Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter VI
Sundays, for Meursault, are usually stagnant days — no routine, no fun, no impromptu outings. This Sunday, however, is the climax of the novel's action, leading us to Meursault's philosophical insight and conversion and, then, to his decapitation. Other than Meursault's mother's funeral, which was described somewhat journalistically, nothing much has happened in the novel until now; thus, Meursault's opening comment in this chapter, describing what an effort it was to get up this morning, is ironically comical, reminding one of the old saying, "It was one of those mornings when I should have stayed in bed." Certainly this is true in Meursault's case.
Marie has to shout at him to rouse him, and as they want to get to the beach early, they don't bother to prepare any breakfast, which is of little concern to Meursault: he has a headache, his first cigarette tastes bitter, and he feels limp and drained. Marie comments that he looks "like a mourner at a funeral," a remark that is part of Camus' irony. During his mother's wake and funeral, Meursault looked the least like a mourner of all those who came to the long vigil around his mother's coffin. If, in fact, someone mistakenly believed that Meursault's behavior was that of a mourner, he was mistaken; Meursault, during those long hours, was not in mourning; he was uncomfortable and embarrassed. He was mourning only in the sense that he was wasting the day and that he had to endure the lengthy and boring ordeal.
Marie's mood this Sunday morning is in direct contrast with Meursault's; she is happy and laughing; Meursault comments that she looks quite ravishing.
This day, as we will discover, is Meursault's last day of physical freedom, his last day to enjoy swimming and sunning and being with Marie, and Camus has already prepared us for this most unusual and fateful day by blackening Meursault's waking mood and accentuating it with the brightness of Marie's gaiety.
After knocking on Raymond's door, letting him know that they are ready to leave, Meursault and Marie go on down the street, but, again, Camus has Meursault remind us that he feels "rather under the weather." It is important that this chapter is studied carefully, for its climax, Meursault's murder of the Arab, should contain a motive for killing the Arab, a key issue. It is extraordinary that Meursault feels particularly bad, most unusual for someone who was eagerly anticipating this bit of a holiday. This day was looked forward to, providing Meursault a chance to get away to the beach and do some swimming and sunning with Marie.
Moments later, Meursault describes himself as not only feeling rather ill, physically, but as if he were struck down, smashed by the glare of the morning sun. Camus is presenting us here with more irony, for if there is anything that Meursault loves, it is the sun. The sun, indeed, has already become almost a character in this novel; we have seen Meursault's delight in its warmth. Today, however, it is too strong and too powerful for him. It hits him in the eyes "like a clenched fist." Once again, Camus stresses and accents Meursault's condition by repeating Marie's reactions to the Sunday morning. To her, the day is glorious. She keeps repeating, "What a heavenly day!" Heavenly is the antithesis of hellish, and hellish the day will certainly become prior to the murder. There is a constant negative-positive counterpoint in this chapter as it builds slowly and tensely toward its climax.
Like Marie, Raymond is in high spirits, addressing Marie in mock graciousness as "Mademoiselle"; he is wearing sports clothes that Meursault finds unattractive and is also wearing a straw hat that makes Marie giggle. In addition, he is wearing a short-sleeved shirt that exposes his rather hairy, white forearms. Meursault is truly in a bad mood to make note of such inconsequential matters.
After commenting on Raymond's outing clothes, Meursault partially explains his feeling of depression. He tells us that the previous evening he had gone to the police station and had testified that Raymond's explanation about beating the Arab girl because of her infidelity was true. The police chose to believe Meursault and, as a result, released Raymond with merely a warning. Meursault says, "They didn't check my statement." He is saying, in effect, that he lied. Meursault does not know if the girl was actually unfaithful to Raymond; he is indifferent to whether or not she had sex with someone else. He simply had no objection to writing a "real stinker" of a letter for Raymond and testifying that Raymond's reason for the brawl was due to infidelity. Meursault, Camus is stressing, has lied, which is unusual for a man who refuses to lie about his own feelings and actions. He, therefore, is not the one-dimensional victim of this novel, as he is sometimes characterized, nor is he a martyr who has done no wrong (other than shedding no tears at his mother's funeral) and yet is guillotined.
The action quickens even before the trio board the bus, for Raymond points out to Meursault that some Arabs are watching them. Meursault sees them and says that the Arabs looked at them as though they were blocks of stone or dead trees. Raymond even knows which Arab is the brother of the girl whom he abused. Raymond's moods fluctuate, at this point. He is, at least to Meursault, seemingly worried, yet he laughs and says that the brawl is "ancient history," but halfway to the bus stop, he glances back for reassurance that the Arabs are not following them. He does this as a man, fearful of death, might look toward the sky for buzzards circling overhead.
