Long before Rust Cohle, the anti-hero of HBO TV Series True Detective, comes into limelight. Meursault has become an embodiment of a nihilist anti-hero. First written and published in French in 1943 by Albert Camus. L‘Étranger or popularly known as The Stranger is a novel that explores the philosophical theme of existentialism, nihilism, and absurdity with Meursault as the main character as well as the narrator. The version that I read is another translation from Sandra Smith which was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2013. Sandra Smith creates new version of translation in order to make L‘Étranger become more accessible to modern readers.
The book is written in narrative style with a first-person view from Meursault’s point of view. As a character, Meursault can’t be put into a protagonist category because he lacks the heroic features of a protagonist. Rather, as the principal character, he’s an anti-hero. The characterization of Meursault is presented implicitly through Meursault’s thoughts and speeches. One of the fine examples of Meursault’s characterization began as early as the plot of the book was opened by Meursault’s thought in his Maman (mother) funeral. The illustrious first sentence symbolizes Meursault’s nihilist character:
“My mother died today, or maybe yesterday, I Don’t know.I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” that doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.” – L’Etranger first opening sentence.
Through the opening sentence, the reader was introduced to Meursault’s one defining characteristic: emotional indifference. This characteristic of Mersault will later continually ensue throughout the story, making it one of his major traits as well as a trait that will get him into the conflict of the book. Meursault showed absolutely no grief towards his mother’s death. He noted that it doesn’t mean anything, he might refer it to the exact day of his mother’s death or he might also refer it to death in general. This sentence then also introduces the recurring theme of the book: Existentialism, nihilism, and absurdity, in which human’s life is meaningless and without purpose thus death doesn’t really mean anything because everyone will eventually death in the end.
“Since we are all going to die. it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
Another character was then introduced to the reader. Her name is Marie in which Meursault began a relationship with. Through Marie, Meursault’s characters which were characterized with indifference and detachment were further delineated. During one of their conversation, Marie asked Meursault whether he loves her or not in which Meursault replied that did not mean a thing.
“A minute later she asked if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.”
Meursault for sure is attracted to Marie and he knew that he wanted her but he didn’t see the point of getting marry or saying that he loved her. Meursault thought that love didn’t mean anything and it is not necessary to talk out his emotions. While both Meursault and Marie embraces their sexual interest with each other, Marie’s feeling went deep and sentimental while Meursault remains indifference. Throughout the book, we will see evidences on how Meursault is incapable of giving an emotional narrative but can narrate a physical’s sensation vividly.
“All around me the landscape was still glaring, flooded in sunlight. The dazzling sky was unbearable. The sun had burned and blistered the tar. Our feet sank down into it, exposing its shimmering soft mass to the sun. I felt a bit lost standing between the blue and white of the sky and the relentless darkness of these other colours. The Sun, the smell of leather and dung clinging on to the wheels of the hearse, the smell of polish and incense, the exhaustion from not having slept all night – all these things stung my eyes and blurred my thoughts.” – Meursault narrating the day of his Maman‘s funeral.
“He asked me if ‘I was all right what with everything’. I said yes and told him I was hungry” – Meursault conversation with Céleste, owner of restaurant he frequently visited.
Another character comes later in the book, Raymond. Raymond is Meursault’s neighbor and the catalyse of the book’s arising conflict. It is Raymond’s aggressive attitude that draws Meursault into the situation that results in his crime. He also serves as a foil to Meursault’s character. Raymond is visibly immoral, he asked Meursault to write a letter to his cheating mistress in which Meursault agreed because he didn’t have a reason to not agree and when Raymond’s mistress visited Raymond, Raymond beat the hell out of her. Meanwhile, Meursault is neither immoral or moral. He‘s simply hold no value in anything that he does nor he divides thing in good or bad. Under a nihilist view, all morals lose value and empirical significance, Meursault knows that if he wrote the letter for Raymond, Raymond will beat his mistress, but nonetheless he did it because he has the ability and time to do so.
Conflict comes after Raymond beat his mistress and in seeking vengeance, the mistress’s brother, an Arab, seek out Raymond while Raymond was out on a beach trip with Meursault and their other friends. The book reached its’ climax when Meursault was convicted for a murder of the Arabs and was being hold a trial. During the trial, Meursault’s indifference shocked the society. At his trial, more emphasis is placed on the fact that he did not cry at his mother’s funeral than the fact that he killed a man. His lack of sadness causes him to be seen by society as an outsider, a threat, and a monster.This is where the book gets interesting. Though being convicted for murder, what scares the public the most is how indifference Meursault is. He is a threat because he has a different moral value with the society thus making him a threat.
Meursault lives in the present moment free of any system values. He’s honest and never tries to please the society by acting according to society’s moral code. He does not follow social norms and asserts his freedom by doing what he pleases. This includes him smoking, his indifferent feelings toward his mother, and his ability to go to beach and sleeping with a woman after his mother’s funeral. This freedom illustrates a revolt against any attempt to put restrictions on his life. Before serving his death sentence, a chaplain comes to visit Meursault to convince him for a religious burial in which Meursault decline. He then had his final outburst, a sort of enlightenment that the universe itself is indifferent to human beings and thus life has no meaning and it all ends in death. His final outbursts in prison depicts his absurd view of the world. It is shown that nothing matters to him and that we all live and we all die and anything done before death is irrelevant.
“He seemed so sure of himself, didn’t he? But not one of his certainties was worth a single strand of woman’s hair. He wasnt’ even sure he was alive because he lived a life as if he were dead. I may look as if I had nothing but I was sure of myself, sure of everything, sure of my life, sure of my impending death. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. From the depths of my future, throughout this absurd life I had lived, a gathering wind swept towards me, stripping bare along its path everything that had been possible in the years gone by, years that seemed just unreal as the ones that lay ahead. Why should the death of other people or mother’s love matter so much? Why should I care about his god, the lives, destinies we choose when one unique destiny had chosen me, and along with me millions and millions of privileged others. Everyone was privileged, there was no one who wasn’t privileged. All those others, they too would one day be condemned to death.” – Meursault’s final outburst in prison towards the ending of the book.
Though I might be interested in philosophy, the essence of existentialism, nihilism, and absurdity itself does not attract me. I find it bewildering for a person to live a life without a grand purpose and to remain indifference towards any emotional attachment. Nevertheless, Meursault is definitely an interesting character and I can’t help to find a resemblance to him in Rust Cohle.
The book itself is a great reading. Albert Camus through Meursault always gives a rich and eloquent description of its’ surroundings. One of the book’s finest moments was Meursault’s observation of passerby during his solitude moment. 4 pages of the book with only a narration about what he sees but Camus manages to make it a very enthralling narrative. Every time I read a book, I always consider it a great book when:
1) the character is a strong one with a unique characters
2) a vivid and rich narrative that makes me feel like I am one with the book.
I am not in favor with most characters from books that I like, nonetheless I found them interesting, especially when it is being told from their point of view. This is how it goes with Albert Camus’s the Stranger, you may not be a fan of his philosophy but the fact that Meursault itself is an interesting character and how rich the narration is makes The Stranger become a great book to read.