Characters in novels often follow a self-identifying path. This path can lead to one of three outcomes: progression, regression, or stagnation, of character. Meursault, of The Stranger, by Albert Camus, progresses as a character, starting as apathetic about, and unaware of, the happenings of his life and ending the novel with newfound passion and insight on the world.
The Stranger opens with Meursault saying “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know”(3). He receives the news from a telegram sent from the nursing home Meursault put his mother (Maman) in. From the very beginning it’s clear that Meursault is indifferent to his mother’s death. Instead of mourning her loss, he ponders which specific day was the day of her death, sounding slightly annoyed with the vagueness of the telegram. Meursault also shows an apathy towards his mother with how seldom he visited her. He says that “getting to the bus, buying ticket, and spending two hours traveling”(5) would be troublesome and that visiting would take up “his”(5) Sunday. Meursault goes to the funeral, and instead of mourning his loss or reflecting on his emotions, he takes the time to observe the actions of the attendants to the funeral, such as the old people “sucking at the insides of their cheeks”(11), making a strange noise. He seems more bothered than anything for having to be at the funeral, and not very much distressed by his mother passing away.
Meursault’s apathy extends past familial relationships and reaches into his romantic life as well. He runs into Marie Cardona, who used to work at the same office that Meursault is employed at, and the two rekindle the relationship they shared in the past. He flirts with her on a physical level rather than emotionally. He “brushes up on her breasts”(19) and wraps around her waist, managing to seduce her that night. While Marie seems to be interested in Meursault romantically, even loving him, Meursault is hungry for sex, and Marie provides him just that. One morning the two spend together demonstrates this contrast. When Marie laughed he “wanted her again”(35) but when she asks if he loves her, Meursault answers “it [doesn’t] mean anything but no I don’t think so.”(35). Despite how much he wants her physically, Meursault is apathetic to her feelings towards him, brushing them off as unnecessary as well as not expressing love towards her. Even at the idea of marriage, he is indifferent. Marie asks him directly if he wanted to marry her, and he says that it “wouldn’t make any difference to [him]”(41) and that it “didn’t really matter”(41).
So much of Meursault’s life is wrapped in indifference and detachment. On the bus ride to Maman’s funeral, a soldier asked if he had been “traveling long”(4), with Meursault answering “yes” so he “wouldn’t have to say anything else”(4). He shows no interest in the world around him. As Maman’s friends arrive to the funeral, even though he observes them, Meursault finds it “hard to believe they really existed”(9). His neighbor Raymond invites him over to his home for dinner, and the only reason Meursault agrees is because he sees no reason not to, and it would “save [him] the trouble of having to cook for [himself]”(28). This apathy and isolation culminates in Meursault shooting an Arab man that had previously pulled a knife on both him and Raymond. Meursault then fires “four more times at the motionless body” thinking “it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness”(59). He has expressed genuine emotion.
While shooting the body multiple times after the Arab has already died is demonstrative of his detachment from other humans, the sentiment behind the murder signals a change in Meursault. He states that he had “shattered the harmony of the day [and] the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy”(59). Happiness. Meursault felt happiness on the beach that day. This is the most emotion that Meursault has shown thus far in the novel. He also felt unhappiness because the shooting with the Arab disrupted his beach day. Meursault is becoming introspective and self-aware. Meursault is promptly arrested and put in a prison for the murder of the Arab.
In prison, Meursault becomes much more perceptive. One night, as he stares at his reflection in a plate, Meursault hears “the sound of his own voice”(81). He realizes that it was the voice that rang in his head “for many long days”(81) and finally that he had been “talking to [himself”(81) the entire time. Before this point, Meursault paid little mind to what he felt outside of the physical. He had not taken time to analyze himself, instead opting to ignore such an idea. Being alone to himself with nothing to occupy his time has given Meursault the opportunity to truly think. This introspection leads to a burst in Meursault. A chaplain, who had served as spiritual guide for Meursault in prison, comes to talk to him about God, having done so before. This time however, Meursault has more than apathy to express. As the chaplain goes on about God and that Meursault is not certain about his life, proposing that he had “wished for another life”(119) at one point or another.
The chaplain’s certainty in ideas that Meursault sees as meaningless only served to annoy, and soon pushed Meursault over the edge. The chaplain reaches to Meursault to pray for him, snapping a cord inside him. Meursault starts yelling at and insulting the chaplain, “pouring out…everything that was in [his] heart,(120)” including “cries of anger and cries of joy”(120). By this point he has grabbed the chaplain by the collar, violently letting out every emotion that he could. Meursault sees the world for what it is. He sees that every person is “elected by the same fate”(121) and that everyone would be “condemned”(121) no matter what, even if he is “accused of murder and then executed because he didn’t cry at his funeral”(121) or if Marie “offered her lips to a new Meursault”(121-122). Nothing mattered because every person would succumb to the same fate is what Meursault has come to realize.
The blind rage seems to have “washed [Meursault] clean”(122) and “rid him of hope”(122). Before this point, Meursault had thought of escape from his demise, such as “a mixture of chemicals that if ingested by the patient would kill him nine times out of ten”(111). He daydreamed of a slim chance of survival, dreading how absolute the death by guillotine would be. But now, Meursault felt open to the world, which held the same indifference he had always held to himself. He thought the world in its indifference “like a brother”(123) and the kinship made him “happy again”(123). At this point, Meursault feels a bond towards the world around him, something never seen in him before. The world, in its indifference, seemed to open up to Meursault, and he felt awakened to its likeness to him.
Killing the Arab was a sign. It was the catalyst of Meursault’s progression. He changed from a man completely apathetic towards everything and everyone, including himself, to a passionate man with a deep understanding of himself and of the indifference of the world around him.