Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapter V


At the beginning of this chapter, Meursault very briefly notes that he has refused to see the prison chaplain for the third time; then he dismisses the subject as quickly as he dismissed the chaplain and turns to another subject. He speaks of hope. There has been an element of hope within him despite his knowledge that death is a soon certainty, and caught between his hope for life and his certainty of death, Meursault's thoughts have become wild and random. He grasps for the impossible: freedom must be possible, he thinks, if for no other reason than that of chance. (Remember that chance is largely responsible for his being in prison.) He remarks that had he just once read an escape story and discovered at least one instance in which chance saved a man from execution, he would be satisfied. But he cannot cling to hope for long, and so these paragraphs of doubt and hope counterpoint one another. As soon as Meursault envisions the possibility of escape, he confronts himself with the fact that he is caught in "a rattrap, irrevocably." The ebb and flow of his contrasting emotions are evocative of the movement of the sea, yet they resemble more the intake and gasping for breath of a drowning man.

Even one of Meursault's former consolations is of little comfort to him now. Earlier, Meursault imagined being imprisoned within a tree, able to see only a piece of sky; in his new cell, he can, in fact, see nothing but the sky, but circumstances have changed. His punishment now is not mere imprisonment. Here he must face not an endless punishment; he must cope every morning with the fear of hearing footsteps, the prelude to his beheading. Prisoners in Algiers are never told when they are to be executed; thus Meursault has no opportunity to adjust for an eternity of punishment as, for example, Sisyphus had.

These desperate moments of hope, of escape, flow through a mind that cannot fathom fully, with certitude, that this imprisonment, this waiting to be killed, is happening to him — a nobody of a person, a clerk, a man who has asked nothing from life other than a few pleasures and that he be left alone. It is probably impossible for Meursault, as it would be for any man, to fully realize death's nothingness. For this reason, Meursault's imagination is released and allowed free rein to comfort him. Formerly, imagination was of no use to Meursault. His life consisted of whatever was occurring to him at any given moment. His current "present" however is unbearable and so he must find an alternative, another way of existing, moment to moment, as he awaits the certain, yet unknown, dawn when he will be led to the guillotine.

Even Meursault's imagination fails, though, for the most part, because he is basically a practical man. He cannot even romanticize that he will ascend majestically a flight of stair steps above a crowd of people awaiting his beheading. He remembers, oddly, in this chapter, some old, philosophical homilies his mother used to tell him, but because he has always lived without much forethought or hindsight, his agony is scarcely relieved by remembering his mother's platitudes. Clearly, Meursault is able to measure his own degree of panic. He is frightened and repelled by his thoughts of dying, and he realizes at the same time how absurd such panic is. Humans must eventually die, and, in addition, the world will continue-without humanity, and certainly without Meursault.

It is interesting that Meursault refuses "to play the game" by seeing the chaplain, confessing his sins, and asking for prayers and consolation. Yet he allows his imagination to play a game with chance and possibility. At the same time, he keeps, with effort, some control on his thoughts, for he knows that his execution is probably inevitable. But is there an alternative? Perhaps he can appeal, successfully. He sustains himself by thinking, constantly thinking: if he is able to maintain control over his thoughts, he can gain some semblance of peace of mind.

But his peace of mind, even if achieved, is brief. His thoughts return too quickly to a familiar groove — to Marie — and he considers her feelings about being labeled the mistress of a man who murdered another man; she is the mistress of a man who is sentenced to die. He wonders about her. She is alive now. If she were to die, her memories of Meursault die also. And, if she is dead, and once Meursault is dead, he will be absolutely forgotten. No trace of him will remain, even in a memory.

When the prison chaplain walks in, unannounced, Meursault's shock is evident. He has been caught off guard: he has been caught thinking. One senses that Meursault has been surprised when he is naked; he is vulnerable, for normally he clothes himself in indifference, passivity, or physical activity.

Meursault describes the chaplain's behavior as an attempt to be friendly, and he describes the chaplain himself as a mild, amiable man. Knowing that the chaplain has not come to offer last words, the quiet within the cell allows Meursault to drift outside himself, observing the chaplain's eyes, his knees, and his sinewy hands. Meursault is a master at this kind of observation, admitting that for a while he almost forgets that the chaplain is there, a live human being, sitting on Meursault's bed. Like the examining magistrate, the chaplain cannot accept Meursault's statement that God does not exist; he has come to Meursault's cell to assure him that his doubts about God are too certain and, therefore, might be wrong. When he questions Meursault about a belief being too thorough and the possibility that the reverse is true, Meursault answers that the chaplain may be right, but, most of all, Meursault is sure that he is not interested in discussing God.

The chaplain is unwilling to accept Meursault's lack of spiritual interest, saying that Meursault's feelings are fostered because of desperation, which, we realize, is most unlikely. Meursault feels fear, not desperation; in fact, he lacks the time to even begin a discussion about God because any discussion of God would involve sin and guilt, and, although Meursault has been pronounced guilty, he emphatically does not accept that guilt. He also refuses to be consoled with the chaplain's observation that "all men are under a sentence of death." Meursault has already considered this notion himself and it is futile to philosophize about "death" and "all men." Meursault is undaunted by the chaplain's standing suddenly and sternly staring him in the eyes; it is, he says, a trick he himself has played.

