The Stranger: Part 1, Chapter 4
Plot summary: Chapter four further portrays Meursault in his social environment. Specifically, we glimpse snapshots of life in the office, a weekend with Meursault's girlfriend Marie, Raymond's sordid life of sex and violence, and Salamano's relationship to his dog. That is the external action. But a psychological novel like The Stranger requires us to read at an internal level also. By embodying the action in a first-person narrator, Camus makes it easy to track with the protagonist's inner life.
Externally this chapter reads like "more of the same" when compared to chapter three, and this is a good starting point for analysis. It is important to proceed aware of the conventions of storytelling, including the principle of theme and variation. Theme denotes the element of sameness or repetition that carries through from one episode to the next. Observing the familiar strands in the plot can be a good format for "scurrying through the text" (my informal classroom term for close reading). When we move to an interpretive level, we can reflect on what Camus accomplishes with the element of sameness and reinforcement in chapter four. The storyteller sets a whole world in motion. The novelist partly wants that world to register with us.
With a naturalistic novel like The Stranger, a second level is also at work. Repetition doesn't just create the desired density of the imagined world but a deliberate sense of monotony. By a short step, that monotony becomes a sense of despair over the nature of existence. The literature of despair has been such a dominant force in literature for so long that a piece of fiction like chapter four of The Stranger can seem like formulaic or cliché writing. But this book was published in 1942 and stands near the beginning of a tradition that became predictable and trite but began as innovative and vital.
Another interpretive angle emerges if we grant my earlier suggestion that Camus sets up an inter-text between his story and the book of Ecclesiastes. Or, if you do not agree, we can simply resort to reader-response criticism and make the connection on our own. The effect in either case is to ponder how the book of Ecclesiastes (and especially the meditation in the opening chapter on the endlessly repeated cycles of life under the sun) comments on The Stranger, and (working the other way) how Camus's story glosses the book of Ecclesiastes.
For reflection or discussion: With the previous chapter's picture of "life on the block" in your memory, what motifs are repeated in this chapter? The repeated elements can be something as major as Meursault's sensuality and as seemingly minor as our seeing Meursault yet again running to catch a bus. What do we contemplate about the modern world as we assimilate chapter four of The Stranger?
Getting to Know Meursault's Friends
The framework of theme and variation implies that the issues a storyteller puts on the agenda undergo discernible progression. If some things remain constant, other things develop. In the early phases of a story (and with chapter four we are still at an early point), the element of progression likely extends things that have been introduced. The principle of accretion dominates, whereas later in a story genuine change and reversals occur.
Chapter four belongs to the first of the two paradigms I have just mentioned. It expands our knowledge of narrative issues already introduced but does not change the trajectory of those issues in transformative ways. We see this primarily in regard to the protagonist's three friends. I do not wish to preempt what my readers might uncover on their own, so I will only briefly note one line of inquiry in regard to each of the characters.
Meursault's girlfriend Marie has been one-dimensional up to now, but in chapter four she grows. She remains the object of Meursault's sexual interest, yes, but she also emerges as someone with a sparkle that we all might find winsome. She longs for romantic intimacy, as captured by her question whether Meursault loves her. As she and Meursault hear Raymond beating his girlfriend, Marie protests and asks Meursault to call a policeman. In short, Marie represents a voice of normalcy in the world of the story, though by Christian standards she is a loose woman. As a voice of normalcy, Marie functions as a foil to Meursault.
Raymond, too, grows from the kernel of what we read in chapter three. His talk in chapter three develops into unsavory and violent action. Raymond's violence is bad enough, but by the time he proposes that he and Meursault go to a brothel, we begin to sense that Raymond's depravity is advanced.
The portrait of Salamano takes a surprising turn in chapter four. Up to now we knew him from mistreating his dog. Now we learn the subtlety of the man-dog relationship. Salamano emerges as a walking bundle of anxiety about the dog who vanished during a routine walk on the Parade Ground. Salamano tells Raymond that he will never pay to regain his dog from the pound, but two minutes later he appears at Meursault's door, weeping at the thought of losing his dog.
