Plot Summary

A Part One

The Stranger opens with the narrator, Meursault, receiving a telegram telling him his mother has died. Departing on the afternoon bus from Algiers, he travels fifty miles to Marengo for the funeral. Upon arrival he meets the director of the retirement home who leads him to the mortuary where his mother lies in a coffin. There Meursault begins a vigil that will last until the next morning. He dozes, awakening to the sound of his mother’s companions at the home. They sit across from him, joining in the vigil. The night is punctuated by fits of crying and coughing by the residents. Meursault remains unemotional. The burial the next day becomes a blur of images for Meursault: the funeral procession in the hot desert sun, the village, the cemetery, the tears and fainting spell of Thomas Perez-a male companion of his mother-and finally the bus ride back to Algiers. At one point in the day, a funeral helper had asked him if his mother had been very old; Meursault gives a vague response because he does not know her exact age. Such seemingly superfluous details resurface with great significance later in the story.

The next morning at the beach, Meursault meets Marie, a former typist at his office. They make a date to see a comedic Fernandel film, after which Marie spends the night at Meursault’s apartment. Alone on his balcony the next evening, Meursault concludes that the death of his mother has not changed his life at all. In the stairwell of his apartment building the next afternoon, Meursault encounters two of his neighbors: the aged Salamano, who is cursing his dog, and Raymond Sintes, a pimp. Raymond invites Meursault over for a meal. After dinner, Raymond asks Meursault to write a letter for him to his ex-mistress, a Moorish woman. Raymond wants to lure her back to punish her for having taken advantage of him. Earlier that day, Raymond had been in a fist fight with her brother. Meursault agrees to write the letter.

The next weekend Meursault and Marie hear screams coming from Raymond’s apartment. With the hallway full of residents, a policeman arrives and talks to Raymond. His ex-mistress cries out that Raymond beat her. Raymond is given a summons and must go to the police station. Later that afternoon, Raymond asks Meursault if he will serve as a witness for him. Meursault assents and Raymond is eventually let off with a warning. That evening, Salamano tells Meursault that his dog is missing.

The following Sunday, Meursault, Marie, and Raymond take the bus out of Algiers to the coast. This excursion becomes a turning point in the plot. Earlier in the week, Raymond had invited them to a friend’s beach house. A group of Arabs, among them the brother of Raymond’s ex-mistress, watches them depart. At the beach they greet Raymond’s friend Masson and his wife. After an early lunch, the three men take a walk on the beach. They encounter the brother and another Arab. A fight ensues. Raymond is cut by a knife and Masson must bring him to a doctor. Later in the afternoon, Raymond and Meursault again walk down the beach. They meet up with the two Arabs near a fresh-water spring. Raymond pulls out a revolver but Meursault convinces him to relinquish it. The two Arabs suddenly withdraw and Raymond and Meursault return to the beach house.

Preferring neither to walk up the stairs to the beach house nor to remain in the now scorching sun, Meursault decides to walk back along the beach. Struggling against the heat, he approaches the cool spring. Alone in the shade sits the brother. Feeling the breadth of the hot beach behind him, Meursault advances. The Arab pulls out his knife, the glint of which strikes Meursault. Oppressed by the heat, blinded by the flash of light and the sweat falling into his eyes, Meursault fires the revolver and kills the Arab. He pauses without reflection, then fires four more times into the inert body.

B Part Two

Meursault is arrested and interviewed. A court lawyer is appointed to him and inquiries are made into his private life. Accusations of insensibility at his mother’s funeral surface. Meursault explains to his lawyer that his nature is such that his physical needs often overpower his feelings. He had been tired the day of the funeral. Meursault observes that his mother’s death has nothing to do with his crime. The lawyer responds that Meursault obviously has little experience with the law.

Meursault begins the first of many interviews with a magistrate. The magistrate first asks about Meursault’s mother, then inquires as to why he paused between his first and second revolver shot. To this latter question Meursault has no answer. Pulling out a crucifix, the magistrate speaks of repentance; he discovers that Meursault does not believe in God. Responding to the magistrate’s accusation that he has a hardened soul, Meursault remarks that rather than feeling regret at having killed the Arab, he experiences only a certain ennui, or sadness. Eleven months pass before the trial. Marie is allowed to visit him only once because they are not married. Meursault soon becomes accustomed to the prison routine and looks forward to the now cordial meetings with the magistrate.

With the summer sun and heat comes the trial. The first day Meursault remarks upon the conviviality of the court scene. The lawyers and journalists mingle and greet one another like members of a club. Meursault watches in silence as witnesses are called forth to testify. The prosecution recalls details from the funeral: Meursault’s calmness and lack of emotion, his quick departure after the burial, and the information, followed by a hush from the courtroom audience, that he did not know the age of his mother. The prosecutor characterizes Meursault as Raymond’s conspirator: he both served as Raymond’s witness at the police station and wrote the letter that set into motion the events that ended in the Arab’s death. The prosecutor concludes that the murder was premeditated and that Meursault killed the Arab to help his friend Raymond. According to the prosecutor, Meursault’s “irregular” relationship with Marie, begun the day after his mother’s funeral, reveals his fundamental lack of respect for social values and reinforces his criminal nature. When Meursault’s lawyer objects and Questions whether his client is accused of having buried his mother or of having killed a man, the prosecutor retorts that he accuses Meursault of having “buried his mother with the heart of a criminal.” Meursault is finally asked by one of the judges why he killed the Arab. Meursault responds that it was “because of the sun.” The prosecutor demands the death penalty. The jury returns a verdict of premeditated murder and the judge sentences Meursault to be guillotined in a public square.

Lying in his cell, having refused three times to speak to the chaplain, Meursault contemplates the social mechanism determining his fate and posits the benefit he would derive from knowing that at least one person had managed to escape the inevitable course of events. Waiting for his appeal, Meursault allows the chaplain to enter his cell. After having answered many Questions concerning his lack of faith, Meursault suddenly cries out and grabs the chaplain by the collar. In a fit of rage he yells out his certitude about life and death, declaring that all are condemned to die, and that this common end renders life absurd and our choices meaningless. Following the outburst Meursault is overcome with peace. His speech to the priest has purged him of bitterness and hope and he feels liberated. For his existence to be complete, Meursault only wishes for many spectators to be present the day of his execution and that they greet him with cries of hate. “In the evening, Marie came to pick me up and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said that it made no difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. She wanted to know if I loved her. I answered as I already had before, that all that meant nothing but that undoubtedly I didn’t love her. ‘Then why marry me?’ she said. I explained to her that marriage was of no importance and that if she wanted, we could get married. Besides, she was the one asking and I was just agreeing to say yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious thing. ‘No’ I said. She was quiet for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She simply wanted to know if I would have accepted the same proposal coming from another woman for whom I would have held a similar affection. ‘Of course’ I said. She then wondered if she loved me. For my part, I could know nothing about it.”

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