The Murderer and the Priest: Meursault and Chesterton

"But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another ... Couldn't he, couldn't this condemned man see...And that from somewhere deep in my future...All the shouting had me gasping for air. But they were already tearing the chaplain from my grip and the guards were threatening me. He calmed them, though, and looked at me for a moment without saying anything. His eyes were full of tears. Then he turned and disappeared." (122, Camus, The Stranger)
"Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, 'He believes in himself.'" (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

G.K. Chesterton was a British Catholic author and social commentator in the early 20th century. I finished reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton a while ago, and found what he said, even though it was written long before the rise of existentialism to the mainstream, to be applicable to a lot of the themes in The Stranger. The egoist philosophers who Chesterton criticizes, who believe in nothing but themselves, are strikingly similar to the existential philosophers who reject all systems of life but their own, especially including Meursault, of The Stranger, and may even be defined in the same statement.

"For the sake of simplicity, it is easier to state the notion by saying that a man can believe that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be no positive proof given to him that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream. But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him with other logicians in a place which has often been alluded to in the course of this chapter [the insane asylum]. The man who cannot believe his senses [the egoist], and the man who cannot believe anything else [the materialist], are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a threepenny bit is infinitely circular. ...When [these philosophers] wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself." (Orthodoxy)

The main argument against this view is of course that there is a vast difference between the egoist and the existentialist, which is true, at least from a sympathetic perspective, but it could certainly be argued that both philosophies view the world in a similar, or at least comparable way. Chesterton’s criticism applies to both, since both philosophies essentially reject all counter-arguments by saying they don’t matter or don’t actually exist. They cannot be reasonably disproven, but this does not mean that they are correct.

I ended up putting the two pieces (The Stranger and Orthodoxy) together after reading the man referring to Meursault as the antichrist, and especially during the climactic final pages with his interaction with the priest, because it contrasts the vastly different realities these two men lived in, and how they were almost like oil and water to each other. For me, the priest seemed to be the human living his life with care and compassion, and Meursault living like a dead man, as if nothing mattered, so it struck me when Meursault himself saw the exact opposite. I don’t mean to push a religious message here, only that it seems like most human beings can probably see Meursault as the antithesis to humanity, if they look hard enough. Since he lives without emotion, morality, or any other basic human connection to reality.

Inside The Mind of Meursault

The Stranger written by Albert Camus is largely a flow of consciousness into a character, Meursault. Things happen in the plot, events that would change someone’s life permanently, but the narration is so distant that it brings the focus away from the plot and to the mind of the character.

With Meursault as well as Camus’ portrayal of Sisyphus in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, the characters that are attached to existentialism aren’t very deep thinkers. Sisyphus goes from sad to happy, Meursault is more complicated in that he isn’t necessarily feel happy or sad, or important even in his own head. He finds some enjoyment in daily activities like eating and napping, and finds conversations interesting, but he feels neither unhappy or content.

For a lot of the story, Camus seems to throw problems and events at Meursault to see how he reacts. And for the most part, Meursault’s lifestyle is stagnant. The eleven months that pass of his questioning have virtually no effect on his mental state, and his five months in prison only act as recovery from things like going to the beach and smoking. Meursault values life for the sole purpose of being able to live, but there’s no reason for him to value time. The reader knowing the internal thoughts of Meursault shifts changes their views on a character like Meursault and allows for many different perspectives of him to be found.

Existentialism is Scary

In Albert Camus’ novel “The Stranger”, The main story we follow is of Meursault’s life. A man who sees the world differently through a perspective that is tragic yet enlightening. Through this enlightenment however, comes dreadful existence. Is life truly meaningless if you find happiness? I believe life is what you make it.

Someone with disdain for existence is going to have a hard time facing the reality of their own philosophy. In the case of Meursault, he is never truly fulfilled in his life and has no problem with throwing it away for the expense of his sanity. Would you rather know so much that it is unbearable to your mind or live a life of blissful ignorance making you at peace with the world. The universe that we live in is shown to give only partial answers.

Meursault may find pleasure to be the end all be all but life is more than that. That doesn’t have to mean the infinite pursuit of knowledge, but some things are worth studying and practicing because as far as we know we don’t know what happens beyond the grave. I may not be religious but I understand the use of religion, the existence of faith has created order in the human population. That order may be good or bad but if society was told all the answers, and we never could theorize, the walls of civilization would come tumbling down depending on what we hear.

Is Meursault actually happy??

In Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger The central theme is express heavily through the nihilism of Meursault the main character, who believe that accepting that life is meaningless due to the randomness of the universe is how one unlocks true peace and happiness. However, unless he is with Marie, he never seems happy.

Throughout the book, Meursault is a monotone, carefree individual who really cares about anyone, including himself. I mean, he probably wouldn’t have killed someone if he was thinking about the repercussions. Only during his physical relationship with Marie does he seem to find enjoyment in anything, and he doesn’t seem to like talking to her. Her physicals traits are the only part of her mentioned, so we know literally nothing and what type of person she is, not even when her birthday is or what’s her favorite food, or just something basic. Even when he was in jail and wanted to feel a women body, even said that he never thought of Marie in particular and that any women would suffice(77). I know that this guy is beyond weird, but he never finds anything but her enjoyable, not even the fact that he has found this secret that no one else knows. I just have to question if the way that he lived is worth it.

Comparison of Matthew and Meursault

At first glance, these characters may seem very similar. They both exhibit feelings of indifference about love, family, and life itself but they are ultimately very different. Meursault and Matthew are both ready to marry a woman they aren’t in love with, neither displays any attachment to their families and by the end of the book, they are both fully prepared to die. The cause for this indifference is what sets these characters apart.

