The Stranger

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Stranger, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Chance and Interchangeability Theme Icon

Meursault considers all experience interchangeable, arbitrary, and essentially meaningless. "One life was as good as another," he tells his boss, explaining his indifference towards the opportunity to move to Paris. To him, it's only a matter of chance that events turn out as they do. His thoughts on the beach steps as he decides whether to return to Masson's bungalow or to go back down to the beach could summarize his attitude towards every life choice: "to stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing." (Expressing this attitude at that particular instance is, of course, highly ironic as his choice to go back down to the beach leads to the murder that changes his life dramatically.)

Meursault remains convinced of the arbitrariness of events throughout his imprisonment and trial. Hearing street noises he recognizes beyond the court, he reflects that's is as if "familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent." Meursault's primary contention with judicial procedure is its certainty, its unwillingness to embrace chance. After being condemned, Meursault thinks how the verdict may as well have been the opposite, as all the factors leading up to it were entirely arbitrary. He fantasizes a new form of capital punishment which would work nine out of ten times, leaving the condemned a chance for hope and eliminating the unyielding certainty of death by guillotine.

Likewise, Meursault treats human relationships as chance arrangements, believing that any person could substitute for any other in a relationship without causing any difference. He tells Marie that he would marry any other women with whom he had the same relationship he has with her. He kills the Arab without any personal motive: the man may as well have been anybody. Thus, though "the stranger" of the title refers primarily to Meursault's own estrangement from society, it also refers to the man Meursault kills, a chance stranger whom the novel never names. Contemplating his own death, Meursault reminds himself that it doesn't matter when one dies, since "other men and women will naturally go on living" far into the future.

Yet none of the people around Meursault see events as the fluid, interchangeable occurrences Meursault sees. Throughout the trial, the prosecutor repeatedly portrays Meursault's murder as a premeditated crime, fundamentally connected to Meursault's prior behavior. The prosecutor's determination to prove the deliberate malice of Meursault's actions reaches its highest pitch when his closing argument equates Meursault's disengagement at his mother's funeral to the act of another criminal who murdered his own father.

Chance and Interchangeability ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Chance and Interchangeability appears in each chapter of The Stranger. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Chance and Interchangeability Quotes in The Stranger

Below you will find the important quotes in The Stranger related to the theme of Chance and Interchangeability.
Book 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

Then [my boss] asked me if I wasn't interested in a change of life. I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't dissatisfied with mine here at all. He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that that was disastrous in business. So I went back to work. I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn't see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn't unhappy. When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Boss
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Meursault's boss has given him the opportunity to transfer to Paris, but Meursault is entirely indifferent to this opportunity. The boss can't understand this: he believes that it is entirely natural to want to progress economically or socially, or even to make a change, to invite new experiences and to fulfill one's own, individual ambitions. Society is set up to value ambition and striving, and to reward those who succeed according to these values, but Meursault doesn't share any of them – making it difficult for Meursault's boss to understand him.

Meursault, in turn, not only doesn't want to make a life change: he doesn't believe that such shifts ever really change anything, since he might as well be in one place or another, doing one job or another. This attitude of indifference is not exactly the same thing as lacking ambition, which is the only way his boss can comprehend it. Rather, it is located outside society's entire framework of how one should live. Interestingly, this passage suggests that Meursault didn't always feel this way – he was ambitious once, as a student, like many others. It seems that it was a certain event in his life, having to give up his studies, that prompted him to consider life as meaningless and all choices as interchangeable.

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That evening, Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her. "So why marry me, then?" she said. I explained to her that it didn't really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Besides, she was the one who was doing the asking and all I was saying was yes. Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious thing. I said, "No"...She just wanted to know if I would have accepted the same proposal from another woman, with whom I was involved in the same way. I said, "Sure."

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Marie Cordona (speaker)
Page Number: 41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is quite unlike a typical scene of a marriage proposal. Meursault comes across as cold, while Marie seems quietly distraught even as she is intent on figuring out exactly how Meursault feels about her. As a result of her questions, we learn that, once again, Meursault both doesn't love Marie and doesn't think love really exists, nor that it would be worth pursuing if it did. At the same time, he has no feelings against Marie – he does enjoy spending time with her – and with such a lack of animosity, he considers it perfectly acceptable for them to get married. While Marie considers marriage as an important step, as a declaration of love and commitment, Meursault thinks of it as an act of convenience, which doesn't mean anything one way or another, but which he'll take part in should Marie really want to. 

Meursault also shows great coldness in suggesting to Marie that she means nothing to him as a unique individual: she could be replaced with any woman at all, and he would feel the same way (even if the way he feels is indifferent and passive). While this interchangeability is part of Meursault's general belief in the inconsequential, random nature of events, its logical conclusion when applied to human beings proves difficult for Marie to bear.

