A Study of the Antithesis of a Hero in The Stranger

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Albert Camus’ first novel, The Stranger portrays events in the life of Meursault- from the loss of his mother to the moments before his execution for committing a murder- the nature of whom has been a topic of critical analysis and discussion for the critics over the years. However, this paper will attempt to address the following questions: Is Meursault an antithesis of a hero? Is he a villain? Or is he someone beyond these overtly simple categorizations of a main character in a text? These questions will be discussed predominantly with references to two major turning points in the narrative of the novel: the first being the death of Meursault’s mother and finally the murder of one nameless Arab after Meursault and Raymond’s two subsequent encounters with the Arabs on the beach.

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So, at first, what is meant by the term ‘antithesis’ and what are the essential attributes or the qualities that make a character a ‘hero’ in a text need to be addressed. ‘Antithesis’ is “a contrast or opposition, either rhetorical or philosophical” (Baldick 19), which is “sharpened by the use of opposite or noticeably different meanings” (Cuddon and Habib 45). A ‘hero’ is considered as the “main character in a narrative or dramatic work” (Baldick 152). However, when we look at the classical epic heroes like Ulysses, Beowulf, Gilgamesh or Achilles, we note that their qualities of honesty, courage and nobility create a kind of benchmark for the society to follow and they are admired and worshipped by common people. While, on the contrary, ‘tragic heroes’ of Shakespeare or Marlowe like Macbeth, Hamlet or Doctor Faustus reach their ‘tragic’ stature because of ‘hamartia’, “the Greek word for error or failure, used by Aristotle in his Poetics (4th century BCE)” (Baldick 149), which can be caused by misjudgement or ignorance and it ultimately leads them towards their tragedy or downfall from their larger than life status in the society.

Therefore, the antithesis of a hero can be both an ‘anti-hero’, “a central character in a dramatic or narrative work who lacks the qualities of nobility and magnanimity expected of traditional heroes and heroines in romances and epics” (16) or a ‘villain’, a “wicked character in a story and in an important and special sense, the evil machinator or plotter in a play” (Cuddon and Habib 762), who is “usually the antagonist opposed to the hero” (Baldick 353). So, an anti-hero might not have all the evil qualities and machinations that a ‘villain’ has.

The opening sentence of the novel: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know” (Camus 3) establishes the first turning point in the narrative, which is the death of Meursault’s mother, which has its significant repercussions later on. But the first thing that can be noted is his strikingly indifferent attitude towards the death and his subsequent comment: “That doesn’t mean anything” (3) further heightens it. The often self-contradictory, confusing nature of Meursault is also an important trait of his character that differentiates him from a conventional ‘hero’. On the way to the home where his mother had lived, he expresses his desire to see “Maman right away” (6). But when he ultimately gets there, he refuses two times to see her. At first, he refuses the caretaker and later on he says no to the director of the home when he asks: “Before I do, would you like to see your mother one last time?” (13). However, it seems that his indifferent attitude and refusal to confront the body of dead Maman are not entirely free of remorse as on the day right after the funeral, he repeatedly refers to the fact that it is not his fault that his mother had died, to his boss and then, to Marie. He also adds: “Besides, you always feel a little guilty” (Camus 20), possibly as a sign of remorse for his act of sending away Maman to the home. But after the murder, when a lawyer interrogates Meursault about his feeling on the day of the funeral, he replies, to the utter shock and disbelief of the lawyer: “At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead” (65). This statement is sharply conflicted with the apparent sense of guilt which he had shown previously, right after Maman’s funeral.

Meursault is never really free of his mother’s death. It is only in prison, when he is waiting for his impending death, that he finds Maman and her advice as a panacea in his life. He constantly refers to Maman: “it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything” (77) and again, towards the end of the novel he says: “Maman used to say that you can always find something to be happy about” (113). It is at the end of the novel that Meursault’s identification with Maman living out her “last days, in the shadow of death” (Otten 107) is finally complete. He is also ready to embrace death which at once complements and gives meaning to life. Thus, Maman’s death is the first significant turning point in the narrative that has an overpowering influence upon Meursault’s actions later on and it is his indifferent attitude and self-contradictory comments, that mostly set him apart from the traditional heroes. But Meursault is not a villain since neither his attitude nor his commentaries can essentially be termed as ‘sinister’ or ‘evil’.

