The Stranger: Part 1, Chapter 3
Plot summary: Chronology continues to govern the sequence of the book. Chapter one covered the mother's funeral, chapter two the weekend following the funeral, and now chapter three the return to the weekday world. The brief opening scenario is devoted to life in the office. The bulk of the chapter portrays Meursault's life in the apartment complex. The keynote is the sordidness and "seediness" of the world the protagonist inhabits.
Assimilating a Piece of Naturalistic Fiction
I am going to assume that the story material in this chapter is sufficiently offensive to Christian sensibilities that I should address that issue first. I will begin with the literary movement called naturalism (to some degree a philosophic movement as well). When I teach naturalistic fiction in my courses, I list the following as the distinguishing features:
- A systematic description of contemporary society as it really is.
- Pessimistic tone, with special emphasis on human smallness and helplessness.
- A deterministic view of the universe and its influence on people; denial of human choice.
- Characters drawn from the lower classes.
- Psychological interest; preoccupation with human subjectivity and the subconscious, and with the irrational springs of human action.
- Emphasis on human loneliness and isolation.
The Stranger incorporates all of these features, and chapter three is a good specimen with which to analyze the phenomenon.
I will put some prompts to discussion on the table in the reflection/discussion section below. But first, I want to share two choice quotations that I encountered at the very outset of my teaching career and that I have regularly invoked in my teaching of modern literature. Literary scholar Roland Frye, a Christian who taught at Princeton University, wrote helpfully that secular authors "clarify the human situation to which the salvation of God is addressed" (Perspective on Man, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961, p. 59). I broaden that statement slightly to make it say that great literature always clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks.
Harry Blamires, student and protégé of C. S. Lewis, likewise addressed the question of how Christians might find something of value in literature and other art forms that portray evil in ways that are off putting to Christian sensibility. Blamires, whose statement is more open ended than Frye's, said, "There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly" (The Christian Mind, London: S.P.C.K., 1966, p. 68).
I do not expect that the participants in this discussion group will be unanimous in their assessment of the subject matter of naturalistic fiction. Let me add one more idea for consideration. I am sometimes willing to put up with offensive subject matter in order to assimilate a larger good the book can offer me. Along these lines, the authors of a book entitled How to Read a Dirty Book (Irving and Cornelia Sussman, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1966) make the reasonable suggestion that "to learn how to read a dirty book is to learn how to see the book whole" (pp. 12-13).
For reflection or discussion: It is always potentially useful to begin at the level of personal response: how does a piece of naturalistic fiction like chapter three affect me? Further, what accounts for that response, and/or what does my response reveal about me? Applying the formula of Roland Frye, what aspects of the human situation are clarified in chapter three? How does the Christian faith speak to those experiences or issues? Applying the framework bequeathed by Harry Blamires, what does thinking Christianly about the material presented in chapter three look like?
Artistic Technique in Chapter Three
On the surface, realistic fiction is much less replete with artistry than other forms of literature. For purposes of contrast, let's consider the example of an English sonnet. Such a poem unfolds in stately and beautiful fashion on the principle of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. Each quatrain has its pattern of abab rhyme. There are ten syllables per line, and the meter flows in regular, wavelike manner. Each quatrain is likely to have its own controlling image or motif, and the concluding couplet sums up the preceding movement with an aphoristic punch. The artistry of such a performance is obvious.
By comparison, it might seem that nearly anyone can write a piece of fictional narrative like chapter three of The Stranger. Just observe the social scene and note details from daily life. This "slice of life" is recorded in everyday prose anyone naturally speaks. I believe that there is truth in this seeming artlessness of prose fiction, but it is not the whole truth. It is not the case that just anyone could have written chapter three of The Stranger.
Out of several avenues by which to see the artistic skill of a writer of realistic fiction, the one that impresses me most is the selectivity of details by which Camus (in this case) captures a larger sense of life. The task of the writer, including the writer of realistic fiction, is to incarnate meaning and viewpoint in concrete details. We tell students in our writing courses that their task is to show rather than tell. Yet the details cannot be random; they must be a net that captures a sense of life. The fiction writer searches for just the right details or snapshots to convey the sense of life that the author wishes to impress upon us.
An exploration of this technique of selectivity in chapter three of The Stranger will on the one hand unfold the inventiveness and artistry of Camus, and on the other hand the view of life that Camus wished to embody and persuade us to accept as truthful. Our assumption as readers must always be that authors intend something significant with every detail they put into a story. An early example in chapter is Meursault's annoyance when at work the roller towel in the washroom becomes unpleasantly wet as the day unfolds. When Meursault mentions this to his employer, the employer (in contrast to Meursault) finds the situation regrettable but "a minor detail." What does Camus intend with this detail?
