C a m u s ’ S t r a n g e r
, S u m m a r y b y D r . J a m e s R o c h a
P a g e
The novel begins with one of the most famous and evocative openings in literature:
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, 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. (Excerpts are from Matthew Ward's
From the outset, we are confronted with death, as well as with a somewhat disconcerting
viewpoint on it. Our narrator, Monsieur Meursault (whose first name is never mentioned) is
neither terribly upset about nor moved by his mother's death; he is instead moved to contemplate
over what seems to be a trivial detail: not just when she died, but whether one can tell when she
died from the telegram.
Death will play a central role throughout the novel, as someone dies at the beginning (Maman),
the end (Meursault himself), and at the transition from Part I to Part II (Meursault kills an Arab
in what seems to be self-defense). But, as we can tell from these provocative opening lines, it is
not just death that will play a significant role in bridging the events of the novel, but also
Meursault's atypical reactions to it.
In the novel’s first day, which we later learn is a Thursday (though Meursault seems unaware of
this fact since he remarks that his boss, who seems disgruntled that Meursault needs two days off
for the funeral, will probably express his condolences the day after tomorrow, which is a
Saturday and so Meursault does not see his boss that day), Meursault attends his mother's wake,
where he does not express any typical emotions. Instead, he performs atypical actions for a
wake: he refuses to see the body; he drinks milk with his coffee instead of having it black (at his
trial, we learn this is not a proper thing to do); and he has a smoke.
But Meursault does not cry. And as Camus said in his 1955 preface: "In our society any man
who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death."
The funeral is held on Friday. It is a hot day and it is a long walk to the church. These are the
facts that make the biggest impression on Meursault, and, as he is our narrator, they are the main
things we learn about the funeral. Long before their procession even arrives at the village where
the church is located, Meursault's memory seems to give out. His description cuts out in the
middle of the walk with these words:
After that, everything seemed to happen so fast, so deliberately, so naturally that I
don't remember any of it anymore. Except for one thing: as we entered the village,
the nurse spoke to me.
..She said, 'If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But
if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.'
She was right. There was no way out.