The murder of the Arab is clearly the central event of the novel. Camus placedit in fact right in the middle of the book.
It is the last incident recounted inpart 1, so its importance is underscored by a structural break in the story. Itis related in one of the longer chapters, which records in fine detail theevents of the day, even when their relevance is not obvious – for example,several paragraphs are devoted to describing how Marie and Meursault frolic inthe sea. The murder marks an obvious change in Meursault’s life, from free manto prisoner, and some more subtle associated changes, such as his increasingintrospection and concern with memory. Meursault himself describes the shootingin terms that emphasise both the destruction of a past and the start ofsomething new: “and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the sametime, is where – ‘it all started’ – I shook off the sweat and the sun. I knewthat I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beachwhere I’d been happy”. This violent crime also interrupts the routine flowof the story.
Until the murder, nothing very dramatic has happened and nothingdramatic seems likely to happen. Partly, of course, this air of normalityresults from the way Meursault tells the story. His mother’s death could havebeen a momentous event, but he begins the novel with the statement: ‘Mother diedtoday. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’. The matter-of-fact tone and theuncertainty combine to make us feel that this is not a significant event. Inmany stories the first moments of love seem portentous.
Of his first night withMarie Meursault says, ‘Toward the end of the show, I gave her a kiss, but not agood one. She came back to my place. When I woke up, Marie had gone’. One couldhardly be farther from romantic rapture. A few days later Meursault agrees tomarry Marie, and that too could have been presented as a turning point in hislife; but he relates their engagement as if it were a routine decision: ‘Thatevening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said itdidn’t make much difference to me and that we could if she wanted to’.
Innarrating the murder itself, Meursault expresses very much the same attitude ashe has previously; his actions have no conscious motives. The stage is set as ifby accident, and that impression is reinforced by the accumulation of details. Meursault tells this day almost moment by moment. He tells of his headache and abitter taste in his mouth, of Marie’s white dress and Raymond’s blue trousers,of their decision to take a bus rather than walk. Some of the details havesymbolic functions.
Marie remarks that he has a ‘funeral face’, alluding both tothe funeral and to the impending murder. They bang on the Raymond’s door tosummon him, foreshadowing the gunshot raps ‘on the door of unhappiness’ at thetime of the murder. The impression that this is just another day dominates thefirst part of this chapter, right up to the first confrontation with the Arabs. Meursault’s role in this initial fracas is very passive.
He accepts the taskassigned to him by Raymond, to stand by to help ‘if another one shows up’. Hetries to shout a warning to Raymond, but too late. In the aftermath the threemen return to the bungalow, and Masson then takes Raymond to a doctor, leavingMeursault, as he puts it, ‘to explain to the women what had happened. I didn’tlike having to explain to them, so I just shut up, smoked a cigarette, andlooked at the sea’. As usual, he gives no clue as to the content of histhoughts, and nothing is reported of his conversation with the two women.
Massonand Raymond return from the doctor at one thirty, two hours after the walk firstbegan. Raymond is in a surly mood and eventually announces that he is ‘goingdown to the beach . . . to get some air’.
Masson and Meursault both propose togo with him, but he tells them to mind their own business. Masson complies, butnot Meursault: ‘I followed him anyway’. This is Meursault’s first rejection ofauthority, almost his first wilful act of the novel. The two men come upon thetwo Arabs by a stream near a large rock. The description becomes more and morelyrical and mythical from this point. The sun has grown unbearably fierce.
TheArabs are lying peacefully by the stream, one of them playing three notes on areed flute. Apart from the three notes and the tinkling water, there is totalsilence and stillness. Raymond is eager to provoke an encounter but Meursaulttakes command of the situation, eventually persuading him to ‘take him on man toman and give me your gun’. As Raymond hands over the gun, ‘we just stood theremotionless, as if everything had closed in around us. ‘ In this strange suspendedstate Meursault’s indifference takes on alarming proportions: ‘I realized thatyou could either shoot or not shoot’.
As in the first encounter, the Arabs flee,slipping suddenly behind the rock. Meursault and Raymond return once more to thebungalow, and Raymond seems satisfied. But Meursault halts at the bottom of thestairs, unable, he says, ‘to face the effort it would take to climb the woodenstaircase and face the women again’. He goes back to the beach and startswalking back toward the site of the last encounter. Only when he comes to therocks and the stream does he realize that one of the Arabs is still there; infact, he claims he had forgotten about the earlier incidents.
Then, for a longtime the two men stand facing each other without doing anything. Meursault isnot so passive that he fails to recognize his freedom to choose what to do. Heknows that he could have avoided the third confrontation; he even knew it atthen time: ‘It occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and thatwould be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressingon my back.
I took a few steps towards the spring’. And then he takes one final,fatal step: ‘It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made memove forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me bystepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, withoutgetting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun’.
Meursaultknows that his action makes no sense; as in the previous instance, he knew it atthe time, to the extent that he thought about it. But he did not think; he tookone more step, in a series that goes back not just to the bungalow, but to thebeginning of the book, for that is how Meursault has lived his life, acting byreflex rather than by reflection. The instant of the murder has arrived. Aware,at least in retrospect, of the significance of this action, Meursault relates itat length. Even here, he has almost nothing to say about his own thoughts andideas: ‘All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my foreheadand, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me’.
What he talks about is external – the sweat dropping from his eyebrows, thegleam of the knife, the glare of the sun, the hot wind off the sea. When heactually pulls the trigger, he phrases the sentence so that he himselfdisappears: ‘The trigger gave’. After the shot, his perspective changesabruptly. He recognizes, first of all, that a momentous event has occurred:’there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it allstarted’. Unlike his mother’s death or his betrothal to Marie, this deed marks aturning point. Curiously, he regards it as a beginning rather than an end, eventhough he has lost his freedom and, as he puts it, ‘shattered the harmony of theday, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy’.
Furthermore, here-establishes himself in the active role: ‘Then I fired four more times at themotionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace’. Meursaultoffers no more explanation for the additional shots, in terms of motive, thanfor any of his previous actions. The act itself still belongs to his habitualpattern of behavior – impulsive, instinctive, unconscious. It is easy enough toimagine reasons for Meursault’s behavior. It seems probable that his machoattitude and unacknowledged rivalry with Raymond enter into it. He has for thefirst time really thought about being married; he reacts by rejecting both thecompany of women and whatever might be thought feminine in himself: fear, pity,conciliation, even passivity, which had been his dominant trait.
On the firstsally he recognizes that Raymond and Masson are old friends who form a pair fromwhich he is excluded. His isolation is exacerbated when Raymond consigns him toan onlooker’s role in the first fight, and still more when he is obliged to waitwith Marie and Masson’s wife while the other two men go to the doctor. He thenoutdoes Raymond both in sullen stubbornness and in aggressiveness. In the secondtrip to the beach Meursault replaces Raymond as the dominant male. He must makethe third trip to vindicate his honor. One could argue that Meursault wassuffering from sun-stroke.
One could also mention that he has drunk a good dealof wine. It is possible to imagine ways in which Meursault could be defended incourt, such as temporary insanity, or a plea of self-defence – after all, theArab drew his knife first. Raymond escapes any blame, not only in Meursault’sretelling but also in court; yet he provoked the quarrel with the Arab and drewMeursault into it. The point of this crime, however, is that it has no purposeand no excuse.
Meursault’s originality as a character is precisely that he hasno interest in telling a story that explains his crime, either to make itforgivable or to make it comprehensible.