The plot of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, builds on realistic micro-observations of violence and the emotions leading up to it. This is inserted into a pre-conceived plan to write a philosophical novel, dramatizing Camus’s central argument.
Violence is shrouded in myths, and Camus creates a shock by describing it accurately. What he sees, however, is subordinated to the clash of philosophies in the later part of the book. Camus is not really interested in developing a sociological theory of violence; that would come 50 years later once we started getting videos and close reports on violent experiences. Most good writers are intuitively good sociologists; but it is adding something else that makes it literature.
Low life in French Algeria
Meursault, Camus’s anti-hero, is a low-paid clerk who lives on the fringes of the Algerian underworld. A neighbour in his cheap apartment house wants to make him his “pal.” Raymond is known as a pimp, talks like a lower-class tough guy, looks like a boxer, and wears snappy cool clothes. Raymond takes him drinking, and fills his ears with stories about beating up his girl friend because he thinks she’s cheating on him. This sounds like the kind of drinking talk that Americans would call bullshitting, and Meursault doesn’t take it seriously, but Raymond gets him to write a letter luring the woman to his apartment so he can talk some sense into her. Meursault is surprised that the woman is an Arab, but he lets that pass too. Next evening there is screaming in Raymond’s apartment. Everyone spills out into the hall, and the police come. The woman accuses him of being a pimp, and he says he will report her to the police as a whore. Next day Raymond phones Meursault to tell him that some Arabs are shadowing him because one of them is the girl’s brother. He wants Meursault to be on the lookout, and to come to the police station to testify that the girl was false to him. Meursault does so, and the case is dropped. Raymond then invites Meursault to a weekend party with one of his pals at the beach.
Camus’s text describes four incidents between the antagonists.
Just as we were starting for the bus stop, Raymond plucked my sleeve and told me to look across the street. I saw some Arabs lounging against the tabacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have-- as if we were blocks of stone or dead trees. Raymond whispered that the second Arab from the left was “his man,” and I thought he looked rather worried. However, he assured me that all that was ancient history. Marie, who hadn’t followed his remarks, asked, “What is it?”
I explained that those Arabs across the way had a grudge against Raymond. She insisted on our going at once. Then Raymond laughed, and squared his shoulders. The young lady was quite right, he said. There was no point in hanging about here. Halfway to the bus stop he glanced back over his shoulder and said the Arabs weren’t following. I, too, looked back. They were exactly as before, gazing in the same vague way at the spot where we had been.
[The first confrontation comes to nothing except hostile staring and growing tension. Initially there are 3 French colonials and about 4 Arabs. They are fairly evenly matched and not ready to fight. Confrontational tension is an unconscious barrier that is breached only when one side feels a palpable advantage over the other.]
[At the beach they meet Raymond’s older friend Masson (“tall, broad-shouldered, and thick-set”), who has a bungalow on the beach, with his plump wife. After swimming and eating lunch, drinking several glasses of wine, the women clean up and the three men go for a walk in the noon-day sun.]
Just then Raymond said something to Masson that I didn’t quite catch. But at the same moment I noticed two Arabs in dungarees a long way down the beach, coming in our direction. I gave Raymond a look and he nodded, saying, “That’s him.” We walked steadily on. Masson wondered how they’d managed to track us here. My impression was that they had seen us taking the bus and noticed Marie’s oilcloth bathing bag; but I didn’t say anything.
Though the Arabs were walking quite slowly, they were much nearer already. We didn’t change our pace, but Raymond said:
“Listen! If there’s a roughhouse, you, Masson, take on the second one. I’ll tackle the fellow who’s after me. And you, Meursault, stand by to help if another one comes up, and lay him out.”
I said, “Right,” and Masson put his hands in his pocket.
