“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” Albert Camus allegedly quipped (Schwartz 42). Granted, this aphorism is likely a misattribution, but it begs the same existential questions which are central to the writer’s philosophical and literary endeavors: is there any real meaning behind the actions people take? By extension, is there meaning in living at all? Most crucially of all, how should people confront a purposeless existence? These inquiries are just a few which Camus puts forward in his ponderous novel, The Stranger, through the complex development of Meursault. As his contradictory worldview clashes with arbitrary societal standards, Meursault is thrown in the midst of existential futility, ultimately finding a profound harmony with the universe through an honest confrontation with his absurdity.
Though from the outset Meursault speaks in the tongues of a nihilist, in reality, he contradicts his words by living a subjectively meaningful life. Meursault is characterized by his passive tone, demonstrated in the first paragraph: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know… That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday” (Camus 3). Here he asserts that neither reality actually matters. He seems to share this sentiment regarding every circumstance, as he demonstrates when saying that he has no reason not to befriend Raymond, or that ambition is meaningless because “people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another” (Camus 29, 41). Even the prospect of marrying Marie “didn’t make any difference” to him (Camus 41). Meursault, believing that one circumstance could easily be replaced by any other without any meaning being added or subtracted, seems to engage with the world in a way that is direct, without expectation, and, in that way, honest. It is tempting, given that information, to label him a nihilist. In a nihilistic fashion, Meursault dismisses ideas of any existential purpose which would render life worth living. But there is an inconsistency in that line of thought. If he truly felt that the world was absolutely meaningless, then how could he continue to derive happiness from it? How could he explain why he “wanted Marie so bad when [he] saw her in that pretty red-and-white striped dress and leather sandals,” or how he “felt a closeness as [they] swam in unison and were happy” (Camus 34, 50). This is the absurdity of Meursault: he proclaims that existence has no purpose, yet, in continuing to live it, he unconsciously places a subjective meaning upon it. He understands the futility resulting from the ephemerality of his actions, yet without knowing it he transcends nihilism by deriving satisfaction from the world anyway. In a Camusian sense, he lives in rebellion to meaninglessness. But, for most of the novel, Meursault, having “lost the habit of analyzing [himself],” shows no sign that he is aware of this absurd dance (65). Rather, he is content to say that everything is meaningless, even if the very act of making that statement negates it.
Some may argue that the notion that Meursault, a seemingly thoughtless and self-centered person, is rebelling against the world would be an exaggeration. It could be said that rather than resisting, he is conforming. Meursault’s dull language in describing his morning routines and his indifferent compliance with Raymond’s morally questionable requests both provide a strong argument for this. Yet painting him in this mechanical light would be an oversimplification. As he trudges down the beach blinded by the sun, Meursault says, “For two hours the day stood still; for two hours it had been anchored in a sea of molten lead” (58). This lyrical intricacy alone refutes any notion that he is unthoughtful. But it is the following confrontation which solidifies his status as an absurd rebel. He writes, “The sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried Maman… my forehead was especially hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward… the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel… I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave… Then I fired four more times” (Camus 59).Here the jarring light symbolizes of the oppressive futility and meaninglessness of Meursault’s existence. Yet simply out of spite for the sun, he moves forward, rebelling against its cruelty. Were he a conformist, he would simply give in to the heat, ceasing to make that determined movement of the living and remaining still as the universe devoured him. Instead, he moves forward because of it, paralleling his own vain pursuit of desire despite the oppressive fleetingness behind it. It is life’s conspiracy of circumstance, one which did not ask Meursault’s opinion, which puts him on that beach in the first place, and the very same which pulls the trigger. He could have easily been born into a different life where he would never have encountered the Arab or written that letter for Raymond. But it is his contrariness, his spiteful desire to assert his own will within his unchosen life, that prompts him to shoot those last four bullets.