Meursault’s passivity makes him accept life without giving much thought to it but in the end, he willingly accepts death. He concludes that none of the prison chaplain’s “certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head” (Camus 120), while he is sure about his “life and sure of the death” (120). However, he realizes at the end that it is his “indifference for which he is condemned; that it is his profound passivity which actually constitutes his criminal action” (Christensen 235). Meursault’s vulnerability to natural forces can be noted during the funeral procession when Marengo’s landscape shimmering with heat became “in-human and oppressive” (Camus 15) for him. He continuously suffers from the heat: on the day of Maman’s funeral, on the day of the murder and even on the day of his trial. On the day of the murder, when he reaches the rocks where the Arab was laid on his back, he realizes that there will be no trouble if he just turns around and goes away. But “the whole beach, throbbing in the sun” (58) made him take a few steps towards the spring and this is the moment after which the natural forces of the sand, sea and the sun snatch his happiness away, for ever. Entrapped in a hallucinating moment, when the sky “split open from one end to the other to rain down fire” (59), Meursault discharges one and then four more shots into the lifeless body of the Arab. This murder on the fated day when he knocks “four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (59), does not have any particular sinister purpose behind it. Although he had already realized after taking the gun from Raymond that “you could either shoot or not shoot” (56), he fails to act rationally while approaching the spring behind the rocks to escape the oppressive sun. So, if not a villain, Meursault can definitely be called an anti-hero because of the unintentional murder that he commits. Moreover, he makes it very clear to the magistrate that he has no remorse for his act when he says: “more than sorry I felt kind of annoyed” (70).

On the other hand, while trying to portray Meursault as a hero who dies as a sacrifice for his absolute faith in truth, one must also keep in mind that he had written a letter for Raymond so that he could have had his revenge upon the Arab girl by humiliating her and also the fact that he had given false statement to the police to get Raymond out as he was in custody for abusing the Arab girl, all of which make him an anti-hero in the novel.

Camus himself wanted to describe The Stranger as an Absurd novel and had preferred not to use the term ‘existentialism’ to explain his magnum opus. The novel’s theme is about man’s metaphysical rebellion against his inconsequential efforts to make logical responses to illogical, incongruous events in life. Meursault definitely feels, just like any other human of the society but he fails to reflect on his actions and thus, is continuously misinterpreted by others. Thus, his reactions to a world which is meaningless to him, become equally meaningless to the others living in that world. Meursault is “an affectless figure in a pre-moral policy of beyond good and evil, and a pursuer of the hedonistic moment” (Ohayon 189). Meursault’s passivity and failure to respond and act rationally in the face of the “gentle indifference of the world” (Camus 122) makes him the hero of the Camusian Absurd Godless universe.

Works cited

  1. Camus, A. (1942). The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International.
  2. Baldick, C. (2015). Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Cuddon, J. A., & Habib, R. (2014). A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Otten, T. (1994). The Two Versions of The Stranger's Maman. Yale French Studies, 86, 99-114.
  5. Scherr, A. (2011). Camus's Absurd: Myth or Reality?. In A Companion to Albert Camus (pp. 3-16). John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Brée, G. (1957). Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. The Kenyon Review, 19(3), 315-326.
  7. Agassi, J. (1968). The Structure of Camus's Exile and the Kingdom. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 26(1), 49-60.
  8. Holt, J. (2006). Camus and the Politics of Despair. The Journal of Politics, 68(1), 95-108.
  9. van den Hoven, A. (2014). The Meaning of Life and the Absurd in Camus's Philosophy. In A Companion to Albert Camus (pp. 17-32). John Wiley & Sons.
  10. Foley, E. (1995). Reading Between the Lines: Meursault's Narrative Voice. The French Review, 68(5), 813-823.

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