What happens when a man hears the news of his mother’s death? We simply imagine (or mostly expect) him sprawling out on the ground, crying his eyes out and tons of words of sincere condolences raining incessantly down on him, or at least he, if not crying, wears a mournful and melancholic face displaying a grief-stricken expression. We picture him doing this only because this is what we normally see around us in society.
But what happens if he does not cry at all and does not even want to look at his mother for the last time before the burial and the very next day after his mother’s death he goes to watch a comedy movie with a girlfriend and mirthfully has sex with her afterward? It only amazes us, leaving us to the indefinable question: why and how can he do this?
Albert Camus, a Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1957, familiarizes us, in a very linear fashion, with a complex character whose mercurial attitude towards life leads us to an unknown land where we are required to see and analyze the world in a different way. Our universe of discourse is frequently ambushed by the character’s indifferent behavior and unexpected roles he plays throughout the novel. Camus quite simply but brilliantly delineates the complex and mysterious life of Meursault, the protagonist, a reserved, taciturn man who goes through the ordeals of crime and punishment.
Part one of the novel begins with the death news of Meursault’s mother who was living in a house for the elderly and with his tiring journey home from his workplace in Algiers to attend the funeral. He comes home, fatigued, and to our astonishment, refuses to view the dead body without showing any emotions of grief; rather he unhesitatingly and remorselessly smokes cigarettes and sips coffee in front of the coffin, not a single teardrop rolling down his face, no sign of mourn on his face. We find a stony-hearted and indifferent Meursault remaining completely unmoved and untouched by his mother’s death. This is what ambushes us at the very outset, forces us to heap all our attention on him, and leads us to an enigma of whys and hows.
We find that Meursault is an only child and the sole support of his mother. We are not only violently stirred by his sharp refusal to take a glance at his mother at the funeral but what moves us more overwhelmingly is when, the very next day after the burial, he encounters Marie, a former typist in his office, mirthfully spends the day with her, goes to watch a comedy movie, and has sexual intercourse with her afterward. His every activity smoothly translates simplicities into complexities, influencing the way people usually think. It seems that ‘the Present’ completely peels his whole ‘Past’ out of his brain the second he moves from one incident to another. It seems he forgets what happened a few hours back.
As time whizzes by, Meursault gets caught up in a clash between life and death. His friendship with Raymond Sintes turns his life upside down. He abets Raymond to take revenge on his (Raymond) Moorish girlfriend who is found to be involved in an adulterous affair. After Raymond beats her up, he is stalked by his girlfriend’s brother and several Arab friends who trail him to retaliate. At one point Meursault, dramatically, shoots one of the Arabs to death and as a result, he is now incarcerated.
The second part of the novel centers on the rigorous trial of Meursault. The jury sentences him to death. But his intense eagerness to live some more days, some more years, or some more decades surfaces when he is taken to prison. He admonishes himself for not giving much thought to the accounts of executions. This is when he manifests a strong sense of seriousness for life but to no effect. His time has already left him. He is now stuck in the thrall of inevitability and his deep urge to avoid it becomes more apparent when he says, “I can’t count the times I’ve wondered if there have ever been any instances of condemned men escaping the relentless machinery, disappearing before execution or breaking the cordon of police”.
The most important part of the novel is, undoubtedly, the end marking Meursault’s conversation with the chaplain. After he refuses to meet with the chaplain several times, the chaplain himself comes to him and tries to persuade him to turn to God before the execution but Meursault would not listen to a word. The chaplain persistently tries to lead him out of Atheism but fails. Meursault till the last day of his life remains faithful to atheism and to his whims.
The novel begins with the news of his mother’s death and finishes with his death. Raymond beats his girlfriend up and the Arabs track him to take revenge. But dramatically Meursault killed one Arab man and is sentenced to death! How strange! How dramatic the world can be! Meursault’s indifference towards life gifts him with nothing but death. From start till the end of the novel, it becomes evident that the world is a place where any sort of carelessness or indifference towards life eventually leads man into disaster and destruction, tearing apart all his dreams and desires.
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The writer of this article, Muwaffaq Muhsin studied MAELT at University of Dhaka