially noticeable though is the sentence which follows. Mersault is not sure whether it was today or yesterday his mother died. This indifference to detail and time will categorize Mersault's personality throughout the novel. The details of the telegram which he does discuss only concern his uncertainty of the date. He mentions nothing else of the telegram's effect on him.
The jarring effect of his curt and emotionless description is reflected in the style of the prose. The sentences are sharp and concise, consisting of mainly simple action verbs. The reader is advised of nearly all of Mersault's movements as he makes his decisions -- from which bus he will take, to what he said to his boss, and where he likes to eat. The paradoxical situation presented is that the text is not in the present tense, but the past tense predominately, and very few lines of dialogue are given. The reader should thus pay close attention to the speech which is presented in dialogue form. The first statement in quotation marks we hear from any character comes from Mersault as he claims that his mother's death and his having to miss work are not his fault. This focus on the narrator while simultaneously distancing the narrator from events and responsibility is central to the tone created by Camus.
Several times during the first chapter, Mersault falls asleep. First, on the bus to the home he provides several reasons why it may have happened. At each juncture of his sleeping he points out elements in the environment which would have led to his sleeping. We are thus led to believe that the sleep was beyond his control, that it was brought on by elements of the situation, and that the sleep happened to the passive Mersault. In a sense, the reader becomes connected to Mersault as an everyman character because what happened to Mersault would likely have happened to anyone at that moment. The identification with Mersault is clouded with the paradox of his sleeping through the chapter and many of its events. He is everyman and yet he experiences everything with very little emotion, unlike most people would. He is sleepwalking through his life. Symbolically as he crosses the country for his own mother's funeral, led to the scene of her death, he blanks out, taking a more passive role in the journey. Cyclically, on the way home, the first mention of his joy is given. Happiness is found for Mersault in conjunction with the promise of sleep.
Seemingly Mersault can blot out the living moments of his existence and remember solely what he wishes, as he does with the slices of memory he retains from the funeral. Notice how the mother's woman friend and M. Pérez are the only ones who cry. Mersault remembers this instance yet transforms it into a caricature, removed from himself. In the text, images float by and are reduced to a quick mention or a list of events, separated by commas. He is melted by the hot sun more than by the funeral of his mother and thus gives more attention in detail to that as it is a bodily and not emotive response. Mersault feels little contact with the imposed reality of humanity on the naturalness of the daily and minute events he participates in, a theme which will follow us throughout the novel.
Chapter 2 Summary:
Upon waking up from his 12 hour sleep, Meursault realizes that it is Saturday and that he will, in effect, receive a total of four days off from work. No wonder his boss was annoyed, he thinks, although it is not his fault that Maman died or that the two days he asked for fell right before the weekend. Meursault finally pulls himself out of bed, washes, and decides to go for a swim. At the beach, he runs into Marie Cardona, a former typist at his office to whom he had been attracted. Still attracted, he sits with her on a float and rests his head on her stomach. They decide to go to the movies that night. Once dressed, she wonders at the black tie he is wearing. Meursault informs her of his mother's death the day before. She is surprised by how recent the death was but Meursault does not feel like explaining any further.
She no longer seems to care when they meet for the movies at night. They watch a comedy and he fondles Marie during the movie. After the movie, they go back to his place. She is gone by the time he wakes up in the morning. Meursault is bothered that it is Sunday so he finds the smell of salt left by Marie on her pillow and sleeps some more. Wanting privacy, he makes lunch at home and wanders around the apartment, bored. He notices how the apartment was too big with Maman gone and so he has only kept up what is necessary for his daily life. As it is a beautiful afternoon, he moves out to the balcony from his room and watches the people moving by. Families pass by first and then the local boys a little later. He figures the boys are going to the movies. The road empties, leaving shopkeepers and cats as is the case on most slow Sundays. Meursault smokes cigarettes and eats chocolate. He watches the weather darken and then clear. Soon the streetcar returns bringing fans from the soccer game who alert him that they won.
