The Stranger: Part 1, Chapter 1
Plot summary: The opening chapter is devoted the death and funeral of the protagonist's mother. The opening telegraph message from "the Home" announces the death to Meursault. The chapter then unfolds in four stages: Meursault's bus trip from Algiers to Marengo; events at the mortuary (including a night-long vigil beside the coffin); transfer of the coffin by means of a hearse to a church; a concluding phantasmagoria of sensations and memories, ending with the arrival of the bus back in Algiers.
As the travel guide through the opening chapter, I have arranged the itinerary into four "stops:" (1) chapter one as our first acquaintance with the protagonist; (2) chapter one as our initiation into the narrative world of the book; (3) chapter one as our introduction to the modern philosophic and literary tradition of the absurd; (4) a riddle regarding chapter one in light of what happens to the narrator in Part Two of the book.
The telegraph message announcing the death of Meursault's mother is one of the most striking openings in the annals of storytelling. The thing that makes it such is not the message itself but the way in which the narrator (Meursault) turns the message into a puzzle that needs to be solved, as he debates in his mind whether the death occurred "today" or "yesterday."
The Stranger is a first-person narrative in which the protagonist tells his own story. This is central to the book's effect. From start to finish we are being given an inside view of the narrator's consciousness. Accordingly, it always relevant to ask as we work our way through the story what we think of Meursault. Camus himself foregrounds that question by making Meursault the omnipresent center of what happens in the story. Meursault, moreover, records everything around him like an automaton or security camera, so we have a lot of data to assimilate as we scrutinize the narrator.
A good format for reading or rereading chapter one is to compile a provisional understanding of Meursault---mental notes on our first acquaintance with someone we will get to know extremely well. This initial portrait is a combination of description of Meursault as he is and our personal response to him and assessment of him. One thing that immediately stands out is the degree to which Meursault is dominated by the sensations going on around him. The heat and the glare of sunlight loom very large. So do random visual impressions and snatches of conversation with other people. The final paragraph in this chapter is an accelerated list of things that Meursault remembers from the funeral, and it is a riot of sensations.
While there is doubtless a sense of revulsion that sets in as we get to know Meursault, before we make too strong a move in the direction of judgment against him we need to ponder the element of recognizable, universal human experience that Camus captures in his portrait of the protagonist. God has created us as physical creatures with sensory responses. None of us is exempt from Meursault's sensitivity to heat and fatigue and the effect of sensory stimuli. We, too, experience funerals partly in terms of the sensations that unfold around us and our responses to those sensations. Camus "got in right" when he captured this facet of our lives. Truthfulness to human experience is a forte of literature---knowledge in the form of right seeing.
For reflection or discussion: As you compose a mental profile of Meursault, what are its main ingredients? If you had just met Meursault in real life, what would dominate your impression and assessment of him as you left your first meeting? What aspects of yourself and/or your acquaintances do you see embodied in the protagonist of this story? More generally, how is chapter one a window to your own world?
Entering the World of the Story
The ever-expanding portrait of the narrator/protagonist is the dominant piece of narrative business that transpires in the first chapter of The Stranger, but it is not the only one. The opening pages of every novel and opening moments of every performance of a play are our initiation into the world of the story. Here is how a literary critic describes this feature of storytelling:
In a work of art, there is presented to us a special world, with its own space and time, its own ideological system, and its own standards of behavior. In relation to that world, we assume (at least in our first perceptions of it) the position of an alien spectator, which is necessarily external. Gradually, we enter into it, become more familiar with its standards, accustoming ourselves to it, until we begin to perceive that world as if from within (Boris Uspensky, Poetics of Composition, University of California Press, 1973, p. 137).
Applied to the opening chapter of The Stranger, we need to formulate a preliminary understanding of the nature of the world that we as readers have entered, which is at the same time the world that Meursault inhabits. We need to ponder the traits and features of that world. Russian fiction writer Vladimir Nabokov gave the excellent advice that "in reading, one should notice and fondle details. . . . We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author's people" ("Good Readers and Good Writers," in Lectures on Literature, Harcourt Brace, 1980, p. 5).
