.. , Camus hopes to have the reader change their opinion of Meursault. Camus implores the reader to wonder what Meursault is thinking, explore the possibilities of Meursault’s thoughts. The reader’s initial reaction that Meursault is heartless begins to fall apart as Meursault reports further. “Ou peut-tre hier, je ne sais pas” (L’Etranger 9).
Meursault factually does not know when his mother died. It is not that he does not care, as the reader might first interpret, but that he does not know. Camus intends this confusion so that the onus lies on the reader to determine whether Meursault is heartless, indifferent, or innocent. Meursault continues, “c’tait peut-tre hier” (L’Etranger 9). By not telling the reader or Meursault the exact date, Camus stresses the date’s importance, or lack thereof.
Already Camus has the reader reassess societal assumptions. One of the first things we do when confronted with the news of a death is ask the exact time. The reader introspects on the importance of temporal markers. By inviting the reader to share in Meursault’s exploration of the present and disregard for the past, Camus accomplishes his goal. Through encouraging the reader to identify with Meursault, Camus also lures the reader into pity for Meursault.
Ren Girard comments that, “the undergraduates quickly learn, of course, that it is not smart to pity Meursault” (26). Girard not only misses Camus reader response oriented intention, but he even wants his students to forego the process that Camus desires. Through the reader first identifying with Meursault and then pitying him, Camus sets up an epiphany for the reader. By pitying Meursault, the reader also feels a varying degree of negative attitude toward Meursault. By implanting in the reader a sense of looking down at Meursault, Camus orchestrates the epiphany.
The greater the reader pities Meursault, the greater the realization of the essence of l’absurde. The reader finally realizes that every person is partly Meursault and that the pity transfers back onto the reader. Camus, through Meursault, shows the reader to pity themselves and all other humans. The reader demonstrates to themselves, through their conclusions, the essence of l’absurde: the reader is like Meursault, naked in the face of impossible odds, living in a deplorable and pitiable state. The reader pities their own relationship with society.
Anderson argues that, Pity is a social construction which violates the text’s notion that ‘one life [is] as good as another’ (Stranger 41). It divides the individual who pities from the one who is pitied by creating the illusion that either fate is any different. Meursault argues that ‘we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people ..[who will] all be condemned one day’ (Stranger 121). So, the reader’s feelings toward Meursault actually manifests the reader’s attitude toward all people. Any negative reactions or emotions the reader feels for Meursault are indicative of their relationship to others.
It is the reader’s relationship with other individuals that defines their relationship with society as a whole. Camus needs the reader to pity Meursault in Part One so that the realization that all people are in a universal circumstance in Part Two becomes even more great, even more revealing. Girard argues that the reader links pity for Meursault with resentment for his judges. “Sympathy for Meursault is inseparable from resentment against the judges. We cannot do away with that resentment without mutilating our global esthetic experience. This resentment is really generated by the text” (Girard 16). So, Camus uses the reader’s pity for Meursault.
The reader identifies with Meursault and sympathizes, perhaps empathizes, with Meursault’s absurd situation. Only once Camus sets up the link between the reader and Meursault can he impart in the reader a resentment for the judges. The resentment operates through the consciousness that the reader creates for Meursault and because the reader identifies with him. Camus provokes the reader to resent the judges of Meursault by having the reader feel that they are also judges of the reader. The reader begins to resent not only Meursault’s judges, but all those who judge others for their past actions. Camus induces the reader to question their view of society. Girard argues that Camus “set out to prove that the judges are always wrong” (18). Camus’ intention, however, is more complex than Girard would have us believe.
Camus intends for the reader to come to an independent conclusion that Meursault’s judges are wrong and unjust. From there, the reader can apply the same theme to their own lives. Ultimately, Camus does question all judges. But by traveling first through the reader, Camus compels the reader to make the determination that all judges are inherently unfair. So, by anticipating reader response, Camus makes his point more strongly.
He does not blatantly tell the reader that those who judge are criminals in their own right, rather he lets the reader make that decision based on prompting from Meursault. By setting up the court as a manifestation and metaphor for society, Camus opens the door for the reader to explore the concept even further. Through a reader response analysis, we uncover that Camus actually points the finger at all judges in society, that is, all people who judge the thoughts and actions of others. Through the Arab’s murder, Camus has the reader reassess the definition of innocence and murder. They are not opposing terms and do not even have opposing connotations.
Camus intends, however, to use the neutrality of innocence to affect our view of murder. “The contradiction between the first and the second Meursault, between the peaceful solipsist and the martyr of society; it is that contradiction in a nutshell, as revealed by the two conflicting words ‘innocent’ and ‘murder'” (Girard 17). Meursault fires an involuntary shot followed by four voluntary ones. Through the dynamic murder, Camus creates the perfect scenario that forces the reader to deconstruct these two terms. In the reader’s mind, Camus starts a process where innocence subverts murder.
The reader questions who is innocent in relation to their society and who is the murderer. This reflects back to and depends upon the reader’s attitude toward both Meursault’s judges and all who judge. Furthermore, the reader questions the dynamic morality of murder. The reader constructs a new meaning for innocence and murder that applies to Meursault and how he affects the reader. By the court connecting Meursault’s indifferent past to his crime, the reader explores exactly how they are related and applies new significance to their definition. Purposely stark, Camus lets the reader make their own decision about the relationship of Meursault’s crime to his sentence.
Girard states that “from a purely textual standpoint, Meursault’s condemnation is almost unrelated to his crime” (13). Camus intentionally disassociates the two and allows the reader to make the connection. It is natural to consider the attitude of the judges both unfair and inevitable. .. Thus, the gap between this portentous action and an afternoon cup of caf au lait is gradually narrowed, and we are gently led to the incredible conclusion that the hero is sentenced to death not for the crime of which he is accused and that he has really committed, but for his innocence, which this crime has not tarnished (Girard, 18).
It is the reader inserting their interpretation that connects the verdict with the crime. Camus leads the reader to believe that the court kills Meursault for his indifference, and in doing so, the reader deconstructs innocence, again. Through reader response criticism we find that Camus’ message is that no one living in a society is truly innocent. We are all creators and contributors to l’absurde. The reader begins to prosecute Meursault for opposing society. Camus, then, wants the reader to introspect on their relationship with society. The reader asks: in what way am I a Meursault? Am I guilty of feeling indifferent to other people? Even my parents? The reader prosecutes themselves. Camus leads the reader to make a connection that is entirely their own between Meursault’s actions and his sentence.
Camus has the reader put Meursault on trial to determine his innocence. Camus communicates his message through the reader’s identification with Meursault. Albert Camus anticipates an active reader and forces them to introspect. Although Camus relies heavily on the reader to stop and contemplate, reread, and identify with an indifferent man, Camus successfully provokes the reader to experience the trial in the place of Meursault. Perhaps Camus wrote all of Part One to set up the reader in a situation where they must reassess their relationship with society. Whatever the reader’s emotional response, Camus places the reader in position to experience the trial, l’absurde. Through anticipation of a responsive reader, Camus communicates the essence of l’absurde.
Raymond typifies the beast-character in Camus’ L’Etranger. He is like Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire (T. Williams), emotional and manly. Physical solutions come naturally to him, as we see when he mistreats his ex-girlfriend. Ideally, society is exactly the opposite; law and order attempt to solve things fairly and justly. I posit that Meursault is somewhere between these two extremes and that this is the reason why he is a societal outcast.
This metaphor explains his major actions in the book: as he struggles to keep his identity, his personality comes in conflict with the norms of society and he is shut down. Just as an animal sticks to instincts, Meursault has a hard time feeling emotions such as remorse or compassion. Even the first page shows us this. Just as an animal leaves its family when it is old enough, never to return, when Meursault hears of his mother’s death he is unattached, even uncaring. He had similar feelings when he sent her to live in the old people’s home. Meursault has quite a passion for women; he starts dating Marie the very day after he finds out of the death.
But like most animals, marriage is basically nonexistent for him; though he acknowledges it, it holds little meaning. When he is isolated in jail, he dreams of women; not Marie, whom he has been seeing for some time, but women in general. Like an animal he feels the urge to mate without any desire for monogamy. An animal has to focus on the present in order to survive, and as far as we know doesn’t spend much time cogitating about its past. Meursault always lives in the present, hence his lack of remorse. This beast-like quality is one that gets him into trouble in the courtroom, for people misconstrue his nature to be that of a cold-blooded, calculating murderer.
Although beast-like, Meursault has some human characteristics, and these are so defined as to be amazing. One is his amazing capacity for telling the truth. He is in fact absurdly honest when in the court room he says, “the witness is right. It’s true, I did offer him a cigarette” (90). Although such a response might normally be contrived to impress and elicit sympathy from the jury, Meursault is not that kind of person. No normal human would go beyond the truth in this way to offer evidence that would hurt his position, especially when death is on the line. Another human characteristic is his ability to rationally assess a situation.
We see this in every aspect of his life, from details of the people and weather at the funeral to his nonchalant narrative of the court proceedings. Only twice does his beast feel threatened enough to take over. “Bang!” The gunshots echo hollowly in the pit of the stomach. Something about mankind’s inherent morality should forbid him from committing any such act, but something about Meursault’s character permits him the foul luxury. Throughout this scene the sun and light play crucial roles, and in the end they confuse him enough so as to be the catalyst for his awful decision. Here Camus shoves the role of the beast into our face.
The sun and light are used to represent nature, which is wild and wholly unpredictable. Nature calls to his beast, and it is Meursault’s “natural” or animalistic side that finally pulls the trigger. The shining knife, the other catalyst, besides being a fighting weapon, would be a fine thing to hunt with. When Meursault recognizes that his animal is in danger of being slaughtered he has no choice but to fight back. But even as he impulsively, needlessly fills the body with bullets, the unhappiness his human side feels is apparent as it once again gains control over him. As Meursault approaches the end of his life, he is solicited by people who want to bring him to the glory of the lord.
Here Meursault’s animal side takes control; animals don’t spend any time worshipping a god or dreaming of an afterlife; their attentions have to be focused on living. Thus Meursault is not able, because of his very nature, to believe in a hereafter. His human side gives in to his animal side at the end when the chaplain tries forcibly to make Meursault see the light. His animal feels the threat of being tamed, or converted to the ways of human society, and so he explodes to save himself. Only twice in the novel does Meursault experience extreme pressure, once from nature and once from society, and at these points he gives himself over to his beast.
This proves devastating from a certain point of view: the first time he compromises his chances of living, and the second time he compromises his chance of an afterlife. This self-preservation instinct is the only thing that keeps him in touch with his bestial side, and in spite of these consequences he triumphs over life in that he remains unique, he does not conform.