The Stranger: Part 1, Chapter 2
Plot summary: The chapter is devoted to Meursault's experiences on the weekend immediately following the two days of his mother's funeral. The funeral showed Meursault in an extraordinary situation; the weekend routine initiates us into his normal life. The keynote of Meursault's private life is its boring quality. The main action in chapter two is Meursault's going for a Saturday swim in the harbor, meeting up with a former coworker named Marie at the harbor, and spending Sunday watching the street scene from the window of his flat.
Glimpse of the Protagonist's Common Life
Compared to the abundance of "narrative business" that transpired in chapter one, this chapter is slow paced. It is always wise to operate on the premise that storytellers know what they are doing. Applying that principle here, we can begin by noting that all stories are based on a principle of swinging back and forth between contrasting material. That material can be virtually anything, but one of the "constants" is the swing of the pendulum between intensity of action and the mundane. A story that keeps everything at a fever pitch wears us out.
The genius of the novel as a genre is that it sets a whole world into motion and achieves a kind of density of effect in the process. Chapter two of The Stranger does more than simply fill out the picture of Meursault's world, but that is definitely a part of Camus's intention. Just as chapter one was our initiation into the world of the novel as a whole, this chapter initiates into the world of Meursault's daily reality.
For reflection or discussion: In my guide to chapter one, I quoted Boris Uspensky to the effect that when we enter a narrative world we begin as an external spectator but then rather quickly become residents of that world, experiencing it from within. We can apply that strategy for reading to chapter two: as the pages unfold, what things emerge as the salient features of Meursault's world?
A second subject that I wish to put on the agenda is the tradition and techniques of literary realism. At one level realism is a universal as old as storytelling, but at another level it is a literary tradition that arose in second half of the 19th century. When I introduce the concept of literary realism in my courses, I list the following as leading features: verisimilitude (lifelikeness) at the level of surface details; as the inverse of that, avoidance of fantasy or unlifelike details; piling up of specific details to create what literary critics call the illusion of reality (illusion because we know that the world that we have entered is a fictional world that exists only inside our heads); refusal to overlook the negative features of life.
For most of the 19th century, realism also implied a balance between good and bad aspects of human experience. Most Victorian novels illustrate that tendency. As we move into the late 19th century and then throughout the modern era, realism is assimilated into a movement known as naturalism. Fiction writers in this tradition continue to use the descriptive techniques of realism (especially the accumulation of details to recreate the effect of real life), but that technique is now pressed into the service of a worldview. The primary traits of that worldview are pessimism and determinism. The preponderance of what a naturalistic writer gives us is the ugly, the sordid, and the miserable. I consider The Stranger to be a naturalistic novel.
For reflection or discussion: We can first simply note the features of chapter two that fit my descriptions of realism and naturalism. Then we can ask what Camus is saying about life in general by means of these techniques. At a further stage, we need to become self-consciously Christian readers and ask how we assess realism and naturalism as Christians who want to live holy lives. I have addressed this issue over a lifetime of writing on literature in Christian perspective, but what matters here is what the participants of this discussion group think about realism. I will register one preliminary point: we know that realism in itself (and within certain bounds) is a legitimate technique, because the Bible is replete with the realistic portrayal of life in a fallen world.
Literature of Clarification
As a literary scholar I divide the literary landscape into three categories. I expect each of these categories to have its own "division of duties," which means that I have differing expectations for each of the categories.
One category is the literature of Christian belief. This is a huge province in what John Keats called "the realms of gold" (the world of literature), but it does not dominate the scene in either English or American literature. A second category is what I label the literature of clarification. Such literature does not endorse a Christian viewpoint, and in some of its reaches it may actively oppose the Christian viewpoint, but not in such an aggressive way as to become a continuous battle for me as I read. There is also a category that I call the literature of unbelief, in which either the material that is portrayed or the aggressive hostility of viewpoint against Christianity puts me in the stance of engaging in virtual combat with it.
