A common theme of modern literature is criticism of the structure of society. The aspect of society most examined in Albert Camus’ The Stranger is justice. Monsieur Meursault, the protagonist, is a character who places no importance on morals and the contrast between right and wrong. This is what influences him to do things such as restrain himself from feeling great sadness at his mother’s funeral and help his neighbor, Raymond Sintes, in beating his ex-mistress because he suspects her of engaging in relations with other men. While it may seem that both of these are relatively selfish acts on Meursault’s part, it becomes clear that the world that surrounds him does not teach him otherwise. Thus, it is apparent that the court, which represents the moral values and ideas of justice of society, refuses to accept the result of the apathy and fear that it enforces when it sentencing Meursault to be hung for the murder that he accidently commits, and, in doing so, declares its bigoted, ignorant and one-sided ideas as superior to all others.
The first idea to consider is why the court chooses the verdict it does for Meursault. This reason is clearly apparent when, after questioning Meursault about how he behaved during and in the short time after his mother’s funeral, the prosecutor accuses Meursault of “behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart” (Camus 122). This statement, in itself, is reflective of how closed-minded society is. A criminal is defined as “somebody acting illegally” (Microsoft). While Meursault may have been acting in a way contradictory to general societal morals by seeming relatively undisturbed by his mother’s death, he did absolutely nothing illegal until he killed the Arab on the beach. Already, the fact that the prosecutor is using this as one of his main arguments, it is apparent that this is the likely reason Meursault is sentenced to death: society has a preconceived notion that their basic morals of emotion are correct, and anybody thinking anything otherwise is a criminal.
The unfortunate fact that accompanies this is that even those who aim to help him in the court, especially the magistrate, end up trying to convince him that his ideas are wrong. In Meursault’s first conversation with him, the magistrate brings up the topic of God. In reference to Meursault’s claim that he does not believe in God, he says, “That was unthinkable… all men believe in God, even those who reject Him” (Camus 86). He precedes this by stating that, while Meursault might have committed a crime which was not forgivable in life, true forgiveness lies in the hand of God, and the judgment placed by him upon a person. This is where it is possible to derive the idea that the magistrate is trying to help Meursault. Ordinarily, the magistrate would just be the one organizing the preliminary hearing, meaning that he wouldn’t generally have any bias against Meursault. This is apparent in the fact that the accusatory terms in which the prosecutor, who is obviously against Meursault, addresses him, clearly portray the idea that the prosecutor does not believe that Meursault can be redeemed from his crimes, both physical and metaphorical, on any level. Thus, it seems that the magistrate has Meursault’s interests in mind, until he declares his way of thinking to be false. Thus, once again, he adopts the view of society that there are only one set of righteous morals, and becomes biased against Meursault in his own way. He, even as a relatively minor character in the actual trial, rigs the case against Meursault.
The true irony of the situation, though, is not realized by the actual members of the court, who don’t personally know Meursault, but rather by the witnesses who testify against him. In specific, there are two who represent this irony: the warden from the Home where Meursault sent his mother, and Thomas Pérez, Meursault’s mother’s friend. The warden starts presenting his evidence by speaking against Meursault. He tells how Meursault “declined to see [his] Mother’s body… smoked cigarettes and slept, and drunk café au lait” (Camus 112). However, as his questioning progresses, his view of Meursault begins to change. Meursault defends him by confirming that he did offer the warden a cigarette, preventing the warden from being excused of lying under oath. This leads the warden to state that he did offer Meursault coffee, and thus reconcile part of the accusation made against him. The significance of this is that the warden realizes that Meursault’s seeming apathy and lack of emphasis on emotion helps others in his life as well. He realizes that, despite society’s view that this apathy is immoral and destructive of moral values, Meursault’s philosophy is more efficient, productive and progressive than the one generally held by society. The same thing is realized by Thomas Pérez after Meursault’s lawyer asks him whether he can “swear [he] saw [Meursault] didn’t shed a tear” (Camus 114), and Pérez says no. The real importance of this is that the justice given to Meursault by the court doesn’t represent the beliefs of those who actually know him and understand his philosophy, but rather those of an entity which is intrinsically separated from him and unable to recognize other points of view.
The clear inference that this argument brings about is that the ruling of the court is, essentially, wrong. Of course, this is recognized by Meursault’s lawyer, who brings up the point that essentially describes the necessary component visible in Meursault’s philosophy that isn’t in that of the court and society as a whole. He says, “I may see that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book” (Camus 131). Generally, this is simply interpreted as a lead-in to the rest of his speech, which focuses on Meursault’s positive aspects, such as his kindness and sympathy. However, another way it can be interpreted is that this is a description of Meursault as being open and accepting of new ideas. This absolutely does not mean that he necessarily adopts all ideas as his own, as this is refuted by the fact that he refuses to believe in God despite the magistrate’s insistence. On the other hand, it means that he is not closed minded in his thinking, as the court, and thus society are. His idea of justice is very open, and is highly based on individual situations rather than a preset set of morals. This is the system which the court should adjust its idea of justice to: one that does not discriminate without considering situation and background.
Meursault suffers from discrimination of philosophy in a society which has a justice system that refuses to accept a system which is more efficient and sympathetic towards others than itself, and thus passes a verdict on him that is both unfair and closed-minded towards differences. The interesting thing to consider knowing this is why it is possible or appropriate for this argument to be made by someone in our society. Has the problem described here changed since the 1940s, when The Stranger was written, or does today’s society have the same problem that Meursault faces? To a degree, it seems apparent that this hasn’t changed. For example, conservatives in the US Congress today promoted a world in which everyone seemed successful, such as through George Bush’s statement that everyone should have a house. However, this resulted in a housing bubble which resulted in a great recession. Yet these same conservatives are unwilling to take responsibility for what they did and make the changes necessary to prevent it from happening in the future. This is just like what has happened to Meursault. The world around him has taught him to behave in one way, and never told him otherwise, yet now he has to suffer consequences for following it. This brings about the final question. Is it really possible for an entire society or group to adopt Meursault’s mentality? How would having a moral system that is open and accepting like Meursault’s change society for better or for worse?
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Random House, 1946. Print.
Microsoft Corporation. “Criminal Definition.” Bing Dictionary. Microsoft Corporation, 2009. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.