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The Stranger | Themes

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Camus develops three interrelated themes in The Stranger: the meaninglessness of life and the detachment that results from embracing this view of the world; the effect of physical sensation on someone who does not try to direct his or her own life; and the pervasiveness and dangers of miscommunication. Because Meursault believes that life has no meaning, he is detached from society and easily affected by his heightened senses. He also has difficulty communicating with people, which often causes a misinterpretation of his actions.

Meaningless, Detached Life

Meursault does not believe in God; he views life as meaningless and any attempt to discover meaning in life as absurd. In Part 1 Camus reveals this theme through the character's detached actions. At his mother's funeral, Meursault is withdrawn, smokes during the vigil, and focuses on the hot weather more than the loss of his mother. He does not know whether he loves Marie, but he will marry her because love and marriage also hold no meaning for him. It does not matter to him whether he writes a letter that places a woman in danger; such concerns have no meaning for him, either. When Meursault shoots the Arab, he does so without any feeling of animosity. The Arab means nothing to him.

In Part 2 Camus shows the threat that Meursault's views pose to legal and religious authorities. The prosecutor at Meursault's trial builds a case based on Meursault's moral character, depicting him as a heartless monster because of the callous way he acted at his mother's funeral. The establishment is determined to affirm its own view of the world, even if doing so causes Meursault's execution. From this perspective, the killing of the Arab is secondary to Meursault's heartless indifference.

Camus introduces numerous foils, characters who illuminate other characters through contrasts, to illustrate Meursault's detachment. Marie and Raymond, his lover and friend, each show a passion for life. Marie wants to marry Meursault, and Raymond wants his revenge. Meursault finds both marriage and revenge meaningless. Thomas Pérez and Salamano each have strong sentimental attachments. Indeed, Pérez feels such a strong emotional bond to Meursault's mother that he almost faints in his attempt to keep up with the funeral procession. However, Meursault places no value on sentiment. The little robot woman places meaning on routines; for Meursault, routines mean nothing. He is the often silent stranger, alienated from society and even from himself.

In exploring this theme, Camus presents Meursault as a sort of secular Jesus. In his introduction to a 1955 edition of the novel, Camus described the character as "a man who ... agrees to die for the truth" and called him "the only Christ we deserve." Comparisons between Meursault and Jesus can be drawn at several points in the protagonist's trial, in which he is unjustly characterized on the basis of his beliefs, and his condemnation.

Meursault's breakthrough at the novel's end, when he embraces his difference from others, shows that his death is in fact a triumph over the establishment. It frees him from their judgment of his beliefs.

Physical Life

Physical sensations have a profound effect on Meursault; he passively allows himself to be influenced by outside forces. Meursault can be characterized as a sensualist who lives only for the purpose of experiencing pleasant sensations, such as smoking a cigarette, taking a swim, or kissing Marie. However, in his passivity, Meursault is also strongly affected by harsh, unpleasant sensations. During the funeral procession, smells become so oppressive for Meursault that they blur his thoughts. The effects of the harsh sun cause him to tense and shoot the Arab.

In prison, Meursault is unable to rely on pleasant sensations for diversion. Because of this deprivation, he often resorts to nostalgic reminiscences, recalling times when he enjoyed pleasant sensations back home. At the end of the novel, Meursault seems to realize that to engage with life, a person needs to accept the pleasantries and harsh realities of life equally.

Miscommunication

Camus explores the theme of miscommunication through characters who misinterpret Meursault's words and actions to fit their own world views. In Part 1, Raymond incorrectly infers that Meursault sympathizes with his revenge plot and wants to be his friend. In Part 2, communication between the legal authorities and Meursault completely breaks down. As a result, the authorities interpret Meursault's actions in conventional ways, claiming that he murdered his mother because he did not show sorrow at her funeral.

Camus also shows that external and internal circumstances can hinder communication. In the prison's visiting room, the loud din of yelling voices makes communication between Meursault and Marie almost impossible. Meursault himself is incapable of communicating the motivations behind his own actions. He fumbles for words as he tries to explain what happened when he shot the Arab, because he lacks the ability for self-reflection.

Meursault's own communication style breeds miscommunication. In an example of dramatic irony, he is incapable of telling lies that would help him to live within social conventions. He does not say he is in love with Marie when she asks him. He does not say he is sorry for killing the Arab because he is not. He does not cry at his mother's funeral, even though it is expected. With the exception of Marie, other characters are annoyed by Meursault's candor and consider him heartless and evil.

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