Distanced by Default or the Mandates of Marginalization in Camus’ L’étranger

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DISTANCED BY DEFAULT OR THE
MANDATES OF MARGINALIZATION IN
CAMUS’ L’ÉTRANGER

Mary Jo Muratore*

T

he enigmatic Meursault has preoccupied readers for over a half a century, and there is little danger that critics will exhaust any time soon the interpretive possibilities Camus’ narrative provides. Because of Camus’ pivotal role in the existentialist movement, L’Étranger is often read as a kind of philosophical bildingsroman wherein the protagonist moves from a state of selfindulgent unawareness to metaphysical lucidity as a result of his experiences. In such readings, Meursault’s detached egocentrism, so prominently in evidence in Part 1, is supplanted by his discovery of an indifferent universe in Part 2. The problem with this reading is that it suggests Meursault undergoes a fundamental intellectual shift when in truth he simply confirms what he already suspected (“J’avais eu raison, j’avais encore raison, j’avais toujours raison” [p. 1208]).1 One of Meursault’s metaphysical certainties is that the inevitability of death nullifies any sense of purpose in life, making it hardly worth living at all (“Mais tout le monde sait que la vie ne vaut pas la peine d’être vécue” [p. 1204]). * University of Missouri - Columbia

1 All references are to: CAMUS, A. Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles. Paris: Pléiade, 1962; CHATAIN, G. D. Narrative Desire. In: KING, A. L’Étranger, Camus’s L’Étranger: Fifty Years On. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. p. 127, also notes the deficiencies of an evolutionary reading due to Meursault’s reluctance to seriously consider his crime. Revista Letras, Curitiba, n. 60, p.111-132, jul./dez. 2003. Editora UFPR

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MURATORE, M. J. Distanced by default or the mandates...

But this rather banal observation from a condemned man provides scant evidence of a metaphysical transformation. Indeed, its very lack of sophistication underscores the fact that neither Meursault nor his thought can be said to have evolved much within the novel. Meursault’s fundamental intellectual perspective and his situational reality remain fairly static from beginning to end. We first see him within the prison-like setting of the home wherein death stalks the residents within, and we last see him on death row, awaiting his own execution. His dispassionate impartiality, his preoccupation with sensual gratification, his ineloquent and depersonalized narrative manner appear unaltered. Meursault in prison is very much the same character we saw at his mother’s funeral.2 He remains almost pathologically observant:

Malgré la chaleur (j’étais en manches de chemise), il avait un costume sombre, un col cassé et une cravate bizarre à grosses raies noires et blanches (1170);
considerate of others:
J’ai trouvé qu’il était très commode que la justice se chargeât de ces détails. Je le lui ai dit (p.1169);

brutally honest:
Il m’a demandé s’il pouvait dire que ce jour-là j’avais dominé mes sentiments naturels. Je lui ai dit: “Non, parce que c’est faux”(p. 1170);
Jai réfléchi et j’ai dit que, plutôt que du regret véritable, j’éprouvais un certain ennui (p. 1174);
2 Richard-Laurent Barnett’s compelling analysis of Camus’ text (cf. BARNETT, R-L. Le simulacre inaugural: micro-lecture camusienne. Symposium, ano 2, n. 53, p. 59-69, 1999) underscores the very essence of non-evolution – metaphysically and structurally. The narrative, he persuasively demonstrates, is borne of, and sustained, by unremitting sameness: “Car la suite découlera justement du paradigme initial. (...) Le texte constitue, en fin de compte, une inépuisable reprise – implicite, ludique, parfois insidieuse – du même et seul commencement” (p. 64). A problematic otherly formulated in Barnett’s insightful decoding of La Peste, wherein the textual weave “leads the reader from the semiotic casting of nothingness through a horror story of putrescence and pain, only to return him once again, and all the more tragically, to the state of implacable absence whence the drama was...
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