The sand was hot as fire, and I could have sworn it was glowing red. The distance between us and the Arabs was steadily decreasing. When we were only a few steps away the Arabs halted, Masson and I slowed down, and Raymond went straight up to his man. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw the native lowering his head, as if butt him in the chest. Raymond lashed out promptly and shouted for Masson to come. Masson went up to the man he had been marking and struck him twice with all his might. The fellow fell flat into the water and stayed there some seconds with bubbles coming up to the surface round his head. Meanwhile, Raymond had been slogging the other man, whose face was streaming with blood. He glanced at me over his shoulder and shouted:
“Just you watch! I ain’t finished with him yet!”
“Look out!” I cried. “He’s got a knife.”
I spoke too late. The man had gashed Raymond’s arm and his mouth as well.
Masson sprang forward. The other Arab got up from the water and placed himself behind the fellow with the knife. We didn’t dare to move. The two natives backed away slowly, keeping us at bay with the knife and never taking their eyes off us. When they were a safe distance they swung round and took to their heels. We stood stock-still, with the sunlight beaming down on us. Blood was dripping from Raymond’s wounded arm, which he was squeezing hard above the elbow.
[The details of the fight are realistic. It is 3 against 2, starting as a pair of fist-fights. The big Frenchman knocks out his Arab in two punches. Raymond takes the initiative and pummels his Arab, but when he glances back over his shoulder the Arab slashes him with a knife. At this point, the weaker Arab hides behind the knife-wielder--- an alignment often seen in photos of small-scale fights. Like most fights where we have micro-interactional detail, they reach a standoff, literally stock still, then one side backs away slowly, then runs.]
[Masson says there is a doctor at the beach on weekends, and they take Raymond to get his wounds patched up, which turn out to be are not very deep. Back at the the bungalow, the women are upset.]
Presently Raymond said he was going for a stroll on the beach. I asked him where he proposed to go, and he mumbled something about “wanting to take the air.” We-- Masson and I-- then said we’d go with him, but he flew into a rage and told us to mind our own business. However, when he went out, I followed him.
At the end of the beach we came to a small stream that had cut a channel in the sand, after coming out from behind a biggish rock. There we found our two Arabs again, lying on the sand in their blue dungarees. They looked harmless enough, as if they didn’t bear any malice, and neither made any move as we approached. The man who had slashed Raymond stared at him without speaking. The other man was blowing down a little reed and extracting from it three notes of the scale, which he played over and over again, while he watched us from the corner of an eye.
For a while nobody moved; it was all sunlight and silence except for the tinkle of the stream and those three little lonely sounds. Then Raymond put his hand to his revolver pocket, but the Arabs still didn’t move. I noticed the man playing on the reed had his big toes splayed out almost at right angles to his feet.
[The monotonous flute-playing is a version of fuck-you jiving, contemptuous of the other side as generally happens in confrontations among groups of tough guys.]
Still keeping his eyes on his man, Raymond said to me: “Shall I plug him one?”
I thought quickly. If I told him not to, considering the mood he was in, he might very well fly into a temper and use his gun. So I said the first thing that came into my head.
“He hasn’t spoken to you yet. It would be a low-down trick to shoot him like that, in cold blood.”
Again, for some moments one heard nothing but the tinkle of the stream and the flute notes weaving through the hot, still air.
“Well,” Raymond said at last, “if that’s how you feel, I’d better say something insulting, and if he answers back I’ll loose off.”
“Right,” I said. “Only, if he doesn’t get out his knife you’ve no business to fire.”
Raymond was beginning to fidget. The Arab with the reed went on playing, and both of them watched all our movements.
“Listen,” I said to Raymond. “You take on the fellow on the right, and give me your revolver. If the other one starts making trouble or gets out his knife, I’ll shoot.”
The sun glinted on Raymond’s revolver as he handed it to me. But nobody made a move yet; it was just as if everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill on this little strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea, the twofold silence of the reed and the stream. And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire-- and it would come to absolutely the same thing.
Then, all of a sudden, the Arabs vanished; they’d slipped like lizards under cover of the rock. So Raymond and I turned and walked back. He seemed happier, and began talking about the bus to catch for our return.
