In Albert Camus' book The Stranger, Meursault kills a character known as "the Arab" for no real reason at all. Meursault even acknowledges that he doesn't have to kill "the Arab"

It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it.

When he does shoot "the Arab", he notes that "each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing."

All in all, killing "the Arab" seems like a bad idea. But strangely enough, no real explanation is given for why Meursault killed "the Arab".

What's going on here?

5 Answers 5


Initially, there isn't much. The final words of Part I read this:

I wanted to hear the murmur of its water again, to escape from the sum and the effort and the women's tears, and to relax in the shade again. But when I got nearer, I saw that Raymond's Arab had come back. He was alone. He was lying on his back, with his hands behind his head ... As far as I was concerned, it was all settled and I'd gone there without even thinking about it. As soon as he saw me, he sat up lightly and put his hand in his pocket.

pg. 58-59

There was a bit of a defensive mood at this point in the story. You have to remember that Meursault had simply gone with his friends for a day on the beach. Two Arabs were seemingly following them. Prior to these paragraphs, these Arabs had already engaged in a bit of a fight with Meursault and his friends, with one of them having slashed his friend with a knife. Moving on... (emphasis mine)

I took a few steps towards the spring. The Arab didn't move. Even now, he was still some distance away... I waited. The sun was beginning to burn on my cheeks, and I felt drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. It was the same sun as on the day of my mother's funeral, and again it was my forehead that was hurting me most and all the veins were throbbing at once beneath the skin... I took a step, just one step forward. And this time, without sitting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it out towards me in the sun... All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear still leaping up off the knife in front of me. It was like a red-hot blade gnawing at my eyelashes and gouging out my stinging eyes.

pg. 59-60

This passage is also interesting. Meursault was undoubtedly under the sun, and it was affecting him. The parallel between the sun and his mother's funeral is also somewhat significant. At his mother's funeral, he was largely alone and almost kept to himself. He also defied many societal standards related to his mother's funeral.

The passages in these pages offer that parallel. Meursault wants to keep the peace within him, and he doesn't want anyone around him. The presence of the Arab disturbed him. When the Arab drew his knife, it disturbed this peace, bringing about provoking actions:

... That was when everything shook... The sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame. My whole being went tense and I tightened my grip on the gun. The trigger gave, I felt the underside of the polished butt and it was there, in that sharp but deafening noise, that it all started. I realized that I'd destroyed the balance of the day and the perfect silence of this beach where I'd been happy. And I fired four more times at a lifeless body and the bullets sank without leaving a mark. And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.

pg. 60

These passages provide a direct narrative for what directly instigated the act. Meursault may not have been completely conscious of his act.

But what I find interesting is the last sentence. You see, this novel is largely about existentialism. Albert Camus, the author, was an existentialist. The murder came as a shock - here we are looking at the life of an absurd man. He doesn't necessarily follow social norms, he's not married... etc. Earlier in the chapter, he said:

When Raymond handed me his gun, the sun glinted off it... I realized at that point that you could either shoot or not shoot.

pg. 57

You can shoot or not shoot. It doesn't matter. If someone is murdered or not, the world doesn't care. The theme of existence is largely at play. Whatever happens, it doesn't matter.

No matter how you look at it, there is not a reasonable explanation for Meursault's actions. It conveys the theme of existentialism, as well as the title of the book overall - Mersualt is an outsider in the way that he defies the laws of society. You see this most notably in his trial, where he shows remorse, and is ultimately convicted not because he committed the murder, but because he doesn't live up to what society wishes.

  • I think this answer would probably be improved if you talked more about existentialism. Maybe consider moving the last paragraph of this answer to the front of it? That said, I think there are a lot of positives about this answer. In particular, your analysis of the quote "you could either shoot or not shoot" is very well done.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 0:25
  • @Hamlet I'll do that. I spent a bit of time writing this answer, but now I'm hungry and will probably grab some food :)
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 0:26
  • No worries; there's no rush. Basically all I'm saying is that you put the important parts of this answer behind the unimportant parts. (And that maybe you could talk a bit more about the important parts).
    – user111
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 0:29
  • Just pinging you to let you know there's now an open bounty on the question. If you edit this answer enough, maybe you'll get the bounty :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 22:36
  • 1
    Did you mean "shows no remorse" rather than "shows remorse"?
    – g wells
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 19:38

There are two main approaches to finding an explanation to the killing of the Arab. One is based on the novel's meaning (i.e. looking beyond character analysis); another approach looks beyond over character motivation to find motives that are not apparent at the surface.

