Within the novel, The Stranger, by Albert Camus, the reader is transported to 1940s Algiers to witness the crime and eventual death sentence of its main character, Meursault, who murders a man after he had attacked him and two friends. While the book very intriguingly focuses on existentialism through Meursaults failure to conform to society and the true happiness that is awarded to him because of this lack of conformity, there is another social commentary within the book that may easily be overshadowed by this analysis of existence itself.
Throughout the second part of The Stranger a secondary discussion may begin to reveal itself to the reader. That is: whether or not capital punishment is morally permissible. Rather interestingly, this topic is not brought up in any way by Meursault or anybody else within the story. Instead, Camus rather interestingly inserts bits of information throughout Meursault’s trial that, when viewed together, combine into clear hypocrisy. Halfway through Meuraults trial, after the prosecutor has spoken, Camus writes, “Before hearing from my lawyer [the judge] would be happy to have me state precisely the motives for my actions. Fumbling a little with my words and realizing how ridiculous I sounded, I blurted out that it was because of the sun. People laughed. My lawyer threw up his hands, and immediately after that he was given the floor.” Additionally, while listening to his lawyer speak about the events leading up to and during the murder, Meursault thinks to himself, “I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn’t mine anymore… the jury would not send an honest, working man to his death because he had lost control of himself for one moment”(103-4). Meursault’s claim about shooting the man because of the sun is immediately written off by not only the judge and prosecutor but even his lawyer. It is viewed as so absurd that it sparks laughter in the court and he is immediately told to sit back and not say anything else. The court, and society as a whole, clearly hold murder up as a major crime and believe that someone who commits it must have an equally major reason behind it. This is why his lawyer spins this crime into the result of a violent, vengeful outburst from Meursault over the harm of a friend. Even after it is signaled that this reasoning is believed by the jury, Meursault is still convicted and sentenced to death.
This raises the question– if murder is still viewed as immoral, even when it is done as a result of a crime that the victim committed, why then, is capital punishment perceived as moral? This is where Camus displays the greatest example of hypocrisy relating to the topic. Meursault’s committing a “vengeful” murder is illegal and results in him receiving the death penalty, effectively government-approved, vengeful murder. A lone type of murder that is totally legal. Since it is established that murder, even out of revenge, is morally reprehensible, it would only make sense for capital punishment to be viewed in the same way.
One thought on “The Stranger and the Hypocrisy of Capital Punishment”
I agree, it’s hypocritical how ready they are to kill Meursault. The prosecutor even calls him a monster and there’s a sense throughout the trial that he’s going to get the death penalty. I think that with his strange actions and silence about his defense, he was seen as a threat to normal society, and easy for people to feel moral about killing him. They were also trying to make an example of him for everyone else and the next trial where someone killed their father.