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Camus' L'Etranger

Author(s): Carl A. Viggiani


Source: PMLA, Vol. 71, No. 5 (Dec., 1956), pp. 865-887
Published by: Modern Language Association
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PMLA
PUBLICATIONS
OF
THE^MODERN'LANGUAG&ASSOCIATION'OF'AMERICA
Issued
-*-(Volume
^-^

LXXI

Five Times
December

CAMUS'
By Carl

a Year
1956

Number

L'ETRANGER
A. Viggiani

of the critical writing on VEtranger has been focused on the


MOST world view or philosophy that it expresses. This is certainly
legitimate, especially since Camus himself sees the novel as an incarnation of "a drama of the intelligence."l As a result, however, some of the
formal and imaginative aspects of VEtranger have been neglected, with
the further result that the full meaning of the novel has remained hidden.
On the surface, VEtranger gives the appearance of being an extremely
simple though carefully planned and written book. In reality, it is a
dense and rich creation, full of undiscovered meanings and formal
qualities. It would take a book at least the length of the novel to make a
complete analysis of meaning and form, and the correspondences of
meaning and form, in VEtranger. My purpose here is less ambitious. I
should like first to take up aspects of the novel that have not yet
been studied sufnciently, principal among them (and in this order),
the use of time and structure as thematic devices, myth, names, pat?
terns of character and situation, and symbols, and then, in conclusion,
to use the knowledge gained as the basis for an explication of the mean?
ing of the novel as a whole. Frequent and fairly lengthy references will
be made to others of Camus' books, simply because the novel is incomprehensible except in the context of all his works; it is hoped that what
may appear to be digressions will be justified by the light they throw on
the novel.
Camus formally divided VEtranger into two parts, the first ending
with the shooting of the Arab, and the second with Meursault's tirade
against the prison chaplain. Underlying the formal division, there is a
1 Le Mythede Sisyphe(Paris, 1942), p. 134. The editionsof Camus*otherworksreferred
to in this article,all publishedin Paris, by Gallimard,are the following:Noces (1950);
VEir anger(1953); Lettresd un ami allemand(1948); Le Malentendu,Caligula (1944); La
Pgste(1947); VEtatdeSttge (1948); VEommertoolU(1951); UEte (1954).
865

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866

Camus'

^VEtranger"

narrative division into three parts, the middle part ending with the con?
viction and death sentence. This tripartite division is marked not only
by the nature of the events and the development of the hero in each
part, but also by the time plan of the novel, which gives it its structure.
The last chapter of the book will hereafter be referred to as Part iii.
The events are narrated by the main character, Meursault, a clerk in
what seems to be an export-import firm located in Algiers. We are given
no positive information about his age; he is a young man, and like most
of Camus' heroes, he is probably around thirty. In Part i, the events are
narrated day by day, as if Meursault were keeping a journal. The shooting takes place on the eighteenth day, a Sunday. Part n covers a period
of a little over eleven months, and the whole period is narrated retrospectively. No time references are given in Part iii: the narrator talks
of his meditations and of one event, his interview with the chaplain.
This is a personal chronicle. Like Rieux and Tarrou in La Peste, Meur?
sault is writing a chronicle of death, but with one important difference:
whereas in La Peste time is only a necessary and convenient framework
that finally disappears, in VEtranger it is part of the essence of the
chronicler's story.
The events of VEtranger are few in number and easy to recall. The
principal ones are repeated here for reference purposes and in order to
make the time-structure-theme relationship clearer. The sequence of
events is as follows:
Part i
Chap. i
First day: Thursday. News of mother's death. Arrival at Marengo. The wake.
Second day: Friday. The funeral procession and burial.
Chap. ii
Third day: Saturday. Meursault's meeting with Marie at beach. They spend
night together.
Fourth day: Sunday. Marie has left. Meursault spends a restless day.
Chap. iii
Fifth day: Monday. Meursault agrees to help Sintes punish sweetheart.
Chap. iv
Eleventh day: Sunday. Day at the beach with Marie.
Chap. v
?th day: weekdayduring thirdweek. Meursault accepts Raymond's invitation
to spend following Sunday at friend's beach house. Agrees to marry Marie.
Chap. vi
Eighteenthday. Sunday. The murder.

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Carl A. Viggiani

867

Part n
Chap. i
No precise time given. Meursault is interrogated by prosecuting attorney.
Chap. ii
No precise time given. Meursault relates prison experiences and meditations,
Marie's visit. (Eleven months have elapsed since murder.)
Chap. iii
First day of trial. (June, a year after murder.) Witnesses heard.
Chap. iv
Second day of trial. Meursault sentenced to death after final speeches of at
torneys.
Part iii
Chap. v
No precise timegiven: sometimeaftertrial. Meursault's meditations on death
and possibility of escape. The chaplain's visit.
In all of Part i the time references are numerous and precise. The
opening paragraph of every chapter except Chapter v has some refer?
ence to time, such as "c'est aujourd'hui samedi," or "Le dimanche ..."
Each major and minor event within the chapters takes place at a carefully specified time of the day: "J'ai pris Fautobus a deux heures"; "En
principe, Fenterrement est fixe a dix heures du matin." "Le soir etait
tombe brusquement."
Even when it is given indirectly, the time is
precise: "J'ai pense aux collegues du bureau. A cette heure, ils se levaient
pour aller au travail." "Le soleil tombait presque d'aplomb sur le sable."
Camus is so careful in the preparation of his timetable that in at least
one place he trips himself up: in narrating the events of the eleventh
day (the second Sunday), he begins with "Ce matin" and the next to
the last sentence in the chapter reads: "Mais il fallait que je me leve
tot le lendemain" (my italics), where one would expect ilfaut and demain.
The time of the year is implied in passing: Meursault reports that he,
Masson, and Raymond talked about spending the month of August

together at the beach and sharing expenses. Either the events are taking
place during that month and the men are making plans for the following
year, or they are taking place in June or July. What is important, in
any case, is that what happens takes place during the summer. The
shooting occurs on a Sunday, a day Meursault says he does not like.
In Chapters i and ii of Part n Meursault relates the events of eleven
months ("Et au bout des onze mois qu'a dure cette instruction . . ."),
principally his interrogation by the prosecuting attorney and the experi?
ence of prison life. Chapters iii and iv are an account of the two-day

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Camus'

"VEtranger"

