Plot summary: Like the preceding chapter, this one continues to tell the story of Meursault's routines and relationships. In view of what happens in the next chapter, this unit is the lull before the storm, but as we experience the unfolding action we have no way of knowing. The chapter unfolds in four main phases: (1) Meursault's morning at work, (2) Marie's visit in the evening, (3) supper at Céleste's restaurant, and (4) a pre-bedtime conversation with Salamano.
A Word about Reading
I will arrange my commentary according to the succession of four units noted above. Before I start my journey through chapter five, though, I want to say something about the dynamics of reading a novel. We owe it to a great writer to assume that he or she has a master plan. It is our task as readers to discover that plan. Reading a story is akin to solving a riddle. This will be clearer if we scrutinize a story with the conviction that the author has arranged the data for a precise purpose. I fully expect that some of you will resist the idea of reading as being akin to figuring out a riddle, but I have found it a useful strategy and one that enhances my sense of adventure as I read.
In the same vein, I will commend a theory of Camus's intellectual and literary confidant Jean-Paul Sartre. It is perhaps surprising that a philosopher could have written one of the best short treatises of literary theory in What Is Literature? (trans. Bernard Frechtman; Harper and Row, 1949). Sartre claimed that readers collaborate with an author to produce a work of literature. Reading is directed creation in the sense that the words on the page are the means by which readers invent the work that the author intends. Applying this to the sequence of four units in chapter five, we can view ourselves as assembling the details and their sequence along with Camus, in the process reaching certain conclusions about what is happening in the chapter.
Meursault's Morning in the Office
In an earlier posting I labeled The Stranger a novel of ideas. But the type of truth that literature and the other art are particularly adept at conveying is truthfulness to reality and human experience. This, in turn, yields knowledge in the form of right seeing---getting us to see ourselves and life around us accurately. The classical tradition has championed the idea that the writer "holds the mirror up to life."
We can apply this to the opening paragraphs of chapter five. Most of us have received a personal telephone call while at work and felt our employer or superintendent's disapproval. Most of us know what it is like to have our employer call us into his or her office to discuss a new job opportunity. All of us have felt the sting when we do not respond warmly to what someone else wants us to embrace enthusiastically.
It's harder for us to relate to two other dimensions of Meursault's morning in the office. One is the exchange with Raymond, and it, in turn, has two phases to it. The first is Raymond's invitation to Meursault (which also extends include Marie) to spend the weekend with him on the seaside. Considerably more ominous is Raymond's announcement that he has been stalked by Arab friends, as well as a brother of the mistress whom he abused. On a first reading we have no way of knowing how momentous these two things will be in the story.
More important is the exchange between Meursault and his employer. The offer for Meursault to accept a post in Paris represents opportunity for professional advancement. In a reply that shocks us as much as it shocks the employer, Meursault states that "it was all the same to me" (Ward translation; Stuart Gilbert translation: "I didn't care much one way or the other"). This refusal is then generalized into the sentiment that "one life was as good as another." The conventionally minded employer interprets this as an appalling lack of ambition.
For reflection or discussion: We can begin at the level of truthfulness to everyday reality: how does your life at work compare to Meursault's morning? Second, while we can tuck Raymond's call away in our minds for future reference, Meursault's exchange with his employer is a major event in the novel. How do you assimilate Meursault's rejection of a good job offer and his viewpoint that one life is as good as another? How does this event add to the unfolding portrait of Meursault?
The Most Unusual Proposal of Marriage on Record?
The second scenario in chapter five is Marie's visit to Meursault on the evening of the same day. The primary point of conversation concerns love and marriage. Marie asks Meursault "if I wanted to marry her." Meursault replies famously that "it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to" (Ward translation; Gilbert translation: "I said I didn't mind; if she was keen on it, we'd get married"). Further conversation on the subject simply repeats that core idea. Particularly striking, though, is Marie's comment that "marriage was a serious thing," followed by Meursault's reply, "No."
Various strands of the novel converge in this conversation: Meursault's indifference to life, his emotional deficiency, and his inability to attribute human meaning to experience. Meursault cannot generalize from his momentary sensory pleasure with Marie to a permanent emotion called love.
For reflection or discussion: I have refrained from calling Meursault an absurdist hero in this episode, but reflecting on this label helps us closely assess his behavior in this episode. Additionally, we can profitably go through the experience from Marie's point of view. What evidences suggests that Marie is as perplexed and exasperated by Meursault's behavior as we are?
Dinner at Céleste's
The third scenario in this chapter is the oddest bit of invention in the novel thus far. Its focus is "a strange little woman" who asks to share Meursault's table at the restaurant. The highly particularized list of details regarding the woman's appearance and behavior is explicable only if we grant the premises of literary realism. The literary realist is bent on recording the random details of everyday life. If we ask what claim these random details have on us, the literary realist (in this case Camus) would base his or her answer on the principle known as verisimilitude ("lifelikeness"). If it happens in real life, the writer of realism claims, it should interest us.
The episode is so loaded with particularized details that we might initially be inclined to think there is no universal human experience here. But that is always a risky thing to assume about literature. Coming through all of the details in this episode is a very universal experience, namely, eccentricity of character. Anyone who doubts it needs to take a trip to the local fast food restaurant.
For reflection or discussion: The self-imposed task of good practitioners of literary realism is to make the mundane so striking that it will interest the reader. Does Camus succeed with you in this brief episode? We can also ponder how the last sentence of the episode provides an interpretive framework: "I thought about how peculiar she was but forgot her a few minutes later."
A Man and His Dog
Surprisingly, Maursault's interaction with his neighbor Salamano gets the most space in the chapter. Predictably, the point of entry for the conversation is Salamano's still-lost dog. That telescopes into a history of how Salamano came to possess the dog in the first place, and by a logic all its own yields a brief biography of Salamano, including his marital history. Salamano becomes an even more sympathetic figure in our imagination than with his grief over his lost dog in the previous chapter.
Then a chain of connections unfolds as it often does in real life. Salamano tells Meursault that his mother was fond of the dog. With the mother now introduced into the conversation, Salamano naturally offers his condolences. Meursault remains silent. Then we get a major piece of foreshadowing, though on a first reading we have no way of knowing it. Salamano offers the information that people in the neighborhood had "said nasty things about" Meursault (Gilbert translation) because he sent his mother to "the home." Characteristically, Meursault is surprised that people would speak ill of him regarding his mother. Equally telling is the detail that for years Meursault's mother "never had a word to say to me" (Gilbert translation).
For reflection or discussion: On a first reading, we have no way of knowing that the exchange with Salamano is the last evening of normal life for Meursault. If we grant the premise that these two or three pages draw a boundary around Meursault's regular life, what are the keynotes? One of my standard test formats is to print a passage and ask my students to generalize about how the passage epitomizes or typifies the specific author or work from which the passage has been taken; how does the concluding unit dealing with Salamano and Meursault epitomize the novel up to this point?