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The first line of The Stranger goes like this:

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: "Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours." That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

Meursault doesn't know exactly what day his mother (Maman) died.

In this opening, he reiterates the same point a couple times - "Or yesterday maybe", "Maybe it was yesterday". That, combined with "That doesn't mean anything", is hinting to me that perhaps it's not sitting quite right with him that he doesn't know what day she died.

Is Meursault bothered by the fact that he doesn't know what day Maman died?

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One of the novel's paradoxes is that Camus employs a first-person narration, which normally allows the reader access to the character's inner thoughts and feelings (see e.g. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), but does not give us much insight into Meursault's thoughts and feelings. Meursault admits to the examining magistrate (Part Two, Chapter I) that he has lost the habit of questioning himself, and the rest of the novel bears this out. He is also indifferent to many things that people say to him, e.g. Marie's marriage proposal and Raymond's question whether he wants to be his pal.

Meursault's admission that he does not attach great importance to the question whether his mother died on the day he received the telegram or the day before is the beginning of the pattern of indifference that runs through the entire novel. (Near the end he even says that life is not worth living.)

From a purely technical perspective, Meursault is right in saying he does not know on which day his mother died. The telegram says the funeral will take the next day but does not say whether his mother died that morning, the day before or during the night. However, Meursault does not frame the issue in this way; instead of mourning about the loss of his mother and a plan to find out the day of her decease, we only get, "That doesn't mean anything."

If we accept Meursault's story (i.e. the novel as a whole) as what he truly thinks and feels, then he is not bothered by it. However, it is also plausible that he simply has no access to his inner feelings and that his seeming indifference is a symptom rather than the cause of his strange reactions. This might be connected to his focus on physical and sensory impressions that pervade the novel (see What is Meursault's problem with the heat?). This enigma appears to be related to Camus's artistic credo at the time, expressed both in his notebooks (Carnets) and in The Myth of Sisyphus: "The true work of art is the one that says less" ("Le véritable œuvre d'art est celle qui dit moins").

However, The Stranger has also been subjected to psychoanalytic interpretations, for example in the light of Freud's book Mourning and Melancholia (Trauer und Melancholie. According to Freud, mourning could one of two paths. (I am using Danielle Trudeau's article Mourning and Melancholia: Freud’s Thoughts on Loss here. See also pages 114-123 in Bernard Pingaud's book L'Étranger d'Albert Camus, Gallimard, 1992.) Either the person in mourning feels their loss in an external way. In that case, they can reform their feeling of loss and the process ends with a kind of acceptance. Or the person in mourning feels their pain in an internal way; it is felt in the unconscious, 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).

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  • I feel the psychological aspect of this novel has not been adequately discussed or even acknowledged. Anyone who has suffered from depression will immediately recognize symptoms of that condition in Mersault, yet the one time when I attended college only the philosophical implications for Existentialism was of this book was discussed. (Or maybe such a reading of this book is considered beyond undergraduates.) – llywrch Sep 17 at 15:13
  • @llywrch One of the curious aspects of The Stranger is that is not a realist novel and that analysing Meursault like a realist character is not very productive. However, psychoanalytic readings have been able to explain aspects that other modes of interpretation could not explain (or not very well). When discussing existentialism, it is important to bear in mind that Camus was not an existentialist in the same vein as Sartre (not even before his break with Sartre). So one should always explain what "existentialism" refers to exactly when using it in discussions of Camus's writings. – Tsundoku Sep 17 at 15:20
  • I should have mentioned that I read this book as part of a class on Existentialist literature. (We also read Sartre & a few other authors the professor considered "Existentialist".) So if you want an explanation of how that word applies to this work, you would need to ask her for that. Then again, had I expanded on that point in my original comment, it might have obscured the irony in my last sentence. – llywrch Sep 17 at 15:29
  • I should probably add when I re-read this book many years later, I was gobsmacked at how much sense it made if Mersault is seen as depressed. (He did just suffer a major psychological stressor -- the death of a loved one.) A depressed person sees the world in terms of action or passivity, which has similarities to the philosophy of Existentialism, similarities that has led me to ponder if that philosophy had its origins in depression. The novel would only appear not to be realist; as Wittgenstein wrote, "The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man." – llywrch Sep 17 at 15:41
  • @llywrch You could probably answer a few questions based on such an interpretation, at least if you have the novel still fresh in your mind. – Tsundoku Sep 17 at 15:47

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