Some of these particulars carry over from one chapter to the next and become themes or motifs in Meursault's life. For example, in the opening chapter Meursault had to run to catch the bus to Marengo (site of his mother's funeral). Early in chapter three Meursault and his fellow office worker Emmanuel find themselves running to catch up with a truck and climb aboard. In the next paragraph we see Meursault running to catch a street car. I cannot imagine that Camus would have chosen this motif without a purpose.
Once we accept the premise that good fiction writers invent details that embody a larger meaning, it is obvious that even writers in the realistic camp practice an incipient symbolism---not blatant as in The Pilgrim's Progress, but latent. Taken one step further in the direction of literary sophistication, this latent symbolism might become combined with literary allusion. In chapter one, there are so many references to the heat of the sun that the sun becomes a member in the cast of characters. Chapters two and three do not flag the sun quite as conspicuously as chapter one does, but the sun continues to insert itself into our consciousness.
I have always felt that Camus intends a reference to the book of Ecclesiastes, with its repeated formula of life under the sun. If so, we have an instance of what literary scholars call an intertext, in which authors set up a dialogue between a previous text and their own text. I was naturally pleased to see a master's thesis done at Liberty University that explores the likely influence of Ecclesiastes on Camus (Justin Keith Morgan, Living in the Tensions: Camus, Qohelet, and the Confrontation with the Absurd).
For reflection or discussion: Building on my suggestion that the details in a piece of realistic fiction like chapter three are carefully selected to embody a larger sense of life, it will yield a lot to comb the chapter and compile a list of "telling details." Then we can ponder the incipient symbolism of those details. That, in turn, might yield a sense of life or even worldview that we think Camus is commending. If we think that Camus might be "playing off" the negative passages in Ecclesiastes, how does the book of Ecclesiastes serve as a gloss on The Stranger, and how does the latter serve as a gloss on the book of Ecclesiastes?
Another Glimpse of the Absurdist Hero
I should explain that when I speak of Merusault as a "hero," I am using that word in a loose sense to denote the protagonist of the story. I will note in passing, though, that Camus (as quoted in my introductory posting on The Stranger) claimed that Meursault "agrees to die for the truth" and in the process becomes "the only Christ we deserve" (Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage, 1970, p. 337).
Perhaps the most striking feature of the opening chapter of The Stranger is the pronounced disconnect between what happens in Meursault's life and his inability to attribute a normal or rational human response to the events of his life. That technique makes an obvious return in chapter three. For example, when Meursault's neighbor Raymond Sintes asks if Meursault isn't disgusted by Salamano's mistreatment of his dog, Meursault answers "no." When Raymond discusses the sordid experience with his girlfriend and asks Meursault what he "thought of the whole thing," Meursault replies that he "didn't think anything but that it was interesting." At the end of the conversation Raymond announces that he and Meursault are now pals, to which Meursault replies "yes," adding for our information, "I didn't mind being his pal, and he seemed set on it" (Ward translation). I will note in passing that the Gilbert translation rather consistently strikes me as packing a greater punch, as in Gilbert's translation of this same passage: "'So now we're pals, ain't we?' . . . I didn't care one way or the other, but as he seemed so set on it, I nodded and said, 'Yes.'"
As Christian readers we can hardly avoid being increasingly irritated by the protagonist of the story. Edmund Fuller made the comment that Meursault is "essentially subhuman, whether Camus conceives him as inherently such or as reduced to such" (Man in Modern Fiction, New York: Vintage, 1949, p. 12). The concluding phrase in that sentence alerts us to something important about Camus's story. A double judgment starts welling up within us as we read---against Meursault, yes, but also against his decadent society. Once we get that equation before us, we can ponder the question of environmental influence or determinism.
For reflection or discussion: What evidence do you see (lightly touched on in my commentary above) that Camus is painting a portrait of an absurdist protagonist/hero? That this represents Camus's view of life's possibilities can be taken as a "given." Christian hope rules that out as an accurate viewpoint. Still, we can extract some truth from Camus's portrayal. First, I wonder how many unbelievers on my block or shopping in my local grocery story find life meaningless as Meursault does. When I put the daily news as reported by the media alongside The Stranger and its protagonist, the latter seem a great deal less exaggerated than initially believed. Again, it is easy to make theological sense of what we are asked to contemplate in chapter three; it all has to do with human sinfulness. I wonder what further theological sense my theologically inclined readership might make of chapter three.