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.
Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd ThemeTracker
Meaninglessness of Life and the Absurd Quotes in The Stranger
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.
…I glanced at the mirror and saw a corner of my table with my alcohol lamp next to some pieces of bread.
…[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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
[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.
…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.
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.
"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.
[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.
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.
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.