Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) name is synonymous with literary excellence, earned from a reputation carved from milestones such as The Stranger (1942), The Plague, (1947) and The Fall (1956). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, bestowed in part “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness, illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” His most famous novel, The Stranger (1942), is not categorized as genre fiction, though with a keen eye and an open mind it neatly fits into Oxford’s definition of noir: “fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.”
Meursault, a French Algerian, is not ‘normal.’ He attends his mother’s funeral but appears aloof to bystanders at the service. He doesn’t cry or ask to have the casket opened to see her, acting outwardly indifferent as he smokes and drinks near the deceased. This behavior doesn’t fit within the societal rules of the day, and it will be used against him at trial after he murders a man on the beach later that same week. Even the slaying, which occurs after a series of routine happenstances and for which Meursault has no clear motive, doesn’t seem to affect him as one would expect.
I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.
From killing this unnamed Arab through to his arrest, interrogation, and eventual conviction, he’s viewed through a prism by those around him as a soulless monster. Noir and Western author Heath Lowrance (The Axeman of Storyville) best sums up Meursault’s character by saying, “Like a visitor from another planet, he can only view the false pieties and surface-y emotions of those around him with a curious, clinical detachment.”
While jailed, Mersault turns resentful when a man of God—who he had previously turned away three times—gives him an opportunity to confess. The chaplain continues to press him, “Every man I have known in your position has turned to Him.” Meursault squabbles back and forth with the chaplain for a time, frustration growing, and then the chaplain makes the mistake of placing a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder saying he will pray for him. Meursault snaps.
All the shouting had me gasping for air. But they were already tearing the chaplain from my grip and the guards were threatening me. He calmed them, though, and looked at me for a moment without saying anything. His eyes were full of tears. Then he turned and disappeared.
In the afterword to the 1955 edition, Camus wrote:
A long time ago, I summed up [The Stranger] in a sentence which I realise is extremely paradoxical. ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he does not play the game … He refuses to lie.
Meursault is the ultimate noir outsider, cynical and unrepentant to the very bleak end. His closing thoughts are that he wishes for a large crowd at his execution that will greet him with “cries of hate.” It doesn’t get much darker that that.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.