The Stranger

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The Stranger Book 1, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Meursault receives a telegram from the old person's home in Marengo, outside Algiers, informing him that his mother has died and that the funeral is the next day. Meursault asks for two days off work (which his boss reluctantly grants) and arranges to borrow a funeral suit from his coworker, Emmanuel. During lunch at his regular restaurant, Céleste, the owner, and the other diners all feel "very sorry" for Meursault, but Meursault himself is distracted by practical arrangements. He notes that he is not yet "in mourning." Meursault still feels as if his mother is alive, but thinks, "after the funeral…the case will be closed, and everything will have a more official feel to it."
Meursault is surprisingly unaffected by his mother's death – he is calm and level-headed and spends most of the novel's opening paragraphs considering the logistics of getting off work for the funeral rather than doing any actual mourning. His language is wholly unemotional, imagining the feeling of his mother's death sinking in as "more official." Comparing the funeral to a "case" foreshadows the trial that will take place in Book 2 in which the funeral will play a crucial role.
Themes
Indifference and Passivity Theme Icon
Importance of Physical Experience Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
Meursault takes the bus to the home and meets with the director, who wears a Legion of Honor ribbon. He initially feels defensive about his decision to place his mother in the home, but the director assures him "she was happier here." Meursault reflects that this was why he visited so infrequently – that, and the practical inconvenience of the trip out. The director leads Meursault to the mortuary where his mother is and explains that he has arranged for a religious funeral according to her expressed wishes. Meursault thanks him but recalls privately that, while not an atheist, his mother was not at all religious.
The Legion of Honor is a high French distinction and the ribbon shows that the director is a valued member of French society. If Meursault is really as practical and unemotional as he seems, then his second reason for visiting so infrequently (inconvenience) likely outweighed the first (his mother's happiness). The implication of the religious nature of the funeral is that the director may have forced his own religious faith on Mme Meursault's funeral. Also note the director saying that his mother was happier in the home. Later the director will testify about Meursault's strange behavior at the funeral but will not bring up (or even remember?) his own stated opinion that putting his mother in the home was actually better for her.
Themes
Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd Theme Icon
Indifference and Passivity Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
In the mortuary, Meursault surprises the caretaker by declining his offer to open the casket (to show Meursault his mother). Meursault is embarrassed, feeling he shouldn't have declined. The caretaker explains that dead bodies must be buried much more quickly than in Paris because of the heat. The caretaker's wife shushes him but Meursault does not understand why, thinking the comment "made sense."
Meursault's conduct does not match up with society's expectations. Conventional norms expect him to be emotionally attached to the corpse, to want to see it, to be disturbed by talk of its decay. Yet the caretaker's comment about the body rotting is also not a normal thing to say (as his wife's shushing him indicates). Meursault, however, is unbothered, even interested, by the scientific fact.
Themes
Indifference and Passivity Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
Still in the mortuary, Meursault accepts the caretaker's offer of coffee and they smoke cigarettes. Under bright electric light, Meursault, an Arab nurse, the caretaker, and Mme Meursault's friends sit vigil over her coffin. Meursault thinks there is something surreal about these other old people. The noise of one old woman crying irritates Meursault. The caretaker explains Meursault's mother was her only friend. After the stops crying, Meursault is irritated by the silence. Everyone dozes.
Again, Meursault's behavior seems out of sync with social expectations: drinking coffee and smoking at a funereal vigil seems disrespectful. Meursault is superficial, thinking of the woman's crying and the sitters' silence as irritants rather than as empathetic expressions grief.
Themes
Indifference and Passivity Theme Icon
Importance of Physical Experience Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
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Next morning, Meursault again declines the director's offer to show him his mother. The director explains that, for humane reasons, home residents aren't allowed to attend funerals but he's made an exception for Thomas Pérez, who was extremely close Mme Meursault. (The home joked that they were engaged.)
Though Meursault said he was "embarrassed" to decline to see his mother the night before, he does not act any differently now. Mme Meursault was capable of intimate, strong relationships, as her relationship to Thomas Pérez shows.
Themes
Relationships Theme Icon
The funeral director assembles pallbearers and prompts the priest to lead Meursault, the director, Thomas Pérez, and another nurse in the two-kilometer procession to the church. The sun is blazing and everyone sweats miserably in their black formal clothes. Pérez cannot keep up. Meursault's head pounds. Heat makes the landscape "shimmer."
The first appearance of both of the novel's symbols. The intense heat conveys the universe's utter indifference to human tragedy: it beats mercilessly on the funeral party and even Pérez, the most sincere griever, is robbed of his ceremonious dignity and made to look ridiculous, dripping with sweat. The landscape shimmers, repelling any attempt to read emotion or symbolism into it: it is only itself, impervious to humanization.
Themes
Importance of Physical Experience Theme Icon
One of the pallbearers asks Meursault about his mother's age but Meursault doesn't know how old she is. The funeral itself happens "so fast, so deliberately, so naturally" that Meursault can't remember it. He has only a few fragmented memories, including the nurse saying "there is no way out" (since walking too slowly risks sunstroke, while walking too quickly causes sweat that will lead to chills in church), Pérez fainting, red geraniums on graves, "blood-red earth spilling over Maman's casket." He is glad to return to Algiers.
The fact that Meursault doesn't even know his mother's age shows just how distant they were. Meursault, again, is more invested in physical than emotional experience: all of his memories of the funeral are concrete details. The nurse's comment is ironic given it's a funeral procession: in addition to sunstroke and chills, there is also no way out of death, no matter how one chooses to live.
Themes
Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd Theme Icon
Chance and Interchangeability Theme Icon
Indifference and Passivity Theme Icon
Importance of Physical Experience Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon