Plot summary: This chapter is by far the longest we've read in The Stranger. It is also the turning point in the plot (not to be confused with the climax). The chapter narrates what happens on the Sunday that Meursault, Marie, and Raymond spend at the beach. An ominous note emerges while the threesome wait for the bus when they see the Arabs who have a grudge against Raymond. Raymond's friend who invited the group to his bungalow is identified as Masson. The morning is hot and uneventful, and lunch is accompanied by heavy drinking and smoking. The return to the beach is marked by even more intense heat and the appearance of Raymond's antagonists. Fisticuffs ensue, and then the troublesome Arabs disappear, followed by more heat. "Raymond's man" reappears, and Meursault, who carries Raymond's gun, shoots the Arab five times.
So much happens in this packed chapter that it is hard to know where to begin. The story takes a surprise twist, with more surprises to follow in part two. In a story that takes a fateful turn halfway through, it is important to stop and take stock of what has happened up to the turning point. This is especially appropriate in a murder story, where it is standard practice to track backward in search for an explanation of the murder. Additionally, in this story, at Meursault's trial the prosecutor and jury will claim that Meursault was a murderer at heart long before he pulled the trigger five times.
So as readers we need to ask if anything in the first five chapters would lead us to suspect that Meursault would murder. I propose that we do not. If anything, Meursault existed in our imaginations as an unduly passive person. He is a modern-day pagan, devoid of spiritual sensitivities and preoccupied with physical life. His neighbors would probably tell an investigating policeman that he was basically a good person---a little odd, to be sure, but certainly not someone who might be expected to carry a gun and shoot someone to death.
This is not to deny that once the murder has been committed a clinical counselor or detective might draw negative conclusions about the data with which we as readers have been presented in the first five chapters. But that is hindsight and requires reinterpreting the data in light of the fact that a crime has been committed. For the moment, my focus is on what we have been led to expect before the fateful Sunday.
For reflection or discussion: I have tipped my hand on the question of whether we have been given prior information that might account for Meursault's crime; my readers might reach other conclusions. Should someone have called Meursault to the attention of the police before the Sunday in question?
At a descriptive level, chapter six should be scrutinized and enjoyed as an archetypal murder story (one of the best, in my view). A good murder story takes readers through the experiences as the murderer undergoes them. The writer in this genre must tell us enough to make the murder suitably vivid in our imagination. I tell my students that the first obligation for readers is to relive the text (in this case a story) as fully as possible. As we read or reread chapter six, we need to luxuriate in the details that Camus invented for us.
Then as we become more analytic we can start to arrange the individual details into a hierarchy of importance. All the invented details help us relive the event, but some of the details have more influence on the eventual murder. Alternatively, if we decide that none of the details rises to the level of being more determinative than others, that, too, might explain the murder.
Most real-life murders we read about in the newspaper or see covered on television boil down to interpersonal relations and motivations arising from those relationships, such as thwarted love or greed. Or, if the crime is committed against a stranger, at least we can see motivations such as robbery, cover-up to rape, or payment for a "hit." It is natural, therefore, to comb chapter six looking for conventional motivations for murder. When we do, I believe we come up empty.
But we learn a lot from the physical sensations that dominate Meursault's Sunday. The sun and heat are obviously major "players" in the drama. So is the excessive drinking and smoking at lunchtime. At a key moment Meursault is desperate to reach a certain stream of cool water. The presence of a stalking antagonist naturally unnerves Meursault. Of course the stalking Arab draws a knife, but it is less the threat of attack than the piercing light glinting off the knife's blade that produces the gun shot. If we grant the premise that Camus wants us to experience the murder as primarily caused by physical sensations, we can admire the skill with which Camus managed the feat. Certainly the murder itself is expressed as a riot of sensations, in writing so dense with imagery that it ranks as poetic prose.
For reflection or discussion: At the level of narrative and descriptive technique, what do you like best about Camus's writing in this chapter? If you imagine yourself to be a creative writing teacher and chapter six were turned in to you, what would you praise? Then as you shift from your role as a hypothetical writing teacher to that of a hypothetical detective who has been handed this homicide, what are your tentative conclusions about how the murder happened? What would you say to the chief of police or local media? Additionally, we can build bridges to our own life and times. We read or hear about murders nearly every day; what light does this fictional murder shed on real-life murders? Finally, we should never lose sight of the fact that literature presents universal human experience for our contemplation; what features of your experience do you see in heightened form in this chapter (experiences such as the oppressive effect of immediate physical environment)?
