The famous lines introducing Meursault's mother open the novel. He is not sure whether she had died today or yesterday since the telegram was not specific. Furthermore he does not really think it matters. He asks for two days off and takes the bus to the home he had put his mother in when he could no longer afford to take care of her. He sleeps on the way there. At the home, Meursault meets the director and the caretaker and is taken to see his mother. He chooses not to look at her and sits by her side as friends come to mourn during the night. He chats with the caretaker, naps, smokes, and has some coffee. In the morning, the funeral procession walks the hour into town for the ceremony. The sun is scorching and Meursault feels more oppressed by the heat than sad over his mother's death. Her fiancé Thomas Pérez however is in tears and must struggle to keep up by taking shortcuts. After the funeral, Meursault catches the bus home and looks forward to sleeping twelve hours.
He wakes up the next day and realizes that it is a weekend and is not surprised his boss was annoyed. He gets up late and then decides to go to the beach where he loves to swim. Once there he sees a woman he used to be attracted to at work, Marie Cardona. They are instantly attracted and agree to see a movie later that night. Marie is surprised to hear that Meursault's mother died only yesterday. That night they see a comedy and go back to Meursault's. She is gone the next morning before Meursault gets up. He remembers that he hates Sundays because they are boring so he takes a nap. Finally he gets up, makes lunch and settles on the balcony to watch people pass. Different crowds move by throughout the day including families, soccer fans, and moviegoers. He eats dinner standing up, watches some more, and then moves inside when it gets colder and darker.
A work day follows. His boss, trying to be kind, asks about his mother but is relieved when Meursault says his mother was about sixty when she died. Meursault has a great deal of work to do before lunch. On the break, he and Emmanuel jump onto a moving fire truck. Meursault eats lunch, takes a nap, and returns to work. Arriving home after work, he runs into Salamano and his dog and thinks of the routine the ridiculous pair always follow. Meursault sees Raymond next who invites him over for dinner. They talk about Raymond's fight with an Arab and then, his cheating girlfriend. He asks Meursault to write a letter to her for him to make her feel bad about what she did. Then he can punish her when she comes back to him. Meursault agrees to write the letter because he is there and Raymond seems to like it very much and says they are pals.
Meursault works hard the following week and attends the movies twice with Emmanuel. On Saturday he sees Marie and they go swimming. He admires her beauty. They frolic in the water and then hurry back to the apartment to have sex. She stays for the morning and asks if he loves her. He says no. They are interrupted by the loud fight between Raymond and his girlfriend. They go watch as Raymond is beating the woman but Meursault does not want to call the police since he does not like them. The cops break it up, slapping Raymond when he will not remove a cigarette from his mouth. Marie and Meursault make lunch but Marie no longer has much of an appetite. After Marie leaves, Raymond comes over and they agree the woman received her punishment. They go out to drink and play pool. They meet Salamano on the way back. He has lost his dog and is upset. Meursault suggests that he check the pound where he could pay a fee for the dog. Salamano is outraged at the idea of paying. He later gets the rest of the details on the pound from Meursault and then goes home. Meursault can hear him crying. He thinks of Maman and goes to bed without dinner.
Meursault receives a call from Raymond at the office which annoys. He is invited by Raymond to bring Marie to his friend's house and told that an Arab relative of Raymond's woman has been following Raymond. Soon after, Meursault's boss offers him a job where he would be transferred to Paris. Meursault admits he is happy enough where he is and the boss berates his lack of ambition. That evening he sees Marie who asks if he will marry her. Meursault says he will if she wants but still says he does not love her. Marie still wants to marry him. She is excited about the prospect of Paris but he thinks it is dirty. Meursault eats dinner alone at Céleste's until he is joined by a jerky robot-like woman. He follows her when she leaves but loses interest. Back at the building, he finds Salamano waiting. His dog was not at the pound and he tells Meursault stories about him and the dog. He does not want another. He also mentions that he is sorry about Maman and understands why he put her in a home though many neighbors do not.
Marie has difficulty waking Meursault on the day they are to join Raymond and his friend. Once outside they see a group of Arabs, like Raymond had mentioned, across the street. They get on the bus for the beach and are not followed. The cottage belongs to Masson and his Parisian wife whom Marie befriends. Meursault is struck by the idea of getting married. Marie and Mersault enjoy swimming together. Meursault then naps on the beach before playing in the water more with Marie. He devours his lunch and then takes a walk with the other men. They run into two Arabs on the beach and Raymond and Masson fight them. Raymond gets cut and needs to be stitched. When they return, he takes off down the beach again. Meursault follows him though he wanted to be left alone. They find the Arab but Meursault convinces Raymond to give him his gun. Nothing happens and the men walk back. Meursault is affected by the sun and heat and goes back onto the beach. He finds himself near the Arab again and is drawn closer. With the heat and glare of the knife, Meursault shoots the gun once and then four more times, killing the Arab.
Part Two of the novel takes place after Meursault's arrest. He is taken to prison and held there. The magistrate gives him a lawyer although Meursault does not think it is necessary. He is taken into an interrogation room with a single lamp like in books he has read. It seems like a game but the magistrate is reasonable. His lawyer visits him the next day and is disturbed that he will not agree to say that he repressed his natural feelings on the day of Maman's funeral. Meursault considers stopping him to explain but is too lazy. The magistrate calls him again and is bothered by the part in his testimony where he hesitated before firing the last four shots. As Meursault cannot explain why, the magistrate takes out a crucifix and attempts to make Meursault repent so God will forgive him. Meursault does not follow his reasoning nor does he believe in God. Frustrating the magistrate further, Meursault says he is more annoyed than sorry about the crime he has committed. Their discussions after this time are more cordial and Meursault remembers little else he enjoyed as much as these moments between him and the magistrate.
