The Stranger: Part 2, Chapter 1
- Part 1, Chapter 1
- Part 1, Chapter 2
- Part 1, Chapter 3
- Part 1, Chapter 4
- Part 1, Chapter 5
- Part 1, Chapter 6
Plot summary: This chapter is devoted to Meursault's interviews with the examining magistrate and his court-appointed lawyer. Depending on our familiarity with television programs in the genre of The First 48, Mersault's examination follows a thoroughly familiar contour. As readers we have prior information about the defendant and the circumstances of the murder, but the people who interrogate Meursault start "from scratch." Dialogue replaces the first-person narrative that dominated part one. This chapter revisits the events of part one but this time in the interrogative mood and with a concern to explain events for someone who did not live through them as we did.
Entering a Legal World
In my commentary on the opening chapters of The Stranger, I stressed the idea of a narrative world. I quoted a literary critic who observed that we begin as outside spectators of the narrative world but rather quickly become residents. Part two transports us to an entirely different world from part one, and the opening chapter of part two initiates us. It is a judicial and penal world governed by the protocol of legal proceedings. The physical locations for part two will be the prison and the courtroom, and the time span will be approximately one year. For me, no other literary work catch match this one for making me feel what it is like to be imprisoned and on trial.
For Meursault, too, life in prison is an initiation. He confides with a sense of novelty and surrealism, "I had read descriptions of scenes like this in books." By the end of the chapter Meursault (after 11 months in prison) finds the examination routine so familiar that he feels as though he belongs to the same family with the magistrate and lawyer.
For reflection or discussion: One of the unifying strands in chapter one is the protagonist's initiation into his new life as an accused criminal. He (being the narrator of the story) records the story of his early perplexity with prison life and legal proceedings and his eventual acceptance. What moments or statements by Meursault contribute to his story of initiation? What do we learn as he records his adjustment to this world? Additionally, if Meursault responds to the judicial and penal world, so do we. How? Although this world may be remote from ours, we can safely assume that the nature of judicial proceedings in chapter one is universal.
Trying to Make Sense of the Criminal and His Crime
A second stream that flows through chapter one is the attempt of society to explain the exact nature of Meursault's crime and reach an understanding of the criminal. This attempt by society to explain the murder will keep building to a grand crescendo in the chapters that follow, culminating at the trial.
For example, Meursault's behavior at his mother's funeral emerges as a leading concern already in this chapter. The lawyer informs his client that an inquiry into events surrounding his mother's funeral had yielded a verdict by observers in Marengo that Meursault had been unfeeling and insensitive. Further, the lawyer insists that it is important to his defense that Meursault offer a rebuttal to the charge of having been insensitive.
A litany of further questions belongs to the motif of society's quest to find a logical explanation for Meursault's behavior. Did Meursault love his mother? Why did Meursault fire five consecutive shots? Why did he pause between the first and second shots? Does Meursault regret what he did?
As readers we already know the answers to much of what the magistrate and lawyer attempt to discover. We know their questions miss the mark. The literary term for this discrepancy is dramatic irony. It results when readers know more than one or more characters in a story know. This chapter is a grand display of irony, as a conventionally minded society assumes certain things about Meursault and his behavior that we know to be wrong. Still, we can grant that under ordinary circumstances their presumptions would be valid.
For reflection or discussion: Trace (a) the implied explanations the magistrate and lawyer impose on the events of part one, and (b) the degree to which these explanations distort how Meursault experienced those events. Camus is pursuing a persuasive agenda of getting us to share his viewpoint toward society. What is that viewpoint, as embodied in an incipient critique of society's misguided attempts to explain everything in conventional ways? In turn, how do you assess the magistrate and lawyer as they spin Meursault's actions?
We also need to take an initial foray into something that will become a major preoccupation of the novel by the time it ends---namely, the picture of the judicial system that Camus puts before us. I do not make any prejudgment about how individual readers will assess the court system of the novel. But I will make some preliminary points about it.
First, society obviously needs a system of prosecution, trial, and judgment as a prerequisite to civilization. Someone who commits murder needs to be arrested and imprisoned, and then he needs to be tried with as much data on the table as possible. In principle, then, as readers we respect figures of law like the magistrate and lawyer.
Second, though, we can hardly fail to be disturbed by much of what parades in front of us. As storyteller, Camus influences our responses simply by virtue of the details that he put into the story. The storyteller always controls what we see and don't see. The question that the magistrate finds most crucial (and to which he continually returns) is why Meursault waited between the first and second shots. An irrelevant detail has been allowed to take "center stage" in the mind of the examining magistrate, and as readers we are duly critical.
Along these lines, the lawyer and magistrate themselves betray a note of cynicism about the legal proceedings. For example, when Meursault offers the opinion that his behavior at his mother's funeral has no connection with the murder charge, the lawyer replies that this simply shows he has never had any dealings with the law. Late in the chapter we read that the magistrate seemed to have lost interest in Meursault's case.
For reflection or discussion: Almost from the start of this story, a double judgment arises within us---against Meursault and against his society. How do you respond to society as represented by the magistrate, lawyer, and larger social institution that we call "the law"?
Every chapter I have covered thus far, including this one, winds its way to the ongoing characterization of Meursault as an absurdist hero. In fact, several moments in this chapter rank in memorability with Meursault asserting that "nothing had changed" with the death of his mother and telling Marie that they would get married if she was keen on it.
This chapter heightens the motif. When asked if he felt sadness on the day of his mother's funeral, Meursault claims that "the question struck me as an odd one" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "The question caught me by surprise"). When asked if he was sorry for the murder he had committed, Meursault replies that he "felt kind of annoyed" (Gilbert: "less regret than a kind of vexation"). And then there are the now-customary references to Meursault's inattentiveness due to the heat.
For reflection or discussion: Continue to view yourself as the observant companion of the protagonist. Whatever else Camus is saying in this novel, the most important aspect of that message is embodied in the protagonist. How do your understanding and assessment of the absurdist hero grow in this chapter?
The Case of the Crucifix-Toting Magistrate
The most unexpected and mysterious ingredient in this chapter is the major space allotted to the moment when the magistrate turns evangelist. Out of nowhere the magistrate pulls a crucifix out of his file cabinet, asserts that he believes in God, and proclaims the gospel of forgiveness in Christ exactly as a Christian believer would proclaim it. He then proceeds to ask Meursault if he believes in God and is exasperated when Meursault says that he does not believe.
The storyteller plants devices of disclosure to guide a reader in the direction of a desired response. In fact, the author's success in conveying the intellectual meaning of a work and persuading a reader to accept it as truthful depends on planting the right cues. I see nothing in chapter one that constitutes a device of disclosure in regard to the evangelistic magistrate. I do note, however, that at the end of the chapter Meursault records that "he didn't talk to me about God anymore, and I never saw him as worked up as he was that first day." The Gilbert translation renders it more vividly and with nuance: "He never mentioned God again or displayed any of the religious fervor I had found so embarrassing at our first interview."
Much depends on the degree of credibility that we personally accord to the magistrate. But not everything depends on that judgment. The magistrate's message accurately reflects Christian doctrine, regardless of how feel toward him. Equally, we are led to understand that rejecting Christian belief is part of the protagonist's identity.
For reflection or discussion: It is hard to know what to make of the Christian note thrust so conspicuously into this chapter. Since we are left on our own to interpret, I'm eager to observe in the comments section what you think. At the very least we need to say that Camus shows a correct understanding of the gospel of forgiveness in Christ. But the novel does not say what Camus intended with this placement of the gospel into his story at an unexpected point. What do you think Camus intended?