Thursday, March 27, 2008

Camus Explication from The Stranger

In The Stranger, author Albert Camus’ curt diction, offensive tone, and simple, direct syntax contribute to the characterization of the main character, Meursault. Meursault acts inhumanely in the face of situations that typically elicit emotion. Through his characters’ indifference, Camus exposes the tendency of men to put on a masculine front in order to hide their true emotions.
The first instance of his insensitivity is at Maman’s funeral. Her friends, the other elderly residents from her nursing home, come to keep vigil around her casket. Meursault first mentions them as a “rustling sound that woke me [Meursault] up” (9). In his eyes, they are nothing but a mere noise, completely insignificant to what he is thinking about. He observes that the women all have “bulging stomachs” and he says that he “never noticed what huge stomachs old women can have” (10). Elderly people are often highly respected members of society, and younger generations have a natural tendency to speak of them with courtesy. Meursault, on the other hand, uses rude, disrespectful terms, such as the aforementioned bulging stomachs, or “toothless mouths,” (10). Camus chooses these words because it reveals the first sign of Meursault rejecting emotion. Meursault has “the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge [him]” (10) and because he thinks that about innocent people who came to pay tribute to his mother, it is an indication of his insecurity.
Meursault’s insecurity grows further on in the passage as well. He emphasizes multiple times that one woman “kept on crying” (10) and he wish that he “didn’t have to listen to her anymore” (10). This woman comes to the funeral to pay her respects to Maman and to express her sympathies to Meursault. This act of compassion is met with resistance; Meursault, annoyed by her crying, is only concerned for himself and not for her. He does not want to face the sadness of losing his mother, and hearing crying, a sound of sadness, might trigger emotion, so he dismisses it as an annoyance. His sentences are very short and choppy, structured with simple subjects and verbs, and their directness conveys his agitation. The caretaker of the home tells Meursault that the woman was a very good friend of Maman’s, and that now she “hasn’t got anyone” (11) but that is the last that Meursault speaks of the woman in the passage. The commentary about this woman stops here because Meursault does not want to deal with the feelings that might stir within him if he interacts with her. By acting like he is tough and does not care about the woman, who could conceivably be one of the only links left to his mother, Meursault is putting up a masculine façade in order to divert the emotion.
After this point, Meursault shuts down; his diction and tone are more inappropriate and reckless, as he tries to overcompensate for his lack of emotions. Meursault states that the woman “finally shut up” (11). The phrase ‘shut up’ is usually used by teenagers or children, not adults talking about their elders. He complains about being “tired” and that his “back was hurting” (11). This physical need overtakes any other feelings or emotions, and a stereotypical man puts his physical needs, desires, or feelings before anything else. A “strange noise” (11) then aggravates him, and he identifies it as a “weird smacking” (11) sound that the elderly people are making by “sucking at the insides of their cheeks” (11). The connotation of this description is more like animals than it is like humans, so Meursault cannot relate to them directly. His diction here is demeaning, and it is particularly so because these people are hurt by Maman’s passing, and attend the funeral to support him and mourn the loss of his mother. His final thought of the passage is that “the dead woman lying in front of them didn’t mean anything to them. But I think now that that was a false impression,” (11). He refers to his own mother as a ‘dead woman’ and that shows that he is indifferent to the whole situation, almost as if he is looking in on these events from the outside. He is a stranger to emotions, as the title of the book suggests, and his coldness covers him up so that emotions cannot penetrate within him.
On the whole, the diction of the passage shows how Meursault hides his emotions behind a wall of overcompensated masculinity. A funeral generally brings about emotions in some way, but his complete lack of feeling, coupled with a desire to put his own physical needs above his emotional needs, Camus exposes this character flaw in Meursault. This is not the only time he does this, however. He takes another emotional situation, one of abuse, and confronts Meursault with it.
Meursault and Marie are having lunch at Meursault’s house and they hear Raymond having a fight with his girlfriend. They rush outside to see what is happening. They hear “thuds” and his girlfriend screaming “in such a terrifying way” (35). He acknowledges that the woman is in trouble from the beginning, but this acknowledgement is strayed away from; he does not want to have to confront it. Marie is concerned, and asks Meursault to find a policeman to help, but Meursault refuses to because he “didn’t like cops” (36). His inactions here reflect his chauvinistic sentiments, but he must lie to get his way out of helping the woman because he does not want Marie to see how he truly feels about women. Meursault’s sentences are shorter and more direct again after this; they dictate the events of his afternoon with Marie that leads up to his conversation with Raymond. Meursalt “finished fixing lunch. But she wasn’t hungry; I ate almost everything” (37). Marie has clearly been affected by the events that she has seen because she does not want to eat. Meursault however, is completely unconcerned with what he has just experienced, and eats his lunch like nothing happened. Camus shows this contrast between men and women here, because Merusault acts hardened, like the stereotypical man, while Marie acts emotionally, like a stereotypical woman. Meursault does not want to dwell on the event, because he is outrunning guilt. If he does not think about what he has done, it will not affect him.
The feeling comes back to haunt him, however, as Meursault finds Raymond at his door later that day. Raymond recounts the events of the day, and in order to play along with Raymond, Meursault comments that “she’d gotten her punishment now and he ought to be happy” (37). Raymond has a strong influence over Meursault’s behavior because he is acting very masculine about putting a woman in her place. The terms he uses to describe the event are not very graphic, so Camus stores Meursault’s memories away and chooses to only tell what makes Raymond appear to be the victim of the situation. So in order to fit in with Raymond and not allow his emotions to get the better of him, Meursault puts on the act that he condones the beating and that Raymond was correct in his actions. Meursault eggs the behavior on even more when he “agreed to act as a witness” (37) for Raymond. Though Meursault acts like testifying for Raymond “didn’t matter” (37) to him, he clearly tries to remain indifferent to the situation. Raymond abused his girlfriend, but Meursault, who wants to side with a ‘man,’ decides to help him out.

In both instances, Camus describes Meursault as a stranger to his own feelings. In his indifference, he sails through some very difficult events, including his mother’s funeral and an assault of an innocent woman. To keep from feeling these emotions, he puts up a wall around himself so that he does not have to feel sad, upset, angry, or hurt; acting like a man makes up for his inability to have feelings, and he can use his status as a man as validation for his actions. Camus exposes that tendency in men, as opposed to women, who bare it all. The woman cries at Maman’s funeral, and Marie cannot eat after witnessing the attack. This is one of the main differences between the sexes, and Camus differentiates between the two with the reactions to these events.

1 comment:

Meaghan S6 said...

This was the first explication of a novel that we did of the year, so I wasn't as confident in this paper as I should have been. I felt more comfortable with this over the Ted Berrigan poem, but I did like my thesis and then eventually comparing multiple passages added to the paper as a whole. So, considering it was my first try at explicating something with multiple passages, it warrants a place in my portfolio.