Meursault drifts away as the chaplain laments about the suffering of a man who does not believe in an afterlife; he is roused only when the chaplain becomes so agitated that he professes a belief in the possibility that Meursault's appeal will succeed. Meursault is convinced that he has not sinned: a man of God has no business in his cell. He committed a criminal offense, not a sin, and God's laws should have no dimension in civil matters. He may be guilty of a civil offense, but he is not guilty of sinning. Meursault is incapable of imagining the face of God on the stone walls, as the chaplain suggests. He wants only to conjure, before him, Marie's face, "sun-gold, lit up with desire."

Like the examining magistrate, the formerly "mild, amiable" man is metamorphosed into a madman, swinging around and crying out in defiance against Meursault's staunch refusal to believe in an afterlife.

In contrast, Meursault is calm and bored; of course he knows that one might wish, perhaps at times, for an afterlife, but such wishes are a waste of time. Humanity cannot change death's being an eternal void.

Meursault's request that the chaplain leave is not granted. The man is determined to squeeze out of Meursault some piece of his humanity that must be spiritual — which, in a sense, he does manage to accomplish. Meursault's imagination can picture an afterlife, but only an afterlife in which he can remember this life on earth. For Meursault, a spiritual existence is absolutely impossible unless it consists of a mind, residing in eternity, and doing one thing: remembering the pleasure of a man's former, physical life. Meursault has no use for any spiritual "present" moments in a vaporous spiritual world. Meursault is an active, physical man, and the constant memory of such things as swimming and sex is the only kind of an afterlife possible for him.

When the chaplain begins to pray, Meursault is transformed into a madman himself, yelling, hurling insults, and grabbing the chaplain by the neck band of his cassock. He is desperate; he has precious few moments left to him and yet he is still being punished, even now, by a man who wants to be called Father and who wants to pray for his "son." Meursault describes his joy and rage as he attacks the certainty of the chaplain's beliefs; none of this man's spiritual certainties is comparable to a physical strand of a woman's hair. The only certainty important at this moment is the surety of Meursault's pending death, and his mind reels as his hands tighten on the chaplain. Meursault is so wrought with rage that several jailers finally have to rescue the chaplain.

Afterward, in the calm of the night, Meursault is able to fall asleep, until just before daybreak; then he is flooded by smells and sounds, physical responses during what he fears might be his last moments on earth. The sound of a steamer reminds him of his anonymity; not a single person on the boat knows or cares about Meursault's fate, and it is at that moment that he understands the odd behavior of his mother as she approached death. She succumbed to a game of sorts, playing as though she were young once more, delighting in the interest that Old Pérez offered to her. Pérez cared.

Meursault realizes that his mother rebelled against dying. She "played" at beginning again. Likewise, so will Meursault. At last he is drained. He is emptied of all hope. And he is free. He can face the universe, alone — without fearing any man or any god. The "benign indifference" of the universe is no threat to him. He is, at last, able to defy everything and everybody because he has gained the knowledge that his indifference is akin to that of the universe. He is not to be pitied because he is a victim of a prejudiced jury. He has determined his own value to himself and, in addition, has realized an entirely new sense of self value: he knows how deeply his indifference and disbelief disturb society. One must "play the game" if he is to live within society. But in order to do this, one must give up being absolutely true to himself and acting according to his conscience. Society cannot afford to harbor strangers or outsiders who live by other rules. Society demands obedience. Meursault cannot be subservient to the emotional mores of the Algerian masses. Meursault's truth is his only companion, and he will die, defending his right not to cry at his mother's funeral and his right not to profess a belief in God. What good is it to attempt tears or swear beliefs in the name of truth when they would be melodramatically fraudulent?

Meursault has confronted the absurdity of his life and of life itself. In Part One, he lived without pausing to consider the meaning of his present moments, his past, or his future. He was either satisfied, or content, or bored. He placed no emphasis on his life's significance. Now, he realizes that the universe and most of the world are indifferent to his fate. So he will play the game of the Absurd; he himself will live as long as he can, giving his life his meaning, even though he knows that ultimately, it has no meaning. He will watch and measure his life's meaning as he faces what he hopes to be a howling mob. If he is so hated and such a threat to that mob of people, he will be able to laugh at their fear of him. He does not fear their hatred. He can determine the extent of his importance by measuring how thoroughly he is a threat to them. Meursault can imagine dying, enjoying the absurdity of his rejection. The crowd that howls for his blood are not free; they have not been forced to question their existence. They are governed and bound by secular and sacred laws that Meursault will not accept. He realizes that nothing — no value — is lasting or eternal. His former indifference was mute; now he can articulate and justify his new indifference and, with this insight, attain ecstatic peace.

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