- 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
Plot summary: The preceding chapter was devoted to interrogation; we can label this follow-up chapter "life in prison." We are led vicariously to experience the physical sensations, psychological pressures, and boredom of life behind bars. Meursault's life in prison is recounted as a surrealistic phantasmagoria of unpleasant sounds, suffocating enclosed spaces, fellow prisoners, and visits from Marie (speaking through a grate 30 feet away). Meursault assigns a chronology to the phases---first thinking like a free man and imagining doing the things he had done before, and then entering a phrase of thinking like a prisoner. We are given a litany of deprivations (of sexual relations with a woman, of cigarettes, of a sense of time) and of things that filled Meursault's time (chiefly sleep as the days unfolded).
Life in Prison
As always, we need to begin at an observational level and relinquish any urge to make immediate ideational sense of what we are reading. Shakespeare's Hamlet instructed the visiting troupe of players to "hold the mirror up to nature," and that is what Camus does in this chapter. For people who will never find themselves imprisoned, this chapter comes as close as they will get to being there. The whole experience comes alive with such vividness that one might suppose that Camus had endured the experience of being imprisoned, but apparently the chapter is the product of his fertile imagination.
Our first responsibility with this chapter is to relive the experiences that it places before us as vividly as possible. When we do, we undergo a nightmare experience. What is the good of undergoing such an experience? Before I answer, I will observe that just as some of my best insights into works of literature have come from religious books and articles, so also some of my most helpful insights into the Christian life have come from literary critics in completely secular contexts. One of them comes from a literary critic writing about James Joyce's craft of fiction in The Dubliners: "One constant and immediate effect may be said to characterize our reading experience: an enlarged sense of being more self-critical and at the same time compassionate" (Epifania San Juan, James Joyce and the Craft of Fiction, Farleigh Dickenson University Press, 1972, p. 246).
These are two of the benefits of absorbing chapter two. Reading the sickening account of life in a prison can enlarge our sense of compassion for people there. And to the extent that we never or rarely experience that compassion, we can allow our encounter with chapter two to make us more self-critical about such negligence.
For reflection or discussion: Out of the mass of details that the chapter places before us, which ones stand out? How would you apply the principle stated by the literary critic quoted above?
It can be readily demonstrated that the masters of literary realism do more than simply record the details of everyday life. They use those details to capture a larger sense of life. To adapt a metaphor that C. S. Lewis uses in his classic (and brief) essay entitled "On Stories," the details with which a work of realism bombards us are a net whereby the author captures something universal.
To achieve this, writers of realism plant a latent symbolism in the details that they describe. For example, in a novel whose title is sometimes rendered as The Outsider, we naturally look for signs that the protagonist is an isolated figure. The scene early in chapter two when Marie visits Meursault provides an example. In the visitors' room, visitors and inmates are not only have an iron grid in front of them, but between the grids "there was a gap of some thirty feet, a sort of no man's land between the prisoners and their friends" (Gilbert translation). Even more symbolism emerges from this scene of separation when we read that "the babel of voices" (Gilbert; Ward: "sound") was so confusing to Meursault that it made him dizzy.
Here is another example. During a conversation with the chief jailer, Merusault brings up the subject of being deprived of women. When Meursault protests that this is unfair, the jailer replies that this is the point, like hitting a man when he is down. When Merusault expresses perplexity, the jailer explains that the deprivation of liberty makes the experience a punishment. Merusault on his own initiative later attaches that same meaning to his being deprived of cigarettes (also noting that when he ceased to crave cigarettes, the deprivation ceased to be a punishment).
For reflection or discussion: Part of the artistry and profundity of literary realism is the symbolism that works its way into the text despite the realistic creed of merely recording the details of everyday life. Combing this chapter for examples is one avenue toward sensing the significance of Camus's account of life in prison. The confining setting of the prison is itself a symbol for a pessimistic writer like Camus, sending the message that life is a prison.
In an earlier posting I defined naturalism as a literary movement and technique, and I labeled The Stranger a naturalistic novel. This resurfaces strongly in chapter two. I have already noted the sense of isolation that pervades Meursault's life behind bars. The isolation of the individual is a constant theme in naturalistic fiction.
