“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'”— Ecclesiastes 1:2 (New International Version)
“He said the truth was that I didn’t have one, a soul, and that I had no access to humanity or to any of the moral principles which protect the human heart”. This accusation, proclaimed by Mersault’s prosecutor, reflects the question at the heart of Albert Camus’s The Outsider — what makes a human a human, what makes him fit to be a member of ‘normal’ society and how this normal is defined.
In Camus’s novella, its protagonist Mersault is tried for shooting and killing an Arab man. At his trial, his prosecutor not only condemns him for the murder, but also insists that Mersault’s actions and lack of emotion regarding them are intertwined with the fact that Mersault shows no grief at his mother’s death: Mersault not only did not know her age and chose to send her to a home, but also smoked, slept and drank coffee at the wake, three apparently damnable actions for a man whose mother has just died. I argue that Camus chooses these ‘flaws’ and actions in particular because they are markers of a normal existence— a meaningful relationship with others based on arbitrary determiners (as if knowing how many years a person has lived is supposed translate love and care), and unthinking behaviors that offer reprieve in the course of the suffering that comprises a human life. The prosecutor therefore seeks to punish Mersault not only for his lack of appropriate reactions to an ‘unnatural’ event—crying and grieving— but also for his ‘natural’ actions which should have been suspended in the spirit of unnaturalness dictated by the death. Furthermore, not accepting Mersault’s garbled explanation that he shot the Arab because of the sun (indeed, it appears he does so more because of the sun leaping off the Arab’s knife into his eyes than the knife itself), the prosecutor constructs for the jury a narrative explaining that the murder was premeditated. To the prosecutor, the former misconduct is basically equal to the latter: “any man who was morally responsible for his mother’s death thereby cut himself off from the society of men to no lesser extent than the one who raised a murderous hand against the author of his days”.
Thus, he concludes, Mersault does not have a human soul and must be sentenced to death because he is “a man whose heart is so empty it threatens to engulf society”. From this, we can deduce Camus’s argument that to society at large, what defines a human is the fact that they abide by the dictums of unspoken social and moral contracts. In particular, that one performs the appropriate reactions to the appropriate events, which shows that one has understood the agreed narratives and rules attached to these events and reactions.
Mersault, who does not abide by these rules, is therefore an outsider. He is both existentialist and absurdist: he does not see the need to construct explanations for essentially meaningless human actions and experiences and he lives solely in the present moment, free from the past and accepting of the future. Therefore, he does not enact the necessary performances expected by the jury (society) that sits and judges him.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes that “Living… (comprises) making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit”. Basically, that we only do things because we have been subconsciously primed to, and not because we truly understand what we are doing. Indeed, The Outsider makes it clear that things, actions and events in a human’s life do not have inherent meaning; they must be imbued with external meaning that is usually arbitrary and (barely) contextualised. This concept is dramatised and taken to its logical extreme in Mersault’s own interpretation of the world. He compares faces to flowers and apples; the mourners at his mother’s wake remind him of a jury; the actual jury reminds him of passengers on a tram, hearing a man crying reminds him of his mother “for some reason”. Every event, bereft of internal meaning, is randomly assigned one that is loosely related to another similarly random concept or experience. As such, the significance of taking coffee, sleeping and smoking only carry the meaning they do because people have collectively decided on them based on larger narratives they are loosely associated with.
Indeed, as readers views the narrative from Mersault’s perspective, we see that the actions of those around him and the beliefs they subscribe to— such as Salamano’s pointless ritual with his dog, and Pérez’s futile trek in the sun— are ultimately silly, even laughable. The same goes for more ‘profound’ or fantastical beliefs and rituals like religion and marriage.
Mersault does not conform to society’s norms because he refuses to submit to the illusion that they are meaningful. Although he is a man condemned by society and in jail, he is the one who is truly free. He tells the chaplain, so insistent on bringing him to God: “he couldn’t even be sure that he was alive. because he was living like a dead man. I (i.e. Mersault) might seem to be empty-handed. But I was sure of myself, sure of everything, surer than he was, sure of my life and sure of the death that was coming to me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least it was a truth which I had a hold of just as it had hold of me”. Compared to the others who catatonically exist beneath the sway of their fantasies, Mersault lives boldly in the harsh light of the truth.
As such, when his actions focus the public’s attention on him, they are offended not just by his actions, but also by the way his reactions to them painfully reflect the way their own lives are inherently meaningless and how their attempts at creating significance are ultimately absurd. Unable to accept, and even acknowledge or see this, they cast Mersault as an outsider. His real crime is the way he exposes their pointless pretence and make them face the absurdity of their own lives, rituals and beliefs, thus engulfing society in despair.
While Mersault is “the outsider”, the novel is titled after, he is not a stranger to the human heart. He is rather its hero because he faces the truth of what the heart seeks to do and avoid, and can live peacefully with these facts, as compared to the others, who are strangers to themselves. His execution is the stage on which this heroism is recognised and feared; the “cries of hatred” directed not only at him but also unknowingly at the pointless pantomime that is all their lives.