Meursault and Siddhartha: Conscious and Unconscious Actions

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Meursault’s behavior at his mother’s death substantiated his guilt in the eyes of the law. Siddhartha lives the moment and takes responsibility for his decisions. To what extent are Meursault’s and Siddhartha’s status as existentialists and outsiders defined by their conscious and unconscious actions. Existentialism is a philosophy that explains the journey to discover the true self and the meaning of life by free will, choice and personal responsibility. By their conscious or unconscious actions, the protagonists, Siddhartha and Meursault are examples of existentialists and radical individuals, who refuse to conform to the norms of their respective societies.

Meursault’s conscious and unconscious actions after his mother’s death led others to believe that he was a non-conformist. He declined to see her face one last time before she was buried. He has no pangs of guilt, only a vague awareness of social norms. When the guard offered to open the coffin for Meursault, he told him not to take the trouble. The guard “stared” at him. The guard’s reaction makes him realize his folly and he feels “embarrassed”. On the day of his mother’s death, when he was offered a cigarette by the doorkeeper he accepted it. He “wasn’t sure” if he could smoke “under the circumstances”. “It really didn’t seem to matter.” Most people would have pretended to grieve in order to avoid social scrutiny. His casual dismissal of the thought was probably unconscious. The day after his mother’s funeral, he meets Marie, and asks her out for a swim and a movie. On a day when most people spend their day in quiet mourning, Meursault went on a joyful retreat spending time with Marie. Meursault was unconscious of the social unacceptability of his actions until Marie “shrank away”. Marie was perturbed by Meursault’s lack of regret. At that moment Meursault felt a “bit guilty”.

His lawyer asks him to admit that he regretted his mother’s death to build a strong case. “That wouldn’t be true” says Meursault. It was one of those rare instances where he consciously and deliberately defies conformity. Would it have really hurt Meursault to admit that he did regret his mother’s death? Later, during the interrogation wanting to help Meursault, the magistrate asked him if he regretted killing the Arab and Meursault told him that he did not feel so much regret, but “a kind of vexation.” A simple ‘yes’ would have helped, but his answer portrayed him as a remorseless killer rather than being extraordinarily naïve. In a conformist society dominated by norms, Meursault’s perceived defiance made him an “outsider”

Another remarkable existentialist trait is his emotional detachment, bordering on apathy. “Marie came and asked him “that evening" if he wanted to “marry” her. He said that he “didn’t mind”; at a poignant moment such as this one, Meursault disappointed Marie with his reaction. A moment that should have elicited joy was lost. Was it his intention to hurt Marie? Unlikely. It was an unconscious response that reflects the detachment which constituted an integral part of his shallow emotional existence.
While Meursault stood aloof most of his life unconsciously, Siddhartha carved his path deliberately. Siddhartha, unlike Meursault was aware that he was a non-conformist. ‘Siddhartha was starting “to nurse discontent in him” None of his actions, be it awakening his father to the realization that ‘Siddhartha no longer dwelt with him in his home’ or forcing him to permit Siddhartha to become a samana were done unconsciously. Siddhartha lived a charming life. Why was he discontented? Was it the infirmity of the will or emotional detachment? It is tough for anyone to severe ties with a family. He suffered from an obsession of self-discovery which bordered on egocentric anti-social attitude. None of his actions were apologetic. A rational human would feel frustration for not being able to achieve his pursuit, regret for upsetting people...
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