What does not work well is looking for motivation at the surface level of the text. This is due to Camus's narrative technique. The entire story is told from a first-person perspective, i.e. a type of perspective that, in French literature before The Stranger, had been used to allow introspection. But introspection is exactly what we don't get; instead we get a narrative that gives us roughly the same insight into Meursault as a third-person perspective, almost as if an outsider were observing Meursault; only it is Meursault himself telling that story. Several early critics have commented on this, for example Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Blanchot and Claude-Edmonde Magny.

For this reason, analysing Meursault like a character from a realist novel is a vain pursuit. Camus himself remarked in his notebooks (in a draft for a letter in response to a review of The Stranger), "Realism is a meaningless word (Madame Bovary and Demons are realist novels and they have nothing in common." ("Le réalisme est un mot vide de sens (Mme Bovary et Les Possédés sont des romans réalistes et ils n'ont rien en commun." Quoted in Bernard Pingaud: L'Étranger d'Albert Camus. Gallimard, 1992, page 187.)

As mentioned above, Meursault tells his story with a kind of outsider's objectivity. He is also presented as a character that refuses to lie and play by society's conventional rules. After his mother's death, he does not seem to be mourning: he is not interested in having his mother's coffin opened so he can take a last look at her, he smokes during the wake, even falls asleep, and he doesn't weep during the funeral. These are examples of not playing by the normal social rules: he does not want to feign grief when he doesn't feel any. His lawyer later tells him that this could be used against him during the murder trial and suggest that he might say that his insensitivity at the funeral was not real but the result of an attempt to control his emotions. Meursault immediately rejects the idea because it was "untrue". This illustrates his refusal to lie.

Later on, during the trial, the killing of the Arab becomes an issue of secondary importance compared to Meursault's insensitiveness. Witnesses are questioned about Meursault's character and about his behaviour during and after the funeral but not about what they know about the killing. Meursualt is accused of "morally killing" his own mother; during his closing speech, the prosecutor even claims Meursault is also guilty of killing his father. (In reality, the cause of his mother's death is not known but she was definitely not killed by Meursault, while his father died when he was still a small child.) The prosecution's closing speech appears to mention the killing of the Arab only briefly, adding that Meursault "knows the value of words", which is another allusion to Meursault's commitment to truth (though probably not from the prosecutor's point of view).

From this point of view, as I already mentioned in my discussion of the Czechoslovak traveller's story, Meursault is put on trial for refusing to lie and not playing by society's conventional rules. However, a novel about a character that is prosecuted solely for this reason would be implausible. This is why society needs an excuse to put Meursault on trial, and by letting Meursault unintentionally kill an Arab, the novelist provides exactly that excuse.

Another way of approaching Meursault's "motivation" to kill the Arab is provided by psychoanalysis. As mentioned before, Meursault does not show any signs of grief or mourning after his mother's death. From a Freudian point of view, a person in mourning can feel their loss in an external way. In that case, they can reform their feeling of loss and the process of mourning ends with a kind of acceptance. Or a person in mourning feels their pain in an internal way; it is felt in the unconscious only, where the person is not aware of it. In that case, according to Freud, the grief is so heavy that it is repressed and cannot be processed by the conscious mind. This would explain why, at the funeral, Meursault behaves in a way that witnesses later describe as insensitive. It would also explain why his mother is mentioned again and again later in the book, for example, when he hears Salamano weep over the loss of his dog, he suddenly thinks of his mother but can't explain why (end of Part One, chapter III).

Freudian interpretations take this further to explain other aspects of the novel. (See for example, Bernard Pingaud: L'Étranger d'Albert Camus. Gallimard, 1992; page 114-123.) At the end of a normal mourning process, the mourner eventually prefers himself over the lost "object"; at the end of a pathological process, the mourner is unable to give up the lost "object", ascribe the lost to himself and decides to share its fate (see Freud's Mourning and Melancholia). This would explain Meursault's unusual behaviour each time people ask him something about his mother. (For example, during his first conversation with the investigating magistrate in Part Two, Chapter I, the magistrate asks him whether he had loved his mother. Meursault answers, "Yes, like everybody", after which he notices that the clerk behind him suddenly interrupts his regular typing as if had mistyped something and needed to delete it.)

