"Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know."
The first novel of Albert Camus
, published in 1942—which subsequently launched his writing career.
The narrator is an emotionally detached young man, one M. Meursault (we never get his first name
), a man who lives in French-colonized Algeria sometime between the two World Wars. The book opens with the news of his mother's death. He visits her nursing home, muses on the life she led there, then attends her funeral, most of which he finds quite boring. While he's reprimanded for not showing any grief, he doesn't really see the problem and soon asks out a nice girl at work. She becomes his girlfriend and the two happily spend time together as Meursault goes about his daily life working in a nondescript office.
As the days go by, Meursault begins observing his neighbors. One of those neighbors, Raymond, enlists Meursault's help in getting revenge on his girlfriend, an Arab woman, who he thinks was cheating on him. As Meursault's friendship with Raymond progresses, the reader slowly comes to realize that Meursault's lack of grief at his mother's death wasn't an isolated incident. And some time later, when the brother of Raymond's girlfriend offends Meursault by getting the sun in his eye,
things go off the deep end.
Throughout the novel, Meursault struggles to understand what everyone around him keeps being so upset about. Rather hilariously, it's not always Meursault's more reprehensible characteristics that people take offense at-his atheism, for example, is noted by the people around him as more offensive than his actions against an Arab. As Meursault ponders the meaninglessness of life, he's genuinely baffled when he begins to understand social concepts like grief, crime and punishment.
One of the defining works of Existentialism
, and deeply satirical.
Provides examples of:
- Absurdism: An early specimen and one of the best known non-theatre examples.
- The Anti-Nihilist: Meursault comes off as this. To him, life is meaningless since death is inevitable, but he does not mind meaninglessness, and he takes joy in the moment. This also means that to him every life is equally valuable, even a dog's life. May be horrifying, depending on whether or not you follow Camus' philosophy.
- Arc Words: "But I got used to it."
- Artistic License – History: As more than one critic has noted, this book takes place in French-colonial Algeria before independence, and the main character, an ethnically French colonist (in the phraseology of the period, a piednoir) murders an Arab man that he doesn't know and has no reason to kill — and yet he is arrested and tried for murder and found guilty, and sentenced to death. In real-life colonial Algeria, he probably wouldn't have been arrested, and even if he had been, he almost certainly wouldn't have been found guilty.
- Beige Prose: The narrator's tendency to give equal weight to everything - from his mother's death to how he feels about someone at any point in time - leads to this. This was intentional; Camus was intentionally imitating the "manly" American writers who wrote like this, particularly Ernest Hemingway.
- Beware the Honest Ones
- Cannot Tell a Lie: Interestingly averted. Word of God claimed that it never occurs to Meursault to say anything but the truth, but in fact Meursault lies at least twice, each time with unpleasant consequences. He writes the letter for Raymond that will persuade Raymond's girlfriend to return, knowing that Raymond only wants her back so he can beat her up; later he lies to the police, backing up Raymond's claim that he didn't hit the girl.
- Character Witness: Meursault and Raymond for each other.
- Chekhov's Gun: Literal, with a side of irony. Meursault takes Raymond's pistol away from him so that Raymond won't shoot the Arab.
- Chewbacca Defense: Mersault is convicted not so much for his crime as for not loving his mother enough and being an atheist.
- Cut-and-Paste Translation: Matthew Ward's English translation (currently the most popular one in America) spends a good deal of its introduction bashing Stuart Gilbert's (which before his was the only one available in America.) In the original French, and in Ward's version, the narrator begins as a Terse Talker in the vein of an Ernest Hemingway protagonist, then becomes oddly lyrical after going to jail. Gilbert essentially turns him British, and incidentally rewrites some of his odder comments to sound more conventional.
- Empty Shell: Averted. Meursault may appear to be this, simply because of the Beige Prose (see above), but a closer reading reveals that he does have emotions.
- Establishing Character Moment: The first two sentences of the book, quoted at the top of the page.
- Extreme Doormat: Meursault initially seems to be an Empty Shell, but given his violent outburst at the priest in the end, it's more likely that he's one of these with a small remaining core of selfhood. He apparently used to have ambitions and dreams, but he abandoned them all as meaningless. Since he thinks nothing really matters, he does pretty much anything people ask him to.
- Foil: Meursault and just about everyone else.
- French Courts: Ends in the Algiers Assizes Court for murder.
- Heat Wave
- The Hero Dies: Though his death is never depicted, he knows in the end that it's coming soon.
- Hollywood Atheist: The law officials' attitude towards Meursault changes when they find out he's an atheist, and afterwards try to portray him as a violent monster.
- The prosecutor even said Meursault was worse than the parricide who will be tried after.
- Incriminating Indifference: The prosecution's argument against Meursault is, essentially, "He didn't cry at his mother's funeral, therefore he's psychotic, therefore he deserves to die." It doesn't help that Meursault admits his guilt from the get-go.
- Jerkass: Raymond beats his girlfriend up and has a neighbor write a threatening letter to her, gets in a fight with the girl's brother, and when the neighbor and friend he got into this mess kills him, leaves him for dead. Salamano literally kicks his dog, among other abuses. And the case can be made either way for Meursault.
- Kangaroo Court: It's a fact that Meursault killed a man, so the court proceedings are meant to prove whether or not it was premeditated. Since there's no evidence to suggest it, the trial relies entirely on character witnesses, most of whom are actually supportive of Meursault. However, the prosecutor relies entirely on circumstantial testimony, insane leaps in logic, and outright theatrics to "prove" the act was premeditated. And it works. As Meursault himself notes, he's completely removed from his own trial.
- Last Name Basis: Meursault.
- Light Is Not Good: Meursault mentions the sun being particularly bright on the day of his mother's funeral, and when he shoots the Arab. Light and heat is a recurring motif throughout the book, for example: when waiting for the bus, the wake, the burial, and the aforementioned beach. Meursault thinks of all of those examples negatively. Whether this means something is up to your interpretation.
- Loners Are Freaks
- Not So Stoic:
- After spending the story completely calm and indifferent to absolutely everything, Meursault SNAPS at the priest at the book's end.
- Arguably Salamano. He spends most of his introduction being a grumpy old man who hates and abuses his dog. After the dog runs away, he becomes grumpier and more hateful. When he realizes the dog isn't coming back, he begins to cry.
- Off with His Head!: Death penalty was then executed by the means of the guillotine.
- Purple Prose: Invoked in the prosecutor's angry tirades against Meursault. Especially egregious when he is expounding upon the perceived emptiness of Meursault's soul.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Raymond and Meursault.
- Sociopathic Hero: Meursault, possibly.
- The Stoic: Meursault, of course. He feels emotions, but not for the same reasons as most people, and he doesn't really show it.
- Too Dumb to Live: Meursault. Or rather, Too Neutral To Live. He does things, usually, because there's no reason not to do them; the few things he enjoys are immediate pleasures like smoking and sex.
- Uncatty Resemblance: Lampshaded with Salamano. He's acquired his dog's scabs and sores, and the dog has acquired his stooped, neck-straining look.
- Verbal Tic: Everything Masson says contains the phrase "and I'd even say."