Book 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and the sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Related Symbols: Glare (shimmer, glisten, dazzle)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Even after reading this passage again and again, the reader may not have any better sense of why exactly Meursault kills the "Arab" on the beach. He doesn't feel threatened, nor does he seem to want to defend Raymond or the other women. Meursault's reasoning once again takes place outside the societal standards and norms by which we seek to understand and to judge human activity. All the more striking, then, that what we do have is a huge amount of concrete details and sensory description. Meursault is tense, sweaty, and hot, a feeling that he violently shakes off with the noise of the revolver's shot. 

Although we have no sense of why Meursault shoots, at least according to our own expectations of why people kill, Meursault does not at all claim that he was outside himself, unaware of what he was doing – indeed, it is precisely the opposite. He knows not only that he is committing murder, but also that he is shattering an idyllic moment – a change that he experiences, indeed, as a physical "knock." This tense, climactic moment seems to contradict Meursault's feeling that all life choices are indifferent and interchangeable, even if the man he shoots is indeed, in his eyes, random and interchangeable. Or else, perhaps, this is the extreme but logical conclusion of considering absolutely everything, even life and death, as ultimately interchangeable.

Book 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

Of course I had read that eventually you wind up losing track of time in prison. But it hadn't meant much to me when I'd read it. I hadn't understood how days could be both long and short at the same time: long to live through, maybe, but so drawn out that they ended up flowing into one another. They lost their names. Only the words "yesterday" and "tomorrow" still had any meaning for me.
One day when the guard told me that I'd been in for five months, I believed it, but I didn't understand it. For me it was one and the same unending day that was unfolding in my cell and the same thing I was trying to do.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In some ways, this passage suggests that prison, for Meursault, becomes an extreme opportunity to test out his theories on the lack of meaning in life in general. It is particularly evident how one day is indistinguishable from another, how nothing is more meaningful than anything else, when Meursault indeed is restricted to a cell with little to do and less to think about.

The "same unending day" that unfolds in his cell is another way to think about Meursault's life, or at least his life in the way he imagines it. The boundaries that divide up endless time – "yesterday" and "tomorrow" – are arbitrary, able to be understood only in an abstract way. As he lives out his months in prison, then, Meursault is only further convinced that there is no other way to interpret his own experience than the absurdist view he subscribes to.

Book 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

Come now, is my client on trail for burying his mother or for killing a man?

Related Characters: The Defense Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

As Meursault's lawyer had expected, the prosecutor has continued to emphasize the coldness of Meursault's attitude as he buried his mother, the lack of feeling that he showed at her death, in order to convince the jury of how callous and unfeeling he is as a person. Here, the lawyer attempts to expose the irrelevance of Maman's burial, how silly it is to unite two disparate events. Indeed, this is the way that Meursault considers events as well, as distinct units irrelevant to each other, without any meaningful narrative able to emerge from them. 

However, this is not the way that most people think: it's not the way that society is set up to function. The prosecutor is playing into most people's innate hunger for narrative and for meaning, for stringing apparently disparate events together into a coherent story. Even Meursault is not immune to this kind of thinking, as he himself did find certain similarities between the heat of Maman's burial and the heat of the day at the beach, for instance. Still, he refuses to draw any significance from these similarities.

Here, the prosecutor's opposite strategy is suggested to be disingenuous or even arbitrary, despite the equal confusion stemming from Meursault's own refusal to assign any meaning to a sequence of events.

Book 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

But were their two speeches so different after all? My lawyer raised his arms and pleaded guilty, but with an explanation. The prosecutor waved his hands and proclaimed my guilt, but without an explanation…In a way, they seemed to be arguing the case as if it had nothing to do with me…There were times when I felt like breaking in on all of them and saying, "Wait a minute! Who's the accused here? Being the accused counts for something. And I have something to say!" But on second thought, I didn't have anything to say.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Prosecutor, The Defense Lawyer
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Meursault is watching and listening with detached, even bemused interest, as the lawyers on both side of the case attempt to argue their case. While the prosecutor condemns the killing as a cold-blooded crime, Meursault's lawyer attempts to explain it and shed light on it. Both lawyers efforts involve emphasizing the meaning inherent to the crime. Meursault, of course, would object to both characterizations, since for him the murder meant and means absolutely nothing. 

In this passage, Meursault also has the strange feeling that he has had before, that he is witnessing life and experience unfold before him without playing any role in it himself. Here, however, what is unfolding before him actually has very much to do with himself and his own life. And yet, after remarking on the strangeness of this closeness, Meursault realizes that he nonetheless has no more expertise on or interest in the matter than he would if the lawyers were arguing about a stranger. 