For reflection or discussion: We can begin at the observational level. I noted a few aspects of the further characterization of Marie, Raymond, and Salamano. What do you discern? Then we can press analysis in a more interpretive direction. One of the most useful analytic tools for assimilating a story is to ask what function a given episode or detail serves in the ongoing dynamic of the story. Alternatively, we can ask what effect results from the data the author chose to include. Having codified the further characterization of Marie, Raymond, and Salamano, how do you theorize the expanded portraits affect the overall design?
Renewing Contact with Our Absurdist Hero
Even the etymology of the word protagonist hints at the centrality of this character in how we experience any story. Based on the Greek for "first struggler," protagonist thereby denotes how readers experience conflict. But this ordinary significance intensifies when the story is told by a narrator in his own person (the so-called first person point of view). This is another way of saying that no matter what other narrative data we read in The Stranger, the central point of the story is what happens inside Meursault.
There are three ways Camus handles the question of his central character in chapter four. One is (again) the external thread of action. When I teach stories, I often use the framework of hidden and apparent plots. The apparent plot is the foreground action, so obvious that even the archetypal obtuse roommate can pick up on it. In chapter four this line of action extends the "life on the block" or "slice of life" principle. At this level we read a story of boredom, sensuality, brushes with violence typical of police blotters, and forced entanglements with neighbors.
When we move to a more interpretive level, we often deal with the harder-to-discern hidden plot. The hidden plot in chapter four is the background chorus of the absurdist view of life, as embodied in an absurdist "hero." I don't want to preempt your search for this evidence, so I will comment only that the data consists (again) of Meursault's inability to attach normal emotional and logical meaning to external events.
Third, and combining the two levels of action previously noted, the story of Meursault in chapter four is told partly in terms of a grand foil or contrast by Camus. While we can see Meursault's absurdist outlook simply through close reading of the text, that absurdist position stands out silhouetted more clearly by being juxtaposed to the actions and attitudes of the other three characters. For example, Marie rises to the human level of romantic longing when she asks Meursault if he loves her. Meursault's emotional deficiency stands silhouetted against that norm when he replies that the question has no meaning, but he supposes that he doesn't love her.
For reflection or discussion: Whatever else might transpire as the chapters unfold, the background chorus in this novel is the creation of an absurdist hero. By the end of the novel, we will remember some particularly shocking examples of the absurdist mindset. One of them is Meursault's reply to Marie about the meaning of love. The sound of Salamano's weeping leads Meursault to remember his mother "for some reason" (Ward translation; in the Gilbert Stuart translation: "For some reason, I don't know what. . ."). What other moments in chapter four add to the background chorus of details in which Camus has embodied his absurdist view of life?
On the 'Readerly' Virtue of Patience
All readers, but perhaps preeminently readers in a book discussion group, feel an urge to codify their understanding of a novel's meaning early on. By the time we reach chapter four of The Stranger, an inner voice tells us that it is time to sum up what the novel "says" and to register our verdict on it. I would urge a caution in regard to the impulse to reach closure.
First, it is not wrong to be searching for understanding of the story as a whole. It is part of narrative art to set up a creative tension between our felt need to reach closure and an equally strong impulse to maintain openness and postpone closure. Stories raise expectations as the stories unfold, and storytellers prompt us to reach tentative conclusions. But stories are also a calculated strategy to frustrate our early attempts to pin them down.
The readerly virtue of patience is founded on at least two principles. One is the advice of C. S. Lewis (quoted in an earlier posting) that we must surrender ourselves and not seek to impose our convictions when appropriating a work of literature. Second, stories are literary wholes. The final meaning is never in place until the story is over.
For reflection or discussion: How have you experienced the inner tug of war between wanting to make final sense of what seems to be happening in a story and being aware that any attempt to foreclose on a story's meaning will certainly be defeated as the story continues to unfold?