“My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the old people’s home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Very sincerely yours’ That doesn’t mean anything. It might have been yesterday.” So begins the indifferent account of Mersault, the honest protagonist whom Camus called “a man who… agrees to die for the truth” and was characterised by the author as “the only Christ that we deserve“.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Mersault has a new girlfriend and goes to the beach for the weekend with his friends, one of whom is targeted for revenge and injured by a gang of Arabs. Later, Mersault returns with a revolver and shoots dead one of the Arabs under the scorching sun – “the sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me“. Pausing a short while after the first shot, Mersault fires four more times at the lifeless body – “… and it was as if I had rapped sharply, four times, on the fatal door of destiny.” At the end of the trial, based largely on his indifference towards his mother’s death, the jury pronounce death penalty for Mersault.
Indifference and honesty without compromise
Mersault’s lawyer, when preparing for the defence, raises the issue of not showing emotions during his mother’s recent funeral. Mersault replies, “I undoubtedly loved Mama very much, but that didn’t mean anything. Every normal person sometimes wishes the people they love would die.” His lawyer further asks if he can respond to the prosecution by saying Mersault merely keeps his emotions under control on the day of funeral. Mersault disagrees with the answer and prefers not to lie. His lawyer leaves looking angry. “I wanted to tell him that I was just like everybody else, exactly like everybody else.“
The society honours certain moral ideals. However, when such ideals are honoured by individuals without compromise, the hypocritical society that cannot itself abide by such ideals, condemns those individuals. Mersault is an honest man who stays true to his feelings and thoughts. On the day of funeral, Mersault fails to show grief over his mother’s death as a son will usually do, as the high temperature distracts him from concentrating on the ceremony. Instead of conforming to social etiquette, he smokes, falls asleep, and drinks coffee. The arbiters of justice and moral ethos, who are granted the power to adjudicate and uphold the moral ideals, condemn Mersault not for being immoral, but for being true. Mersault’s death penalty symbolises the society’s reluctance to accept individuals unwilling to conform – hypocrisy is not denounced but a surviving trait.
Such indifference is not only exhibited by Mersault. To Mersault, the others are also indifferent. When Mersault is in court, his impression of the jurors is that “I was standing in front of a row of seats on a tram and all the anonymous passengers were looking up and down at the person who had just got on, to see what was contemptible about him.” They are watching Mersault for tangible physical details in the world which is lack of superior significance.
During the imprisonment, Mersault once describes the location of the prison – that it is situated right at the top of the town and he could see the sea through a little window. I remember staring out of a small round window in a prisoner’s room in Château d’If near Marseille. The prison was surrounded by vast blue seas, and yet the prisoners were confined to their tiny dwelling space. As expressed by Mersault, it is often through the deprivation that you learn about its existence. This is why the government put people in the prison, and what freedom is for. To quote To Kill a Mockingbird, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.“
And yet it is easy to accommodate such loss of freedom. After all, one’s thoughts and beliefs are much shaped by the environment he or she is in. “… But that just lasted a few months. Afterwards, I had only the thoughts of a prisoner. I looked forward to the daily walk I took around the courtyard or the visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I got used to it. I often thought that if I’d been forced to live inside the hollow trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do except look up at the sky flowering above my head, I would have eventually got used to that as well. … It was an idea of Mama’s that people could eventually get used to anything, and she often talked about it.”
Life on earth and afterlife
Mersault is an antheist. While other Christian characters in the novella believe that the earthly life is merely a stepping stone to eternity, the existence of ultimate death makes Mersault find life nihilistic. This review does not intend to argue on the validity of any religion beliefs, and yet from this perspective alone, Mersault is not an outsider anymore. He is the only person who believes in the significance of earthly life. The other religious characters are in fact the outsiders, and yet they consider Mersault, who behaves and thinks differently, as the outsider of the majority.
The theme of meaningless life constantly appears in the novella. With the inescapable death, no deeds have long lasting meaning. As a consequence, all lives are the same. When Mersault’s boss offers him the opportunity to work in Paris and help set up a new branch there, Mersault replies that “you can never really change your life and that, in any case, every life was more or less the same and that my life here wasn’t bad at all.“
Mersault even commits philosophical suicide by not attempting to fight against the trial which will likely bring him to execution. The transient nature of life makes Mersault think that life is not worth living. Also, as the ultimate death is definitely coming, it does not matter when and how one dies. In this way, one enjoys absolute freedom in life: “… it didn’t matter much whether you died at thirty or at seventy, because in either case other men and women would of course go on living, and it would be like that for thousands of years. Nothing was more obvious, in fact. But I was still the one who would be dying, whether it was now or in twenty years. When I thought about that, though, what truly upset me was the horrible lurch I felt inside at the thought of twenty years of life yet to live. But all I had to do to banish that feeling was to imagine what my thoughts would be like twenty years from now when I would have to face the same situation. If you are going to die, it didn’t actually matter how or when, that much was obvious.“
“For the first time in a very long while, I thought about Mama. I believed I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a ‘fiancé’, why she had taken the chance to start over again. There at the home, where lives faded away, there as well, evening offered a wistful moment of peace. So close to death, Mama must have felt set free, ready to live once more. No one – no one – had the right to cry over her. And I as well, I too felt ready to start life all over again. As if this great release of anger had purged me of evil, emptied me of hope; and standing before this symbolic night bursting with stars, I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world. To feel it so like me, so like a brother, in fact, I understood that I had been happy, and I was still happy. So that it might be finished, so that I might feel less alone, I could only hope there would be many, many spectators on the day of my execution and that they would greet me with cries of hatred.“
“Mama often said that no one is ever really entirely unhappy.” “Although actually, everyone is always a little guilty.“
Perhaps to Mersault, death brings freedom from the heavy social chains. Perhaps death brings him true happiness.