L’etranger The murder of the Arab is clearly the central event of the novel. Camus placed it in fact right in the middle of the book. It is the last incident recounted in part 1, so its importance is underscored by a structural break in the story. It is related in one of the longer chapters, which records in fine detail the events of the day, even when their relevance is not obvious – for example, several paragraphs are devoted to describing how Marie and Meursault frolic in the sea. The murder marks an obvious change in Meursault’s life, from free man to prisoner, and some more subtle associated changes, such as his increasing introspection and concern with memory.
Meursault himself describes the shooting in terms that emphasise both the destruction of a past and the start of something new: “and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where – ‘it all started’ – I shook off the sweat and the sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy”. This violent crime also interrupts the routine flow of the story. Until the murder, nothing very dramatic has happened and nothing dramatic seems likely to happen. Partly, of course, this air of normality results from the way Meursault tells the story.
His mother’s death could have been a momentous event, but he begins the novel with the statement: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’. The matter-of-fact tone and the uncertainty combine to make us feel that this is not a significant event. In many stories the first moments of love seem portentous. Of his first night with Marie Meursault says, ‘Toward the end of the show, I gave her a kiss, but not a good one. She came back to my place. When I woke up, Marie had gone’.
One could hardly be farther from romantic rapture. A few days later Meursault agrees to marry Marie, and that too could have been presented as a turning point in his life; but he relates their engagement as if it were a routine decision: ‘That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn’t make much difference to me and that we could if she wanted to’. In narrating the murder itself, Meursault expresses very much the same attitude as he has previously; his actions have no conscious motives. The stage is set as if by accident, and that impression is reinforced by the accumulation of details. Meursault tells this day almost moment by moment.
He tells of his headache and a bitter taste in his mouth, of Marie’s white dress and Raymond’s blue trousers, of their decision to take a bus rather than walk. Some of the details have symbolic functions. Marie remarks that he has a ‘funeral face’, alluding both to the funeral and to the impending murder. They bang on the Raymond’s door to summon him, foreshadowing the gunshot raps ‘on the door of unhappiness’ at the time of the murder. The impression that this is just another day dominates the first part of this chapter, right up to the first confrontation with the Arabs.
Meursault’s role in this initial fracas is very passive. He accepts the task assigned to him by Raymond, to stand by to help ‘if another one shows up’. He tries to shout a warning to Raymond, but too late. In the aftermath the three men return to the bungalow, and Masson then takes Raymond to a doctor, leaving Meursault, as he puts it, ‘to explain to the women what had happened. I didn’t like having to explain to them, so I just shut up, smoked a cigarette, and looked at the sea’.
As usual, he gives no clue as to the content of his thoughts, and nothing is reported of his conversation with the two women. Masson and Raymond return from the doctor at one thirty, two hours after the walk first began. Raymond is in a surly mood and eventually announces that he is ‘going down to the beach . . .
to get some air’. Masson and Meursault both propose to go with him, but he tells them to mind their own business. Masson complies, but not Meursault: ‘I followed him anyway’. This is Meursault’s first rejection of authority, almost his first wilful act of the novel. The two men come upon the two Arabs by a stream near a large rock. The description becomes more and more lyrical and mythical from this point. The sun has grown unbearably fierce.
The Arabs are lying peacefully by the stream, one of them playing three notes on a reed flute. Apart from the three notes and the tinkling water, there is total silence and stillness. Raymond is eager to provoke an encounter but Meursault takes command of the situation, eventually persuading him to ‘take him on man to man and give me your gun’. As Raymond hands over the gun, ‘we just stood there motionless, as if everything had closed in around us.’ In this strange suspended state Meursault’s indifference takes on alarming proportions: ‘I realized that you could either shoot or not shoot’. As in the first encounter, the Arabs flee, slipping suddenly behind the rock. Meursault and Raymond return once more to the bungalow, and Raymond seems satisfied.
But Meursault halts at the bottom of the stairs, unable, he says, ‘to face the effort it would take to climb the wooden staircase and face the women again’. He goes back to the beach and starts walking back toward the site of the last encounter. Only when he comes to the rocks and the stream does he realize that one of the Arabs is still there; in fact, he claims he had forgotten about the earlier incidents. Then, for a long time the two men stand facing each other without doing anything. Meursault is not so passive that he fails to recognize his freedom to choose what to do.
He knows that he could have avoided the third confrontation; he even knew it at then time: ‘It occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and that would be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back. I took a few steps towards the spring’. And then he takes one final, fatal step: ‘It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward.
And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun’. Meursault knows that his action makes no sense; as in the previous instance, he knew it at the time, to the extent that he thought about it. But he did not think; he took one more step, in a series that goes back not just to the bungalow, but to the beginning of the book, for that is how Meursault has lived his life, acting by reflex rather than by reflection. The instant of the murder has arrived. Aware, at least in retrospect, of the significance of this action, Meursault relates it at length.
Even here, he has almost nothing to say about his own thoughts and ideas: ‘All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me’. What he talks about is external – the sweat dropping from his eyebrows, the gleam of the knife, the glare of the sun, the hot wind off the sea. When he actually pulls the trigger, he phrases the sentence so that he himself disappears: ‘The trigger gave’. After the shot, his perspective changes abruptly. He recognizes, first of all, that a momentous event has occurred: ‘there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started’.
Unlike his mother’s death or his betrothal to Marie, this deed marks a turning point. Curiously, he regards it as a beginning rather than an end, even though he has lost his freedom and, as he puts it, ‘shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy’. Furthermore, he re-establishes himself in the active role: ‘Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace’. Meursault offers no more explanation for the additional shots, in terms of motive, than for any of his previous actions. The act itself still belongs to his habitual pattern of behavior – impulsive, instinctive, unconscious. It is easy enough to imagine reasons for Meursault’s behavior.
It seems probable that his macho attitude and unacknowledged rivalry with Raymond enter into it. He has for the first time really thought about being married; he reacts by rejecting both the company of women and whatever might be thought feminine in himself: fear, pity, conciliation, even passivity, which had been his dominant trait. On the first sally he recognizes that Raymond and Masson are old friends who form a pair from which he is excluded. His isolation is exacerbated when Raymond consigns him to an onlooker’s role in the first fight, and still more when he is obliged to wait with Marie and Masson’s wife while the other two men go to the doctor. He then outdoes Raymond both in sullen stubbornness and in aggressiveness.
In the second trip to the beach Meursault replaces Raymond as the dominant male. He must make the third trip to vindicate his honor. One could argue that Meursault was suffering from sun-stroke. One could also mention that he has drunk a good deal of wine. It is possible to imagine ways in which Meursault could be defended in court, such as temporary insanity, or a plea of self-defence – after all, the Arab drew his knife first.
Raymond escapes any blame, not only in Meursault’s retelling but also in court; yet he provoked the quarrel with the Arab and drew Meursault into it. The point of this crime, however, is that it has no purpose and no excuse. Meursault’s originality as a character is precisely that he has no interest in telling a story that explains his crime, either to make it forgivable or to make it comprehensible.