As the sun sets, people begin returning from their walks. The moviegoers enter the street all at once and appear to Meursault as if they have seen an adventure film. Another set of moviegoers who had attended the further theaters in town pass by more subdued shortly after. The girls and young men laugh and play flirting games as they walk past. Suddenly, Meursault notices the street lights come on and the stars appear in the sky. His eyes begin to tire but pick up the streetcar lights bouncing off of objects. Once the street is deserted, Meursault goes to buy some things for dinner. He cooks and eats standing and then closes the windows. He realizes that nothing much has changed: another Sunday is over and Maman buried.
Over the course of the second chapter the reader is introduced to the minute-to-minute details of Meursault's life on a regular Saturday and Sunday. We see the two patterns of life on non-work days that Meursault has through our first glimpse of what his life is like on an ordinary day as opposed to the days surrounding his mother's funeral. The tone however of the chapter does not differ greatly from the first chapter which did focus on the funeral. This sameness is very important when considering the message which Camus is attempting to present through the character of Meursault. The tone we note in both chapters is indifference. As we discussed in the first chapter analysis, Meursault is largely more concerned with his physical comfort, the physical environment, and character observations than with the emotional baggage normally accompanying death or the behavior expected by society. Seeing as Meursault is indifferent to the death of his own mother, perhaps we should not be surprised that he is largely indifferent in his daily life as well. Camus is constructing a framework through the character and life of Meursault in order to explore his ideas of the Absurd. Camus once said, "What is absurd is the confrontation between the sense of the irrational and the overwhelming desire for clarity which resounds in the depths of man." In plainer English, Camus did not believe in a world with absolute and/or divine forces such as God or an afterlife. In his world, when one died, that was all. Thus, the striving by the majority of humans to make their lives meaningful in the face of God is absurd. Every aspect of one's life is devoid of any greater meaning or truth and leads solely to nothingness. The struggle then, as he understood it, is to come terms with the Absurd. Hope and faith are but pointless measures constructed by man to provide purpose and avoid responsibility. When these constructs are removed and one understands he is faced with a definitive and eternal end, he has the ability to take control over the actions of his life and give them personal meaning. Creating meaning in a meaningless world is, indeed, absurd but a journey by which Camus is immensely intrigued .
In these philosophic terms, Meursault's choices and lifestyle are slightly more comprehensible. His mother's death is not an emotional experience for him because death is the expected end to the ordinary human cycle and, moreover, he and his mother were not close. He says at one point later in the text that he had sent her to the home because he didn't have the money to care for her and, "it had been a long time since she'd had anything to say to me" Thus the progression of events toward death of a person he knew but was not particularly attached to does not create sadness. Moreover, an ordinary non-work day as we watch Meursault participate in during chapter two is going to present a man following a track of his own physical pleasures. One of his favorite pleasures is swimming and going to the beach, as we will see over the course of the novel, and so on the first day after returning from his mother's burial, he is right back into ordinary life and chooses this as his first activity. He is stimulated by the most simple, physical sensations: hot, cold, sexual attraction. We learn very cursory information about Marie, that she was a typist, but nothing about the details of how she looks and what her personality is like. Instead we learn the physical effects she has on Meursault. This very self-centered narrative tells us about brushing up against her breasts and hearing her heart beat. In a life without meaning, these moments are what stimulate Meursault. We see that Marie is not living quite the same lifestyle as she is noticeably surprised by the nonchalance Meursault has shown toward his very recent mother's death. However, also note that Meursault gets the day wrong on which his mother died. He replies "yesterday" where in fact the burial was the day before but the death was a day or two before that. A slight wave of guilt washes over Meursault before he can push it away. He knows that his actions do not mean anything and guilt is simply a human flaw which one must displace.
