- 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
- Part 2, Chapter 4
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Plot summary: The long last chapter is devoted to Meursault's life in prison after his trial. While the trial scene ending with Meursault's conviction is the climax of the story, it would be wrong to regard the last chapter as unimportant. On the contrary, Camus saved some of his most important philosophic material in the novel for the concluding chapter. The main action is interior and consists of Meursault's thinking about his situation and about life. The only extended external event is a long conversation with the prison chaplain. It is easy to think that Meursault becomes the author's alter ego in this chapter. The main subjects, in the order in which they are covered, are these: the idea that life is a machine in which the individual is trapped; the inevitability and finality of death; the importance of dawn in the daily routine; rejection of the Christian faith; the futility and meaninglessness of life.
I will note in advance that this posting will be devoted to chapter five only. I will save my wrap-up comments for an additional posting.
Fictional Prison Memoir
Probably all of my readers are familiar with the genre of prison memoirs that recount the experiences and reflections of someone incarcerated in prison. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison is a familiar example. Chapter five chronicles the thoughts of a condemned prisoner on death row. Camus does a marvelous job of inventing what such an experience is like. I will record again the usefulness of a literary critic's observation that our reading experiences should enlarge our sense of compassion.
One the themes of Meursault's reflections is the sense of finality. He compares his imprisonment to a machine that dominates everything. Merusault reflects on the guillotine that will eventually execute him and concludes that the great injustice of the guillotine is that offers no chance of escape. In short, Meursault is highly conscious of life closing in on him and the end being near.
A minor thread in these fictional memoirs is Meursault's recollections of his life in his parental home. He recalls statements of his mother that there is always something for which to be thankful, and as he builds his daily routine around being awake to see the dawn, he agrees with her. He recalls that when his mother settled in at the home she made a new start. He remembers that his father (whom he had never seen) once went to view an execution and upon arriving at home was sick in his stomach. This leads to Meursault to conclude that if he were ever to regain his freedom he would go to every execution that came along and go home and vomit; in fact, the very thought of it fills Meursault "with a wild, absurd exultation" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "wave of poisoned joy").
The theme of the common life has been prominent in the novel (another link with the book of Ecclesiastes, where the positive passages repeatedly affirm the merest commonplaces of life), and it is kept alive in Meursault's prison reflections. Despite the prevailing pessimism of this last chapter, our imaginations revive when Meursault describes the sounds and light of dawn, and the brief moment when Meursault lies down to enjoy the summer evening just before the chaplain arrives unannounced, and the starlit sky of the novel's last paragraph.
For reflection or discussion: I have noted some of the reflections of Meursault about his prison existence, but others are present as well; what are they? It is nearly always a good exercise to put a given instance of a genre or archetype alongside other members of the same literary family. Meursault's prison reflections are those of a secular unbeliever; comparisons to the prison writings of the apostle Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Charles Colson and Richard Wurmbrand will yield a lot.
The Stranger as an Existentialist Novel
It is common knowledge that The Stranger is an existentialist novel, and I have said nothing about this facet until now. While some of what I covered under the rubric of absurdism could have been pressed into the service of existentialism, I believe that this aspect of the novel is concentrated in the last chapter. A primer on existentialism would list the following overlapping traits:
- Growing out of the individualism and subjectivism of 19th-century romanticism, an elevation of subjective experience as the standard of reality, with an attendant focus on individual consciousness.
- Belief in the centrality of the individual human (a form of humanism), with an accompanying rejection of God and the Christian supernatural.
- Obsession with the finality of death; living life under the shadow of death, with a resultant conviction that this robs life of meaning and makes all actions permissible; anxiety is important to some versions of existentialism (so-called existential angst).
- Freedom to assert oneself without responsibility; belief that authenticating oneself in action is the essence of human existence.
- Life itself as the goal of human existence.
This is a brief list; more extended definitions are readily available in print and online.
It is easy to see the degree to which Camus embodied an existentialist worldview in the life of his protagonist Meursault. The subjectivity of reality is mediated through the first-person narrator of the novel. Virtually everything in the book is a display of subjective consciousness, implying that this is what constitutes reality. Further, Meursault's vision of reality is unique to him, as other characters as well as the reader are repeatedly baffled by his responses.
In existentialism, it is considered important that people authenticate themselves by doing whatever they want, and Meursault does. An incipient rebellion against the conventions of society is part of the picture. I think that we would all agree that Meursault flouts the conventions of society in both this thoughts and his actions.
