What is natural? This is the most significant question that Albert Camus’ The Stranger asks. The main character Mersault struggles with this question throughout the entire novel. Camus remarked that the point of his novel was to examine the absurdity of life. There are two parts to the novel: the life Mersault lives before and after he kills a man. In fact except for the murder Mersault is a common man. The fact that Camus does not describe the physical attributes of the protagonist makes it possible for the reader to imagine themselves as Mersault and the questions that he struggles with become incredibly personal. Camus questions whether the social constraints that create society is natural or in fact is the most unnatural thing in the world.
The novel opens with Mersault traveling to the funeral of his mother. He feels no sadness, but instead accepts the fact that his mother is no longer alive. Only society has told him that he must go through certain obligatory religious actions in order to recognize the fact that a person has died. Later on in the book, after Mersault murders The Arab, his actions from the first half of the book are put on trial. By putting actions on trial that the reader may have accepted as normal at the beginning of the novel, one is forced to question what is in fact natural.
Camus’ use of the symbolism of the light from the sun turns the literary device of light and darkness on its head. The sun and its blinding heat are the cause of many of Mersault’s questionable actions including the murder of the Arab as well as the lack of emotion during his mother’s funeral procession. The light of the sun reveals Mersault’s actions to society and thus both symbolically and literally put him on trial. Instead of light being a good thing, Mersault is much safer in scenes when the sun sets and he is in the dark.
Mersault struggles throughout the novel between following what feels natural to him and what society deems as natural. In the scene when he first meets with the judge of his trial, his struggle is most apparent. The judge pulls out a crucifix and begs Mersault to accept Jesus as his savior and to repent for the murder that he committed. At the beginning of the scene he makes it clear that he is an atheist and views the judge’s pleas as absurd. However, the more the judge forces the crucifix in his face the more apparent it becomes that Mersault does not fit into society’s definition of morality. To end the conversation he reveals his approach to similar conversations. He says that “ whenever I want to get rid of someone I’m not listening to, I (make) it appear as if I agreed.”(69) Thus he is forced to act like he is “normal” by society’s standards in order to stay within its protection.
By the end of the novel Mersault comes to the realization that the universe is amoral and aemotional, just as he is to many of the so-called significant moments of his life. Thus the question is asked is society unnatural. Mersault is forced to do actions and fake emotions to be seen as normal by society and the fact that he cannot adhere to these social constructs ultimately sentences him to death. Thus the more animalistic, or natural, that he acts the more unnaturally he is perceived by society. He comes to the conclusion in his cell that ultimately it does not matter when he dies may it be the next day or within twenty years because other than the people who personally know him, his life does not effect the universe. Thus his reaction to his mother’s death is only mirroring the universe’s reaction to all life, which is it doesn’t have meaning it simply exists and expires.
Mersault is an atheist and because of this he simply believes in the present moment that he is existing in and has no reason to think about the future. Religion and its ceremonies look absurd in the novel because it is the driving force that causes society to judge him. Thus it seems that Camus is questioning the validity of religion and its morality throughout the novel. Camus seems to be saying that religion is unnatural because it is humanity’s way of making sense of the absurdity and senselessness of nature.
The use of “justice” within the story is simply another mechanism that questions the unnaturalness of society. There are two distinct examples of this in the text. The first is a conversation that Mersault has with a man name Raymond who lives in his apartment building. The conversation takes place after the police arrive at Raymond’s apartment because he is beating up an ex-girlfriend whom he believes was cheating on him. Raymond explains to Mersault that he does not care that he is trouble with the law because he already got to physically and mentally harm his ex, which is all he really wanted. Thus it calls into question whether the “justice” that the country France decides to give him is actually justice. Being locked up behind bars could never inflict on Raymond the pain that he dealt to his ex girlfriend, just as putting Mersault to death will not bring the Arab back to life.
The other example of this is when Mersault contemplates his fate after he has been sentenced to death by the guillotine for murdering the Arab man on the beach. Since Mersault clearly does not fit into the societal confines of the world he lives in France has decided to end his life because he serves no purpose for society at large. In essence it seems that he is being thrown away like a piece of garbage. The prosecutor at his trial goes even further and argues that Mersault’s actions have inspired other people within society to break away from societal norms and because of this not only did he commit an immoral act, but he inspires others to do the same.
The reader is forced to decide who is right in the story. Is Mersault abnormal because he does not adhere to society or are the other characters strange because they do not follow what is natural everywhere else in the universe? The ending of the novel is left open in order to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion.
Perhaps the true question that must be asked is whether or not human beings are just animals or if they are something higher. Human beings as far as science knows are the only creatures that believe in a God and understand the concept of death. It is a forboding knowledge that stays in the back of one’s mind throughout a lifetime. Camus proves that the universe is amoral but it also is not a thinking being. So society, although it can be corrupted, in its most natural form is a good thing. Society is humanity’s greatest creation because it brings morality into a heartless world and it does not follow the natural heartlessness of nature. If there is a God perhaps that is the greatest test that our species faces; to fight against animal impulses, unlike Mersault, and to think beyond the present moment.