The social interaction of Marie and Meursault is cut very short by Camus. We know they watch a movie and it is a comedy (not only offensive following his mother's death but referencing the reader's viewing of this comedy) but the plot (also self-referential) is not important. In fact, Meursault claims it "was just too stupid". We read instead about how the two touched each other and then left to have sex. In the morning, he is more distressed by the fact that it is Sunday than that Marie has left already. He enjoys the morning by staying in bed, napping, smelling the salt from Marie's hair, and smoking. Sunday disturbs him because there is no set pattern to follow, as monotonous as the pattern may be during the work-week. His life consists of physical impulses and daily pattern. Sunday interrupts this style and he is bored. Without any motivation, Meursault decides instead to observe others doing. The text becomes nearly a list of others' activities, snapshots in time much like he described his mother's friend Perez at the funeral. The emptiness of Sunday does strike Meursault however as the shopkeepers sweep dust into their deserted shops and he remarks that his apartment is too big for one man whereas it was the right size while Maman lived there. The reader is tempted to take this statement as sentimental but if one just reads the prose, Camus has not told you that Meursault is sad. He is bored. He notices the expressions of the sky much more forcefully than he recognizes expressions of his own emotions. At times, it seems as if Camus' voice is superseding that of Meursault because the words and imagery have a poetical flair. It is also possible that we underestimate a poetical foundation buried inside of Meursault but the reader cannot yet know how beautifully he will speak when approaching death. When the movements of the sky and people grow, Meursault realizes that another meaningless Sunday has passed him by. His mother's dying did little to change that or anything.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Meursault returns to work and works hard. The boss is kind. He is relieved to find that Maman was "about sixty" when she died. Meursault does not remember exactly. In the morning, Meursault goes through the invoices on his desk and then washes his hands, a pleasurable activity, before lunch. He leaves for lunch with Emmanuel, who suggests they jump onto a fire truck moving quickly past them. Spontaneously, Meursault agrees and they run and jump on. Dripping with sweat, they go to Céleste's for lunch. Céleste asks Meursault about Maman. He eats fast, drinks too much wine, and returns home to take a nap. Later he goes back to the office and works all afternoon.
On his way home from work, Meursault runs into his neighbor Salamano and his dog. The two have been inseparable for eight years and not only look alike, but hate each other. They are both covered by scabs. Meursault recounts their daily routine of walking and Salamano's beating of the dog. Meursault is non-judgmental about the pair whereas Céleste thinks the dog's treatment in pitiful. Salamano is always yelling at the dog, "Filthy, stinking bastard!" and this time is no different. Immediately after seeing Salamano, another neighbor, Raymond Sintès, comes in. He is reputed to be a pimp but says he is a "warehouse guard". Raymond likes to talk to Meursault because he listens. He invites him up for dinner and Meursault accepts so he does not have to cook. The room is messy and filled with pictures of naked women. Raymond explains about the fight he had with a man that day and wants Meursault's advice which, he claims, will make them pals. His story during dinner is about a girlfriend whom he swears is cheating on him, with little evidence. It turns out that the man he fought with was her brother. He admits to giving her an allowance and beating up on her. None of it is his fault, he says. He wants Meursault's help in plotting revenge against the girlfriend, first thinking he could have her arrested as a prostitute or having underworld friends "mark" her. Instead he wants to send her a letter to make her sorry for what she has done so she will come back to him and he can spit on her. Meursault agrees to write the letter right then, hoping it will please Raymond. The girl's name is Moorish. Raymond is happy with the work and says how they have become pals. Before Meursault leaves, Raymond tells him he has heard about Maman's death and to not let things get to him because it was bound to happen. Meursault agrees and leaves, hearing Salamano's dog whimper as he returns to his apartment.
Chapters one and two show the reader an extraordinary day and the weekend days, respectively, in the life of Monsieur Meursault. Chapter three thus brings us a typical work day. The boss at Meursault's work is a person of normal human sensibilities, meaning that he follows the fundamental rules of human behavior, so feels that he must ask Meursault about his mother. Meursault's nonchalance on the subject, answering with an approximation of her age, relieves the boss from any sympathy role he must play. It is important to consider that Meursault answers "about sixty" so as to not make a mistake. He is more concerned with guessing close to Maman's age than in following standard protocol. It does not occur to him how disturbing it may seem for a son to not know his mother's age. This small comment is symbolic of his entire outlook toward life. He is more concerned about being truthful to himself than constructing a persona for the public so does not feel the need to disguise his indifference toward the emotional aspects of life. Camus is careful to set this precedent both to display Meursault's attitude and to provide material to later condemn him.