However, his act of rebellion would ultimately prove to be his death. By asserting his selfdom in the existential void, Meursault finds himself in direct opposition to society. Walking into the courtroom, he already begins to feel that he is “a kind of intruder” standing apart from all the critical faces which surround him (Camus 84). He is condemned, among other things, for having a cup of coffee by his mother’s casket, going swimming the day after her funeral, and seeing a comedy with Marie (Camus 90, 94). Seldom is the murder he committed even mentioned in the trial. Rather, he is judged by whether he buried his mother according to prevailing societal standards, whether he is a human being as defined by conformity or “an abyss threatening to swallow up society” with his indifference towards the superficialities the prosecutor lays out (Camus 101). Pondering his death sentence, Meursault unfolds its arbitrariness as follows: “I just couldn’t accept such arrogant certainty… there really was something ridiculously out of proportion between the verdict such certainty was based on and the imperturbable march of events from the moment the verdict was announced… the fact that it had been handed down in the name of some vague notion called the French (or German, or Chinese) people—all of it seemed to detract from the seriousness of the decision” (Camus 109). He seems to question what authority this hivemind of social conformity has to condemn him to death. They live by concepts like the soul, justice, or the French people, yet they fail to realize just how broad and unsubstantive these ideas are. What is this soul which the prosecutor so ardently insists Meursault is devoid of (Camus 101)? What does the judge mean by handing Meursault his verdict in the “spirit of justice” (Camus 86)? An answer is never given. In a sense, by condemning Meursault, the jurors hide from themselves. They live in the comforting illusion that vague principles give their actions some meaning beyond themselves, that they have some control over the world and that those who fail to abide by their standards are doing so out of their own choice. Meursault is incompatible with society because he is one step ahead of it. He does not delude himself by hiding from meaninglessness. He admits it. He lives within it. This is why he must die: because he sees the world’s true nature.
From the outset, Meursault sees that life is meaningless, but only near his end does he finally understand the place that he weaves for himself within that existence. Forced to face impending doom, he finds himself trapped. He writes, “hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like mad… nothing was going to allow me such a luxury. Everything was against it; I would just be caught up in the machinery again” (Camus 109). Though in a more direct sense he is referring to what he characterizes as the “machinery of justice,” he could just as well be talking about that of the universe (Camus 108). Like a machine, the world is impersonal, unconcerned with whether Meursault is happy or miserable, whether he is a murderer or a moralist. It will condemn him to the same fate regardless: death. There is no escape. Because of death, everything he does is futile. Yet in the face of this reality, he finds himself most alive. Launching into a tirade against the priest who insists that he confess before God and retreat into the delusion of certainty, Meursault says, “I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy… none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head… But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me… at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right… Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why… Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future… and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living” (120-121). In these death throes of passion, Meursault finally comes to terms with his absurd life. Amidst a swarm of futility where the only certainty is death, he lives in contradiction. He lives within a universe where he is a dwindling speck, but he still lives! The lust with which he pursues Marie, the spite with which he marches forward under the sun’s oppressive heat, the passion with which he condemns the priest, and the absurd spite with which he fires those four useless shots all come together as Meursault confronts himself honestly, in his purest form as a contradictory fragment of the universe. It is not just the “gentle indifference of the world” that brings him peace in the end; it is the knowledge that he has seen it and he is within it, that in every moment when he lives in contradiction to it, he confronts it (Camus 122). From the “cries of hate” which will follow him to his doom, he will know that he alone has seen the mystical and purposeless beauty which comprises life and that he alone can derive joy from it (Camus 123). Though his struggle is mired by inevitable defeat, Meursault strides to his death in triumph: he has made what is altogether meaningless meaningful and satisfying to him.
From the beginning, Meursault is in rebellion to nihilism, yet it is only through his condemnation by the false certainty of society that he learns to see beyond it and find purpose in his futility. With every action, he asserts his ability to act. With all four shots, he asserts his ability to shoot. A society which deludes itself into ignoring its contrariness may lock Meursault in a cell, but it cannot take away that absurd freedom which he finally sees near his end. So should he kill himself, or have a cup of coffee? Albert Camus would tell him to have a cup of coffee. Black, without sugar.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Translated by Matthew Ward, Random House, 1989.
Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. HarperCollins e-Books, 2016, Virginia Commonwealth University, wp.vcu.edu/univ200choice/wp-content/uploads/sites/5337/2015/01/The-Paradox-of-Choice-Barry-Schwartz.pdf.