Book 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

But everybody knows life isn't worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn't much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living – and for thousands of years …At that point, what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I'd be thinking in twenty years when it would all come down to the same thing anyway… Therefore (and the difficult thing was not to lose sight of all the reasoning that went into this "therefore"), I had to accept the rejection of my appeal.
Then and only then would I have the right…to consider the alternative hypothesis: I was pardoned…It would take all my strength to quiet my heart, to be rational. In order to make my resignation to the first hypothesis more plausible, I had to be level-headed about this one as well.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Page Number: 114-115
Explanation and Analysis:

Earlier in the novel, Meursault has had little trouble considering other people's life and death, as well as his own, coolly and apparently objectively: he has never mustered feelings of care, nor does he imagine that he should muster such feelings. Now, though, Meursault's indifference is not his natural state but a philosophical attitude that he has to strive to return to. His heart leaps when he thinks of being able to live twenty years longer, even though he knows it makes little difference, and he'll have to die anyway. 

Interestingly, this change does not make Meursault realize the value of life or convince himself that he has been wrong all along about the meaninglessness of existence. Instead, it simply shows how even someone as "level-headed" and rational as Meursault can be carried away by his own, (importantly) physical feelings – his body's desire to keep on living – and temporarily forget what the truth of existence really is. To combat what he sees as a weakness, Meursault sternly orders himself to follow the train of logic that he has always embraced, and to once again coldly consider all the options available to him as indifferent and interchangeable.

"Do you really love this earth as much as all that?" [the chaplain] murmured. I didn't answer.
…"No, I refuse to believe you! I know that at one time or another you've wished for another life." I said of course I had, but it didn't mean any more than wishing to be rich, to be able to swim faster, or to have a more nicely shaped mouth…[he] wanted to know how I pictured this other life. Then I shouted at him, "One where I could remember this life!"…He tried to change the subject by asking me why I was calling him 'monsieur' and not 'father.' That got me mad, and I told him he wasn't my father.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Chaplain (speaker)
Page Number: 119-120
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, a chaplain speaks with Meursault and tries to convince him that the way he sees life is incorrect and morally wrong. This chaplain, rather than growing heated like the other one, tries to use Meursault's own tools of reason as he argues that Meursault, too, must desire another life beyond the earthly one – a life and a reality that would make this life meaningful. But Meursault brushes such thoughts aside, arguing that even if he did want another life, this desire is just like any other material, physical desire, rather than being a divine or transcendent one. 

As the chaplain continues to try to convince Meursault of the "other life," Meursault grows frustrated, since he cannot get the chaplain to see that for him, this meaningless, indifferent life is all that there is. He does think this world is "better" because there's the possibility for physical pleasure in it, but this physical experience doesn't, for Meursault, make the earthly world meaningful. He underlines his point even further by calling the chaplain "monsieur" or "Mr." Calling him "Father" would mean agreeing to use Christian terms that presume the existence of a divine Father, God, and this is entirely against Meursault's own philosophy.

[The chaplain] seemed so certain about everything, didn't he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman's head.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Chaplain
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

As the chaplain continues to talk to Meursault, the latter grows increasingly frustrated and bitter about the chaplain's presumption to know what the meaning of life is, and to know exactly what Meursault should believe and how he should act. The question that Meursault poses here is rhetorical and ironic: Meursault contrasts the chaplain's confidence in his own knowledge to his, Meursault's, equal confidence that the chaplain knows nothing. By comparing the chaplain's certainties to a woman's hair, Meursault underlines several major assumptions of his own. In one sense, the hairs on a woman's head are interchangeable, each one an arbitrary example – just as the "certainties" of the chaplain are no more than empty, arbitrary words.

But by choosing this example, in particular, Meursault again emphasizes the supremacy of physical, sensorial experience in his understanding of how the world works: as he continues to yearn for Marie's physical presence, the reality of her body is far more real to him than anything the chaplain can tell him.

Throughout the whole absurd life I'd lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, 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. What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brother?...Everybody was privileged…The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

At this climactic moment, Meursault does not exactly have an epiphany – that is, a realization that will fundamentally change his actions or change the way he sees the world. Indeed, the "absurd life" he's lived until now is only strengthened in this passage. What is different, of course, is the way in which Meursault expresses his views. Whereas beforehand, his commitment to the indifference and meaninglessness of life was expressed through an indifferent attitude, now he finds himself forced to take a stand, to openly and explicitly embrace these views and to champion them as correct. 

Indeed, indifference becomes far more than a day-to-day attitude here. Meursault argues that everyone is subject to the universe's ultimate indifference to us all. What makes us privileged, he argues, is simply the fact that we are alive today. And this same fact is also what condemns us, not only to die, but also to live in the knowledge that our existence means nothing. Meursault's refusal to care about other people's death, another's love towards him, is only the logical continuation of the larger meaninglessness defining all our lives. In a way, ironically, meaninglessness itself becomes the way by which Meursault makes meaning out of the world. Throughout the novel, then, his philosophy towards life has struggled to maintain its rebellious, anti-meaning approach, without this attitude becoming yet another, inevitably meaningful philosophy of its own.