trial. In the whole of Part n the precise day by day account gives way
to a rapid flow of time whose events are narrated by a character for
whom time is rapidly becoming meaningless. Occasionally, precise time
references are made ("A sept heures et demie du matin, on est venu
me chercher"), but no day is ever given. All this takes place during
the fall, winter, and spring months. The trial begins with the summer
heat, during the latter part of June.
In Part n the significance of time, implicit in the whole of the first
part, becomes explicit. For example, the time of the mother's death,
which the narrator, in his opening paragraph, said was a matter of no
importance, becomes crucial at the trial. One of the most damaging
pieces of evidence against Meursault at the trial is that he began his
liaison with Marie "le lendemain" of his mother's funeral. This is part
of the ironic recapitulation of his career during the trial, of which more
will be said below. More important, for the moment, is the fact that
Meursault himself begins to talk about time, at first ironically but
finally in plain terms. In prison, he dwells on memories of sexual experiences. He says that in a sense these memories unbalanced him, but,
"dans un autre, cela tuait le temps" (p. 111). One page later, he repeats
the phrase: "Toute la question, encore une fois, etait de tuer le temps."
And again on the following page: "II me restait alors six heures a
tuer." We realize, as we encounter the expression the third time, that
like so many of the characters, images and statements in Part i ("Cela
ne veut rien dire," "II n'y avait pas d'issue," the petite automate, etc),
it has a meaning that transcends the banal notion it seems to convey.
For the whole concept and meaning of time are literally being killed in
and by the hero's experience. Soon after the third ironic restatement of
the theme it appears undisguised: "J'avais bien lu qu'on finissait par
perdre la notion du temps en prison. Mais cela n'avait pas beaucoup de
sens pour moi. Je n'avais pas compris a quel point les jours pouvaient
etre a la fois longs et courts . . . tellement distendus qu'il finissaient par
deborder les uns sur les autres. . . . Pour moi, c'etait sans cesse le
meme jour qui deferlait dans ma cellule" (pp. 114-115). That time has
spun practically to a standstill is indicated by the opening sentence oc
Chapter iii of Part n: "Je peux dire qu'au fond l'6te a tres vite remplace
l'ete" (p. 117). After the two days of the trial, time stops.
In Part iii there are no precise time indications. Only one event ocviolent interview with the prison chaplain. The recurs, Meursault's
mainder of the chapter is devoted to Meursault's speculations on death,
and the meaning given to life by death. References to time are replaced
by symbols of eternal return and permanence: day and night, sky, and
stars. Whereas the first paragraphs of chapters in Part i contained time

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CarlA.

Viggiani

869

references, the first paragraph of the last chapter speaks of the sky and
the recurrence of day and night: "De celle-ci [his cell], lorsque je suis
allonge, je vois le ciel et je ne vois que lui. Toutes mes journ6es se
passent a regarder sur son visage le declin des couleurs qui conduit le
jour a la nuit" (p. 152). As he meditates, he contempiates the sky: "Je
m'etendais, je regardais le ciel, je m'efforcais de m'y interesser" (p. 158).
And when finally, after assaulting the chaplain, his calm has been restored and he feels ready to face his execution, he awakens "avec des
6toiles sur le visage" (p. 171).
Time, then, has stopped with the conclusion of the novel. The struc?
ture of the novel, the development of the hero's career, and the time-flow
in which the development takes place move along together from the

particular to the most general and universal: In Part i, a chapter for


each major event, six chapters for the account of eighteen days, a detailed, if laconic, narration of even trivial incidents, parts of each day
carefully specified; in Part ii, four chapters for the narration of the events
of about a year; in Part iii, one chapter in which time has vanished and
in which virtually nothing happens. The development of the structure is
paralleled by the metamorphosis of the hero from a purely sentient
consciousness into a man who begins to reflect upon himself and his
relations with men in the second part of the novel, and who finally
transcends the self and society in speculations concerning the ultimate
meaning of life and death. That time, then, informs and is an integral
part of both structure and theme in the novel is clear. The precise role
that the concept of time plays in the development of UEtranger will be
discussed when we take up the theme, in the concluding portion of this
study.
The point of view in UElranger is only slightly different from that in
La Pesle. In both, the events are narrated by the principals: Meursault
in UElranger, Rieux and Tarrou in La Pesle. The difference lies principally in the greater objectivity of Rieux's account, for Tarrou's journal
is as personal as Meursault's.
Camus' seeming predilection for this
narrative device is revealing. Despite his fundamentally romantic na?
ture, Camus has tried to become, and to a certain extent he has succeeded
in becoming "un ecrivain objectif."2 His first works, however, gave him

There is
away. UEnvers et UEndroit and Noces are autobiography.
abundant evidence that the rest of his works are equally autobiographical, that his heroes are fictional projections of his own developing
self. Gradually, however, Camus has drawn further away from his
fictions. In La Peste9 for example, the hero is a composite of several char* "J'appelleobjectifun auteurqui se
proposedes sujets sans jamais se prendrelui-m6me
commesujet,?{UEU, p. 132).

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870

Camus'

"VEtranger"

acters, and thus the distance between creator and character is increased.
A similar development has taken place in his plays: Les Justes is far
more "objective"
than Caligula.
however, is midway
VEtranger,
between the lyricist and the semi-objective novelist and play wright;
it is a personal confession made in a thinly disguised journal by a fictional surrogate of the author.
Camus transforms this personal confession into a relatively impersonal fiction by means of a set of ironic devices, principal among
them, the reconstruction of myth in a modern idiom, multivalent names,
characters, images, and language, and occasionally, literary allusiveness,
of which only the main features will be touched upon here.
The central ironic device in VEtranger is its reconstruction of the
Sisyphus myth. The irony arises out of the transformation of the heroantagonist of the gods into an ofiice clerk who spends his days working
on bills of lading and the rest of his time in a variety of dull and sordid
adventures. The eternal punishment of Sisyphus is expressed in a contemporary image of absurdity: the deadening routine of the life of an
ofiice worker. As Camus puts it in Le Mythe de Sisyphe: "Lever, tramway, quatre heures de bureau ou d'usine, repas, tramway, quatre heures
de travail, repas, sommeil et lundi mardi mercredi jeudi vendredi et
samedi sur le meme rythme ..."
(p. 27). This is not the whole image;
to it is added the final awareness of the mortality and meaninglessness
of life, and the immortality and senselessness of death. What interests
Camus most in the Sisyphus myth is the moment when Sisyphus reaches

the top of the hill and watches his stone roll down. That moment, says
Camus, is "celle de la conscience." In his awareness of his eternally
futile task Sisyphus is superior to his destiny and stronger than his
stone. What makes the myth tragic is the condemned man's awareness
(p. 165). The counterpart of this in VEtranger is the last chapter, in
which the hero achieves absolute lucidity.

Grafted onto the Sisyphus myth in VEtranger are two more traditional mythical figures, the doomed man (CEdipus) and the sacrificial
God-man, or, as Camus prefers to put it, the man-god. That Camus
had these figures very much in mind when he wrote VEtranger is in?
dicated by his discussion of them in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, in which they
and Sisyphus are represented as prototypes of the absurd hero. The
CEdipus myth is reflected in the complicated trap set for Meursault by
chance, the sea, and the sun, and in his final attitude of reconciliation.
The man-god figure appears to have been suggested to Camus by (or
associated in his mind with) the careers of Christ and of Dostoevski's
Kirilov, the first, a symbol of divine self-sacrifice, the second, a sacrificial
hero who rejects God, thereby becoming himself God, and who anxrms

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Carl A. Viggiani

871

his liberty and his love of humanity by what Camus calls a "pedagogical
suicide."3 It can be argued that these archetypes are found in hundreds
of works since antiquity and that their reappearance
in Camus' novel
is not particularly significant. The answer to this objection is the novel
itself and Le Mythe de Sisyphe, where the author's preoccupation with
them is explicit and clear. His use of myth is not unlike that of Joyce
and Eliot, that is, deliberately ironic and intended to bring together in
the reader's mind the mythical figure and the contemporary hero; and
like Eliot, Camus provides his reader with a commentary that reveals
the connection.
This central ironic device has its counterparts in the names of the
characters in the novel, which are for the most part multivalent. For
Camus, the naming of characters seems to be both a conscious and an

unconscious way of adding dimensions of meaning to the world he creates.


There are four main classes of names in his works: historical names;
allegorical names, like Nada and La Peste in UEtat de Siege; common
nouns that indicate profession, trade, family relationship or the like, such
as the juge d'instruction, the aumonier, and La Mere in Le Malentendu;
proper names, some of which Camus may have invented, but most of
which can be found in a dictionary of names. Many of the latter seem to
have some special meaning for the author. In what follows I should like
to suggest some of the possible meanings and uses of the names borne
by Camus' characters. Obviously, what will be said can only be tentative
and inconclusive; I avoid all the necessary qualifications only for the
sake of brevity.
The first category of names needs no comment. The second two cate8 A fewquotationsfromthe chapterson Kirilov and Sisyphuswill make clear the links
that connectMeursaultwiththesefigures:"En ce sens seulement,Jesusincarnebientout
le dramehumain.II est l'hommeparfait,etant celui qui a realisela conditionla plus abEt commelui,chacunde nous peut
surde.II n'est pas le Dieu-homme,mais l'homme-dieu.
etrecrucifieet dupe?l'est dans une certainemesure"(p. 146). "On apercoitdesormaisle
sens de la premissekirilovienne:'Si Dieu n'existepas, je suis dieu.' Devenir dieu, c'est
seulementetrelibresur cette terre,ne pas servirun etreimmortel. . . Kirilov se sacrifie
done. Mais s'il est crucifie,il ne sera pas dupe\II restehomme-dieu,
persuaded'une mort
sans avenir,penetrede la melancolieevangelique" (p. 147). In the chapteron Sisyphus,
Camus bringstogetherand blendsthe 3 figures:"J'imagineencoreSisypherevenantvers
son rocher. . . c'est la victoiredu rocher.. . . L'immensedetresseest troplourdea porter.
Ce sont ncs nuits de Gethsemani.Mais les veritesecrasantesperissentd'etre reconnues.
Ainsi, (Edipe obeit d'abord au destin sans le savoir. A partirdu momentou il sait, sa
trag?diecommence.Mais dans le memeinstant,aveugle et desesper6,il reconnaltque le
seul lien qui le rattacheau monde, c'est la main fratched'une jeune fille.Une parole
demesureeretentitalors: 'Malgre tant d'epreuves,mon age avance"et la grandeurde mon
ame me fontjugerque tout est bien.' L'CEdlpe de Sophocle,commele Kirilovde Dostoevsky, donne ainsi la formulede la victoireabsurde. La sagesse antique rejointl'heroisme
moderne"(pp. 166-167).

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872

Camus'

"VEtranger"

gories reflect the allegorizing tendency of Camus' imagination; in the


third category the characters designated are not only realistic characters
but types as well. The largest and most important category of names is
the last, most of which are traditional. The following are among the principal men's and women's given names and surnames in Camus' novels
and plays (with the exception of Caligula): Meursault, Salamano, Mas-

son, Othon, Thomas Perez, Le Juge Casado, Raymond Sintes, Raymond


Rambert, Bernard Rieux, Joseph Grand, Cottard, Castel, Pere Paneloux,
Emmanuel, Celeste, Jean Tarrou, Jan, Ivan Kaliayev (called Yanek in
Les Justes), Diego; Marie Cardona, Maria, Martha, Victoria, Jeanne.
A number of patterns and correspondences can be noted. First of all,
a predilection for certain names: Jean, its non-French equivalents, Jan,
Ivan (Yanek), and its feminine counterpart, Jeanne4; Raymond (Sintes
and Rambert); Thomas and its derivative, Masson; Marie (Cardona)
and Maria. Second: certain names are intended to communicate an
idea, image, or feeling, in some cases with an ironic overtone; Masson is

"un grand type, massif [my italics) de taille et d'epaules"


(VEtranger',
p. 75); Othon, the name of a judge, one of the many symbols of au?
thority who populate Camus' works, has a distinctly harsh Germanic
ring; Le Juge Casado means 'the married judge'; Joseph Grand is of
course the very opposite of great, and there is nothing very heavenly
about Celeste; the name Cottard has a touch of baseness that is ap?
propriate to the demented black marketeer who rings down the curtain of La Peste with an explosion of unmotivated violence; Castel (OF
and It. 'castle,' 'fort') is another healer, or secular saint, whose name
suggests the virtue of a man who develops a serum against the plague
bacillus. Third: Camus seems to be intent on using names that have a
peculiarly New Testament character or that are in some way important
in the Christian tradition: Marie, Martha, Jean, Thomas, Diego, Joseph,
Emmanuel (Manuel in Noces) are all New Testament personages of the
first importance, as all but one are in Camus' works; Victoria denotes a
virtue traditionally associated with Mary, the mater gloriosa, and in
Christian art Mary is frequently represented as the "Santa Maria della
Vittoria"; Bernard is the name of one of the greatest Christian saints,
known for his devotion to the Virgin Mary, and in La Peste it is the
name of the principal secular saint. Fourth: the names Le Vieux and
Rieux seem to be slight phonetic deformations of dieu. In Le Malentendu
Le Vieux, described as "sans age," is a grotesque surrogate of God, as

4 Jeanis thename ofone of Camus, children.The name of theheroofLa Chute,Camus*


latestbook,is Jean-BaptisteClamence.It mightbe added that,accordingto Camus, Ivan
Karamazov begins"l'entrepriseessentiellede la reVolte,qui est de substituerau royaume
de la grace celui de la justice" {VEomme rtooltt,
p. 77).

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Carl A. Viggiani

873

the last scene of the play makes abundantly clear. That Rieux is also
a disguised form of dieu is perhaps more conjectural; evidence for the
assertion lies mainly in Camus' preoccupation with the figure of the
homme-dieu, manifested in most of his works, in the fact that in La Peste
Rieux plays the role of an homme-dieu, and lastly, in Camus' constant
name-punning and allegorizing, as in the name Le Vieux. Fifth: if one
can assume that Camus' dramatic and novelistic heroes are fictional
projections of his own developing self, and that in La Peste those who
fight with Rieux against death are features of a composite portrait,
then it is probably not a coincidence that the names Rambert, Castel,
Taiiou, and even Faneloux (a character who has taken the existential
leap but who is an extension of Camus' ideal of the sacrificial saint) are
names that echo (with slight distortion) the phonemes of the name
Albert Camus.
From what has been said it becomes clear that in the names that
Camus uses one can often find meanings that clarify the whole of a par?
ticular work. This is true of UEtranger, although apparently not of the
name of its hero. Because of the suggestivity of the name, it has excited
the interest and curiosity of more than one reader. However, in discussing
this study with me, M. Camus said that he found the name at dinner one
evening when a bottle of Meursault wine was served. He added that, despite the suggestivity of the name, he did not consciously associate it
with any particular idea or feeling. He did say, however, that Salamano
was more than just a name to him, and it is, of course, not an inappropriate name for a character whose dog is covered with brown scabs and
spots, who resembles his dog, and who has "[des] mains crouteuses" (p.
61). The idea of 'dirty hands' that the Italianate name evokes reinforces

the feeling of disgust produced by both man and dog.


The names of three more characters in UEtranger require some com?
ment: Thomas Perez, la mere (maman), and Marie. As we shall see, the
mother, the absent or dead father who appears in a variety of disguises,
and the son constitute the matrix of Camus' fictional world. The other
characters in his books and plays, sweethearts, wives, mistresses, sisters,
and sea on the one hand, and judges, prosecuting attorneys, policemen,
old people and sun on the other, tend to be subsumed by the central
figures of the mother and the father. In this light, Thomas Perez, the
name of Meursault's mother's "fiance," becomes more than a common
Franco-Spanish name. If one disregards the z of the surname, it becomes
the French word for 'father,' which on one level is precisely the role
played by the character. In la mbre we have one of the two or three key
words in Camus' vocabulary. There is a great deal of internal evidence
in Camus' works that suggests the identification on an unconscious level

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Camus'

"VEtranger"

of mother and sea, of la mbre and la mer, which are as omnipresent in


his works as the sun and father figures, and as intimately involved in
the hero's fate. It is perhaps only coincidence that the names of the
sister, mistress, and wife in Le Malentendu and VEtranger are named
Martha., Maria., Marie, all of which suggest mere and mer, and that the
old people's home in VEtranger is located at Marengo (an actual place
name), and that they also give a slightly distorted echo of part of the
hero's name, and Camus' obsessive theme, la mort. But it is the kind of
coincidence that is profoundly revealing, and particularly for an under?
standing of VEtranger.
"Etre classique," said Camus, "c'est en meme temps se repeter et
savoir se repeter." His dictum applies not only to the way in which he
names many of his characters but also to the types of characters and
basic situations in his novels and plays. In VEtranger, Meursault, the
main character, murders and is condemned to death; and in some way,
all of Camus' heroes and heroines suffer or watch others suffer a similar
fate. Caligula commits wholesale murders and sexual crimes and is
assassinated. La Mere and Martha drown Jan and then commit suicide.
Yanek assassinates the Grand Duke and is condemned to death. Diego
struggles against La Secretaire and La Peste but dies after gaining a
momentary victory. The heroes of La Peste either suffer death them?
selves, or they witness the death of loved ones, or they fight against a
universal death sentence, the plague. The obsessive image of the con?
demned man (or woman) dominates even Camus' short essays and
philosophical treatises. Noces, for example, which is informed by a pas?

sion for life, has as its epigraph a quotation from Stendhal that refers to
an execution, and the idea of death regularly breaks into this orgy of life.
The opening sentence of Le Mythe de Sisyphe declares that there is only
one really serious philosophical question, suicide. In VRomme revolte,
the main theme is murder. The obsession is everywhere in Camus' writings, coupled with an intense passion for life. In his novels and plays,
the characters constantly re-enact his grim preoccupation in a ritual of
homicide and suicide. In the works that followed Caligula, however, and
beginning with VEtranger, the role played by the main character or
characters is that of the sacrificial hero who suffers death for the love
of others, that they may live or live better in some way. Diego, Rieux,
Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, and Castel are literally healers who sacrifice
themselves in a fight against death. Yanek gives his life so that his
compatriots will have a chance for a better life. This development be?

gins, as it will be seen, with the opening of Meursault to the "tendre


indifference du monde."
The other principals of VEtranger are the mother, the deceased father,

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875

and the sea and the sun. This can be put in a more revealing,
though awkward, way, by saying that the other principals are the
and father-sun-judge-prosecuting
mother-sea-Marie
attorney figures.
One need have no psychoanalytical bias to recognize the identity of the
three female forms. The names of two of them are homonyms, and the
third name not only resembles the first two phonetically but is the name
of the type of the mother, who has traditionally been associated with the
sea, But Camus' other works are themselves the best proof of the
oneness of the three. The figure of the mother appears in some form in
all of Camus' creative works, even if only in a passing reference, as in
Noces. In Le Malentendu she murders the son by drowning him; in
UEtranger she is ultimately responsible for the son's death; she replaces
the dying wife in La Peste; she is the long-surlering mother of Victoria
in UEtat de Siege; in Les Justes she appears as the wife of the Grand
Duke, whom Ivan has blown up. Only for Caligula is it necessary to
invoke the benevolent shade of Freud to find the mother, this time in the
Marie,

figure of Drusilla, Caligula's sister, with whom he has had incestuous


relations, and whose death sends him into a homicidal frenzy. The figure
of the young sweetheart-wife-sister is also omnipresent, and plays as
important a role in the recurring death ritual as the mother, either suffering death or its consequences, as in La Peste and Le Malentendu, or
deliberately or otherwise bringing the hero closer to death, as in UEtran?
ger where the bathing and movie episodes help seal Meursault's fate, and
in Les Justes, in which Dora makes the bomb that Kaliayev throws.
The sister appears in one of Camus' works, Le Malentendu, and is men?
tioned as the cause of the hero's madness in Caligula. In both plays she
is intimately associated with the mother, consciously in the first play,
where she shares with her the role of murderess, and unconsciously in
Caligula, in which she is the object of incestuous desires.
The last of the trinity of characters that dominate Camus' works is

the usually deceased father and the many figures who appear in his
stead. The fathers of Meursault and Tarrou are both dead but they
remain (because they are associated with capital punishment) to haunt
their sons' memories and infiuence their careers. In UEtat de Siege, Le
Juge Casado, 'the married judge,' is one of Diego's antagonists, and he
insists on turning Diego out of the house and denouncing him as a
bearer of the plague. Elsewhere the father takes the various shapes of
the symbol of authority, principally as a judge or prosecuting attorney
{UEtranger and La Peste), as police officers {UEtranger, Les Justes, and
La Peste, where, like Meursault, Rieux dislikes the police), or as priests
{UEtranger, La Peste). These characters either condemn the hero to
death, or are explicitly associated in the hero's mind with the death

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876

Camus'

"VEtranger"

sentence, or they are somehow instruments of imprisonment or death.


The priest is of course the surrogate of the ultimate death-dealing judge.
With the exception of Pere Paneloux, all of these figures range from
unsympathetic to base in character from the hero's or author's point of
view. Almost all the older men in Camus' works, as a matter of fact,
possess a generally unpleasant character. Among the minor ones: the
patricians in Caligida; the old asthmatic in La Peste who spends his
life counting peas, and the old man in the same novel who lures cats to
his apartment building and then spits on them from the balcony; the
old people at the wake in VEtranger, who make sucking sounds with
their cheeks and who appear to be there to judge Meursault.
Thus the basic character and situation pattern can be summarized as
follows: the young hero (twenty-five to thirty-eight years of age) who
murders and/or suffers violent death; the mother-wife-sweetheart-sister
who is either directly involved in the hero's death and/or is killed, or
dies, or remains to suffer the consequences of the hero's death; the father
or father-figure who directly or otherwise condemns to death or helps
to bring about the condemnation. The other characters, few in number,
are of relatively little importance, with the exception of the figure of
the nihilist (Nada, Stepan, Cottard, and Caligula), whose significance
will be taken up in connection with the shooting in VEtranger.
The main impulse in Camus' creativity and the shape that it takes
in his works thus seems to belong to a classic psychological category.
Embedded in the character and plot structure of his works is the fatal
attraction of the mother, the condemnation by the father, and the
rebellion of the son. The incest leitmotiv that threads discreetly through
most of Camus' works breaks out into the open in Caligula and finds
its most regressive expression in Le Malentendu, in which the son returns
to the mother's house, is put to sleep and then drowned by her. Casual
remarks made by Camus or one of his characters take on new meaning
when seen in this light: in Noces, for example, he says of Italy: "Je ne
m'etonne plus que PItalie soit la terre des incestes, ou du moins, ce qui
est plus significatif, des incestes avoues. Car le chemin qui va de la
beaute a Pimmoralite est tortueux, mais certain" (p. 84). When he
wishes to give an example of a monstrous crime in Le Mythe de Sisyphe
he thinks of incest first (p. 47). In "L'Enigme"
(VEtt)- it comes up
again.6 And Camus lets Meursault give us, in his innocent way, a key
6 "Mais enfin,on
sur sa
peut aussi ecriresur Pincestesans pour autant s'Strepre'cipite'
malheureusesceuret je n'ai lu nulle part que Sophocle eut jamais supprime"
son pere et
d6shonor6sa mere" (p. 132). Camus*protestis perfectlyjustified.No attemptis being
made here to psychoanalyzeCamus. I am simplypointingout what I considerto be an
importantfact,and one thathelps to understandCamus*symbolism.

