Literature Study GuidesThe StrangerPart 2 Chapter 5 Summary

The Stranger | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Stranger | Part 2, Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

In his prison cell, Meursault fantasizes about somehow disappearing or breaking through the police guards. He scolds himself for not paying attention to other executions to find out whether accused people sometimes escape. Meursault remembers a story about his father attending an execution and realizes now why attendance at executions is important. He thinks that executions are the only things that should interest a man.

Meursault thinks about how he would reform penal codes in a way that would give a condemned man a remote chance of escape. He understands that being executed by the guillotine gives him no chance. Meursault often focuses on either the dawn or his appeal. He knows on the day of his execution that people will come to take him away at dawn. He stays awake during the night listening for sounds of approaching footsteps at dawn and, when he does not hear them, feels relief at gaining another 24 hours. During the day Meursault imagines his appeal. First, he focuses on his appeal being denied and resigns himself to the thought that everyone dies at some point. Then, he gives himself permission to consider that his appeal has been granted. This thought causes unspeakable joy to surge through Meursault. Yet, he cautions himself "to quiet [his] heart, to be rational."

Then the chaplain visits Meursault. The chaplain asks Meursault whether he believes in God. Meursault says that he does not. The chaplain confronts Meursault with the fact that he will die, sooner or later. He asks Meursault whether he can live with the belief that when he dies, nothing remains. Meursault replies that he can and begins to be annoyed by the chaplain. The chaplain emphasizes that Meursault should be concerned with divine justice and washing away his sins. Meursault says he does not know what sin is. The chaplain asserts that even the most wretched people see a divine face in the darkness. Meursault agrees; he saw a face as bright as the sun; it was Marie's face. But now, that is all over.

The chaplain's presence begins to be oppressive for Meursault. Angry at the chaplain's questions about belief in an afterlife, Meursault shouts that he only wishes for another life "where I could remember this life." The chaplain says that he will pray for Meursault, which makes him furious. He yells at the chaplain, insulting him and grabbing his collar. Meursault claims he is more real than the chaplain because at least he is "sure of [his] life and sure of ... death." Meursault exclaims that he has always been right. He shouts that every person considers himself privileged, but in reality, everyone is condemned to death. In this light, no life has more meaning than another. The guards then appear and tear Meursault away from the chaplain.

Alone in his cell Meursault calms down. At dawn he hears sirens blast "announcing departures for a world that now and forever meant nothing to me." Then Meursault realizes why his mother became engaged near the end of her life. The nearness of death made his mother feel free and ready to start life over again. Meursault's rage at the chaplain washes him clean. It rids him of hope, giving him the freedom to live life over again. Meursault opens himself to "the gentle indifference of the world." He finds the world is like himself—a brother. To feel less alone, Meursault only has to wish that a crowd of spectators at his execution will "greet [him] with cries of hate."

Analysis

Throughout Part 1, Meursault does not reflect on his experience of the world, but instead focuses on the sensations of physical life. In one sense these pleasant sensations give him something to look forward to, a sense of hope. However, because of his imprisonment in Part 2, Meursault is denied his usual coping mechanism and must rely on his imagination as a means for facing the ultimate absurdity: death. In prison Meursault grasps for straws of hope, but now these attempts involve imagining outlandish scenarios of escape, such as bursting through the guards, revising the penal code, and having his appeal upheld. He also tries to imagine his death, but is unable to picture his heart without a beat.

At times Meursault accepts the finality of death. Meursault claims that nothing is more interesting than executions because the condemned man or woman must face death without the hope of escape. Therefore, how a person deals with this situation might yield insight to others who have the stomach to watch.

As Meursault faces his impending execution, he must either reject his view of life as meaningless and accept hope or reaffirm his view despite the meaningless finality of death. Based on his escape fantasies, Meursault can be seen as a kind of Jesus in the desert who is tempted to abandon his existential nihilism because he yearns for a religious belief he cannot accept. Yet for Meursault, these temptations are false hopes.

The chaplain's visit to Meursault is one last attempt by the Christian establishment, an orthodoxy founded by Jesus, to force Meursault to accept its ideas of morality. The chaplain's questions and Meursault's answers build toward a crescendo, which culminate in Meursault's furious outburst. During his rage, Meursault rejects the chaplain's view of a meaningful life based on religious doctrine and reaffirms his own view of life's meaninglessness. In this scene he is, like Jesus, a kind of scapegoat, held responsible for sins committed by others. Both figures are persecuted to ensure the legitimacy of the social structures they threaten. Both hold to their beliefs regardless of the threat of death because to abandon these beliefs would be to abandon themselves.

Meursault's confrontation with the chaplain may be viewed as the crowning achievement of an existential hero or champion. Meursault succeeds in staying true to his convictions. He confirms his belief in the meaninglessness and absurdity of life and accuses the chaplain of being a "dead man," who is sure of nothing. Meursault shouts, "I had been right, I was still right, I was always right." He therefore achieves a type of vindication for the way he has led his life. Even in the face of death, he accepts life as meaningless. Because of this renewal of existential faith, Meursault feels cleansed, as if he can start life over again.

However, Meursault does something here he has not done throughout the novel. Through his confrontation with the chaplain and its aftermath, Meursault breaks through his passivity via rebellion and makes a significant choice about his life. Throughout most of the novel, Meursault tries to float through life as if in a continual malaise or discontent, vulnerable to harsh outside forces such as the glaring sun. Despite his previous indifference, Meursault comes to "dread" his separation from other people and to think more on his imminent death. In this chapter he rebels against the chaplain's view, thereby displaying passion and anger for the first time. Meursault consciously confirms to himself his view of a meaningless life, ridding himself of any trace of hope. However, in his acceptance of the "gentle indifference of the world," Meursault realizes he has the freedom to choose to be happy by fully engaging in the struggle of life. This active participation affirms his involvement in all aspects of this absurd life. All he has to do to feel less alone is to wish that the spectators at his execution will greet him with cries of hate. As the object of this hatred, Meursault will have achieved a personal meaning, thereby transcending existential nihilism.

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