[It begins as a 2-on-2 standoff. They are full of confrontational tension, and locked in on their mutual threats. “... everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill.” Interviews with police who have been in deadly shootouts also shows the tendency to tunnel-vision, seeing nothing but the enemy; time-distortions are typical. There is already time-distortion in Incident #2: “Though the Arabs were walking quite slowly, they were much nearer already.”
Underlying these perceptual distortions are heightened adrenaline, manifested in a very rapid heart beat: “thudding in my head...” Showing the gun changes the balance, and the weaker side retreats.]
When we reached the bungalow Raymond promptly went up the wooden steps, but I halted on the bottom one. The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women. But the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under that flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move-- it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.
[Two paragraphs omitted describing feeling befuddled by the heat, and thinking about reaching the stream.]
I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on... Anything to be rid of the glare, the sight of women in tears, the strain and effort-- and to retrieve the pool of shadow by the rock and its cool silence!
But when I came nearer I saw that Raymond’s Arab had returned. He was by himself this time, lying on his back, his hands behind his head, his face shaded by the rock while the sun beat on the rest of his body. One could see his dungarees steaming in the heat. I was rather taken aback; my impression had been that the incident was closed, and I hadn’t given a thought to it on my way here.
On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat. Then the Arab let himself sink back again, but without taking his hand from his pocket. I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpses of his eyes glowing between half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding as fiercely as even on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress, becalmed in a sea of molten steel. Far out on the horizon a steamer was passing; I could just make out from the corner of an eye the small black moving patch, while I kept my gaze fixed on the Arab.
It struck me that all I had to do was turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. I took some steps toward the stream. The Arab didn’t move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.
I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations-- especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.
A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinct, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scattering my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace.
[Now it’s down to 1-on-1, both sides armed, again locked into confrontational tension. Time distortions get worse -- “For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress.” Meursault’s heart beat is pulsing in his forehead, although he attributes it to the sun-- “the whole beach pulsing with heat” -- “cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull.” The tension intensifies as one side moves forward a step, the other draws his knife. The flashing blade fills the narrator’s consciousness-- the acute tunnel vision on the enemy’s weapon that police often experience before they fire.]
[The last paragraph turns metaphorical, away from the narrator’s usual matter-of-fact delivery. “Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.” But it does convey the acute perceptual distortions shooters can experience at the moment of firing.]
And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.
[I have clipped off this final sentence of the first part of the book, since it shifts to dramatic comment uncharacteristic of Meursault.]
Where did Camus get his materials?
He had spent several years as a newspaper reporter, covering the crime news and court trials in an Algerian city. Incidents #2 and #3 are partly real: a tough guy Camus knew told him about a couple renting a villa on the beach. The wife was accosted by an Arab, the husband intervened and got knifed in the mouth. Husband went back to get the tough guy, who brought his revolver and the two men went looking for the Arab. They found him, but no shot was fired-- the confrontation wound down, as most such incidents do. [Lottman p. 221]
Camus said that three people in the book are real: himself (Meursault), his tough friend (Masson), and Mersault/Camus’s sexy girl friend. Mersault is depicted as a nobody, but he has friends, and women are attracted to him. He resembles Camus, who was very good looking, tall and slender, an actor who always played the lead roles and hooked up with a series of hot women. Camus was also athletic, liked to swim, and was a star on a local soccer team. Meursault has some of these qualities (in solitary confinement, he passes the time imagining the details of all the sex he’s had sex with women); but his personality is very different. Camus was the engagé intellectual, a political activist; member of the Communist Party until expelled over his rejection of Communist political expediency. Mersault is completely apolitical. He is the opposite of intellectual; he is not curious about anything; untalkative, feeling that he has nothing to say. (Camus’s original title was L’Indifférent.) Mersault goes along with everything that happens around him. He advises his tough pals on the side of caution and moderation, but always concludes that it doesn’t matter, go ahead and whatever. Mersault just wants to live in the physical world, enjoying swimming, the beach, sexy women, the Mediterranean evenings. If this sounds like southern California 30 years later, that is no accident: there was an ethos of French colonial Algerians who rejected cold rainy France for life’s a beach. In the late 1930s when the story is set, Algeria like L.A. was la-la land.
