Comparing The Apathy Of The Protagonist And The Emotion Of Society In Camus’ The Stranger
In Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Camus sought to demonstrate an apathetic and detached man who would represent many of his own beliefs. Through the protagonist of the novel, the indifferent and uncaring Meursault, Camus illustrates his belief in the absurdist philosophy. Meursault serves as an exaggeration, a vessel, for Camus to demonstrate rationality in the face of the absurd, while the rest of the world in this novel serves as a means to present what Camus may have seen as the absurd itself. Throughout the novel, Camus contrasts the apathy of Meursault and the emotion of society so as to demonstrate what Camus believed was the inherent absurdity of everyday life. Through the viewpoint of Meursault, characters’ actions that may be considered relatively normal in mid-20th-century French society are perceived as unusual and irrational. Meursault's detachment from the world around him leads to him feeling very little when major life events happen to him, like a relative’s death or a proposal, while others around him are constantly showing emotion. This is significant because while Meursault is presented as unfeeling and calculating, he isn’t portrayed as irrational in any sense. The means by which Camus depicts his character describes the thought process that goes into every decision he makes, which almost makes Meursault's detachment seem reasonable. Through this contrast with the emotional society around him, Meursault presents a clear analogy for his absurdist worldview.
The very first two sentences of the novel clearly demonstrate that the protagonist is unlike others around him: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (3). This line alone immediately exhibits an odd sense of detachment and amorality. Later in this chapter, Camus slowly presents Meursault’s lack of interest in his mother’s funeral and his disturbingly distinct desire for instant self-indulgence and gratification in the wake of his mother’s death. It is even stated during a conversation that Meursault doesn’t even know his mother’s age, and implied that he doesn’t really care: “‘Was she old?’ I answered, ‘Fairly,’ because I didn’t know the exact number” (16). This indifferent attitude toward her death is contrasted by the emotional state of those around him, specifically Thomas Perez, an elderly resident of the home Meursault’s mother resided in. Perez had an extremely close relationship with Madame Meursault, spending most of their time at the home together. The relationship between Perez and Madame Meursault was heartfelt and genuine, and is apparent due to Perez’s broken emotional state after her death. His stark and deep emotion shown is opposite to Meursault, who remains simply annoyed by the heat in the duration of the chapter. This is the first distinct contrast of emotion in the novel shown, and it assists in demonstrating the relentless apathy of Meursault within the first chapter. Another instance of contrast between apathy and emotion is shown when Meursault resides in the mortuary where his mother’s body is stored. Meursault is not alone in this room, as ten of Madame Meursault’s friends entered the room while he was asleep, and they are shown to be greatly affected by the death of Madame Meursault. Meursault’s attitude when one of the women begins to cry is one of simple annoyance: “I wished I didn’t have to listen to her anymore… Then she finally shut up” (11). This again implies that Meursault has no sense of empathy for those around him beyond trivial annoyance and irritation. The purpose of these emotional characters around Meursault at the beginning of the novel is to emphasize his lethargy with aspects of life that would significantly affect “normal” people.
Camus perhaps most obviously presents the juxtaposition between Meursault and the rest of society through the character Marie. Marie is portrayed as a representation of the emotion that typical members of society feel in reaction to most events. She is Meursault’s lover, as is shown early in the novel, and she shows him great warmth and care. This, however, is not returned by Meursault, who is largely unaffected by the emotional comfort she tries to give him. While he is pleased by her presence and make efforts to see her more, this is likely for purely physical reasons rather than a longing for her emotional presence. Meursault’s indifference toward Marie actually overlaps with his apathy toward the death of his mother, as the day after Meursault returns from his mother’s funeral, he goes out on a date with Marie as if it were normal. This solidifies the fact that Meursault is not affected emotionally by his mother’s death, and lays the groundwork for his attitude for the rest of the novel. Later in the novel, Marie asks if Meursault would marry her. His reply is unconventional and bizarre, yet strangely honest: “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her” (41). Again, in a single sentence, Camus presents the core of the character Meursault. This sort of indifference is the root cause for Meursault’s passivity in the novel. While the concept of marriage in society is normally a major decision to make that has a huge emotional impact on most, Meursault is disturbingly unaffected. He sees no reason not to marry Marie, even if he doesn’t love her, because love is just as unimportant as marriage itself to Meursault. This is further reflected later in the novel when Marie stops sending Meursault letters while he is in prison, as this does not affect him emotionally but only reinforces his state of isolation from the outside world.
Toward the climax of the novel, Meursault becomes involved with Raymond Sintès, a procurer that asks Meursault to help fix a problem he has with his mistress. Raymond is a bombastic and angry person whose purpose is to further demonstrate Meursault’s complete moral indifference toward any person or action, no matter how detestable. Even after Meursault learns of Raymond’s beating of his mistress, Meursault remains his friend, and in fact agrees to help Raymond by acting as a witness to the mistress’s infidelity. Many typical members of society would be appalled by this and other acts committed by Raymond, yet Meursault remains completely indifferent. Referring to the scene of Raymond beating his mistress, Meursault states, “Marie said it was terrible and I didn’t say anything” (36). Meursault says nothing because he does not feel anything, positive or negative, during the situation, contrasting Marie, whose reaction is what most would call normal.
In the climax of the novel, Meursault reaches the point of no return, after killing the Arab on the beach. After his murder, Meursault shows absolutely no remorse whatsoever. This apathy is referenced several times while Meursault is in court, when the prosecutor exposes Meursault: “I heard him say, ‘Has he so much as expressed any remorse? Never, gentlemen. Not once during his preliminary hearings did this man show emotion over his heinous offense’” (100). The prosecutor proceeds to go further and reference Meursault’s indifference at his mother’s funeral, his leisurely activities the next day, and the unmitigated apathy in his voice. By exposing Meursault, the prosecutor shows that while Meursault can fit in with society and even be liked by many “decent” people, he can never truly be a part of society in the way most normal people are. This is the ultimate juxtaposition between Meursault and society— Meursault does not have any sense of empathy, remorse, or even basic moral responsibility, and although he may be an honest man who feels that his actions were justified, he still is a danger to society. Camus uses the prosecutor as a vessel to expose the core of Meursault’s character, who is the essence of complete apathy.
In The Stranger, Camus presents society as absurd in many cases, with Meursault being written as a rational, calculated character in the midst of an absurd world. Camus presents the idea that utter passivity and indifference is an acceptable and perhaps even worthwhile way of life, and while Meursault does not feel emotion in the sense that most members of society do, he still manages to be happy until he is imprisoned. Even then, he is able to free himself mentally by accepting the absurd and living happily despite his situation, rejecting the rest of society: “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world” (122). While society and the people within society may act on emotion and conform to what is acceptable to feel and say, Meursault acts according to his nature, in contrast to the rest of society, and through his apathy becomes satisfied with his life in prison. At the end of the novel, he begins to live by his mother’s advice that “after a while, you could get used to anything" (77).