On the bus, Raymond's nervousness becomes flirtatious; he "kept making jokes," Meursault says, in order to amuse Marie, although she seemed unaware of him, nodding at Meursault every now and then and smiling at him. There is a tenseness at this point; we wait for something to happen as they journey toward the beach, the scene of the murder.
The three have left the city and are alone as they walk toward the beach; they are far removed from even the Sunday business of Algiers. Wild lilies are snow-white against the sky, which Meursault describes as being so blue that it has a "metallic glint." During Meursault's silent observations, Marie, child-like, amuses herself by swishing her bag against the flowers and showering their petals. The landscape is described here in portent fragments. As Marie innocently destroys the flowers, Meursault notes that some of the houses are "half-hidden," and that others are "naked from the stony plateau." When at last they reach the beach, a big headland juts out over the sea's "black reflection."
After meeting Raymond's friend, Masson, and his wife, Meursault notices Marie chatting with Masson's wife, laughing, and he tells us that, for the first time, he "seriously" considers the possibility of his marrying her. Remember that he promised her that he would marry her earlier. Now, he "considers" the "possibility" of marrying her. Meursault promised that he would marry Marie, meaning that, for him, at that moment, he "had no objection." He is, above all, a man of present moments, and this present revelation, when he tells us of his actually considering marrying Marie, is quite important in understanding this enigmatic man.
Meursault is happy, at this present moment, on the beach. He basks in the sunlight and feels better. The sun, in fact, is a restorative to Meursault, as it usually is. We have heard him speak of it often, and we have seen how he reacts to it and to his memories of Paris and its lack of sun.
Swimming makes Meursault presently feel even better, particularly the physical contact of his body against the cold water beneath him and the hot sun above him, when his arms and shoulders emerge. There is much emphasis here on this series of present moments, as Meursault and Marie swim, side by side, in rhythm, matching their movements, enjoying, as Meursault says, "every moment."
Meursault eventually becomes so completely relaxed that, after swimming back to the beach and drying in the warmth of the sun and Marie's body, he naps for a short time. Then he rouses at Marie's insistence and the two swim for a while longer, twining around one another. Meursault is so physically satisfied that his senses tingle. He is "ravenously" hungry for lunch and eats much bread and fish and steak and potato chips. Masson, the host, enjoys Raymond's friend and is quick to refill Meursault's wine glass whenever it is empty.
By the time that coffee is being poured, Meursault describes himself as feeling "slightly muzzy," and he starts smoking one cigarette after another. The two couples and Raymond feel deep, empathetic rapport as they discuss spending the entire month of August on the beach together, sharing expenses.
One might think that after Meursault and his friends have spent time on the bus to the beach, swimming, napping, lunching, and discussing plans to summer in the bungalow during August, it must be mid-afternoon by now. It is not: Marie announces that it is only half-past eleven, which causes her to laugh again. And it is then that Masson proposes that the men take a stroll on the beach while the women clean up the luncheon dishes.
Leaving the house, Meursault first notices the sun, just as he first noticed it when he emerged from his apartment house in Algiers. This time, however, he describes it not as a fist smashing against him, but he comments on its glare; this, combined with the reflection from the water, sears his eyes, he says. By now, high noon is approaching, and Meursault sees shimmers of heat rising from the rocks, the beach deserted, and he tells us that one can hardly breathe.
While his attention is paralyzed by the heat of the sun, the glare from the sea, and the intoxicating effect of the wine, Raymond and Masson talk together, Meursault sensing that the two men have known each other for a long time. They walk by the water's edge, and, one more time, Meursault mentions the heat and glare on the sea as the sun "beats down" on his bare head. The effect is numbing. Meursault feels half-asleep.
A moment later, he notices two Arabs coming toward them from a long way down the beach. Raymond is immediately apprehensive, as is his nature, sure that one of the Arabs is his girl friend's brother. Meursault says nothing, as is his usual nature. Raymond is ready for a scuffle, planning to fight one Arab himself and the hefty Masson taking the other. Meursault is to stand by to help if another Arab appears. The sun broils on the two clusters of men approaching one another along the edge of the sea. And, besides the sun blazing from above them, below them the sand is "as hot as fire." Meursault swears that it is "glowing red."
