The Stranger: Part 2, Chapter 4
- Part 1, Chapter 1
- Part 1, Chapter 2
- Part 1, Chapter 3
- Part 1, Chapter 4
- Part 1, Chapter 5
- Part 1, Chapter 6
- Part 2, Chapter 1
- Part 2, Chapter 2
- Part 2, Chapter 3
Plot summary: The action centers on the last day of Meursault's trial. It is the climax not only of the trial but also of the novel, inasmuch as the preceding chapter left us hanging in regard to the outcome of the trial and the next chapter (the last) strikes us a tying up the lose ends (the technical name for which is denouement). A sense of doom hovers over the chapter. The prosecutor sums up his case against Meursault, the lawyer for the defense raises counter arguments, Meursault intermittently shares his responses to what is happening, and the jury's verdict is stated (a determination that Meursault was "to have [his] head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people"). Analysis of the chapter falls naturally into four subjects: (1) the continuing courtroom drama, (2) the perverseness of the prosecutor in interpreting the data in ways contrary to how events actually happened, (3) the critique of the judicial system that is evident in all of the proceedings, and (4) the continuing characterization of Meursault.
Further Drama in the Courtroom
When we started to read the novel, there was nothing to suggest that the second half would be a trial story. There are plausible reasons why Camus chose a story of trial as the vehicle for expressing his absurdist philosophy. For now, we need to go with the flow and open ourselves to the excitement of the trial in its final stages. I always read the chapter with my attention riveted on the drama of the last day of the trial.
Everything is at a white heat of emotion in this chapter. Right at the start of the chapter, both the defense lawyer and the prosecutor histrionically raise their hands as they speak in defense and accusation of the accused. And that is only the beginning of the fireworks. We can hardly avoid being intrigued by the way in which the prosecutor weaves together the events with which are familiar into an absolutely sinister sequence of crime committed by Meursault. The charges become increasingly outrageous, and as readers we are powerless to stop the momentum of the steamroller against Meursault.
We are only slightly less captivated by the defense lawyer's alternative way of interpreting the defendant's character and the events leading up to the murder. A good plot is built around an intense conflict, and the two opposing interpretations of Meursault and his crime meet that criterion. Then the suspense builds still more as the jury retires for nearly an hour, a bell rings, doors bang, silence pervades the courtroom, the punishment of decapitation is announced (somehow the pronouncement of guilt is omitted), and the defendant refuses to say anything when given the opportunity. For exciting courtroom action, it is hard to beat this.
For reflection or discussion: Literary portrayals of courtroom trials always tend toward the melodrama (heightened and sensational action). At this point both the unsophisticated reader and the literati are on equal footing: they simply enjoy a good story. As the lawyers present their opposing views of the defendant and his crime, we as readers inevitably and imperceptibly become jurors. We are busy agreeing or disagreeing with the dueling lawyers, and we subconsciously view the defendant in a positive or negative light as the evidence is paraded. The grip of such a story over us is irresistible. How does this work itself out for you?
The Prosecutor You Hope Never Gets Hold of You
For me, the prosecutor who accuses Meursault is in a very elite circle of great character creations that I label "ideally villainous villains." Perhaps some of my readers will find him less offensive. Quite apart from his manipulation of the evidence, there is his surge of antagonism against Meursault. Destroying Meursault seems more important than ascertaining the truth.
Of course, most important are the prosecutor's accusations and the logic of thinking. As the chapter unfolds, we have a case study in how to twist the data. Of course we need to acknowledge the accuracy of the events that are assembled. The defense lawyer agrees that these things happened. As readers we should become a courtroom lawyer: how would we interpret the events that the prosecutor puts on the table? Would we find any of these data relevant to a murder trial? The really relevant piece of information is that Meursault shot a man to death, but that is hardly mentioned.
The prosecutor uses the events to assassinate Meursault's character. At the more extravagant moments of the prosecutor's ravings we hear about Meursault as "a menace to society" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "an abyss threatening to swallow up society"), and as "a criminal devoid of the least spark of human feeling" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "a monster"). Over against such exaggeration we hear the picture painted by Meursault's lawyer: "an honest man, a steadily employed, tireless worker . . . well liked, and sympathetic to the misfortunes of others. . . [someone who] had lost control of himself for one moment." Surely this comes closer to the facts than the prosecutor's speeches do.
For reflection or discussion: I have offered my opinion about the flimsiness of the prosecutor's case and his skill in misrepresenting data; I wonder how others respond to the prosecutor and his case. Literary authors regularly create villainous characters for at least two reasons: (1) they give body to our own fears about forces of evil in our world, and (2) they are predictably effective in awakening strong reactions in readers or viewers. How does this apply to the portrayal of the prosecutor in chapter four?
