L'Etranger reconsidered: a negative reading of Meursault

Dr William Brooks, Reader in French, University of Bath on 19 March 2001

French critics, in particular, see Meursault, the main character of Camus's novel L'Etranger, as an advocate for Camus's own philosophy. Life is absurd because it is meaningless, but it is all we have and we must live it to the full.

Meursault, an easy-going man, despises hypocrisy. His refusal to compromise by untruthfully claiming to have felt regret at the time of his mother's funeral leads, by a series of misrepresentations on the prosecution's part, to his conviction for a murder for which, in reality, he was barely responsible. In prison, he comes to appreciate that the life he led before, his simple enjoyment of the here-and-now, amounted to the practical expression of a philosophy that he can now articulate. In accordance with his principles, he refuses to seek forgiveness from a God in whom he does not believe, and looks forward to his execution in the expectation that it will be a form of martyrdom for his, the only valid view of life a view more valid than that of the hidebound convention-obsessed society that has condemned him to die.

At least, that is what Meursault would have us believe. There is plenty of evidence in the text, after all. Indeed, we have it on impeccable authority, that of Meursault himself.

Dr Brooks argued that, in practice, L'Etranger is considerably more subtle than such a reading suggests. Those who wish to read only at the level of the story and to accept Meursault's explicit claims come away satisfied from their reading. However, on another level, for the benefit of those who read carefully and observantly, Camus constantly undermines his own hero. Whereas, on the superficial level, the first part of the novel is a daily journal, closer inspection reveals not a naïve account but a carefully crafted narrative. Ironically, the aim of such careful crafting is precisely to persuade the reader that the narrative is naïve and uncrafted. It is a tribute to Camus's genius that he enables Meursault, on a superficial reading, to pull off the trick, whilst leaving enough clues for the careful reader to be alerted. Equally disingenuous is the way that the the second part of the novel shows Meursault arriving at a philosophy, for in fact it is not the articulation of a philosophy that we have here but an example of special pleading to justify, or at least to exculpate, his actions on the day of the murder actions recorded in the first part of the novel, which, Dr Brooks maintained, is organized selectively to enable the justification or exculpation to be convincing. Nowhere in L'Etranger is the accused cross-questioned about his narrative of the murder: perhaps this is not surprising when one takes account of the fact that the whole thing is organized by Meursault himself.

Dr Brooks gave numerous examples of the way in which the superficial reading can be accompanied by a more alert approach, before turning to the account of the death of the Arab and deconstructing it to show that, there in particular, Meursault continuously varnishes the truth and, in some cases, evades it altogether.

In conclusion, Meursault may well be the monster that the prosecution accuses him of being. His life and his actions provide the very antithesis of a case for Camus's philosophy; his cunning use of language to invert the truth is a warning for us all to bear in mind whenever we read anything, and critics who see Meursault as some sort of misunderstood paragon have missed the point.

Anne Whitmarsh