The confrontation occurs when the men are only a few steps apart. Raymond steps forward and when one of the Arabs lowers his head, Raymond lashes out, shouting at Masson. Masson throws his appointed Arab into the sea, and Raymond, proud of punishing "his" already bleeding Arab, foolishly breaks for a moment to shout to Meursault that he "ain't finished yet," hoping to beat this Arab the same way that he did the Arab's sister. In that moment, the Arab reaches for his knife and slashes Raymond on the arm and on the mouth.
Frightened by Masson's hulking appearance, both Arabs begin to back away slowly, the knife held before them; when they are a distance from the Frenchmen, they begin to run.
Raymond seems to be wounded badly; blood is running from his arm, and when he tries to talk, blood bubbles from his mouth. By chance, however, once they are back at the bungalow, they discover that the wounds are not deep and that Raymond will be able to walk to a nearby doctor.
Masson accompanies Raymond, and Meursault is left behind with the women; Marie is quite pale and Mme. Masson is crying. Ostensibly, Meursault is left behind to guard the women and also to explain to them what has happened. It is difficult to imagine him as a proficient guard, and, as he admits, he doesn't say much about what has happened. He prefers to stare at the sea.
Raymond is unhappy when he returns, even though he has been assured by the doctor that his wounds are not serious, and he is emphatic when he says that he is going for a walk on the beach, that he wants to be alone, and that he wants no one to accompany him. In fact, he "flies into a rage." Meursault, however, as we have often seen; does as he pleases. He follows Raymond, despite Masson's objections.
It is approaching two o'clock now, and Meursault describes the afternoon as feeling like a furnace, the sunlight splintering into "flakes of fire" on the sand and on the sea. Meursault continues to follow Raymond, and Raymond continues to walk until he finds what he has been seeking — the two Arabs, who seem quite docile now, one staring without speaking, the other playing three notes on a little reed flute. This, then, is Camus' tableau: no one moving and no one speaking. All is hot sunlight and heavy silence, and the reed flute and a tinkling sound from a small stream. The scene seems almost idyllic.
Without warning, Raymond asks Meursault if he should shoot the girl's brother. Meursault explains to us that he says the first thing that comes into his head, which is usually what he has always done. This time, though, his answer is tempered, for he knows that Raymond's ire might well be responsible for a murder.
Meursault says it would be a "low-down trick" to shoot the Arab "in cold blood." Raymond is not to be so easily persuaded; he will say something sufficiently provocative that he will have a chance to gain revenge on the man who has maimed him. This was his same tactic with the girl; he wrote a note that so provoked her that he was able to further punish her.
Again, Meursault warns Raymond that he should not fire unless the Arab draws his knife, but Raymond is beginning to fidget. Both of the Arabs watch them, cautious and alert, revealing no emotion or movement, yet watching Raymond and Meursault all the time and observing Raymond's building excitement and Meursault's hesitancy. When Meursault asks for the gun, we instinctively feel that if Meursault has the gun, he will not use it. We are certain that Raymond needs little reason for using it.
The sun glints on the revolver. Again, as though it is a character in this drama of death, the sun asserts itself. Then all is silence and during the silence, Meursault comes to the conclusion that "one might fire, or not fire — " and it "would come to absolutely the same thing." Recall that when he was offered a position in the Paris office, his thoughts were similar: he "didn't care much one way or the other." When the subject of a "change of life" was introduced by his employer, he answered that "one life was as good as another," and that his present life suited him quite well. Later, when Marie asked him to marry her, he said he "didn't mind; if she was keen on it, [they would] get married." Meursault has been mesmerized by the heat into his former, almost total, indifference to matters at hand. Here he stands with a gun, able to kill another man, and he thinks, "it would come to absolutely the same thing." The situation has no meaning, no importance to him. The Arabs are not really men to Meursault; a death, a marriage, a move to Paris — nothing is of absolute importance to him.
Suddenly the Arabs vanish. So quickly do they accomplish this that it is as though they were like lizards, slipping under the cover of a rock. So, it would seem, ends the stand-off duel, and Raymond and Meursault turn and walk back, Raymond talking about taking the bus back to Algiers.
But while Raymond seems happier, Meursault has changed. The light thuds within his head and he feels that he hasn't the energy to walk up the steps to the bungalow. He stresses continuously that the heat is too great. He cannot move; it is "blinding light falling from the sky." And his recurring dilemma occurs again: "To stay, or to make a move — it came to much the same." He does not know what to do and it is purely by chance that his decision is not one that he has reasoned. He simply starts walking — returning to the beach. For no reason, with no stated intent, other than a vague recollection of the coolness behind the rock, a retreat from the fiery afternoon, he returns to the beach.