I place The Stranger in the category of the literature of clarification. I use that label because for me the chief feature of such literature is that it clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks. I am always grateful for such clarification. We might say that the daily news also clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks, but only with a very heavy analytic effort of our part. By contrast, a literary text comes with interpretive insight already infused into the material and with essential issues silhouetted with heightened clarity.
For reflection or discussion: If we accept my label "literature of clarification" as accurate for The Stranger, we can start to list the human experiences that are portrayed and that call our attention to what life in our own society is like. By the time we share what stands out for us personally, I can predict that the list will be long.
Second Look at Our Absurdist Hero
By choosing the first-person narrative viewpoint as his way of telling the story, Camus decisively threw the focus of the book on the characterization of the protagonist. With chapter two, as with the other chapters of the book, we can't go far wrong if we view ourselves as the observant companion of the protagonist. Getting to know Meursault more closely is thus an important part of the narrative business in chapter two. In my literature courses I often use the formula "an ever-expanding vision of . . ." as a way of organizing my students' experience of a story or play. Chapter two is a good test case for that formula. For example, as we progress through the material, we see more and more layers of boredom in Meursault's life, of sensuality, of bondage to sensory experience, and such like.
I will say something formally about literary naturalism in connection with a later chapter, but for now it is important to note that environmental determinism is an important part of naturalism. With that in view, we might profitably consider how Meursault's environment accounts for his behavior and for his being what we might call "slow on the affect." Surely anyone in Meursault's context would find the circumstances of daily living damaging to the human spirit.
In my commentary on chapter one, I highlighted the ways in which the attitudes of Meursault are Camus's attempt as a novelist to embody an absurdist view of the universe. What "packs the punch" in regard to absurdism in chapter one is the protagonist's inability to attach normal logical meaning to the external events in his life. Every observation or experience is placed on the same level. Additionally, Meursault experiences his mother's funeral as a series of physical sensations (to some extent normal), with a notable absence of emotions such as grief (totally abnormal).
In chapter two this technique takes a temporary holiday. Chapter two reads in every way like a typical piece of realistic and naturalistic fiction. But then Camus jolts us back into the absurdist mental world at the very end of the chapter. The last two sentences [a single sentence in the Ward translation] remind us, after our chapter-long amnesia in the matter, that this weekend was immediately preceded by the death and burial of the protagonist's mother. As if that were not a sufficient shock, the parting shot is the narrator's statement that "nothing had changed" [in the Gilbert translation, "nothing in my life had changed"].
For reflection or discussion: Continuing to compile a profile of the central character is a good starting point for organizing our experience of chapter two. As an aid to that, completing the formula "an ever-expanding picture of . . ." will lead us in an interpretive direction. For an angle on Meursault as absurdist hero, we need to give weight to the fact that this is not just any weekend in Meursault's life; it is the weekend that immediately follows the death and burial of his mother. What does it add to our experience of Meursault's weekend to view it through that lens? Additionally, in your own life or observations, what is the effect of physical surroundings such as Meursault's on the human spirit?
Being a person for whom Sunday observance is important, I often wonder what Sunday would be like without the routine of public worship of God. For me, chapter two of The Stranger has always provided an answer. To be sure, as an embodiment of an absurdist viewpoint, Meursault's Sunday is an extreme case. But that is how literature works: It heightens its subject so the subject stands out silhouetted. Surely chapter two does that for what I have called the secular Sunday.
Camus himself highlights the Sunday motif with interspersed comments. The first is, "I remembered that it was Sunday and that bothered me: I don't like Sundays." The second reference is, "A typical Sunday afternoon" (Gilbert translation; in the Ward translation, "It was Sunday all right"). At the end of the chapter we read, "It occurred to me that somehow I'd got through another Sunday."
For reflection or discussion: Some readers will doubtless be able to confirm whether or not Camus "got it right" from their own experiences of a secular Sunday. For readers who have always practiced a Lord's Day routine, the chapter opens a window to a foreign experience. For both sets of readers, what stands out?