Meursault is indifferent because he doesn’t assign any greater meaning to life. Unlike most people, he doesn’t see a need to fall in love or sustain familial ties and this comes off as a lack of emotion. He is ready to die when he is sentenced because he doesn’t find importance in living.

Matthew’s indifference is the result of his father’s abuse. He is prepared to marry Maria and run away with her and escape. He is looking to get out of his abusive household and create his ideal family. His unattachment to family stems from his experience with abuse and he is ready to die at the end because he is looking for a way out and uses the grenade as a last resort.

Indifference is present in both of these characters but it is caused by different things.

Does The Stranger Covery True Happiness

In life people believe that happiness is from aspects of life like love, family, and being successful. But in life the real things that exist are pain and suffering which creates these other aspects like love and family. Although the aspects of life create a shadow over the real things that exist in the world. And because of this achieving true happiness is much more difficult than understand how it works. Because one of the ways to achieve true happiness is understanding one’s life and what they are made to do in the world. But also being able to be contempt with themselves and how they live in this world which is a very terrible one to live in because of the hardships. So being able to do these things and make this realization creates one true happiness.

In The Stranger by Albert Camus he portrays the main character Meursault as someone with no feelings and is a weird individual. In the beginning of the story Meursault’s mother dies and he has a hard time dealing with it, but does not feel remorse in the moment or even later in the story until the end. When he makes his realization that the world is a cruel place and his feelings about certain aspects of life are more twisted than what one would expect from a “normal person”. Through the story there are different aspects of life that are made in different ways but are fully developed through the pain and suffering in life which are the main aspects of how life is lived and figuring that aspect out is how to achieve happiness in the accursed world. Towards the end of the story he makes a realization that the death penalty is what he deserved and what his position is in the world and what his purpose was in this world. Because he died happy understanding the his life and how the world works and how his life played out and his fate was set and his realization allowed him to achieve true happiness.

This explains how The Stranger expresses true happiness and how when the main character Meursault finally achieves true happiness because he makes the realization of his life and his purpose in this life. Once he made the realization of the pain and suffering that this world brings on people he lived in. He was able to understand his purpose and what his life played out for him. Which allowed him to die happy because of the way he was able to understand the true aspects of life.

Some Things Shouldn’t be Fixed

In “Trust” when Matthew’s boss asks him to fix a broken piece of machinery Matthew replies, “no.”

“Why not?” His boss asks.

“Some things shouldn’t be fixed,” Matthew answers.

The reason why Matthew is frustrated with his work is because they are fixing computers and TVs that were built to fall apart. They were made cheaply and with faulty components and so they inevitably break allowing his company to profit. Is it worth it to attempt to fix a faulty product that is going to simply break again? For the company, the answer is yes. They benefit greatly from fixing their defective products because they are getting paid to do it. It is a genius cycle, they sell flawed products that are built to break and then get paid to fix them and then they inevitably break again. From this, we as viewers begin to question whether sometimes things are better off staying broken than they are being fixed.

As Matthew an Maria’s relationship develops, they both start to change as well seemingly both “fixing each other.” Matthew inspires Maria to become more passionate and learned. She begins to worry far less about her appearance: ditching her extremely heavy makeup and bright clothes for her “librarian” glasses and a simple, muted dress. These were all aspects about Maria that seemingly needed fixing at the beginning of the movie. She blew off school, she was far too worried about her physical appearance and on top of that, she was pregnant as well. Once Matthew comes into her life, her perspective changes. She writes in her journal about her wishes to become more intelligent and less “young” and “stupid.”

Matthew begins to change as well due to Maria’s influences. He was once a man who could not have cared less about anything he was doing in his life. He was getting fired from jobs he hated. He had so much knowledge and potential but was not channeling it anywhere. He stood up for what he believed in and allowed his morals (and self-righteousness at times) to guide every decision he made. Hence why he refused to repair the TVs. Once he was set on marrying Maria, moving her away from her mother and raising the baby with her, he made drastic changes in his life. He went back to his job so that he could get “practical” hours and benefits for Maria and the baby even though the scam they were running went so deeply against his morals. He started watching TV and being short with her and she confesses to the nurse at the diner how much she wishes she didn’t change him. Even if it happened unknowingly.

Both of these characters are worse off in the end after changing for each other. Matthew ends up getting tricked by Maria’s mother and Maria ends up really disliking the new Matthew. So much so that she goes through with her abortion. In fact Matthew must go back to his original, apathetic self (with the grenade) for them to be together again. They became attracted to each other not in spite of their perceived flaws but because of them. It is similar to how in the Stranger, Marie tells Meursault that the fact that he is so strange is probably the reason why she loves him. Like the TVs, both of these characters would have been better off “unfixed” and “untouched.”

Social and Musical Norms

After focusing on The Stranger and then how various other works of writing and even films took inspiration from it, I began to think about music. If Meursault goes against social norms by doing things such as not participating in the systems of marriage, love and religion, what does music that doesn’t follow social (or musical) norms look like?

Music, like all things, has been put in a system, especially in the United States. Most ‘mainstream’ music sticks to a few keys, is played on certain instruments and due to other musical laws, has a certain sound. Therefore, bands that do not do these things stick out in a very unique way. One band that stuck out to me was the Dirty Projectors. On their early albums, the Dirty Projectors fight against many musical norms. Strange harmonies, instruments that don’t seem to go together and weird lyrics. Many found the music annoying , jarring and hard to follow. The truth is, by breaking many laws of mainstream music, the Dirty Projectors were bound to offend many listeners. Just as Meursault was driven out of society, seemingly inevitably, music that doesn’t fit the norm is hated on to an extreme.