Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Chapter II
Chapter I of Part Two focused on Meursault's changing relationship with the magistrate and with the lawyer, and with his own attitude toward himself during the eleven months of the legal conferences. Chapter II takes those same eleven months and reveals what Meursault did when he was not being interrogated. It focuses on his day-to-day living while in prison. In addition, it illuminates various comments made by Meursault in Chapter I. For example, Meursault said that at times, he felt as though he and the examining magistrate were playing games. Here, he says that despite not wanting to talk about some things that happened, he has decided to recount them. The first that he mentions concerns his sense of unreality. During his early days in prison, he could not comprehend that he was actually being held prisoner. He was hardly conscious of what had happened, and that prison was the result of an act that he performed. He had a childlike hope that something would happen, something agreeable and surprising.
Now, matters have changed, and Meursault can pinpoint when he lost his reluctance to talk about what happened to him in prison. The change occurred when he received a letter from Marie stating that she would not be able to visit him anymore. She had come to see him only once. But because they were not married, she was denied a wife's privilege. It was on that day, Meursault tells us, that he realized that his cell was his "last home," and, as he puts it, "a dead end."
When he was first arrested, he was taken to a large room filled mostly with Arabs — that is, natives. Meursault is a Frenchman, one of the occupiers of the Algerian colony. It is not surprising that the natives are reluctant to say much to him when he tells them that he has killed an Arab. Afterward, he recounts being put in a small cell with a little window, through which he has glimpses of the sea. He is denied all but a single visitation from Marie, and he is teased by glimpses of the sea he loves to swim in, where he can see sunlight playing on the waves. Here, Camus shows us the ever-present dual role of the sun: at times, it is murderous, and at others it is warming and playful.
Meursault describes his new surroundings almost clinically, detailing the flights of steps, the room, the windows, the grilles, the thirty feet of "no man's land" between the prisoners and their visitors. There, he must face Marie and raise his voice in order for her to hear him. This is a vastly different world for Meursault. Formerly, he spoke only rarely; now, he must raise his voice among the voices of Arab natives.
And even here, he cannot escape the torture of the white, glaring sunlight covering the two groups of desperate people, trying to be heard above the other voices, battling for one another's messages under the sunlight that floods the stark room.
Meursault admits that, at first, he felt dizzy, for his cell had been very dark and very silent. Then he was thrust into a world of panic, harshly lit, and peopled with murmurs and whispers of Arabs. For some time, he could not say anything of importance. The reality of prison was beginning to tighten. Marie was pressed against bars, looking pretty, and Meursault wanted to tell her so, give her a simple compliment, yet he was too embarrassed to say so, surrounded by the Arabs. Likewise, Marie's questions are commonplace; she wonders if he is all right and if he has everything he wants. Not only are the questions commonplace; they are ridiculous. Yet he answers affirmatively and quickly. The two become even more separated when the Arabs closest to them begin to interrupt them and comment about their own troubles, and Marie shouts that Raymond sends greetings. Meursault's thanks are drowned by the voice of the man next to him.
Meursault desires so much to be free now, to be able to embrace Marie, despite this sea of confusion, to feel her body through her thin dress. She assures him that he will be acquitted and that they will go swimming together again, and says that he must not give up hope. But as one reads of the chaotic shouting and of the drone of the Arabs among themselves, we know that Meursault can have little hope. Even the light outside the window seems to become evil, smearing the faces of the people with a coat of yellowish oil. He feels sick, yet he wants to remain and absorb as much as he can of a single moment of Marie's presence. She continues to smile and talk about her work, and all of Meursault's attention is on her and not on what she is saying. Then he is led away, leaving Marie pressed to the rails, trying to smile.
With Marie's first letter comes Meursault's sharp realization that he must, to keep his sanity, stop thinking like a free man. All of his life he has yielded to impulses; we saw this clearly in Part One of the novel. Now he can no longer go down to the beach for a swim in order to feel the cold water against his body after a hot day at the office. This is no game. He is locked within a narrow cell. This phase of being reminded that he is no longer a free man lasts for a few months only, he says. Then another change occurs.
Meursault began having a "prisoner's" thoughts. Being no longer free to do what he wishes to do on impulse, he looks forward to the few things that he is allowed to do: small ventures, such as a daily walk in the courtyard of the prison or even a visit from his lawyer become of prime importance. His adjustment pleases him, even though it also surprises him. He likens his imprisonment to being held within the trunk of a tree and being able to see only a patch of sky. Even tortured by that, he is sure that he can adjust. He imagines that if such were the case, he would find pleasure in watching for the passing of birds overhead or watching for drifting clouds.
Camus' comments in his Myth of Sisyphus are pertinent to Meursault's comments here. Although condemned to rolling an enormous boulder up a hill, only to watch it tumble back down, Sisyphus adjusted. His mind was his own, although his body was forced to repeat again and again, throughout eternity, the same action. Camus says that when one begins to realize a sense of the absurd, he places a great value on "a single impression, like Proust lingering over the scent of a rose." This is step one: valuing the depth of a single sensation, adjusting to the intoxication of a new lucidity. Here, Meursault is newly aware that if it were possible to claim only a scrap of sky for himself, he could be satisfied. He could define that sky and those moments as absolutes and be content with them. Later, Meursault will change because Camus goes one step further: the absurd man will, finally, abandon single moments, single sensations, and limited visions. He will see the need of "accumulating as many as possible." Yet, for the present, Meursault is excited that he can envision being satisfied with a single patch of sky. It would be reason enough for him to rebel and transcend his punishment. Humanity has always looked to the heavens for help; and Meursault would be sustained by a corner of the sky for it would infuse within him a desire to continue to live. Death is an absolute end, and as long as Meursault had his portion of sky (or, as in reality, his sliver of sea), he has hope, a new awareness of life, and the knowledge that he has the strength to struggle against an incomprehensible court and, ultimately, an incomprehensible world.