Consequently, the next paragraph quickly moves on to the details of his work day. One may ask, if Meursault is so indifferent why does he work so hard at his job? Yet notice that it is simply the pattern that he must go though during work days. He does not enjoy the job, he just does it and wants to keep doing it. He is living life in the pattern set forth for him, not looking to break the rules but simultaneously breaking the social codes without meaning to because of the lack of meaning breaking the code would have for him. Meursault finds pleasure in the dry roller towel, not in his job. His boss, representing the contrast between Meursault and others, points out the smallness of this desire. Meursault is freed from the need to please anyone else or act any certain way. When Emmanuel suggests jumping onto the fire truck, Meursault does it. He can be spontaneous as well as set in a pattern because truly it all makes no difference. Notice too how often Meursault simply dozes off and naps. He is freed enough from behavioral obligation that he sleeps when he wants to without giving it another thought, just as he does beside Maman's coffin and the morning after Marie leaves. Physical sensations feel good to him and he revels in the sun and sleep and sex and swimming and smoking.
Meursault's neighbor Salamano presents an odd example of a man who does run his daily life based on emotions and routine. His dog and he look alike and both are grotesque. He is abusive toward his dog, verbally and physically, and they seem to hate each other. Yet, Meursault does not judge him. Many of the characters comment on how pitiful the situation is yet Meursault never agrees nor disagrees. He looks at their relationship as based in logic and so asks Salamano what the dog has done to deserve the cursing. The illogical reason is that the dog is there. Their love and hate relationship provides a strong and ironic contrast to the relationship Meursault will have with Marie. We will learn that he does not love her because it does not matter. The dog is all that matters to Salamano and is a metaphor for the element in most human lives which causes us to feel emotions strongly and repeatedly though they are often far from rational approaches or simple physical responses. Yet Camus is far from saying that Meursault is wrong in his attempt toward life. He has simply not learned yet how to make the best of an existence which he, in fact, understands the best of all the characters in Camus' mind. He knows that life is meaningless. However, he has not yet learned how to deal with the Absurd and create meaning. This paradoxical collision of characters alludes to the condemnation Meursault will later face and the freedom he finds in his condemnation.
Raymond is another repulsive type of character who does little to redeem himself throughout the novel. And yet he sees Meursault as a friend because he is willing to listen. Meursault does not judge him after hearing about his bloody fight with a man which he continued to beat after he was on the ground. The man had kicked back but it is still a questionable action. Meursault however agrees to listen to this and his next story because Raymond will make him dinner and then he does not need to cook. The physical priority is lifted above any moral one. Still one must wonder why Meursault, a man who seemingly finds the truth very important, would agree to write a letter which is unnecessarily mean and manipulative without even hesitating. Raymond wants him to so he does. He also accepts Raymond's narrative concerning his cheating girlfriend which is rather inconclusive and subjective. He claims she is cheating from evidence such as finding a lottery ticket in her purse she could not explain paying for. These events and life stories do not matter to Meursault; they do not affect him. Yet what does affect him is too many glasses of wine or cigarettes. He is easily overcome by the excess of physical stimuli and has less control over himself when his mind is numb and burning as a result. This theme of physical stimuli excess is a harbinger of bad moments, at least in the eye of society, for Meursault. Remember the walk to the funeral where his thoughts are focused on the scorching sun. He will later be condemned for such a focus.
The Stranger Essays and Related Content
- The Stranger: Essays
- The Stranger: Questions
- The Stranger: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Albert Camus: Biography
- The Stranger Summary
- About The Stranger
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two, Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two, Chapters 4-5
- Related Links on The Stranger
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources