PROMPT: What violations of societal values underlie Meursault’s conviction? Is there any evidence suggesting that Meursault accepts responsibility by the novel’s end?
Taking place in Algeria in the 1940’s, Albert Camus’s The Stranger portrays a shocking example of the French justice system at the time, and just how different it was from that of the United States’, and especially our modern day justice system. In the novel, the main character and narrator, Meursault, is tried and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by guillotine. The evidence the Prosecutor uses to convince the jury that he is guilty, however, is based off of his character rather than the specific crime he committed. While it is illegal to use “character evidence” in the United States’ court of law, the French justice system at this time allows the accused to be found guilty based off of his/her character and morals. The Prosecutor and jury find Meursault guilty by accusing him of violating societal values such as lacking sympathy and emotion for the death of his mother, and remorse for the man he killed. According to the Prosecutor, jury, and French law, Meursault committed these crimes in direct correlation with his lack of conscious and societal values.
While it is no question that Meursault is guilty of the murder he committed, the severity of his sentence remains hanging in the balance as he awaits his trial. However, as we see throughout the novel, Meursault seems to have little to no feelings about his situation. He narrates that the six months he spends in jail fly by, and he becomes numb to time. It can also be assumed that because of Meursault’s clear lack of feelings and emotion, he does not realize the severity of his situation. It seems that everyone is shocked by Meursault’s personality but him, including Meursault’s lawyer. As he sat down with him to discuss his case, he is asked about his mother and his feelings for her. Meursault explains that he was fond of his mother, but that “all normal people had more or less desired the death of those they loved, at one time or another” (Camus, pg. 41). Understandably, this shocks the lawyer, and he asks Meursault to please not say anything like that statement in front of the court. Meursault then says, “When I suggested that Mother’s death had no connection with the charge against me, he merely replied that this remark showed I’d never had any dealings with the law” (Camus, pg. 41). This clearly shows the relevance of Meursault’s social life and character in his court case, and foreshadows the impact his relationship with his mother and his reaction to her death will have on his case.
As a society, we all possess similar basic moral codes. Things such as murder are illegal and immoral, and require punishment if committed. One is expected to be loyal and love their family above all else. The French Justice system finds these moral codes so important, that they are intertwined with their laws, and one can be convicted to a degree based on the connection between his/her character and the crime committed. To the Prosecutor who will convince the Jury of Meursault’s guiltiness, Meursault’s lack of emotion and the actions he takes following his mother’s death are disturbing and are directly associated with the murder he committed. This is evident when he questions a close friend of Meursault’s mother, referred to as Perez, about whether or not he saw Meursault cry at his mother’s funeral. When Perez tells him that no, he did not see him weep, the Prosecutor replies, “I trust the jury will take note of this reply” (Camus, pg. 57). The Prosecutor also questions Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, about her relationship with the defendant. After hearing her testimony, the Prosecutor exclaims, “Gentlemen of the jury, I would have you note that on the next day after his mother’s funeral that man was visiting the swimming pool, starting a liaison with a girl, and going to see a comic film. That is all I wish to say.” (Camus, pg. 59). It becomes apparent that Meursault seems to be a sociopath of sorts, lacking genuine feelings or emotion, and the Prosecutor displays this to the Jury as evidence that Meursault is a monster, and has a “lack of every decent instinct” and is a “menace to society” (Camus, pg. 63). The Prosecutor displays Meursault’s lack of morals and violations of societal values in revealing his actions and feelings about his dead mother, his girlfriend, and the man he murdered. He shows the Jury that without a conscious and basic morals that a society must value in order to maintain peace, Meursault is a threat to society, and having murdered one man for no particular reason, is bound to do so again.
After being convicted of capital murder and being sentenced to death by the guillotine, Meursault’s emotions seem to slowly shift from numbness, to desperate hope, and finally, acceptance. Throughout the novel, he doesn’t show any remorse for his actions or lack of feelings, and doesn’t offer any reason either. He simply accepts how he is, and often references his feelings as if it is something that every normal person feels by saying “most people” or adding that whatever he was feeling “didn’t matter” anyways. Rather than accepting responsibility for his crime, he talks about it as if it was simply an event that happened. However, after his conviction, his feelings about the matter change. Selfishly, rather than accepting responsibility for his crime and the consequences he must pay for it, he holds on to hope that perhaps the guillotine will fail. He narrates, “The only thing that interests me now is the problem of circumventing the machine, learning if the inevitable admits a loophole” (Camus, pg. 68). As time goes on and his inevitable death approaches, his attitude starts to shift. He loses his hope and refuses that of which the chaplain offers him. Instead, he seems to accept his fate by saying things such as “Yet I could but recognize that, from the moment the verdict was given, its effects became as cogent, as tangible, as, for example, this wall against which I was lying, pressing my back to it” (Camus, pg. 68) and, “Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably” (Camus, pg. 71). Meursault refuses to accept the hope the Chaplain offers and his faith in an afterlife. After a long visit from the Chaplain in his desperate attempt to save his soul, Meursault explodes in a fit of anger and rage, screaming at the Chaplain until he leaves at last. After this event, moments from death, Meursault says, “It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe” (Camus, pg. 75 & 76).
While there is clearly a shift in Meursault’s attitude as he approaches his last days, it is more acceptance of his situation and his life, rather than responsibility. Whether it be a mental disorder or just his immoral character, Meursault seems to lack remorse for the murder he committed, and does not seem to offer any evidence that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Rather than accepting that this is his fate because he committed a horrible crime that must be punished, he remarks that everyone dies eventually, and life really doesn’t matter anyways (Camus, pg. 71). This suggests that perhaps the Prosecutor was right, and Meursault’s lack of real emotion, remorse, and common societal values would have inevitably led him to the same fate in the future, making him a threat to society, and his conviction well chosen.
Camus, Albert, and Stuart Gilbert. The Stranger. Vol. 1946. N.p.: Vintage, 1954. Print
WRITTEN BY: GRACE RILEY
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