Testing the Boundaries of Algerian Conventional Society In this essay, I amgoing to explore Albert Camus’ use of Meursault’s murder trial in TheStranger to note the absurdity of the defined social behavior in Algeria whileforcing the reader to evaluate his or her own morality. Camus asks the reader toform a mental and emotional relationship with Meursault through the descriptiveand, in the end, destructively honest narrative. He then asks the reader todepend not on the law, which in this novel represents conventional socialbehavior, but on this newfound relationship to decide Meursault fate. Camus’introduction of Meursault uses straightforward and very honest language. Whilethe reader is aware from the beginning that Meursault deviates from the norm,through factual, and almost play-by-play details, Meursault dares the reader tojudge him, and we do.
We criticize him for not showing more emotion towards hismother’s death. We expect him to show more affection towards Marie, whom heclaims to love and we want him to exert a more forceful voice in the situationbetween Raymond and his girlfriend. However, we respect his honesty andappreciate his need to almost separate himself from the emotions that seem todrive us all a little crazy. Camus then challenges this respect and appreciationwith a violent act. As the story reaches the climax with the murder, ouropinions of Meursault change because, as Camus makes us aware, society hascondemned him not for murder but for being different.
Indeed, the gentlemen ofthe jury will take note of the fact. And they will conclude that a stranger mayoffer a cup of coffee, but that beside the body of the one who brought him intothe world, a son should have refused it. (91) Meursault’s guilt, as theprosecutor points out, stems from his odd behavior over the loss of his mother. Unlike American society, although not by much, the Algerian social standardscall for Meursault to weep in sorrow and be distraught during the funeraldespite his relationship with his mother. As part of American society, weattempt to create our own meaning for Meursault’s actions. We want hisrelationship with his mother to explain these actions.
On the other hand,perhaps, we want to say that he was “taught not to show is emotions. “American society searches for the psychological reasons for Meursault’sactions. Our focus is not on the murder per say. It is on the reasons behind themurder.
What made him snap? However, we must separate ourselves from whatAmerican society has taught us and focus only on what Camus tries to teach usabout Algerian society. Algerian society is about getting to the core ofMeursault’s defiance not because it will help to better explain his actions,but because when one defies the rules of society he, or she, must pay. The trialis not a murder trial. It is a trial of morals and emotion. Why else would theprosecutor focus so much on the death of Meursault’s mother? Why else wouldthe later part of the book turn into a self-evaluation of Meursault and ofourselves? During the preparation for the trial, the reader becomes increasinglyaware of Meursault’s sensitivity. Meursault has to explain his feelings andnot his actions to the court, something that seems impossible for even the mostsocially acceptable.
We feel pity for him because his past torments him. Camususes this pity for Meursault. He wants the reader to identify with Meursault andsympathize with his situation. Once Camus sets up the link between the readerand Meursault, he makes the reader resent the judges.
Camus provokes the readerto resent the judges of Meursault by having us feel that the judges arequestioning our behavior as well. This resentment towards the judges, andultimately towards society, becomes the basis for our decision to either supportor condemn Meursault. Camus forces the reader to revaluate his or her morals inorder to avoid condemnation by society. We envy Meursault because he is able tobe honest and true to himself, and although Meursault could have saved himselfhad he repented or showed remorse, he saves himself by not doing that, and thisis what we respect because Meursault has done what we are afraid of doing: hequestions society. Let us look at the actual murder.
Meursault, in what seems tobe an act of pure evil, fires an involuntary shot followed by four voluntaryones. The four voluntary and unnecessary shots start Meursault’s process ofquestioning society, and the reader’s process of questioning him or her self. As the judges connect Meursault’s emotionless past to his crime, the readerexplores exactly how they are like Meursault. Camus wants the reader to feelthat at any moment society can condemn him or her in the same way that Meursaultis condemned.
This is not to say, however, that Camus want us to forget aboutthe violent murder. Rather, Camus intentionally disassociates the act of themurder from the actual sentence. This separation reveals the absurdity ofAlgerian, and in many ways American society. Camus needs the reader to believethat the court kills Meursault for his indifference, in order for the reader tofeel unsatisfied with the verdict. Because we see Meursault as an innocentforce, almost child like, we begin to question our own innocence.
And yet, weare, because of society’s conditioning, unable to separate the murder from theverdict. The reader, like the judges, begins to prosecute Meursault for opposingsociety, and uses the murder to justify this prosecution. Camus then, after thereader feels satisfied with not having defied society, uses Meursault’s momentof self-evaluation to make the reader self-evaluate himself. On page 121,Meursault asks, What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter tome; what did his God of the lives people choose of the fate they think theyelect matter to me when we’re all elected the same fate, me and billions ofprivileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? . .
. What wouldit matter if he were accused of murder and then executed because he did not cryat his mother’s funeral? Meursault’s newfound awareness compels the readerto ask: “in what way am I Meursault?” “Am I guilty of being different?””How will I act when a parent passes away?” “In prosecuting Meursault, thereaders prosecute themselves. ” Camus forces us to make a connection that isentirely different, better yet, independent of society’s connection to murderand guilt. Camus has the reader put Meursault on trial to determine his owninnocence.
The Stranger, and ultimately the murder trial, is a process ofself-awareness based not on what society has taught us, but on what Camusteaches us through Meursault’s situation. Through this self-awareness, Camusis able to provide a valid argument against the absurdity of what society calls”appropriate behavior”. We see that there is no such thing as appropriatebehavior because in the end, society condemns us all. The reader becomesMeursault’s source of strength, Camus source of truth, and society’s judges.