The same eleven months spent talking to the magistrate are also lived daily in the prison. Meursault does not like to talk about this much. Marie visits him once and the visiting room is very crowded, bright, loud, and hot. Meursault finds it hard to concentrate on their conversation, picking up pieces of the mostly Arab conversations around. Marie looks beautiful and Meursault looks at her body more than he listens to her voice. Meursault is hot and dizzy. He almost leaves but wants to take advantage of Marie being there. Soon after she visits, he receives a letter from Marie saying she is not allowed to visit any longer because she is not his wife. Still this time is not so hard for Meursault. He has free man thoughts and urges for awhile, such as the desire to go swimming, but these only last for a few months. He realizes that he can get used to anything. The first months are especially hard because of his desire for women and cigarettes. Women's faces fill his room with desire but they also help to pass the time. He chews on pieces of wood to get over smoking and realizes that the only way to really punish him is by taking away these freedoms. The main problem he faces is killing time. To combat time, he catalogs every item in his apartment gaining more and more detail each time he visualizes its entirety. He learns to sleep two thirds of the day . He finds a scrap of a newspaper crime story about a tragic Czech family and reads it over every day. These items and his memory allow him to ease time. He loses a sense of all but yesterday and today. Meursault realizes that he has even begun talking aloud to himself and that his reflection refuses to smile, but he is not at all unhappy.
The year until the next summer passes quickly and it is time for Meursault's trial. At the courthouse, people cram into to see a spectacle and Meursault realizes that it is he. He feels as if he is being judged. The room is very hot and Meursault feels dizzy. The press has built up his story making the interest and crowds larger than expected. One young reporter in particular examines Meursault thoroughly and the robot woman is also seen in the audience watching intently. His examination is first and he agrees with the judge's reading of his statement. He is irritated by the questions on Maman. After a break, the prosecution's witness are called. The director and caretaker of the home testify on Meursault's lack of sympathy toward his mother at the funeral. Pérez testifies that he could neither see Meursault cry or not cry through his own tears. The defense is then called and Céleste is the first witness. He states that the murder was bad luck. Marie testifies about the day they met following Maman's burial which is turned by the prosecution into a dubious liaison too close to his mother's death. Masson states that Meursault is an honest man and Salamano pleads with the jury to understand. Raymond is the last witness and testifies that Meursault was at the beach by chance and the Arab had hated Raymond. The prosecutor says Meursault is on trial for burying Maman with a crime in his heart. Meursault leaves the courthouse and smells the summer air. He remembers the days when he was happy, noting that his path could have gone either way.
The lawyer's summations follow the next day and Meursault is interested to see what they will say about him. As both speeches are very long, Meursault finds it difficult to pay attention. The prosecutor seems to dwell on his crime being premeditated. Meursault finds the recreation of events plausible and sees how he could be thought of as Raymond's accomplice. Meursault notes how odd it is that his intelligence is used against him. The prosecutor then spends a long time on Meursault's treatment of Maman. Meursault admits to himself that the prosecutor is correct that he is not able to show remorse. The prosecutor ends by declaring that Meursault's soul is empty and that he is a monster who has paved the way for the parricide trial following. Meursault replies that he had no intention of killing the Arab. When asked why he did it, he does not know and can only blurt out that it was because of the sun. The defense lawyer's summation is not as skilled Meursault finds, especially since he does not address Maman's funeral. Meursault does not like how his lawyer replaces his name with "I" and feels further excluded from the entire process. The pointlessness of the trial depresses him and he wishes he could go sleep. Meursault is made to wait in another room as the jury decides and pronounces the verdict. He is brought in for the sentencing and hears that he is going to be decapitated in the name of the French people. He has nothing to say.
In his prison cell, Meursault denies the chaplain three times. He wishes he had paid more attention to executions so that he could think of one possibility where the criminal had escaped the inevitability of the process. He finds the absoluteness of the situation to be arrogant. He remembers Maman's story of his father going to an execution and now understands why. He wishes that he could visit all of the executions from now on. This wish is too painful though since there is such little chance of his freedom. He imagines new penal codes which would allow the condemned to have one chance in ten of escaping his fate. He realizes that his concept of the guillotine has always been skewed. The two things he thinks about most though are dawn and his appeal. Meursault knows that the executioners would come right before dawn so he waits up every night. Although he knows everyone will die, the thought of his appeal is maddening. He must convince himself of its impossibility in order to introduce to himself the chance of a pardon, which when faced rationally, gives him an hour of calm.
He thinks of Marie for the first time in a while at such a moment and the chaplain comes in. Asked why he has refused him, Meursault answers that he does not believe in God. Meursault tries to convince the chaplain that he has little time to devote to other thoughts and the chaplain's words do not interest him. The chaplain is surprised to learn that Meursault truly believes there is nothing after death. He points out that every sufferer has found the face of God in the prison stones. Meursault has looked only for Marie and not found her. The chaplain refuses to accept Meursault's behavior. Meursault snaps, yelling at him that he does wish for another life but one where he could remember the present one. He attacks the chaplain as the one who is dead inside, waiting for something after life. Meursault realizes that he has been right all along. He had lived his life one way but it did not matter and no one's life, death, or love made a difference to him. Every life is worth the same and all are privileged.. The guards tear the chaplain away and Meursault falls asleep. When he wakes, it is night. The sirens blast just before dawn and Meursault thinks of Maman. He understands her need to live life all over again, explaining why she took a fiancé so close to death. No one has a right to cry over her. He opens himself to the indifference of the world and finds it to be a brother. He is happy. To feel less alone, he only hopes that a crowd of haters will welcome him at his execution.