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
Chance and Interchangeability Quotes in The Stranger
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."
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.
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.
Come now, is my client on trial for burying his mother or for killing a man?
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.
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.