The Stranger is a very short novel, divided into two parts. In Part One, covering eighteen days, we witness a funeral, a love affair, and a murder. In Part Two, covering about a year, we are present at a trial that recreates those same eighteen days from various characters' memories and points of view. Part One is full of mostly insignificant days in the life of Meursault, an insignificant man, until he commits a murder; Part Two is an attempt, in a courtroom, to judge not only Meursault's crime but also to judge his life. Camus juxtaposes two worlds: Part One focuses on subjective reality; Part Two, on a more objective, faceted reality.
The novel opens with two of the most quoted sentences in existential literature: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." The impact of this indifference is shocking, yet it is a brilliant way for Camus to begin the novel. This admission of a son's unconcern about his mother's death is the key to Meursault's simple, uneventful life as a shipping clerk. He lives, he doesn't think too much about his day-to-day living, and now his mother is dead. And what does her death have to do with his life? To Meursault, life is not all that important; he doesn't ask too much of life, and death is even less important. He is content to, more or less, just exist. But by the end of the novel, he will have changed; he will have questioned his "existing" and measured it against "living" — living with an awareness that one can have and demand for himself — that is, a passion for life itself.
Today's readers of this novel have usually been exposed to such an anti-hero as Meursault (think of Willey Loman in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman or Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22), but to those who read this novel when it was first published, Meursault was a most unusual man. They were confronted with a man who has to attend to the details of a death — and not just a death, but the death of his mother. And the tone of what Meursault says is: so, she's dead. This tone is exactly what Camus wanted: he calculated on its shock value; he wanted his readers to examine closely this man who does not react as most of us are expected to do. Meursault is very matter-of-fact about his mother's death. He does not hate his mother; he is merely indifferent to her death. She lived in a nursing home not far from him because he didn't have enough money to pay the rent and buy food for them both, and also because she needed somebody to be with her a great deal of the time. They didn't see each other very often because, in Meursault's words, they had "nothing else to say to each other."
Camus is challenging us, in effect, with this idea: Meursault has a unique freedom; he does not have to react to death as we are taught by the church, by novels, movies, and cultural mores. His mother gave him birth; she reared him. Now he is an adult; he is no longer a child. Parents cannot remain "parents"; children, likewise, at a certain point, are no longer "children." They become adults, and when Meursault became an adult, he and his mother were no longer close. Eventually, they had "nothing else to say to each other." Meursault is no longer responsible to his mother for his actions. He defines himself and his own destiny. And, at this moment in his life, Meursault cannot succumb to the rituals of frantic, emotional breast-beating because of his mother's death. Meursault is not rebellious; he has simply discarded burdensome gestures. He cannot exaggerate his feelings.
Meursault has a special kind of freedom; he has made a commitment, an unconscious commitment, really; he has committed himself to living his life his way, even though it is dull, monotonous, and uneventful. He has no desire, no driving ambition, to prove his worth to other people. To most people, a funeral is an emotional trauma; for Meursault, note that his mother's wake is so insignificant that he borrows a black tie and armband for the funeral: why spend money for them when he would use them only one time? And he almost misses his bus for the funeral. He will bury his mother with church rites, but his sense of freedom is his own; he will physically do certain things, but he cannot express emotions that do not exist.
Thus we see Meursault's reaction to death. Consider, then, after the funeral, his attitude toward life. Meursault enjoys life. One can't say that he has a rage for living, but he affirms simple physical pleasures — swimming, friendships, and sex — not spectacularly, but remember that he is not a hero, just a simple shipping clerk. Note, too, that on the way to the funeral, during the vigil, and during the funeral itself, Meursault's reactions are mostly physical. When he enters the mortuary, for example, his attention is not on the wooden box that holds his mother's corpse. He notices, first, the skylight above and the bright, clean whitewashed walls. Even after the mortuary keeper has left, Meursault's attention is not on the coffin; instead, he reacts to the sun, "getting low, and the whole room was flooded with a pleasant, mellow light."
During the funeral procession, Meursault is not concerned with his mother's existence in an afterlife. She is dead; he is alive, and he is sweaty and hot, and doing what he is expected to do for a funeral, but these are all physical acts. Physically, he experiences the "blazing hot afternoon," the "sun-drenched countryside . . . dazzling," a "shimmer of heat," and he is "almost blinded by the glaze of light." This is what is painful to Meursault; he is not torn by religious agony or by a sense of loss. And besides Camus' showing us Meursault's physical responses to living, as opposed to his feelings about death, he is preparing us for the climax of Part One: Meursault's murder of the Arab. Again, the sun will be glaring, dazzling, and blinding; in fact, one of Meursault's defenses in court as to why he shot the Arab will be "because of the sun."
In contrast to Meursault's reactions to the funeral and the heavy heat of the sun is Thomas Pérez. Old Pérez was a friend of Meursault's mother; they had a kind of romance. He follows the funeral procession, limping in the broiling sun, sometimes dropping so far behind that he has to take shortcuts to rejoin the procession. At the funeral, he faints.
Meursault, not Camus, tells us these facts. Meursault's narrative is documentary, objective, like a black-and-white photograph. He is not excessively emotional when he tells us of Pérez' aged, wrinkled face and the tears streaming from his eyes. There is no attempt for sympathy. Meursault states facts, then tells us that his own thoughts are focused on getting back to Algiers and going to bed and sleeping for twelve hours.
Can we condemn Meursault? Should he have shed tears? Should he have thrown himself on his mother's casket? Or should we recognize his honesty? In Part Two, a jury will judge him and will find him guilty, not because he murdered an Arab, but mainly because he could not and did not weep at his mother's funeral. Shall we also condemn him? Camus says no: a man must be committed to himself, to his own values, and not be confined by certain value judgments of others. It is important to be a physical, mortal man, as opposed to being a half-man, living with the myth of someday becoming an immortal spirit.
Meursault's philosophy is, despite its unusual nature, very positive. He cannot live with illusions. He will not lie to himself. This life now is more important than living for a mythical then. When, according to Camus, one has seen the value of living with no illusion of an afterlife, he has begun to explore the world of the Absurd. Values must be, ultimately, self-defined, and certainly not by the church. Why fake an emotion because society says that it is proper etiquette? A lifetime is only so long and can end very suddenly. Camus would have us ask ourselves: why am I living a life that I have not structured? How old is the universe, and who am I amidst the millions of people who are dead in the earth and the millions who are still living on this earth? There is no Holy One who cares about me; the whirling universe is alien, uncaring. Only I can try to determine my significance. Death is ever-present and, afterward, nothing. These are all questions and issues that Meursault, by the end of the novel, will have examined. He will have become an Absurd Man, and Camus has shown us the genesis of this philosophy in this opening chapter. Slowly, we will see how this rather simple shipping clerk will change, how he will gain immense insight into the importance of his life, and how he will learn to enjoy it passionately, ironically, as he faces death.