The Stranger

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Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd Theme Analysis

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Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd Theme Icon

From Meursault's perspective the world is meaningless, and he repeatedly dismisses other characters' attempts to make sense of human. He rejects both religious and secular efforts to find meaning. From the director at the old people's home who arranges a religious funeral for Madame Meursault to the examining magistrate who tries to guide Meursault towards Christian faith to the chaplain who lectures Meursault about repentance and the afterlife, Meursault is often advised to embrace religion and place his faith in a divine world beyond this one. Meursault, though, is adamantly atheist, and insists he believes only in this life and physical experience.

Efforts to engage Meursault in secular structures of meaning are equally futile. When Meursault's boss offers Meursault a position in Paris, he expects Meursault to embrace the opportunity for career advancement. Meursault, though, lacks all ambition and turns down the boss' offer without considering it. As a student, Meursault recalls, "I had lots of ambitions…But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered." When Marie asks Meursault whether he wants to marry her, she expects him to take the institution of marriage seriously. Yet Meursault is indifferent towards it, thinks "it didn't mean anything" to love a person, and agrees to marry Marie simply because she wants to marry him. Though he grows fond of her, he doesn't cultivate any attachment to her more meaningful than superficial attraction. Throughout his trial, Meursault is equally bemused by the meaninglessness of the justice system and finds its attempts to impose rational, meaningful structure on his actions ridiculous. He considers the guilty verdict he eventually receives entirely arbitrary, and describes its "certainty" as "arrogant."

Meursault's unwavering nihilism frustrates those who try to convert him to their ways of thinking and they often experience Meursault's perspective as a threat to their own ideas. "Do you want my life to be meaningless?" the examining magistrate bellows when Meursault refuses to accept his faith in God. The prosecutor passionately describes "the emptiness of a man's heart" as "an abyss threatening to swallow up society," casting Meursault as a threat to social order.

This tension between Meursault's sense of life's meaninglessness and other characters' persistent efforts to impose structures of meaning demonstrates the main tenet of Camus' own philosophy of Absurdism. Absurdism holds that the world is absurd and that looking for order or meaning of any kind is a futile endeavor. Humans must accept the absolute indifference of the world towards human life. Ironically, it is only the thought of imminent death that leads Meursault to acknowledge anything like meaning or importance in life. Though he still spurns the notion of essential meaning, Meursault's impending execution fills him with an overwhelming, heart-felt desire for life that contradicts his stated goal of being "level-headed" and considering life and death as equal possibilities.

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Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd Quotes in The Stranger

Below you will find the important quotes in The Stranger related to the theme of Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd.
Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

Once we were dressed, she seemed very surprised to see I was wearing a black tie and asked me if I was in mourning. I told her Maman had died. She wanted to know how long ago, so I said, "Yesterday." She gave a little start but didn't say anything. I felt like telling her it wasn't my fault, but I stopped myself because I remembered that I'd already said that to my boss. It didn't mean anything. Besides, you always feel a little guilty.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Marie Cordona, Madame Meursault
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Meursault has happened to run into a woman he used to have a relationship with, on a day that happens to be the day after his mother died. For Meursault, that sequence means little if anything – his stance towards or interaction with life prevents him from assigning any significance to a particular sequence of events. Nor does his mother's death imply, for him, that he should act a certain way or inhibit himself in a certain way. The only way Meursault can think to make his mother's death signify something would be for it to have been "his fault" – an attitude that, of course, has everything to do with himself and nothing to do with Maman, or with his relationship with her. 

Meursault is moving through these days without seeming to make active choices at all – though it is, of course, a choice for him to spend time with Marie, the way he describes these events suggests that they take place of their own accord. Marie doesn't share Meursault's passive, absurdist relationship towards the world, so for her it is shocking for him to be acting romantically towards her when his mother has just died. Meursault's guilt, if it exists at all, seems to be related to this gap between Marie's expectations and his reality, more than it has to do with his own lack of grief at his mother's death.

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…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 4 Quotes

…[Marie] asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so. She looked sad.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), Marie Cordona
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Meursault obviously is attracted to Marie, and he often finds her company pleasant. But for him, these elements don't come near to love – an emotion which itself, in his point of view, means nothing, since none of life's emotions can mean anything. On the one hand, then, Meursault's statement reflects his attitude towards life and towards the world. He can't imagine feeling anything that strongly, since he is too passive, and he doesn't even believe in such a strong feeling in the first place. 