In writing L’Etranger, Camus had two good reasons to make the hero unlike himself. One was that by the time the novel was finished in 1941, France had been occupied by the German blitzkrieg for a year; and to get anything published it had to be completely apolitical. The other reason was more central: Camus wanted to write a novel about a person who believes in nothing-- it is a thought experiment, a philosophical exercise. Mersault is not a Byronic anti-hero who rebels magnificently against conventions; that old Romantic stereotype was outdated, and the avant-garde had moved on to characters like Kafka’s anonymous victims or Sartre’s bummed-out alter ego in Nausea (published a few years earlier in 1938). Mersault is not alienated or even unhappy. He is deliberately pared down to a man who believes in nothing but his senses.
The colonial situation
One aspect that seems strange from our 21st century point of view is Raymond’s Arab girl friend. She lives in a Frenchman’s apartment; she wears western clothes and makeup. But this is a time before the nationalist uprisings of the 1950s and 60s; before the neo-Islamist radicalism of the late 20th century. In fact she is a rather typical figure of colonial regimes, the native woman who plays the sex market with colonial men. The same pattern is in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, set in French-occupied Vietnam; the hero has a live-in Vietnamese girl friend who works at a pick-up bar, and her shifting loyalties among men drives much of the plot. Camus and Greene see the situation from the western side. But Camus’ plot is implicitly driven by the sexual tension of Arab men resentful of the colonials treatment of their women. The outburst of resentment can be seen on screen in the realistic 1967 Italian film, The Battle of Algiers. Its central figure, Ali La Pointe, is an Arab street hustler denounced to the police by respectable French women who don’t want him in their neighbourhood; in prison he becomes a terrorist bomber. Ali La Pointe is Camus’s knife-wielding Arab 20 years later.
The next step in the intellectual chain
Camus by the late 1930s had linked up with the network of avant-garde French intellectuals in Paris, notably the journal Nouvelle Revue Française and the Gallimard publishing house, who published Sartre and translated Kafka into French. They were inclined to see L’Etranger as a combination of Sartre’s Nausea and Kafka’s The Trial, which does describe the niche in intellectual space Camus was moving into. But Camus had a further agenda, and he added another stylistic element. He didn’t need Kafka’s surrealistic vision of a man summoned to trial without knowing the charge against himself. Camus knew plenty about murder trials, and he wanted to make the story completely realistic. That is why it starts out as a kind of “hard-boiled” crime novel (soon to become film noir); and Camus adopted the newly famous American style of Hemingway and his followers. This required the author to be completely self-effacing, avoiding all explanatory comments, and letting the story speak for itself.
Moreover, Camus had decided to write a trio of works that would establish his oeuvre in the lineage of great writers. Simultaneously, he worked on L’Etranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and his play Caligula. * Sisyphus develops the philosophy that Camus called “absurdist”-- life is without any meaning given by religion or anything else. Any truths had to be developed anew, like Descartes doubting the existence of everything until he could deduce new principles from cogito ergo sum. But Sisyphus was to be no abstract treatise. Rejecting all previous philosophical themes, Camus begins: “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Instead of cogito, it is death that serves as the starting point for everything else. (Yes, this also had been said in 1927 by Heidegger, Dasein is being-towards-death; but Camus was writing no heavy German tome.) Because human life-vs.-death is philosophically the one necessary value, Camus is anti-death-penalty.
* Caligula was historically a flighty, spoiled brat Roman emperor, but Camus transforms his fooleries and murders into philosophical gestures against the Absurd. Camus had already acted and adapted scripts for avant-garde theatre.
So Camus’s novel, to drive home the theme of Sisyphus, has to center on a character who is condemned to death. But he can’t be an innocent victim, a maudlin cliché. The plot needs to contain a murder that occurs naturally. To get a sympathetic reading, the murderer can’t be a really bad guy, but he is not going to repent like the philosophically-driven killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (where a wise cop and a prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold are the rescuers). So Meursault is made into an ordinary guy who accidentally falls in with criminals and their guns. To complete the set of substitutions, Camus makes the dramatic bad guy the State Prosecutor-- a devout Christian who is outraged that Meursault feels indifferent about his crime; and who builds his death penalty case on evidence that Meursault did not grieve at his mother’s funeral. The plot is a combination of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, but with the philosophical implications upended.