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Carl A.Viggiani

877

to character, novel, and creator when he makes him say that "tous
les fetres sains avaient plus ou moins souhaite* la mort de ceux qu'ils
aimaient" (p. 94). It is part of the ironic joke in VEtranger that Meur?
sault is convicted not only for matricide but also for parricide. One
last point in this connection: Camus' heroes go to their deaths with
almost absolute willingness, and even a certain obstinacy; when they
struggle innocently against death, as in the case of Rieux, Tarrou, and
Diego, it is with the knowledge that they are sacrificing themselves.
They give life for life. We recall that this, according to Camus, is the
condition of remaining faithful to the idea of revolt. Thus, out of an
essentially (Edipal impulse arises not only the center of Camus' fictional
world, but one of the most creative concepts of our times, the idea of
revolt outlined in VHomme revolte.
A link between this psychological impulse and the fictional world and
world view of Camus is to be found in his use of two ancient mythic
religious symbols, the sea and the sun, which are clearly associated in
the mother and the father.
even consciously?with
his mind?perhaps
In most of Camus' works sea and sun are constant and dominant sym?

bols. A recent article on Camus by S. John makes it unnecessary to


state the main features of Camus' use of these symbols. As he says, they
come naturally to a writer raised on the shores of North Africa. In
to the sun constantly evoke a tonality of
Camus' essays "allusions
violence" (this has to be qualified); "the sea features . . . as the con?
stant solace. . . . "6 John examines briefly the role of the symbols in
VEtranger, La Peste, Le Malentendu, and VEtat de Siege, and he points
out one of the symbolic overtones of the bathing episodes?the
longing
for freedom. John's study leaves only one thing unsaid, the nature of the
relation of these two symbols to character patterns in Camus' works, and

to the mythic and religious tradition out of which these symbols arise.
It hardly needs to be said that sea and sun are religious symbols of
great antiquity. In most religious myths water symbolizes the primordial substance out of which all forms arise and to which they eventually return. It possesses magical purifying powers: in it one is healed
and reborn. Through immersion in water everything is dissolved, all
forms disintegrate, all history is abolished; nothing subsists from what
had existed before immersion. It is the equivalent of death on the human
level, and of catastrophic events (the deluge) on the cosmic level. He
who is immersed in water arises free of sin, without history, worthy of
receiving a new revelation and of beginning a new life. While the sun
does not enjoy the same prestige and antiquity in religious myths as
water and sea, it is nonetheless an important and recurrent symbol in
? FSt ix (Jan. 1955), 42-53.

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878

Camus9 "UEtranger"

most of them. It is the male principle, guaranteeing fecundity. It is also


a symbol of God and true knowledge. It is assigned both destructive and
fecundating powers. It has been worshipped as the "Lord of Judgment,"
and it is believed by some that a simple look at the setting sun can cause

death.7
This is not meant to imply that Camus' use of sun and sea symbolism
stems from an a priori knowledge of their ancient religious history. On
the contrary, Camus employs these symbols in a simple, natural, some?
times almost primitive way. Furthermore the feelings inspired by these
phenomena, and the psychological and dramatic functions of the sym?
bols in Camus' works closely parallel those associated with them in
religious myths from their very beginnings. In Noces, sea, sun, earth,
wind are all personified by Camus; through the richness of the sensual
excitation they provoke in him he has "un jour de noces avec le monde"
into the sea is a means of satisfying the longing that earth
(p.21).Plunging
and sea feel for each other (p. 18). He belongs to a race born of the sun
and the sea (p. 26). This sexual union is paralleled by that of sun and
earth and of man and earth (p. 64). For the author of Noces, Plotinian
Unity is expressed in terms of sun and sea (p. 61). In general, cosmic
phenomena inspire him with sensations of love, fertility, youth, in
short, with the glory of natural life.
In Le Malentendu, Martha's nostalgia for a land close to the sea and
under the sun causes Jan's death?by
drowning. (This is the only clear
instance of the mortal effect of water in Camus' works, but it is essential
for a complete understanding of its role in UEtranger.) In La Peste the
plague hits Oran under the hot sun of spring and summer and the beaches
are inaccessible

to the quarantined Oranais. As autumn and winter come,


the plague spends itself under "un soleil sans force" (p. 335). It is at
precisely this moment that Rieux and Tarrou consecrate their "heure
. . . de l'amitie" ina sacramental swim in the Mediterranean. In general,

however, mythic symbolism plays a minor role in La Peste. This is not


true of UEtat de Siege, in which the sea is represented as the mother and
signifies freedom; the comet (a sun symbol) is a sign of the plague, and the
wind from the sea brings final liberation from it. There is no cosmic
symbolism in Les Justes, but in UEte, Camus' latest volume of essays,
it reappears in numerous pieces ("Le Minotaure ou La Halte d'Oran"
"Retour a Tipasa," and "La Mer au plus pres.").
[1939], "L'Enigme,"
Here the sun symbolizes the ultimate intuitive vision of the artist:
artiste, sans doute, est a la recherche de sa verite. S'il est
"Chaque
grand, chaque ceuvre l'en rapproche, ou, du moins, gravite encore plus
pres de ce centre, soleil enfoui, ou tout doit venir bruler un jour" (p. 138).
f M. Eliade, TraiteoVhistoire
des religions(Paris, 1948).

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Carl A. Viggiani
Many of the sea themes of Noces are repeated and developed:
riviere et le fleuve passent, la mer passe et demeure. C'est ainsi
faudrait aimer, fidele et fugitif. J'epouse la mer" (p. 174). "Grande
toujours labouree, toujours vierge, ma religion avec la nuit! Elle
lave et nous rassassie dans ses sillons steriles, elle nous libere et

879
"La
qu'il
mer,
nous
nous

tientdebout"
(p. 187).
As in traditional religious and mythic symbolism, then, in Camus'
works the sea bears the attributes of the mother: it signifies fertility, life,
freedom, love, sexuality, and regeneration; it also stands for death,
however. The sun, on the other hand, has the characteristics of the
father: it weds sea and earth, it is the image of truth, it overpowers and
destroys. Together, they are symbolic representations of the forces
which dominate the fictional heroes and heroines of Camus' novels and
nonhistorical plays.
What has been said thus far makes it clear that any reading of UEtran?
ger that approaches it as if it were a piece of realistic fiction is bound to
fail. What the defense attorney says of the trial is an apt description of
the novel: "Voila l'image de ce proces. Tout est vrai et rien n'est vrai!"
Its language tends to be realistic, and its characters and setting are
drawn from the real world; but as a whole, the novel is a parable and must
be so interpreted. The main theme developed in the novel is death and
the meaning of life that comes out of a confrontation with death. Linked
to the main theme are a number of subsidiary themes, which, like the
theme of death, run through most of the works of Camus: the absurd,

revolt, time, lucidity; isolation, estrangement, imprisonment; the dignity


and divinity of man; fraternity and solidarity, love; innocence, justice,
humiliation. At one point or another in UEtranger all of these subsidiary
themes are developed as variations on the main theme.
The hero and narrator of UEtranger has an occupation given him by
the author expressly to universalize the man and his situation. He is a
clerk, the clerk of Le Mythe de Sisyphe who one day discovers the absurdity of his existence. The choice of a clerk as hero is ironic; the faceless, almost anonymous office worker, characteristic of contemporary
Western society, plays the role of the traditional hero who faced death
on the path to a new life and revelation.
Part i depicts the condition of absurdity without consciousness.
Meursault is "l'homme quotidien," or "Paventurier du quotidien," as
Camus calls the absurd hero in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Being a "quotidian
adventurer," every day, indeed every moment, is important to him;
and thus, the daily account, the precise time schedule; thus the style,
in which, as Sartre has pointed out, each sentence is a present.8 He is
8 "Explicationde
VEtranger"Cahiersdu Sud (fevrier1943).