Critique of the Judicial System
We know that Camus was what we call a social activist. He was variously a pacifist, communist, and anarchist. I am inclined to view his negative portrayal of the court system in this novel not so much as a grievance against the legal and judicial institutions specifically, but more against society and its institutions generically. Three things stand out in Camus' portrayal of the judicial system in The Stranger.
The first thing to note in reading chapter four is the tone of mockery that underlies the portrayal. Tone is admittedly subjectively felt. I find the early gestures and verdicts of the two lawyers laughably robot-like: "Counsel for the defense raised his arms to heaven and pleaded guilty, but with extenuating circumstances [Ward translation: "with an explanation"]. The Prosecutor made similar gestures; he agreed that I was guilty, but denied extenuating circumstances." Meursault is on trial for his life, and yet "there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings" (Gilbert translation). Meursault is understandably perplexed when his lawyer speaks of his client in the first person: "It is true I killed a man." Meursault's lawyer "seemed ridiculous" to him. As late as the retirement of the jury to reach a verdict, the lawyer babbles to his client "that the outcome will be favorable."
Second, Camus composed the trial scene in such a way as to highlight the miscarriage of justice. It is not a miscarriage of justice that Meursault be found guilty, but virtually everything else that the prosecutor weaves into his seemingly logical argument is false. We know that from being privy to what was narrated in part one. For example, Meursault's murder of the Arab was not premeditated. The truth is closer to what Meursault claims, which seems preposterous: "I blurted out that it was because of the sun." Meursault's arranging for his mother to enter a retirement home does not make him "morally guilty of killing his mother." The chapter gradually becomes (like the preceding chapter) a masterpiece of irony.
Third, I propose that we should view this farcical trial as intended in a metaphoric sense. I am not aware of any reason to believe that Camus was on a crusade against the court system. In this novel Camus writes as an exponent of the view that the universe is absurd (and as will emerge in the next chapter, an exponent of existentialism). He is also a writer of social protest, in the larger sense of protesting the institutions (not just judicial) by which modern society absurdly runs its affairs. I would just observe that trial stories lend themselves to metaphoric and symbolic purposes, as when Shakespeare in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice weighs the merits of the Judaism based on the premise of law and Christianity based on an ethic of mercy.
For reflection or discussion: I have cited only a few points in support of my claim that a tone of mockery permeates the chapter; more examples reveal themselves. Similarly, the injustice in the court room is the main action. How do the prosecutor and jury represent a conspiracy against justice? How do the defense lawyer's statements serve as a foil to that injustice?
Meursault at the End of His Tether
In this chapter the ongoing characterization of the protagonist makes its usual appearance. We should not overlook the repeated references (yet again) to the heat, the sun, and Meursault's professed inability to concentrate or think clearly because of that oppressive physical environment. While these references primarily reinforce Meursault's status as an anti-hero (a literary protagonist who lacks the conventional traits of a hero), by the time Camus mingles in phrases like "utter pointlessness" (Ward translation; Gilbert: "futility") and "emptiness" and "interminable" (Gilbert), it is not a stretch to imagine that we are reliving the "under the sun" passages in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Second, the moral inadequacy of Meursault continues to revolt us. He admits the prosecutor's claim that he "didn't feel remorse" for the murder but expresses surprise by how relentless the prosecutor regards his lack of regret. That, then, expands into a broader acknowledgement from Meursault himself: "I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything. My mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow" (Ward translation; Gilbert: "I've always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.").
Countering this strand of inhumanity, though, is a continuation of what we saw in the previous chapter as well, namely, the portrayal of a sympathetic side to Meursault. This sympathy consists primarily of the way in which the prosecutor and jury victimize Meursault by "throwing the book at him" on the basis of irrelevant and false data. We do not like to see anyone lied against and convicted on false data; in fact, a primal protest arises within us. But there are more positive grounds for our sympathy with Meursault as well. The courtroom loyalty of Meursault's friends is moving. Additionally, there is that marvelous catalog of Meursault's remembered pleasures evoked by the sound of an ice-cream vendor from the street outside the court room.
For reflection or discussion: What familiar motifs make a reappearance in the characterization of Meursault in this chapter? What deficiencies appall us yet again? Cutting the other way, at what moments in the chapter do you find yourself strangely moved to sympathy for Meursault? What do you theorize Camus intends with this ambivalent portrait of his protagonist (whom he considered a hero, we need to keep reminding ourselves)?