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The Stranger | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Part 1, Chapter 1 of The Stranger, what tone do the first two sentences establish for the novel?

The first two sentences of The Stranger set a disturbing tone for the novel: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know." Meursault uses the term "Maman," similar to the term "mommy," which suggests affection or endearment. However, Meursault's inability to recall the day his mother died suggests that her death is not important to him. The disparity between the endearment society expects to be displayed toward mothers and the indifference Meursault displays toward his mother's death suggests a disturbing meaninglessness in the text, as if the two pieces of information cancel each other out.

In Part 1, Chapter 1 of The Stranger, how does Camus use the funeral procession to foreshadow the killing of the Arab man?

During the funeral procession, a ritual of death, Meursault is oppressed by unpleasant physical sensations, especially the sun and the heat. He says, "The glare from the sky was unbearable." Later, the sun and other sensations become so overbearing that he cannot think clearly: "All of it—the sun, the smell ...—was making it hard for me to see or think straight." This overwhelming sense of physical oppression that contrasts with earlier pleasant sensations, such as those evoked by coffee and cigarettes, occurs during the funeral procession to suggest a conflict within Meursault. He uses pleasant physical sensations to avoid the pain of acknowledging a meaningless life that will end in a meaningless death. These negative physical sensations bring this conflict to the forefront of Meursault's consciousness, suggesting that the pain of death cannot be escaped. When Meursault kills the Arab, he is also overwhelmed by the harsh sun. He says the sun caused a "burning, which I couldn't stand anymore," and he directly compares it to the sun on the day he buried Maman. Again, negative physical sensations reiterate the permanent presence of death, something Meursault cannot ignore any longer now that he will be tried for murder and sentenced to death.

In The Stranger how does Camus develop the character of Thomas Pérez as a literary foil, a character who illuminates another by contrast, to Meursault?

Pérez is grief-stricken by the death of Meursault's mother throughout the novel. He obviously had a very close emotional relationship with her, and he responds as society would expect to her death. In fact her death has so much meaning for him that he tries as best he can to keep up with the funeral procession, despite his age and the sweltering heat. At the cemetery he collapses from exhaustion: "fainting (he crumpled like a rag doll)." At Meursault's trial, Pérez is unable to answer any questions about Meursault's behavior at the funeral because Pérez's own grief had been too all-consuming. In contrast Meursault views his mother's death as meaningless. He shows no sorrow for her. In fact not only does he forget the date of her death, he does not know how old she was. He views the funeral procession as an ordeal: "I could feel the blood pounding in my temples." The only emotion Meursault experiences is the "joy" he feels when his bus reenters Algiers. His attitude toward Maman continues during his trial; when the defense attorney describes him as a model son, Meursault's mind wanders. Where Pérez had been distracted by grief at the funeral, Meursault is distracted by pleasure at his own trial. Through the sharp contrasts between the two characters, Camus emphasizes Meursault's status as a stranger to social conventions.

In Part 1, Chapter 1 of The Stranger, what insight does Meursault's response to the mourners at the vigil provide regarding his world view?

Meursault's brief feeling that the mourners are there to judge him suggests some doubt in his psyche regarding his view of the world. When the group of mourners come into the mortuary, Meursault has the feeling that they are judging him: "I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me." The mourners, though, do not do anything unusual that justifies Meursault's sense of judgment. They sit down and nod at Meursault: "I think they were greeting me." The mourners sit across from Meursault, likely out of respect for him because they do not want to put their mourning on the same level as the son of the deceased. However, Meursault describes the mourners as if they are ghosts. They sit without making the chairs creak, and they make no other sounds: "It was hard for me to believe they really existed." Their eyes are vacant, their mouths toothless. This ghostliness of the mourners suggests a life after death, a notion that Meursault refutes as an atheist.

In Part 1, Chapter 2 of The Stranger, how does Camus show that Meursault is a stranger to the conventions of his society?

Meursault spends Saturday, the day following Maman's funeral, swimming with Marie and going to a movie with her. However, when Marie realizes he is in mourning, she "[gives] a little start but [doesn't] say anything." Marie's reaction indicates that Meursault's mourning behavior contrasts with the behavior Marie might expect from a man in mourning for his mother. In fact she is "surprised" by his black tie as if it is incongruous with the setting of a movie date. In addition Meursault spends hours sitting on his balcony and watching people involved in their activities pass below. Meursault, though, does not participate in any of these activities. He rejects his one opportunity at camaraderie because he does not want to engage in conversation: "I didn't feel like having lunch at Céleste's like I usually did because they'd be sure to ask questions and I don't like that." He is an outsider who chooses not to participate in the society in which he lives.

In Part 1, Chapters 1 and 2 of The Stranger, how does Meursault both engage in and reject the customs of a Roman Catholic funeral and why?