The finality of death is perhaps the most strongly emphasized point of existentialism in the final chapter of the novel. Halfway through the chapter Meursault asserts, "Well, so I'm going to die. Sooner than other people will, obviously. But everybody knows that life isn't worth living." Again, "whether I died now or 40 years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably" (Gilbert translation). The inevitability of death and the way in which that inevitability robs life of meaning surfaces repeatedly in the debate with the priest.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in his review of this book that helped to make it famous, was enthusiastic about Meursault as an existential hero. Sartre stressed the collapse of moral values that results from existential assumptions. Since God does not exist and people die, Sartre wrote, one experience is as good as another. Nothing characterizes Meursault more than this observation.
While existentialism is regarded as a modern movement, the humanistic impulse to make people central is as old as human existence. The dominant thread in Meursault's make-up is his denial that life has meaning. But there is a subordinate strand that affirms life. Throughout the book there is a background chorus of passages in which Meursault records his pleasure in the commonplaces of life, especially nature. He keeps surprising us in this regard. On the last page of the novel we hear Meursault claiming that he had "been happy, and . . . was happy still" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "happy again").
For reflection or discussion: I trust that my readers sense what a large subject for reflection, discussion, and application the traits of existentialism noted above have opened up. While some of the traits permeate the entire novel, chapter five provides adequate data to explore the existentialism of the book.
Rejection of Christianity
It would have been possible for Camus to espouse his existentialism without highlighting his rejection of Christianity. Instead he introduces that rejection into the last chapter very aggressively. Most of the leading voices of existentialist philosohpy made the rejection of Christianity an important part of their creed, probably because Christianity was the dominant belief system that needed to undergo a ritual slaying before any other belief system could be established.
The form in which Christianity is raised and refuted is the visit from the prison chaplain. The chapter opens with the announcement that Meursault has refused for the third time to see the prison chaplain. But in the last major event of the book, the chaplain visits Meursault without invitation. I do not find the chaplain an appealing person, but he makes a reasonable presentation of the facts of the Christian faith: the need to believe in God; the ever-present opportunity to turn to God in time of need; the acknowledgement that all people are under sentence of death and need the consolation of God in their final hour; the fact that all people are sinners and that divine justice (not human justice) is what matters; the certainty of an afterlife.
Meursault's rejection of this Christian message is violent. At first he simply denies the doctrines that the priest sets forth. Then he becomes more aggressive in asserting his rejection. Finally he grabs the priest and starts shaking him and shouting at time about the finality of death and the meaninglessness of life.
For reflection or discussion: Two questions need to be answered about the introduction of Christianity into this chapter. (1) How adequate is the priest's explanation of the Christian faith to a condemned man? (2) Exactly what aspects of the Christian faith does Meursault reject (and Camus through him)?
Chapter five is not only the last chapter of the novel; it is also the "last chapter" of our acquaintance with a famous fictional character. One of the ground rules of storytelling is that much of what the author intends to assert about life is embodied in the character and life of the protagonist. What are the metaphoric "famous last words" that Camus utters regarding his protagonist?
First, he portrays Meursault as a trapped and hopeless person, and in doing so offers his own pessimistic assessment of life's possibilities. Meursault's meditations early in the chapter repeatedly refer to the system of justice and his own life as a condemned prisoner to a machine from which no escape is possible. This, in turn, instills a sense of existiential despair and hopelessness. At the end of the chapter, after Meursault has assulated the chaplain, he concludes that "blind rage had . . . rid me of hope."
Mainly, though, our final experience of Meursault is that of an outsider---an alienated individual in the universe. That is where Camus's choice of a crime story fits his worldview so thoroughly. Camus was a spokesman for the pessimistic European consciousness. Of course a story about an imprisoned man will be the story of a solitary outsider. This comes out strongest in the final sentences of the novel, which are only slightly less famous than the opening sentences. Emptied of hope, Meursault looks up at the night sky and opened himself to "the gentle indifference of the world" (Ward translation; Gilbert: "the benign indifference of the universe"). Even more striking, the last sentence of the novel is a picture to total alienation from society: "all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration" (Gilbert translation; Ward: "cries of hate").
For reflection or discussion: What are your final feelings toward the protagonist of the novel? What aspect of the universal human condition are you willing to see in this picture of the outsider? Do you see it as a paradigm of the fallen human condition, and/or the New Testament picture of believers as aliens in the world?