The other villain in the plot is a priest who intrudes into Meursault’s cell to try for a last-minute conversion. (There was a long tradition of Catholic priests boasting of converting atheists on their deathbeds.) But Mersault ends up as the Voltairean hero, bursting out of his silence in the last few pages to denounce the priest and affirm that he will not give up his truthfulness in the face of death, since death constitutes humanity because everyone eventually faces it. The novel, largely naturalistic and non-preachy all the way through, turns into a philosophical fable at the end.
Camus as micro-sociologist
Camus is an excellent observer of the small details of how people interact in particular situations, especially what consciousness feels or looks like at each moment in one’s body.
Notice: After drinking with Raymond and agreeing to be his pal and help punish his girlfriend, Mersault stands alone in the hallway, unthinking but hearing “nothing but the blood throbbing in my ears, and for a while I stood still, listening to it.”
When the police come to Raymond’s apartment after he is heard beating his girl friend, the policeman knocks the cigarette out of his mouth. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” the policeman added, “getting so tight you can’t stand steady. Why, you’re shaking all over!” “I’m not tight,” Raymond explained. “Only when I see you standing there are looking at me, I can’t help trembling. That’s only natural.”
Raymond is right; his adrenaline, the fight-or-fight hormone, has shot upwards, his heart is racing; but he has to stand still and do nothing because the cop has the upper hand. These are exactly the circumstances when someone goes into trembling.
Mersault’s actions, which seem inexplicable when examined as acts of deliberate reasoning, make sense when seen as how he reacts to the Goffmanian micro-rituals of everyday life. At his mother’s funeral, he is not only tired out by a long bus ride and the vigil of sitting up all night with the dead body; he dislikes the social pressure from these conservative Catholics to follow their rituals, including the ostentatious mourning they expect everyone to perform. And just before Incident #4, it is Mersault’s rejection of the burden of social politeness that sends him back down the beach: “I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women.”
Back again to the most famous line in the novel:
“And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.”
Camus has Mersault speak out of character, to create a dramatic tag line. But it is also the chief mystery of the novel: why, after shooting his antagonist once, does he deliberately pump four more shots into the body? The prosecutor makes a big deal out of this, and Mersault never explains it. It is just a fact, and he tells the truth about facts. OK, that makes him an existentialist hero. But micro-sociology adds something further.
With the advent of videos, police cameras, and today’s news scrutiny, we have seen many cases where the police end a confrontation with suspect, not just by shooting once, but unleashing a whole barrage of shots-- emptying their gun’s magazine. This looks like what Mersault is doing. He shows all the acute symptoms of perceptual distortion -- time slowing down, tunnel vision, flashes in his eyes. His heart beat is racing; he feels it pounding in his temples. It is the phenomenology of losing control in a violent confrontation, what I have elsewhere described as a “forward panic.”
Camus is a better micro-sociological observer than analyst of his observations. The four superfluous shots are real. We understand now what causes such things. Camus implies it is the pressure of the sun-- although here he verges into the metaphorical-- and more basically, just one of those God-damned accidents that rule human life, and that makes a reasonable thinker reject God. Camus has taken a little-noticed reality of violence, and adds a philosophical twist to it.
I am not suggesting it would be a better novel if an omniscient author intruded, at some point, and explained it as I did. Great literature is great, in part, because it builds on acute observations of real life. But it has a drama and a symbolic resonance that goes beyond sociology. Literary success is a combination of such ingredients.
Albert Camus. 1942. The Stranger. Paris: Gallimard.
Herbert Lottman. 1997. Albert Camus. A Biography.
Dave Klinger. 2004. Into the Kill Zone: A Copy’s Eye View of Deadly Force.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2016. “Cool-headed Cops Needed: Heart-rate Monitors can Help"