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880

Camus'

"VEtranger"

almost pure sentience: he hears, touches, sees, tastes, smells; each sense
is acute, and his reports are vivid, but while he has vague intuitions and
premonitions, he knows nothing. His pleasures are a succession of sensual
experiences: smoking, eating, swimming, sexual love. For the absurd
hero all experiences are equivalent, so long as the subject is aware; the
present, and the succession of presents before a sensitive consciousness is
his ideal. Like Don Juan, one of the four types of the absurd man, Meur?
sault lives according to an ethic of quantity, "au contraire du saint que
tend vers la qualite."9 It can be objected, of course, that Meursault is
neither a Don Juan, nor a conqueror, nor an actor, nor a creator, and
that his experiences in Part i are hardly worth making a fuss about. But
that is just the point. In a world in which everything and everyone is
privileged and therefore equivalent, smoking a cigarette and clipping
mineral salts advertisements rank with the ecstasy of loving, or reading
In an absurd world not only all sensations, but all acts
Shakespeare.
are equivalent. Writing a letter for a pimp who wants to punish a cheating prostitute-mistress is no better and no worse than any other act,
including marriage. No hierarchy of values exists in a world in which one
can deny anything but "ce chaos, ce hasard roi et cette divine equivalence qui nait de l'anarchie."10
In Part i Meursault is surrounded by what Camus calls "[des] murs

absurdes."11 The exterior world is dense, foreign, and hostile. It refuses


to be known, although it can be described. In addition, there is some?
thing inhuman and mechanical about what Meursault perceives. In
Le Mythe de Sisyphe Camus uses the image of a man seen gesticulating
through the glass window of a telephone booth to communicate this
idea. In VEtranger the idea is expressed not only by the succession of
events in the narrator's life, but also more directly in the character of the
petite autotnate, who appears suddenly for no apparent reason and then

disappears, only to return during the trial. She sits opposite Meursault
at Celeste's restaurant: "Elle avait des gestes saccades. . . . Elle s'est
assise et a consulte fievreusement la carte. . . . Elle . . . a commande
immediatement tous ses plats d'une voix precipitee ..."
She takes out
a radio program twelve pages long and checks every single program
listed. She finishes her meal. "Puis elle s'est levee, a remis sa jaquette
avec les memes gestes precis d'automate
et elle est partie. . . . J'ai
The word bizarre appears two or three
pens6 qu'elle etait bizarre ..."
times in this novel: the first time, it is used by Marie to describe Meur?
sault, two pages before the appearance of the odd lady. In an author as

? Le Mythede Sisyphe,pp. 88, 100-101. Camus had already remarked 86) that the
(p.
absurdhero "par la simplequantite*
des experiencesbattraittous les records."
10Ibid., p. 73.
u Ibid., 24.
p.

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881

careful as Camus, this is probably intentional, his aim being to mirror


Meursault in the image of the petite automate.
Three events occur in the "succession of presents" in Part i that add
new dimensions to the absurd condition of Meursault's existence: the
death and burial of the mother, the meeting with Marie at the seashore,
and the shooting of the Arab, each of which occurs under a broiling sun.
We have already seen how, on the level of the unconscious, sea, mother,
sweetheart, and sexuality, and on the other hand, sun, father, and death,
are linked in Camus' works. We have also seen that sea and sun are
transformed into symbolic entities that control the actions and lives of

many of Camus' characters. In VEtranger sea and sun lead directly to


the shooting of the Arab, attracting or pushing him at every turn toward
the isolated stretch of beach where Meursault says the sun made him kill
the Arab. When the prosecuting attorney hears Raymond Sintes say
that it was by chance that Meursault was on the beach on that Sunday,
he says that "le hasard avait deja beaucoup de mefaits sur la conscience
dans cette histoire." Like so many of the statements in VEtranger this
one is ironic. The man who makes it obviously does not believe it. The
author, however, intends it to be a true statement of fact. For in sea,
sun, and chance we have Camus' equivalents of the Greek notion of
doom. Putting it baldly, one can say that it is the irresistible attraction
of the sea which brings Meursault to the beach, where he meets Marie
Cardona, and where under the impact of the sun's violent heat and light
he murders the Arab. Thus the sea is not, as it would appear to be, only
sensual pleasure, or a symbol of freedom or rebirth, but also an instrument of death. The fact that Marie and Meursault go to the beach the
day after the mother's burial is one of the items of evidence that leads
to the conviction. So the Mother, Marie, the sea, and the sun and the
various symbols of authority and avenging justice join forces to produce
the murder of the Arab and the death sentence for Meursault. This is a

trap as neatly laid as the one that finally brings CEdipus to the crossroads before his return to Thebes. The murder of the Arab is what Camus
calls a "meurtre de fatalite."12 What precedes the shooting is natural
and logical; whyit should terminate in murder remains a mystery that
Camus does not try to explain, except by symbolic representations of
unknowable forces. Similarly in the CEdipus story: up to the meeting at
the crossroads everything is understandable.
Why, however, CEdipus
should be there at the precise moment when Laius goes by is unfathomable.
The murder episode has puzzled and annoyed many readers: they

12"Un
il ne sauraitrede Pid6e de l'absurdeadmetle meurtrede fatalite",
espritpe*n6tr6
cevoira aucun titrele meurtrede raisonnement"("Le Meurtreet l'absurde," Empedocle
[avril1949],p. 22).