As he walks slowly ahead, there is a red glare as far as he can see, and he can hear small waves lapping at the hot sand. Meursault's temples are throbbing and he feels that the heat is trying to force him back, pressing on him, trying to check any progress that he might attempt to make. Hot blasts strike at him repeatedly as he grits his teeth and clenches his fist in defiance of a universe that he will not allow domination over him. Camus' description of Meursault's walk toward the beach becomes almost like that of a battle — Meursault pitted against the sun. He clenches his fists, he grits his teeth; blades of light shoot toward him from broken glass and shells. His jaw sets more firmly, more determinedly. We have never seen Meursault so intent, so purposelessly intent on accomplishing nothing other than reaching the cool stream. He is, very simply, defying a force that opposes him.
When he sees a small black hump of rock, he can think only of one thing — the cold, clear stream behind it and his longing to hear the tinkling of running water. His goal is finally definite: to be rid of the sun, the women in tears, and retrieve the cool silence behind the shadow of the rock. Someone else has done the same thing; the brother of Raymond's girl friend has reclaimed his spot behind the rock. Meursault had completely forgotten about the Arabs. Not once while he was staggering toward the rock had he thought about the Arabs; now Raymond's enemy has possessed the cool safety from the sun. Both men react immediately and naturally. Despite Meursault's weariness, one cannot say now that Meursault is totally indifferent to the Arab; this is mutual fear that we view, each of the men simultaneously reaching for their weapons when they encounter one another. Meursault grips Raymond's pistol in the pocket of his coat and the Arab's hand goes to the pocket of his coat, where he keeps his knife. To Meursault, the Arab, even though only ten yards away, is only a blurred, dark form, wobbling in the heat haze. At times, Meursault can see glimpses of the Arab's eyes, glowing against the sound of the waves and the weight of the molten sun.
A sense of the rational returns to Meursault. He has no quarrel with this Arab; their relationship seems an empty, meaningless one. But Meursault did write the letter; he has forgotten that fact as he thinks that all he need do is turn his body around, move his feet, and walk away and think no more about the Arab. But he cannot. He feels the sun pulsing within the sand beneath his feet, pressing up the length of his body, and, instead of turning, Meursault moves toward the stream and toward the Arab. The heat scorches his cheeks and sweat gathers in his eyebrows; this heat is akin to the smothering heat during his mother's funeral. Then, as now, especially in Meursault's forehead, he feels as though he cannot bear for another instant the heaviness of the sun; a moment more and his veins will burst through the skin. He takes a step forward, and, at that moment, the Arab draws his knife, holding it up, causing the sun to travel the length of the blade and "pierce" Meursault's forehead, transfixing him. Sweat splashes down his eyelids, veiling his eyes with salty brine. Meursault is conscious of nothing except the sun on his skull and the blade of knife-light, "slicing" into his eyeballs.
He begins to reel as he describes the fiery gust that comes from the sea, the sky cracking in two and a great sheet of flame "pouring down." Meursault tells us that at that moment "the trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm." Reality, at this point, has vanished for Meursault. There is no conscious gripping the trigger, aiming and firing; the trigger "gave way" and, as it were, the gun fired and Meursault heard a "crisp, whipcrack sound." He does not tell us that he saw the Arab's body fall; he does not tell us much more at all, only that he fired four more shots into the dead body and yet could see no visible trace of the bullets entering the body. We have witnessed a murder. There is a dead body which Meursault continues to fire into, yet there seems to be no evidence of a murder, no visible signs of a murder.
The chapter ends with the emphasis not so much on the murder of the Arab but on Meursault's return to consciousness. He is aware that he has committed an act that is of prime importance. For once in his life, which heretofore had been assembled of meaningless acts, he has acted so definitely that the consequences will not be meaningless, will matter one way or another. He knows, he says, that he has destroyed the "balance of the day." Until Meursault composed the letter for Raymond, he simply lived; nothing very exciting ever happened to him; days began and days ended and these days added up into monotonous years. This was not so following the letter and the beating of the Arab girl. The Arabs have a natural resentment for their French colonial invaders and a human desire for revenge. Meursault, by chance, by "having no objection," became involved in Raymond's emotional escapades and, by chance, murders the man who once stalked Raymond.
Meursault is jolted, knowing that he has desecrated the calm of the beach on which he had been so happy. It is then that he fires four more shots into the dead Arab, knowing that each successive shot is undoing a life of rhythmic drifting. He is creating for himself his own "undoing," as he puts it. The cymbals of the sun clashing inside his head have climaxed a former life that drifted toward an uncertain death. Now he faces a life directed toward a certain death.