Meursault engages in several customs of the Roman Catholic funeral. He partakes in two parts of the three-part funeral service for Maman: the vigil and the funeral. Yet he skips the third part: the burial. He wears a black tie to display publically that he is mourning but wears this attire while attending a comedic film with a girlfriend, with whom he consummates a sexual relationship later that day. The partial adherence to and partial rejection of these Catholic traditions suggests a character in flux. Meursault adheres to some traditions because they are expected, and it may be easier for this passive character to follow along with them rather than mount a robust rebellion. However, he rejects other traditions that are inconvenient for him—he skips the burial because he wants to get home and sleep, for example—because he suspects that these traditions are meaningless.

Based on Part 1, Chapter 2 of The Stranger, why does Meursault hate Sundays, in particular?

In the Christian tradition, Sunday is the Lord's Day, a day set aside for service to and worship of God. Christians believe that God freed the world from sin and death on a Sunday, and the day is intended for joyful praise. Meursault mentions that on Sunday "I was a little bored and I wandered around the apartment." Then he comments that the apartment was the right size when his mother was alive, but it is too big now. On Sundays, while others in a religious society celebrate the freedom from death provided by a Christian afterlife, Meursault is confined in a large apartment that reminds him of his dead mother. As an atheist Meursault does not enjoy a belief in the freedom from death. On the contrary, he lives with the constant reminder of his impending death, which is especially difficult to deny on Sundays when he does not have the distraction of work.

In Part 1, Chapter 3 of The Stranger, how does Camus develop the theme of the physical life?

First, Meursault experiences physical pleasure by washing and drying his hands at work at lunchtime, when the roller towel is dry. In the evening the towel is wet, and the experience is less enjoyable. The sensation of the dry towel is so important to Meursault that he mentions the situation to his boss. However, Meursault's boss dismisses the issue as "a minor detail." This scene highlights the marked difference between Meursault and others. Meursault experiences major events, such as the death of a mother, as minor, and minor events, such as the sensory experience of a dry hand towel, as major. Later, Meursault and a co-worker and friend named Emmanuel run after a truck to catch a free ride. For the friend, the experience is expectedly fun, and he laughs about it. However, Meursault becomes immersed by the experience: "I was engulfed by the noise and the dust." In fact as he runs after the truck, Meursault is conscious only of the physical sensations he experiences. Pleasant physical sensation seems to be the only thing in which Meursault finds any value.

In The Stranger how does Salamano's connection with his dog compare to Meursault's connection with his mother?

Salamano's relationship with his dog and Meursault's relationship with his mother represent symbolic marriages of sorts. However, these "marriages" are very different. Salamano gets the dog after his wife dies because he is lonely. In this way, the dog takes the place of Salamano's wife, and the two end "up being old together." In the same way, the pair develop the kind of bickering love-hate relationship characteristic of some old, married couples. Salamano beats and curses at the dog, but he also rubs the dog twice a day with ointment for its mange. Although this relationship is based primarily on hatred and terror, it is based on emotion, which helps Salamano keep his feelings of loneliness at arm's length until the dog disappears. In contrast Meursault's relationship with his mother is marked by intensifying loneliness. Meursault says that when his mother lived with him she would "spend her time following me with her eyes, not saying a thing." During the trial, Meursault explains, "Maman and I didn't expect anything from each other anymore." Meursault and his mother developed a relationship based on quiet estrangement.

In Part 1, Chapters 3 and 4 of The Stranger, how does Camus create dramatic irony in his depiction of the relationship between Meursault and Raymond?

Dramatic irony occurs in literature when the audience understands information that the characters do not. In the case of Meursault and Raymond, readers know that Meursault is a detached loner who believes in a meaningless, godless universe that cannot be defined by religious or political doctrine. Yet Raymond views Meursault as a "pal." In truth Meursault maintains no feelings of friendship toward Raymond. For example Raymond assumes that Meursault writes the letter to the Arab mistress out of friendship, but in reality, he does it because there is no reason not to comply; he passes no judgment on Raymond and views Raymond's actions as meaningless. Later Meursault agrees to serve as a character witness for Raymond because Raymond's actions toward his mistress cannot be wrong in a universe without morality or absolute truth. Yet Raymond is very pleased, thinking that Meursault agrees because he is a friend. Then Raymond buys Meursault a brandy, and they play pool together as if they are buddies. In reality Meursault participates for the pleasurable sensory experiences. The dramatic irony continues at Meursault's trial as Raymond uses the phrase "the best of pals" to describe their relationship. The prosecutor, however, uses the friendship to show that Meursault associates with an underworld lowlife—not that he is capable of a friendship he doesn't really feel.

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