The most naturalistic thing about chapter two is the overwhelming sense of pessimism that Meursault expresses and that we feel as we read. The pessimism sets in right at the outset. Meursault tells us that in his early days in prison he did not feel like a prisoner. He always had "a vague hope that something would turn up, some agreeable surprise" (Gilbert translation). The Ward translation reads, "I was sort of waiting for something to happen."
The momentary inoculation against feeling like a prisoner is shattered when Marie discovers that because she is not Meursault's wife, she will not be allowed to visit him. Meursault immediately comes to the pessimistic conclusion that "this cell was my last home, a dead end, so to speak" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "I felt that I was at home in my cell and that my life was coming to a standstill there."). From there to the end of the chapter we are weighed down by the pessimism of what we vicariously experience. Detail after detail is so haunting that the tears are right at the surface or above the surface as we read.
Where is the entertainment value of such fiction? I do not find it, but I nonetheless read the chapter because entertainment is only half of the literary equation. The other half is that literature is a window to the world, a bringer of knowledge in the form of right seeing (getting me to see life accurately), and an embodiment of important ideas (not all of which I accept as true).
Where is the edification of chapter two? It exists at multiple levels, though it is up to me to read from a Christian viewpoint to reach that destination. My preferred way into this line of inquiry begins with the second question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism:
How many things are necessary for you to know, for you to live and die happily? Three; the first, how great my sins and misery are; the second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
A piece of fiction like chapter two lays out the misery of the fallen condition, and it moves me to gratitude for what I have been delivered from.
In an earlier posting I quoted a line from T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral. The final choral speech of that play is a song of praise modeled on the Old Testament genre of the praise psalm. One of the lines is, "The darkness declares the glory of light." I regularly invoke this line when teaching modern literature, making the additional point that the statement is of comfort and use only to those who are in Christ.
Obviously I have resorted to an approach to literature called reader response criticism. Its premise is that we assimilate literature in terms of what we bring to the text, including our worldview. Camus belongs to what one literary critic calls the pessimistic consciousness of modern European literature. Knowing that, we can safely conclude that Camus offers the pessimism of this novel as his assessment of life's possibility. He writes a story about an anti-hero because that is his estimate of what life in the modern world offers. A Christian does not agree.
For reflection or discussion: The commentary above barely scratches the surface regarding the pessimism that settles into the novel in this chapter; what other haunting examples do you find? How do you as a reader assimilate such pessimism?
Northrop Frye, the dominant literary critic in the last half of the 20th century, was an advocate of archetypal criticism and attuned to the recurrent conventions of literature. One of his most helpful observations was that when we read a work of literature we do not remain within the world of that particular work. As we read we are continuously reminded of other literary examples of the same genre or image or character or plot motif.
My repertoire of prison fiction is nearly non-existent, but I am hoping that my readers can expand the canon of such fiction. The only other novel that I teach that portrays life in a prison and a courtroom trial is The Brothers Karamazov, in which Dmitri Karamazov ends up in prison and on trial when he is accused of murdering his father. The parallels to The Stranger are numerous.
But I am not limited to fiction for connections. The moment I read that Meursault struck up a friendship "with the chief jailer" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "head guard"), I zoomed in my imagination to the story of Joseph in prison as narrated in Genesis 40. Of course the contrast between Joseph and Meursault packs the punch, a contrast between being an agent of God's redemptive providence and a life of mere existence.
Joseph is not the only person who lived a godly and redemptive life in prison. As the author and teacher of a correspondence school course on the Bible as literature, I have had a steady stream of students who take the course while being incarcerated. They are often talented students of the Bible. Occasionally these correspondents become long-term friends. One of them, now living in freedom, writes me an annual Christmas letter that is enough to give me a spiritual "high" for weeks. When I reread Camus's depressing picture of Meursault's life in prison, I do so with awareness that being in Christ or not being in Christ is the great gulf not only for prisoners but for all people.
For reflection or discussion: I wonder if my readers can expand my awareness of works of fiction, biography, or autobiography that portray life in prison. If so, how does Camus's masterpiece of realism in this genre stack up?