The Stranger

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Importance of Physical Experience Theme Analysis

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.
Importance of Physical Experience Theme Icon

As Meursault explains to his lawyer, "…my nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings." Indeed, throughout the novel, Meursault experiences physical sensations and pains/pleasures much more acutely than he experiences emotional/psychological ones. As a narrator, he constantly supplies physical details without analyzing their emotional or psychological import. The most extreme example of this can be found in his account of killing the Arab. Meursault initially shoots because of the uncomfortably bright glare reflected off the Arab's knife and later explains to the courtroom he shot "because of the sun." Likewise, Meursault observes the mourners at his mother's funeral coolly, unmoved to empathize with the grief their actions attest to. Later, Meursault ignores much of the argument at his own trial (including critical speeches by his lawyer and the prosecutor), preferring to focus instead on the sounds of the street outside.

At novel's end, this way of life is actually presented as a positive, vivid alternative to religious life. He who lives a religious life lives for the sake of a world to come but Meursault wants to live for the sake of this life. When the chaplain insists Meursault must have "wished for another life," Meursault insists that any other life should still be embodied and sensual, "…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 stopped me and wanted to know how I pictured this other life. Then I shouted at him, "'One where I could remember this life!" The chaplain (and anyone who believes in an afterlife) is, to Meursault's mind, "living like a dead man." The memory exercises Meursault develops to pass the time in prison by recalling every detail of his old apartment likewise convey a profound trust in the richness of physical experience: "…the more I thought about it, the more I dug out of my memory things I had overlooked or forgotten. I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored."

Importance of Physical Experience ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Stranger related to the theme of Importance of Physical Experience.
Book 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

For the first few days [Maman] was at the home she cried a lot. But that was because she wasn't used to it. A few months later and she would have cried if she'd been taken out. She was used to it. That's partly why I didn't go there much this past year. And also because it took up my Sunday – not to mention the trouble of getting to the bus, buying tickets, and spending two hours traveling.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Madame Meursault
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

As he meets with the director of the home where Meursault's mother lived until the end of her life, Meursault initially feels defensive about putting her in the home. Thanks in part to the director's reassurances, however, Meursault takes a different perspective. Not only does he consider that his mother grew accustomed to the home, but because ultimately it doesn't matter - for her, for him, to the world in general - where she lives. Meursault's attitude is thus a prime example of how he projects his own philosophy of existence onto others around him.

It is in Meursault's own interest, of course, to consider his mother's experience in such a way, since it was always so unpleasant for him to go visit her. Meursault is acutely sensitive to the physical, sensory experience of being in the world, which makes traveling especially unpleasant for him. Still, the way he coldly considers his mother's final months living underlines the indifferent attitude he takes towards relationships in general.

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That's when Maman's friends came in. There were about ten in all, and they floated into the blinding light without a sound. They sat down without a single chair creaking. I saw them more clearly than I had ever seen anyone, and not one detail of their faces or their clothes escaped me. But I couldn't hear them, and it was hard for me to believe they really existed.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Madame Meursault
Related Symbols: Glare (shimmer, glisten, dazzle)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Meursault's emotional distance from his mother does not mean that he feels somehow absent from the scene of her funeral itself. Instead, he is aware of each precise moment, paying close attention to all the actors in the scene and each detail on their faces. However, the way Meursault describes the attendees to his mother's funeral is, indeed, reminiscent of the way someone might describe the way a movie or play unfolds. His relationship to them is detached – he does not feel at all emotionally invested in the scene, for instance.

One could probably, then, call Meursault's attitude a more aesthetic one, in that he considers events to take place in terms of the interest they hold for him, in terms of how they make him feel on a plane entirely separate from his emotional investment in other people. Meursault's inability to really believe in the full humanity of others will also help to explain his actions on the beach: in each case, he fails to see how other people really exist.

Seeing the rows of cypress trees leading up to the hills next to the sky, and the houses standing out here and there against that red and green earth, I was able to understand Maman better. Evenings in that part of the country must have been a kind of sad relief. But today, with the sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimmer with heat, it was inhuman and oppressive.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Madame Meursault
Related Symbols: Heat, Glare (shimmer, glisten, dazzle)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

On the one hand, this passage seems to suggest that by attending Maman's funeral, Meursault will be able to better understand her, drawing closer to her even after her death. It does seem that returning to "that part of the country" helps to flesh out Maman's past for her son. Nevertheless, this insight only further underlines just how little attention Meursault paid to his mother during her life, such that her past is still a mystery to him, one that he doesn't seem very interested at all in resolving.