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882

Camus'

"VEtranger"

have either declared the act unmotivated or tried to find some rational
psychological motive to explain it. The truth may be that we ask the
wrong question when we ask, "Why did Meursault kill the Arab?" and
that it would be more worth while to ask, "What does the murder mean?"
Camus, one of the most self-conscious and intelligent writers of our
times, was certainly aware of the mystery that surrounds the murder.
He could easily have chosen, for example, to make Meursault kill in
obvious self-defense. But he did not. Instead, at the moment of the act
he blinded both hero and reader in an explosion of metaphors. (After
using only fifteen metaphors in eighty-three pages Camus uses twentyfive in four pages.)13 It is a hallucinatory and cataclysmic event that
takes place: time stops, the world shakes, the sky opens up and rains
down fire. After eighty pages of plain prose, Camus suddenly resorts
to poetry because in the confrontation with death the hero encounters
what is for Camus the ultimate mystery of the universe.
If one asks, "Why did Meursault kill the Arab?" only one answer is
possible: because of the sun, the answer given by Meursault. Chance
brought him to the beach on that particular day and the sun made him

pull the trigger. If one asks, "What does the murder mean?" then a
different order of answers can be found, in the context of the novel as a
whole as well as in the context of Camus' thought and works in general.
In terms of the structure of the book, it means that the climax has been
reached; everything that precedes prepared the act, and everything
that follows is an epilogue?a
judgment (the trial episode) and an

interpretation of the act (the last chapter). The sudden transformation


of the style at the moment of the act is intended to bring the intensity of
the episode to maximum pitch. In terms of the development of the hero,
it is the moment at which consciousness begins. The experience of death
is the catastrophe that illuminates the human condition. From this
point on, Meursault is no longer a purely sentient consciousness. He
begins to understand, to reflect. He no longer feels; he also knows.
"J'ai compris," he says, "que j'avais detruit l'equilibre du jour . . . ";
comprendre, in that sense, is an uncommon term in the first part of the
novel. Camus' use of the sun as the symbol of the ultimate vision of
truth in UEtt makes it probable that here too the sun, with its terrible
brilliance, is what lights the central truth, that is, death. Each of the
three meetings with death?the
burial of the mother, the murder, and
the trial?takes
place under the hottest sun of the year. (In the trial
episode Camus plays ironically with the idea when he has the prosecut?
ing attorney say that Meursault's guilt will be proved under "l'aveuglante clarte des faits d'abord et ensuite dans Peclairage sombre" of his
13W. M. Frohock,"Camus: Image, Influenceand Sensibility/*
YFS, n, iv, 93-94. This
countwas made in the unrevisededitionof VEtranger.

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883

criminal mind.) Why Meursault kills and why he dies remains a mys?
tery, however, just as for Camus, the universal and eternal murder of
men, i.e., the reality of death, is a humiliating and incomprehensible
phenomenon. In social terms, for Camus, murder, or death, is the door
through which man enters history. Without death there would be no
la fugacite, la mort se manifestent dans
human history: "L'injustice,
l'histoire. En les repoussant, on repousse l'histoire elle-meme" (VHomme
revolte, p. 357). The same idea is expressed in the Lettres a un ami allemand, written shortly after VEtranger: "Mais vous avez fait ce qu'il
fallait [the Germans went to war], nous sommes entres dans PHistoire"
(p. 80). In other words, without death men would simply be part of an
eternal natural order; with death and the awareness of death human

history and tragedy begin. This is the paradigm of Meursault's devel?


opment. In metaphysical terms the murder is an explosion of revolt
against the very forces that bring him to his act, and in particular, against
the sun. Everything that Camus has said about deicide, the implicit
identification of sun and divinity in his works, all the sun symbolism in
VEtranger and most of his other works, and the imagery of the murder
episode, in which the sun, and not the Arab, is the enemy, suggest this
meaning. It is further suggested by the fact that, according to the timetable, the act takes place on Sunday, the Lord's day, a day which?we
have been told before the murder?the
murderer does not like. In this
act
is
one
the
similar
to
that
Camus
finds particularly striking in
respect,
Les Chants de Maldoror, in which Maldoror?a
revolte, according to
the Creator. On the realistic level, the act is repeated in
Camus?attacks
assaults the chaplain. Finally, in the moral
prison, when Meursault
terms of Le Mythe de Sisyphe, the murder is the logical consequence of
what Camus calls a "mal de l'esprit," the absurd sensibility. If all acts
are equivalent then murder is inevitable and an indiflerent matter.
With the murder Meursault becomes a revolte. It is the fate of the
rivolti to kill both God and men.14 According to Camus, revolt in the
twentieth century has been betrayed and transformed into uncreative
nihilism; Stalinism, Fascism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Formalism are some
of its illegitimate progeny. This type of nihilism, which issues in indiscriminate murder, is incarnated on the social level in Camus' works by
Nada, Caligula, Stepan, and Cottard, whose final act is meant to be an
illustration of Breton's declaration that the simplest Surrealist act consists in going down into the street, revolver in hand, and firing at random
into a crowd.15 (On the artistic level, Camus typifies nihilistic formalism
14"Tuer Dieu et batir une
de la
Sglise,c'est le mouvementconstantet contradictoire
reVolte"(VHommerevolte,
p. 131). "II hait la peinede mortparce qu'elle est Pimagede la
conditionhumaineet, en memetemps,il marcheversle crime,,(p. 83).
15A. Breton,Les Manifestesdu surrialisme
(Paris, 1946), p. 94,

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884

Camus'

"UEtranger"

in Joseph Grand, who is so obsessed with the formal aspects of com?


position that he is unable to complete more than the first sentence of his
novel, which he finally burns.) The true rebel, however, is distinguished
from the nihilist by his willingness to give life for life.16 Ivan Kaliayev
is the key: "Celui qui accepte de mourir, de payer une vie par une
vie, quelles que soient ses negations, affirme du meme coup une valeur
qui le depasse lui-meme en tant qu'individu historique. . . . Kaliayev
et ses freres triomphaient du nihilisme."17 Like Kaliayev, Meursault affirms this fundamental value by accepting from the start the necessity
and logic of paying with his life: "J'etais coupable, je payais, on ne
pouvait rien me demander de plus" (p. 166). To this value is added
another, the growing and finally absolute lucidity of the hero.
The last two parts of UEtranger act out the creation of these values.
There are two distinct developments in Part ii: the first is in Meursault,
who begins to examine himself and his relations with others at the same
time that the ofiicial interrogation begins; the second is the trial. Meur?

sault teils the prosecuting attorney at the beginning of the interrogation


that he had lost the habit "of questioning" himself, that he never had
very much to say. This is the Meursault of Part i. In Part n the circumstances compel him to examine himself; the very thing that brings
him death forces him into the state of lucidity in which he awaits his
execution. And at one point in the interrogation he says: "II me semblait
que je n'avais jamais autant parle" (p. 97), which is absolutely accurate.
He begins to reflect; reflichir, a verb that appears rarely in Part i, turns
up numerous times in Part n. He becomes interested in himself: "Meme
sur un banc d'accuse, il est toujours interessant d'entendre parler de
soi" (p. 139). He begins to attach some value to his being and objects
when his attorney follows the tradition of speaking in the first person

for the accused: "Moi, j'ai pens6 que c'etait m'ecarter encore de 1'afTaire,
me reduire a zero et, en un certain sens, se substituer a moi" (p. 147).
He begins to feel at home in his prison cell, something he could not do
in his apartment. He even feels that he could easily live in the trunk of
a tree. As time?called
"[le] pire ennemi" in Le Mythe de Sisyphe?
begins to thin out in the structure of the book, he literally kills it in
prison by losing his sense of time. With his growing ability to see things
under the aspect of eternity, time evaporates. Reflection, however, is
accompanied by the development of feelings which, up to the murder,
Meursault had not experienced. He says of his attorney: "J'aurais voulu
le retenir, lui expliquer que je desirais sa sympathie, non pour etre
mieux d6fendu, mais, si je puis dire, naturellement" (p. 95). He has

M"H tue et meurtpour qu'il soit clair que le meurtreest impossible"(L'HommerfoolU,


p. 348).
" Ibid., p. 216.

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Carl A.Viggiani

885

"une envie stupide de pleurer" because he knows how detested he is by


court and public (p. 127). When Celeste has finished his ineffectual
testimony Meursault says that it is the first time in his life that he has
wanted to embrace a man. He wishes to explain to the prosecuting
attorney "cordially, almost with affection" that he was incapable of
feeling regret (p. 143). These are not expressions of overpowering love,
certainly, but they are as close as one gets to them in a book consisting
in great part of ironic understatement.18 They are the first steps toward
the feeling of the "tendre indifference du monde."
The trial itself is an ironic recapitulation of everything that happens
in Part i. Like the burial and the murder, it takes place under a violent
sun that seems to seek him out: "Les de*bats se sont ouverts avec, au
dehors, tout le plein du soleil" (p. 117); "le soleil s'infiltrait par endroits
et l'air etait deja etouffant" (p. 118). Every insignificant thing, person,
and act of Part i returns with the sun and the mother's burial to condemn Meursault. The "Cela ne veut rien dire" theme of Part i is turned
upside down: everything that happened to him becomes supremely
meaningful: the exact time of his mother's burial, the fact that he
smoked a cigarette and had a cup of coffee at his mother's wake, that
he saw a Fernandel movie, that he agreed to be Raymond's pal, every?
thing and everyone form part of the trap set for him. In the end Meur?
sault is actually convicted and sentenced to death for matricide and
parricide, not homicide. Camus would probably admit that the trial
episode is derivative, and that its Kafkaesque quality is not an accident.
The crazy logic of the legal proceedings, while more realistic perhaps
than what happens in Kafka's book, nevertheless has similar overtones
of meaning. Like the problems of death and time, which operate in
Camus' works at several levels at once, justice is a theme that he deals
with in social and metaphysical terms. In VEtranger the trial is a parable of the universal and eternal sentence inflicted on men. It is the
supreme injustice committed against men, and, like the illogic of the
trial episode, it is incomprehensible.
The last part of the book is an interpretation of what has preceded,
a summing up of the knowledge gained. It differs radically from what
has preceded. There is practically no irony in it; it is almost all meditation;
even the style goes through a partial transformation.19 One new charac?
ter, the prison chaplain, appears. Aside from this, nothing happens.
Time has stopped

completely.

Meursault's

speculations

on death and

18As Camus says in UHommerSvolti


(p. 375), "la reVoltene peut se passer d'un Strange
amour" (italics mine).
19This should be the subject of another
paper. It is incorrectto speak of thestyleof
UEtranger.Much of the styleofwhat I have called Part m diflerssubstantiallyfromthat
of Parts i-n.

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886

Camus'

"UEtranger"

the meaning of life, and his final rejection of divinity constitute the bulk
of the last chapter. Some of the things he has learned are among the
commonplaces that Western tragedy has exploited since they were first
expressed in Greek tragedy. There is no way out, there is no escape from
"la mecanique," there is no "saut hors du rite implacable."
We are all
condemned to death, and yet there is no more important event in a
man's life than death: "rien n'etait plus important qu'une execution
capitale ..."
(p. 155). There is no God. Life has no transcendent mean?
is
and
it
not
worth living, but it is all that we have; the only worthing,
while afterlife would be one in which life on earth could be remembered.
If these truths hold him and others prisoner, he in turn possesses them:
"Mais du moins, je tenais cette verite autant qu'elle me tenait." In this
paraphrase of the Pascalian dictum the novel and the career of the hero
express their final meaning. The mood of the last page is tranquil. Having
discovered the link of solidarity with all men?death?Meursault
opens
up "pour la premiere fois" to the tender indifference of the world: "De
l'eprouver si pareil a moi, si fraternel enfin, j'ai senti que j'avais ete
heureux, et que je l'etais encore" (p. 171). Through death he breaks
out of the "murs absurdes," and is no longer a stranger. The "je l'etais
encore," as Camus would put it, echoes the "All is well" of Greek
tragedy. Murder, injustice, condemnation to death, lucidity: this is the
route of Camus' tragic hero, whose career, in its understated, plebeian
way is patterned after that of tragic heroes of antiquity. The fate of
Meursault is the universal condition of men, whose history is precisely
death, injustice, and their awareness of them.
The novel ends with what seems to be a paradox. Having finally experienced the tender indifference of the world and discovered his bond
with men, that is, having finally experienced love, in his last sentence
the hero expresses the hope that crowds of spectators will witness his
execution and greet him with cries of hatred. This does not make sense
unless it is seen in the light of the concept of the homme-dieu that Camus
defines in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. By the end of the novel, Meursault is an
homme-dieu: to use Camus' terms, he has been duped (the trial), will be
"crucified" (the guillotine), he does not serve an immortal being, he has
denied (killed) God, and thus become God himself, he is persuaded of a
death without an afterlife, and thus he has realized the life eternal of
which the Gospel speaks.20 His death, like Kirilov's suicide, will be a
pedagogical act. "Kirilov doit done se tuer par amour de l'humanite. II
doit montrer a ses freres une voie royale et difncile sur laquelle il sera
le premier "{Le Mythe de Sisyphe, p. 147). But this is also the role of
soSee the

chapteron Kirilovin Le Mythede Sisyphe,

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Carl A. Viggiani

887

another sacrificial hero, the Dieu-homme who dies for the love of men and
who, by his death, shows them a new path. And it is Camus who reveals
the connection between the two figures. Christ, he says, is in a sense (if
there is no Paradise) "celui qui a realise la condition la plus absurde.
II n'est pas le Dieu-homme, mais l'homme-dieu"
(p. 145). Essentially,
like
And
fate
that
of
it
is
his
is
Meursault.
then,
only this essential similarity that can explain the last words of VEtranger. We are invited, in
other words, to recall the last moments of the Christ, whose crucifixion
was preceded by cries of hatred from the crowds. This is the consummation of the homme-dieu's career, Meursault's as well as Christ's. Through
his death, Meursault gains and exemplifies a new vision of life, indeed
a new life. And either consciously or unconsciously, Camus, in the last
paragraph, alludes to the notion of rebirth in death when he has Meur?
sault say, "Si pres de la mort, maman devait s'y sentir liberee et prete a
tout revivre." This is precisely how Meursault feels. Thus Camus was
not being as paradoxical as he claimed when he wrote: "II m'est arrive

de dire aussi, et toujours paradoxalement, que j'avais essaye de figurer


dans mon personnage le seul Christ que nous meritions."21 Meursault
is a Christ figure, just as he is an CEdipus and Sisyphus figure. And this
brings us back to the starting point of this study, the relationship of
time, theme, and structure in the novel. For part of the historic mission
of Christ was precisely the transformation of time and death into eternity
and a new life. It also brings us back to names, characters, and symbols:
one may well ask, for example, whether the predilection for the name
Marie and names that echo Marie, whether the centrality of the mother,
the ritualistic bathing episodes, the concept of the secular saint, are not
related to the Christ figure. In short, is it not Christ?an
absurd Christ,
it is true?and
not Sisyphus, who is hidden behind the developing
hero of Camus' fictions? But this is a question that can only be answered
by Camus himself.
This study leaves unsaid much, perhaps most, of what can be said
about VEtranger, and if it suggests anything, it is that Camus' slim
novel is a rich and complex work, whose artistry and thought we have
not yet fully appreciated. It is not only one of the most significant books
of our times in the ideas and feelings that it incarnates, but it is also,
despite its exterior simplicity, an intricate artistic mechanism, which
reveals more of its wealth of meaning and complexity each time it is
read.
Wesleyan

University

Middletown,

Conn.

21UEtranger(New York, 1955),


Avant-Propos,p. viii.

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