Meursault also realizes that, simply, matters could be worse. At least, he is not, literally, bound within the trunk of a tree. He does have the freedom of his narrow cell and the anticipation of wondering what kind of odd necktie his lawyer will appear in next, and it is during these thoughts that he remembers the words of his dead mother. She was frequently saying that "in the long run, one gets used to anything." This is Meursault's first thoughts of his mother that have been positive and not associated in some way with her death or her funeral.
Sex — the lack of it — bothers Meursault, but he has memories of the many women he has had sex with and can fill his small cell with their faces. Although it may seem a torment to realize that he is no longer free to have sex when he pleases, his memories serve to blot out boredom and time.
Meursault also misses smoking. Cigarettes are forbidden and he tells us that that particular deprivation was "what got me down the most," describing tearing off splinters from his plank bed and sucking on them. He describes in detail the physical symptoms of withdrawal, the feeling of faintness and the biliousness that was constantly with him. He cannot understand why he is not allowed to smoke. It is only when he realizes, again, that he is a prisoner that he understands. He is a prisoner and a prisoner is a person who is being punished. His punishment is a denial of women and cigarettes. But Meursault almost smiles as he admits that when this revelation comes to him, he had lost the craving for cigarettes, so the authorities who denied him cigarettes were no longer able to punish him.
He confesses to being not absolutely unhappy. He quickly learns the trick of defeating boredom by exercising his memory, recounting his apartment's bedroom, for instance, and visualizing every single object in every detail — tiny dents in the woodwork, chipped edges, the exact grain and color of the woodwork. All of these things he had never noticed before. They had simply existed, as he had simply existed. He was as unaware of their importance as they were unaware of him.
He discovers that the more he remembers, the more he is able to remember and concludes that even after a single day's experience in the outside world, if a man were imprisoned for the rest of his life, if he could recall, in the minutest detail, everything about that day, he could fill all his time with memory and not be defeated by boredom. This is compensation, he says. It is also more; it is a victory over the system that hopes to stifle hope and humanity. By remembering, Meursault discovers again a world that did not exist when he lived in it. Now it has come alive for him, but this miracle of sorts was only possible because he is not allowed to live in it.
In addition, Meursault sleeps, and sleep can also blot out the monotony of time. Meursault sleeps so well, in fact, that he has only six hours to fill with memories and fantasies.
He then stops telling of how he spent his time during those eleven months and describes an incident when, one day, while he was inspecting his straw mattress, he found a bit of yellowed newspaper stuck on the underside. Part of the paper is missing, but the newspaper contains the story of a crime, committed in a village in Czechoslovakia. The story is a short one, one in fact that Camus later enlarged into a play, The Misunderstanding. The play recounts the story of a young man who leaves home, makes a fortune, and after twenty-five years returns, hoping to surprise his mother and sister. The two women manage an inn and murder their guest during the night for his money. When the dead man's wife explains what has happened, the mother hangs herself and the sister throws herself into a well. The story intrigues Meursault; he says that he read and re-read the story thousands of times, determining finally that perhaps one shouldn't play tricks of that sort. Perhaps one, indeed, should not play tricks, even tricks that include writing vicious letters that lead to brawls and, in Meursault's case, a murder.
The Misunderstanding was first produced in 1944, several years following the publication of The Stranger. Obviously, Camus was very much intrigued with the irony of a mother and a daughter murdering a rich stranger, who, by chance, is their son and brother. The women, it is assumed, have probably murdered other rich strangers who have come to their inn; this particular guest, being alone in the inn, is an easy victim. Thus, as readers, we are confronted with another murder — a murder of, presumably, a stranger. Unlike Meursault, however, the mother and daughter kill themselves in fits of madness and guilt when they discover the identity of the dead man, whereas, in contrast, Meursault does not fully comprehend his own murder of a stranger.
Camus also teases us with yet another murder and with the philosophical question as to whether or not it makes any difference whether one kills a stranger or, in this case, a son and a brother. Even the title of Camus' play, based on this short tale is ironic. Murder can under no circumstance ever be excused as the result of a mere misunderstanding. In the next chapter, Meursault's old friend Céleste will defend Meursault by saying that the murder of the Arab was just an accident, a stroke of bad luck. Likewise, Raymond will defend Meursault by stating that "chance" and "mere coincidence" are to blame. Such statements are true, but are they reason enough to excuse a man for taking another man's life and then firing four additional bullets into the dead corpse? And, in turn, we must ask ourselves if the murderer must pay with his life and be murdered for "the good of society" by the state.
From a former existence of living only for present moments, as a prisoner Meursault is able to comprehend only yesterday and tomorrow with meaning. When the jailer informs him that he has been six months in jail, the words have no meaning; they convey nothing to him. He studies his face in his little tin pannikin to see if he has changed, holding it at various angles, but his face always has the same mournful, tense expression. Watching the sun setting, he hears his voice and realizes that lately he has been talking to himself; he has been unaware that this has been happening. A free man cannot, Meursault says, imagine what evenings are like in prison.
In this new world, where freedom does not exist, time becomes of prime importance for Meursault because it seems endless. The uniformity is unrelieved until Meursault discovers that he can challenge his punishment with memory, with sleep, and the intriguing re-creation in his mind of the account of the murder in the scrap of newspaper clipping. Thus he "murders" time in order to retain a semi-sense of life. Inside the walls of his cell, Meursault is, literally, an outsider, a stranger to society (The Outsider, interestingly, is the British title of this novel). Yet, it is only within his cell that Meursault learns for the first time to fathom that life is valuable and that it can have quality.