But there is a further dimension to the "world" of a literary text, and it has been expressed as follows by Southern fiction writer Flannery O'Connor: "It is from the kind of world the writer creates, from the kind of character and detail he invests it with, that a reader can find the intellectual meaning of a book" (Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1957, p. 75). To say that we can derive the intellectual meaning from the kind of world that the writer creates is to make a very large claim, but it is warranted. It is a rule of storytelling that the world that writer creates is offered as an accurate picture of reality. So as we reflect on the opening chapter of The Stranger, we need to ask what Camus wants us to believe is true about the world in which we live. In turn, we need to assess that version of truth and reality. We should not overlook the misery of human existence that Camus puts before us, and the ugliness and oppressiveness of the world that the characters inhabit.
For reflection or discussion: Following the suggestion of Uspensky, as you gradually settle into the narrative world of this novel, what stands out as most noteworthy? Following the lead of Nabokov, what physical details dominate your experience of the first chapter? Accepting Flannery O'Connor's belief that we can actually discern an author's worldview and truth claims from the qualities of the imaginative world that the author creates, what early signposts do you see in regard to what Camus wants us to share with him in regard to his assertions about life and the world?
The Absurd Tradition in Modern Literature
Thus far I have put two items on the agenda for consideration---our introduction to the protagonist and our initiation into the world of the story (offered to us as a picture of reality). By the time we assimilate those two aspects of the story, we are well on our way to identifying the thing for which The Stranger is perhaps most famous, namely, its embodiment of a philosophic and literary tradition known as the absurd (also labeled absurdism). The opening chapter is our immersion into the world of the absurd, and this preliminary plunge will deepen with nearly every chapter of the book.
At its heart, the modern tradition of the absurd denies that life in this world has meaning. Camus contributed to this tradition by basing his concept of the absurd on a conflict between the human desire for meaning and significance and the way in which the universe denies that meaning. It is the tension between the two that defines absurdism for Camus.
Literary authors in the tradition of the absurd exercised their ingenuity in creating narrative situations that would embody their conception of a meaningless universe. The whole story that Camus tells in The Stranger is his ingenious vehicle, but we can experience a piece of the grand edifice already in the opening chapter. For example, as Meursault records and shares how he experienced the weekend of the funeral, it is obvious that he experienced it primarily as a series of sensory impressions. The one thing conspicuously absent from his experience of his mother's funeral is the emotion of grief.
As we read the opening pages we repeatedly see evidence of Meursault's inability to rise from the level of sensory experience to rational abstraction, or a level of logical meaning. This is a major motif of the book. By any normal way of living, there is an absurd discrepancy here between experience and a level of reasoning that ought to be present. A son ought to feel grief at his mother's funeral. Meursault does not experience such grief. When a former resident of Paris launches into a discussion of the need for a hasty funeral in the Algerian heat because corpses decompose so quickly, Merusault pronounces that he found this information "rather interesting," failing to make a connection to his mother's decomposing body.
A related technique for which Camus is famous in this novel is the way in which Meursault puts all experiences on the same level of importance. In other words, he cannot arrange the experiences of life into a meaningful pattern of priorities and levels of importance. The observation of Meursault's acquaintance Céleste that "there's no one like a mother" carries no more importance to Merusault than the fact that he "had to run to catch the bus."
For reflection or discussion: Now that the opening chapter has been positioned in the modern tradition of the absurd, what details do you find that illustrate the modern tradition of the absurd? What response does this absurdism elicit from you here at the start of the story?
Is This Man a Criminal?
In my introductory article on The Stranger I claimed that Part One narrates how the protagonist experienced the events of his mother's death, and Part Two explores how a conventionally minded society seeks to make rational sense of those same experiences. That attempt occurs at Meursault's trial, where Meursault and we with him experience the proposed pattern as an absurd irrelevance to how he experienced the events of the weekend of his mother's funeral.
There is no need to hasten to discover what the prosecutor at the trial says by way of explanation. In fact, it is important that we relive the events of the novel in the sequence that Meursault experienced them. With that in view, we might profitably comb the opening chapter for evidence that could be adduced at a trial as evidence that Meursault is a murderer at heart. If we can't detect such evidence, Camus will have led us to share his view that the universe we inhabit and (even more) the society in which we live are absurd.
For reflection or discussion: If we just look at the data presented in chapter one, what is the worst verdict that we can reach about Meursault? Does anything add up to criminal behavior?