In addition, however, Meursault is indifferent towards the feelings of others, in this case Marie, who may not share this same philosophy. Marie obviously does believe in love, and does want Meursault to love her. But Meursault refuses to reassure her or to try to explain himself, based on his absurdist attitude. Relationships for him are casual, transient unions that involve no responsibilities or commitments, especially ones that might make him say something he didn't believe.

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.

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 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.

He asked me if I could say that that day I had held back my natural feelings. I said, "No, because it's not true." He gave me a strange look, as if he found me slightly disgusting…I pointed out to him that none of this had anything to do with my case, but all he said was that it was obvious I had never had any dealings with the law.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Defense Lawyer
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Like Marie, the defense lawyer – even though he may be on Meursault's side – finds his behavior not only strange but repellent, wildly different as it is from any "normal" person's actions. Here, the lawyer is disturbed that Meursault won't admit to having had "natural feelings" – that is, feelings of grief and sorrow that for some reason he may have held back. The lawyer's disgust seems to indicate that he finds such lack of feelings to be inhuman.

At the same time, the lawyer finds it frustrating that Meursault won't even agree to speak or act as if he felt a certain way. The lawyer knows that in a legal case, the motivations of the suspect will be crucial for whether or not the jury gains sympathy for him. Meursault, however, seems to believe that the law will be indifferent to emotion or other issues. He thinks the law will care only about facts, about what happened. What's interesting here is that Meursault's idea of the law seems to be an idealistic vision of the law, that it is something based on action and evidence rather than tangentially connected appearances of how someone "felt." This interaction is just the first hint of how the law will really work, how it's findings are based on human emotions rather than some hard framework of pure evidence.

But he cut me off and urged me one last time, drawing himself up to his full height and asking me if I believed in God. I said no. He sat down indignantly. He said it was impossible; all men believed in God, even those who turn their backs on him. That was his belief, and if he were ever to doubt it, his life would become meaningless. "Do you want my life to be meaningless?" he shouted. As far as I could see, it didn't have anything to do with me, and I told him so. But from across the table he had already thrust the crucifix in my face and was screaming irrationally…

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Examining Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

As the magistrate tries to convince Meursault to believe in God – really, to agree to act according to existing beliefs and customs in society – it becomes increasingly clear that Meursault's own belief system (or lack thereof) is a threat to society itself. The magistrate grows shockingly frantic and upset here: Meursault's indifferent reaction makes the magistrate feel like he himself is being threatened, that the meaning he draws from his own life is dangerously close to collapsing. Ironically, the magistrate's attempt to convert Meursault ends up becoming a question of his own faith. 

Meursault, as usual, is unable to see how different people's belief systems can have anything to do with those of others, or how one person's attitude and actions might affect another. His absolute passivity in the face of his own potential conviction and death is not only incomprehensible to others, but maddeningly so. Even though it is Meursault whose beliefs are strange and confusing, however, it is the magistrate who is made to look absurd here, as Meursault's own refusal to submit to social codes and beliefs suggests just how fragile and possibly unjustifiable those codes may be. 

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 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. 

[The prosecutor] said that he had peered into [my soul] and that he had found nothing, gentlemen of the jury. He said the truth was that I didn't have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men's hearts, was within my reach. "Of course," he added, "we cannot blame him for this. We cannot complain that he lacks what it was not in his power to acquire. But here in this court the wholly negative virtue of tolerance must give way to the sterner but loftier virtue of justice. Especially when the emptiness of a man's heart becomes, as we find it has in this man, an abyss threatening to swallow up society.

Related Characters: Meursault (speaker), The Prosecutor (speaker)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the prosecutor reaches new, dazzling rhetorical heights as he attempts to convince the jury of the necessity of the death penalty. In doing so, he draws on anything he can that might move the audience or prove rhetorically powerful. He alludes to divine justice, for instance, in addition to basic legal justice, and his references to man's empty heart and soul suggests that he is making a moral case as well.

Even as we witness Meursault's indifference throughout the trial, we are also meant to see the weaknesses, the lack of systematic or rational thought, on the side of the prosecutor. Meursault's own commitment to the meaninglessness and absurdity of life may be incomprehensible to society, but at least it is consistent. Of course, the prosecutor is mainly focused on doing whatever he can to gain a conviction – but even this pragmatic use of logic to make a case contrasts to Meursault's passivity in a way that suggests that the prosecutor's belief system is not necessarily superior to others.

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.

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.

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.