Instead, the scene turns back towards Meursault's own sensory impressions. His casual thought about his mother's past is quickly conquered by the "oppressive," all-powering heat of the sun, which reminds him and us that the natural world cares little for our comfort and well-being – nor does it care to pay respect on the occasion of a human tragedy like death.

Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

…I glanced at the mirror and saw a corner of my table with my alcohol lamp next to some pieces of bread.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Through Meursault's conversation with the priest, we have been introduced to his lack of religious conviction, even as we know that he is familiar with at least the rites of Christianity. As a result, we can see in this scene traces of a holy, sacred ritual, that of communion with wine and bread on an altar.

However, the fact that Meursault sees this scene through a mirror gives us the first hint that this passage is not meant to be interpreted as spiritually significant. If anything, the presence of an alcohol lamp and bread on a table are an ironic counterpoint to the meaning-infused nature of objects at a Christian mass. Here, instead, the objects are totally devoid of significance. Meursault notices them nonetheless, because sensory material experience is the major framework through which he moves through the world; and yet nothing he notices gains any greater meaning as a result.

Book 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

The sun was the same as it had been the day I'd buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was 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. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn't get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Madame Meursault
Related Symbols: Heat, Glare (shimmer, glisten, dazzle)
Page Number: 58-59
Explanation and Analysis:

Usually, Meursault moves through life passively, as if taking step after step without his own volition, driven by nothing other than the vicissitudes of existence. Here, at least, there is one major source of his actions: the physically excruciating experience of heat and glare – the "burning" that propels him forwards, even though he knows it won't do anything. Meursault explicitly links this feeling of overwhelming heat to the day of Maman's funeral. In both cases, a scene that one could consider as important because of other people, because of interpersonal relationships, instead becomes a reminder of the overwhelming power of physical reality to bend humans to its will. 

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 1 Quotes

The investigators had learned that I had "shown insensitivity" the day of Maman's funeral. "You understand," my lawyer said, "it's a little embarrassing for me to have to ask you this. But it's very important. And it will be a strong argument for the prosecution if I can't come up with some answers." He wanted me to help him. He asked if I had felt any sadness that day. The question caught me by surprise and it seemed to me that I would have been very embarrassed if I'd had to ask it. Nevertheless I answered that I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself and that it was hard for me to tell him what he wanted to know. I probably did love Maman, but that didn't mean anything…I explained to him…that my nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Defense Lawyer (speaker), Madame Meursault
Page Number: 64-65
Explanation and Analysis:

While Meursault's lawyer seems committed to helping him in his defense against the prosecution, Meursault seems indifferent about these efforts. He also is surprised by the way in which the investigator brings up past events in the hope of explaining Meursault's emotions and the relationship of his emotions to his behavior. But while the investigator is genuinely confused about Meursault's lack of emotions in a situation that would be highly affecting to most people, Meursault can't bring himself to even recognize this confusion. He doesn't impede the lawyer's questions or refuse to help him, but he also doesn't care that he can't answer these questions.

Book 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

…the guillotine is on the same level as the man approaching it. He walks up to it the way you walk up to another person. That bothered me too. Mounting the scaffold, going right up into the sky, was something imagination could hold on to. Whereas…the machine destroyed everything: you were killed discreetly, with a little shame and with great precision.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Meursault's death sentence has strengthened his desire for physical (even if not emotional or spiritual) experience, he continues to consider the future that awaits him in a distanced, detached way, as a viewer observing a painting, for instance. As he constructs an artistic vision of his impending death, he is bothered mainly by the aesthetic problems that arise from things like the fact that a man and guillotine are located on the same level, rather than the condemned being able to walk slowly up to a scaffold. Meursault might not assign any meaning to his life, but he is able to fixate on the differences in the way his life might end precisely because they have so much to do with the sensory way he will experience this end.

"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.

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Bolstered by the dramatic outburst that he made to the chaplain, Meursault now has the peace and quiet to be able to think through what his embrace of the absurd, of the world's indifference, implies for the way he will act from now on. Instead of resentfully mirroring the world's indifference with his own, he "opens" himself to this indifference.

In a way, this passage might remind one of the most optimistic lines of the world's religious texts, which encourage people to feel happy at the knowledge of a greater meaning. Meursault's feeling is different – indeed, his happiness comes from the very fact of hopelessness that he knows to be the real nature of the world. Knowing that he is looking clear-eyed into the indifferent universe, and enjoying the mere physical, sensory experience of inhabiting it, Meursault doesn't transcend the meaninglessness of the world, but rather learns to live within it.