The Two Faces of Meursault
At the climax of The Stranger, Meursault dies for his killing of an Arab. Often have we considered this an act of absurdity; he could have made some plea for mercy, could have attempted to explain himself to the court. But Meursault did none of these things, thus affirming the fact that his actions were indeed absurd. Just as the text contains so many dualities of meaning in its dialogue, so too does Meursault contain a duality of philosophical belief. I propose that he is BOTH absurd and nihilistic.
Let us begin by ascertaining the exact degree to which Meursault is an absurd person trapped in an absurd world. Certainly he could have avoided the killing of the Arab and walked away; from our point of view, he has just killed a man for no better reason than the heat of the sun:
The scorching blade slashed at my
eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave..in that noise, sharp and deafening at the time, is where it all started…Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times at the door of unhappiness (The Stranger, p.59)
History, has been, and will continue to be, an important part of society. Frederick Jackson Turner once said, Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with references to the conditions uppermost in its own times. (New) Today our culture views some events as significant and others that have impacted society just as much, oftentimes do not ...
This alone is reason enough to consider Meursault absurd; he’s just ended another person’s life over a particularly hot weather pattern. I would suggest that a weatherman of similar mind would be quite dangerous. Meursault refuses to acknowledge that he even had a degree of participation in this death. He states that “The trigger gave”, indicating he had not made a conscious decision to fire the weapon.
In and of itself, the preceding quote means quite little. It is indeed an example of the absurd, but an isolated incident. What makes Meursault and his death particularly absurd is the courtroom sequence; he doesn’t acknowledge his participation in the killing, but refuses to defend himself from it. Meursault refuses to apologize or repent for his actions; society will punish him, a fact that Meursault has already accepted their judgement. He doesn’t even take a role in the proceedings, a fact which he realizes:
Everything was happening without my participation. My fate was being decided without anyone so much as asking my opinion…But on second thought, I didn’t have anything to say (p.98).
Meursault has given up on the idea of defending himself; he simply doesn’t see the rationality of doing that. In fact, he is completely incapable of realizing rationality’s role in his existence. He has let himself drift down the stream of life, and refuses to paddle. Now he is an absurd character, and now do we realize that he will die for his belief in the absurd. He doesn’t feel any remorse over the killing, and simply won’t pretend to for his own survival.
Conversely, I have accused Meursault of being a nihilist, an individual whose only belief is a dedication to nothing. He sees no deeper meaning to his life; there is no reason for his existence. The nihilistic point of view holds its sway in Meursault’s refusal to apologize or repent. Why should Meursault apologize? The Arab’s death was the end of nothing, and he himself lives for nothing. What would the point be of apologizing? The priest triggers one of the few key arguments from Meursault in the entire book, and further validates the theory of a nihilistic protagonist:
The Stranger Camus shows that Meursault can find his true identity only through an encounter with death. Meursault goes through some deaths in his life that lead to his own. This awkward, but most entertaining, character discovers himself through the tragedy that occurs in his life. His life is a full one and he faces each situation the same way. The encounters of death starts here, the death of ...
According to him, human justice was nothing and divine justice was everything. I pointed out that it was the former that had condemned me. His response was that it hadn’t washed away my sin for all that. I told him I didn’t know what a sin was. All they told me was that I was guilty. I was guilty, I was paying for it, and nothing more could be asked of me (p.118)
Meursault is an atheist, which helps explain the quote. He has no belief in a higher power that shall punish him in the afterlife. From this standpoint, there is no reason to repent. He won’t appeal to the jury, but at the same time doesn’t care. Just as he ended the Arab’s life, so too will the jury end his. There is no point to this series of actions, no deeper meaning to be had. It all just happens, and Meursault is simply an observer.
Meursault’s was an existence filled with dualities. It is my firm belief that he lived his life as a follower of the absurd, but accepted the conclusion thereof with a nihilistic outlook. Perhaps similarities between the two beliefs explains this: absurdity is the belief in something greater and its irrelevancy, nihilism values nothing whatsoever. I know not if the priest incident changed Meursault’s outlook. What I do know is that Meursault was a scary individual, one possessed of many faces for many occasions. Is it just sheer coincidence that he adopted the two faces society considers alien? Once again, I do not know. I think Camus was trying to indicate that such a “face” is possessed by every individual; all of us have the potential to do as Meursault did. All of us have the potential to become strangers to society.