What Camus Really Does in This Chapter
I tell my students that great writers do not bypass what the general populace wants in a story. They simply do something more profound with the conventions. As intimated in my commentary, at the surface level Camus gives us all of the conventional and sensational details of a murder story. As a murder story it is a cut above the usual television detective drama, with more subtlety in the telling. But Camus did not bang out chapter six on his typewriter primarily to entertain us with a skillfully crafted murder story.
So what did Camus really intend with chapter six? Camus composed The Stranger as a writer of social protest. He had grievances against modern society. We must remember the extreme poverty in which Camus grew up in Algiers. Camus was also a philosopher with a particular bent toward a view of life called absurdism. It can be assumed that Camus despised the status quo of modern life and the conventionally minded people who adapted their expectations to what modern life afforded them. Camus was also an existentialist with a strong commitment to individualism and the revolt of the individual against society.
Additionally, I want to revisit the commentary that Camus himself made on this story in the preface to an American edition of the book (as noted in an earlier posting). Here is what Camus said about his protagonist:
The hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. In this respect he is foreign to the society in which he lives. . . . He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened. . . . One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth (Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. Philip Thody, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Alfred A. Knop, 1968, pp. 335-337).
In the same preface, Camus makes the preposterous claim that "in our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death." The statement is obviously hyperbolic, but the literary imagination always heightens the issues with which it engages. Camus seems to have taken on the challenge to compose a story in which society would condemn a man for not weeping at his mother's funeral. He accordingly composed a story of an "innocent" murder devoid of any conventional motivation. What Camus needs is something to land his protagonist in the courtroom, where in fact he is convicted of murder for reasons other than murdering.
So we reread chapter six to see the homicide is devoid of conventional motivation. We should particularly scrutinize the last two pages, where actual murder occurs. The sentence that narrates Meursault's pulling of the trigger is famous. Pulling the trigger is handled in such a way as to remove the element of volition on Meursault's part: "The trigger gave." That's absurd, we protest, which is exactly Camus's strategy in this absurdist novel.
Having mentioned Camus's absurdist hero, I also need to flag two sentences that might otherwise whirr past us. One is Meursault's conclusion that "just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire---and it would come to absolutely the same thing" (Gilbert translation; Ward translation: "It was then that I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot"). A little later we read, "To stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing." Here is the return of Meursault's inability to arrange life into a hierarchy and to attach normal human meaning to events (all of which assume an equal importance in Meursault's mind).
For reflection or discussion: In a chapter so dense with sensory images, it would appear on the surface that Meursault acted with full volition and awareness of what he was doing. Running counter to that motif, though, is the idea of a murder that happens without human volition; what passages or details fill out this pattern, culminating in statement that the trigger that simply "gave"? And how does the chapter reinforce the picture of an absurd hero? This chapter takes us through the events leading up to the murder in such a way that we are led to feel that the murder had a certain logic to it; what is that logic?
Even if we are familiar with this story and already know what happens in part two, it is important that we reach tentative conclusions about what should happen to Meursault now that he has murdered. We need to temporarily exclude from consideration what happens at Meursault's trial. Obviously Meursault needs to be arrested and brought to trial for having murdered someone. Witnesses at the trial can be expected to say something about extenuating circumstances that help to explain how the murder happened. Perhaps a psychological profile will clarify Meursault's pathological inability to attach normal emotion to what happens in his life. Such a profile on the one hand might be the basis for leniency, since Merusault is by nature a passive personality who poses no threat to society, but on the other hand he might seem like a psychopath who feels no regret for wrongdoing. In any case, Meursault will ultimately be convicted on the basis of his having pulled the trigger of a pistol.
For reflection or discussion: Perhaps your own tentative conclusions about the normal course of events that might now be expected to follow will differ from what I've offered. Additionally, you might profitably predict what will happen in Meursault's mind now that he has (in his own words at the end of the chapter) knocked "on the door of my undoing (Gilbert translation; Ward: "door of unhappiness").