Shortly before that he had already thought to himself: "I probably loved mother, but that didn't mean anything. All sane beings had more or less wished for the death of those they loved." ("Sans doute, j'aimais maman, mais cela ne voulait rien dire. Tous les être sains avaient plus ou moins souhaité la mort de ceux qu'ils aimaient.") For Freudian critics, Meursault's wish for his mother's death is as if he had effectively killed here, so it would only be just for him to share her fate. From this point of view, the killing of the Arab is a roundabout way of committing suicide, using the justice system as an instrument. (This reading puts the prosecutor's claim that Meursault had "morally killed" his mother in a different light than the previous interpretation.)

Both of these interpretations are rather unintuitive but they uncover aspects of the novel that remain hidden when reading the novel and analysing its characters as if The Stranger were a realist novel.


We as humans do a lot of stupid things, and we only realize that afterward, saying "that was so stupid of me". Just imagine yourself in the middle of the desert, the sun is killing you with the heat, and the sweat is all over your face and eyes. Some might take the sand to get rid of the sweat or anything stupid. At that exact moment, the mind is away from being conscious of his surroundings and the only thing the person is thinking about is the comfort of his body. Camus says

j'avais une nature telle que mes besoins physiques dérangeaient souvent mes sentiments

I had a nature where my physical needs disturb often my feelings

Taking that under consideration, Meursault was leaving away from the morning of the women, he was going towards that rock where it seems to have a place where he can hide from the sun and from people, so to meet a person right there and also having that pressure on his head, made him commit a stupid thing. The definition of stupid is:

So foolish or pointless as to be worthy of scornful laughter.

And that is exactly what happened. In chapter 4 part 2 Meursault said

Je me suis levé et comme j'avais envie de parler, j'ai dit, un peu au hasard d'ailleurs, que je n'avais pas eu l'intention de tuer l'Arabe.

He had no intention to kill the Arab. In the same paragraph, he says

J'ai dit rapidement, en mêlant un peu les mots et en me rendant compte de mon ridicule, que c'était a cause du soleil.

He literally said "realizing how ridiculous I am". Personally, I can totally understand why he killed him, it wasn't intentional. And of course, we all know that he is a mature and smart person, killing a person won't do him any good.


It's often taken that Meursault is the outsider, the stranger amongst men and that he has chosen this destiny for himself and this ties in with the notion of existentialism where one chooses who one is to be - day by day - and maybe hour by hour. Yet none of this is apparent in the text. Moreover, if I recall rightly Camus insisted that he was not an existentialist - at least in Sartre's mould.

And nor is this how marginalisation often works: Man is a gregarious and social creature - he does not exclude himself from the social. What more often occurs is that the outsider finds himself on the outside. It is society itself that excludes to protect its coherence. We are given very little information why Meursault is on the outside of society - Camus does not care to give us a back-story. Though, of course, Meursault must have one: he may be impoverished, he may not have found the right station in life or he may simply be grieving over some unmentioned passion that Camus omits to mention.

As for why Meursault kills the Arab, again Camus gives us very few clues. For all we know, it could be simply a moment of temporary insanity: the sun is in his eyes, he's tired, weary and looking for solace in the silence of the shade, the Arab appears to be a threat...


The Stranger is not existentialist, but nihilist.

There is no God, no meaning, no free will, and (most impressively in this work) no absolute moral judgment.

He shoots because the Sun is in his eyes. This is nature's hand, i.e. as literature The Stranger is naturalism. The view came into literature after Darwin's theory was popularized as a vindication of atheism.

  • 1
    How does this nihilism come out in the text itself? I'm sure you're right, but without any evidence it's hard for me to know how to vote on this answer.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 23:56
  • It comes through the naturalism. Man is an animal that can only respond to the environment. Meursault kills as a response to the sun. Likewise, the "robot woman" is in apposition to the young reporter that reminds Meursault of himself, i.e. Meursault is also a robot. The existential interpretation here is wrong. Also, Meursault champions nothing but his atheism and his own physical desires. His final peace is the "benign indifference" of the universe. The universe has no judgment because there is no God or objective morality. He says, "One can never be sure" on morals, even on physical beating
    – Friejek
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 9:58
  • Camus was not a nihilist. His protagonist, Meursault, becomes a nihilist. Why? Well, that is what the book is about. Commented May 13, 2020 at 18:09
  • My brother has informed me of the same thing many times, recommending I read further Camus, so I understand your comment there. But I do believe Mersault makes many points from the beginning -- defining love as simply something accustomed to (re: his mother) and having no other meaning (re: his girlfriend), of forsaking all ambition (re: his job), and the inability to make moral judgments (re: the neighbor's dog, the beaten girl) -- that identify him as a nihilist.
    – Friejek
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 2:22

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