Literature Study GuidesThe StrangerPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

The Stranger | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Stranger | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The Stranger is narrated in the first person by the main character Meursault. He lives in Algiers, Algeria, a French colony in North Africa, during the 1940s. He explains that his mother died today, or perhaps yesterday—he does not remember. After receiving permission from his boss to attend his mother's funeral, Meursault eats at Céleste's restaurant, borrows a suit, and catches the bus to a town about 80 kilometers from Algiers called Marengo, where the funeral will be held.

After arriving Meursault walks about a mile to his mother's nursing home, where he talks to the director. Meursault had placed his mother in this home years earlier, presumably because he could not afford to take care of her. In addition, their living arrangement at home had grown somewhat distant, estranged, and even boring. Eventually, she adjusted to life at the home, made friends, and received visits from Meursault a few times each year.

The director leads Meursault to the mortuary to view his mother's body. However, when the caretaker starts to unscrew the casket lid so that Meursault can view the body, Meursault stops him. The fact that Meursault does not want to see the corpse surprises the caretaker. Meursault sits in a chair and keeps vigil next to the coffin. During this time, he notices the noseless face of an Arab nurse, enjoys the late afternoon sunlight, talks to the caretaker, drinks coffee, dozes off, wakes up, and discovers that his eyes hurt from the bright light in the room. Then, his mother's friends enter and sit on the other side of the coffin across from Meursault. He gets the sense that the grievers are judging him. One of the women starts to cry, which annoys Meursault. Then, the quietness of the grievers gets on his nerves. During the night, Meursault falls asleep and then wakes at the breaking of dawn. The grievers leave, shaking Meursault's hand as they go, which surprises him. Meursault drinks more coffee, goes outside, and enjoys the beautiful weather. In the director's office, the director explains the funeral procession to Meursault.

As Meursault takes his place in the procession, he describes various details, such as the coffin, which looks like "a pencil box," and the funeral director wearing "a ridiculous getup." Included in the procession is an old man named Thomas Pérez, who was a suitor of the deceased. Meursault feels oppressed by the hot sun throughout the 45-minute walk. During the procession, Meursault realizes that he does not know his mother's age, and he notices that Pérez has a hard time keeping up with the group and takes short cuts to catch up. As the procession continues, Meursault feels more and more oppressed by the stifling hot weather. He recalls Pérez catching up to the procession one last time, crying "[b]ig tears of frustration and exhaustion." At the cemetery, Meursault matter-of-factly describes "red geraniums on the graves" and "blood-red earth spilling over Maman's casket." He enjoys the thought of getting away from the funeral, heading back to Algiers, and going to sleep.

Analysis

In Part 1, Chapter 1, Camus begins his exploration of the theme of detachment by illustrating how Meursault is alienated from the values of society. The opening sentences of the novel, "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know," show that the death of Meursault's mother does not affect him in the conventional way. This lack of specificity regarding the day of Maman's death suggests that Meursault's moral compass is unique to his character. This sense of detachment from society is supported by other details as well. Meursault rarely visited his mother at the home because he did not want "the trouble of getting to the bus, buying tickets, and spending two hours traveling." While keeping vigil by the casket, Meursault shows no signs of grief, but instead is annoyed by a woman's crying. Also, Meursault shows no desire to have long, meaningful talks with his mother's caretakers. Meursault listens well enough as the caretaker talks about himself, but Meursault does not reciprocate.

Meursault views life as a stream of activities with no rational meaning. In the first paragraph, Meursault immediately asserts that the home's condolences do not "mean anything." However, he recognizes the social judgment this viewpoint brings. Briefly shying away from this judgment, Meursault at the vigil hesitates to offer a cigarette to the caretaker because such an action could be seen as inappropriate. However, he soon asserts, "it didn't matter," and offers the cigarette anyway. Later, Meursault successfully keeps himself from asking the woman to stop crying because he realizes that this request would seem strange and callous coming from the deceased son.

In addition Camus illustrates Meursault's detachment from society by contrasting him with Thomas Pérez. In this way Pérez and many other characters in the novel serve as foils to Meursault. In literature a foil is a character who provides a contrast to another character. Pérez is everything that Meursault is not. Pérez grieves deeply for Meursault's mother and willingly suffers the hot weather as he tries to keep up with the procession. Pérez acts as society expects a grieving person to act, but Meursault does not. Meursault feels no sorrow over the loss of his mother and wants to get out of the hot sun as soon as possible.

Also in Chapter 1 Camus begins the development of the theme of the physical life. The author portrays Meursault as a sensualist, a person who focuses on enjoying physical sensations. He enjoys the parts of the vigil where he drinks pleasant coffee and smells flowers in the night air. After the vigil is over, Meursault goes outside and savors the sky "streaked with red" and the "smell of salt" in the air.

However, not all of the physical environment is pleasant for Meursault. When he wakes up from a nap, the bright lights in the mortuary hurt his eyes. During the procession the hot sun and the smells make it difficult for Meursault to think clearly. These sensations oppress him and he can "feel the blood pounding in [his] temples." Meursault wants to escape as quickly as possible from the funeral, a ritual of death, and go to his apartment and sleep, which is a kind of living death. By showing the negative effect of the sun on the protagonist, the author foreshadows the oppressive sun that leads Meursault to kill a man at the end of Part 1. Indeed, Camus uses the sun throughout the novel as a hostile force that assaults Meursault.

Camus foreshadows the courtroom scene in Part 2 through the grievers at the vigil who sit across from Meursault and seem to stare at him: "I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me." In the end, this "feeling" is not "ridiculous" at all. Meursault will, in fact, be judged by his peers.

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