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?


2 Answers 2


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).

  • 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 at 15:47

TL;DR: Yes he is bothered that he doesn't know which day his mother died. But only slightly, and not nearly as much as he is saddened by her death.

Rather than rewriting most of it, here's my answer to Did Camus have a known source of inspiration for Meursault's behaviour during and after his mother's funeral?, which should also answer this question:

L'Étranger's story is written from a first-person point of view, so we know only what Meursault himself knows. It is also written in an unusual French tense that makes it much more immediate and intimate. The result is that we see what happens exactly as Meursault experiences it. Had this been written in English, it would have been written in the present tense.

Most English translators don't understand this, and so tell the story badly. The very first sentence is mistranslated, and as a result the whole meaning of the very first paragraph is lost. And if one can't understand this first paragraph, one can't appreciate the rest of the novel.

The worst translations begin with "My mother died today", which is wrong in so many ways. "My mother" makes it formal, cold, and impersonal; the original was the equivalent of "Mom", or even "Mommy".

Even those that don't make this mistake place his mother first, and then the rest of the paragraph reads as if it is about his mother and her death. But it isn't. In French, the book begins with "Aujourd'hui" (today), and that is what the first paragraph is about. He is in effect saying:

Today is the day my Mom died. The telegram said only that the funeral would be tomorrow, so perhaps it was actually yesterday.

He then goes on to describe having to ask his boss for two days leave and having to take a bus to the site. The entire beginning of the story is about what he will remember about today, not about his mother.

Meursault's expressed concern is that his memory about today might be slightly wrong. The fact of his mother's death itself is irrelevant.

Consider someone who:

  • lives in the present, plans for the future, but ignores the past except when it becomes relevant.
  • does not have memories that are burdened with sensual or emotional baggage.
  • observes and analyzes every new situation, but remembers only the details that are important or different from the norm.

These are among the characteristics of aphantasia.

Meursault was almost certainly aphantasic (as was, I suspect, Camus himself).

Now consider some of the things that Meursault tells us about the bus ride:

  • The trip lasted about 2 hours, and filled up along the route.
  • He sat by himself in the same seat that he usually takes.
  • The bus itself wasn't especially large or small.
  • It made the usual number of stops to pick up or drop off passengers.
  • The driver was neither female nor Japanese, but was experienced and competent.
  • The road was in its normal state, neither recently paved nor in disrepair.

Only the "2 hours" is explicitly mentioned, and the filling up can be concluded by his finding someone sitting beside him when he awoke. Everything else though, and much more, is implied by Meursault's not mentioning it. What he reports is what he will remember, and what he remembers is only what he considers to be important or different. That is how aphantasics think and live.

Is he upset that his mother died? Does he feel sad? Of course, but that would be a natural response to the situation, so he doesn't see it as a significant fact worth recording.

Is he bothered that he doesn't know what day his mother died? Yes, because when one has very sparse memories, not knowing something that might be significant is troublesome. But it is only slightly so, almost nothing in comparison to the loss of his mother.

Aphantasics don't visualize past memories; they don't remember doing something, they remember that they did something.

Consider a boy falling down and breaking his arm. He lies there feeling pain and fear, and seeing the look on his mother's face. Years later, when he remembers the incident, he will re-experience that pain and fear and will re-see his mother's expression. Had he been aphantasic, he would remember that he fell down, that his arm broke, that it hurt, that he was afraid, and that his mother looked terrified. But, he will not feel the experience of the pain or emotions, and he won't even visualize what his mother's face looked like (then or at any other time).

Meursault's sadness and pain at learning of his mother's death was just as real and immediate for him as it would have been for any other person.

But Meursault doesn't recall the past by visualizing what he saw or felt; he doesn't re-experience anything that happened. What he will recall is that his mother died, that he read about it in a telegram, that he went to her funeral by bus, that etc.

His mother's death is a fact that he has processed and remembered. It is part of his past, and will be remembered only when needed, and only as if it were a third-person report.

When he is at the funeral, he still feels sad, but that goes without saying, so there is no need for him to comment about it. What he does comment on is what is unusual or important, such as the annoyingly white walls, or the mourners that are there more to judge him than to mourn his mother.

Two days later, his memories of that trip have already become distant, accepted as reality and now simply a part of his history. He will think about them, but when he does, it will be about the facts; he will not experience any emotional recall.

Of course he will continue with his normal activities (e.g. going to the cinema), because why wouldn't he? The alternative would be sitting alone thinking about what just happened. For most people that would mean experiencing hours of misery and hurt. For Meursault though, it would mean two minutes of recalling every detail he remembers, without the attached emotions, and then what? Why waste time feeling sorry for oneself when one has a life to live?

This is the cause of the seemingly uncaring behaviour (unusual from a phantasic's point of view) that was used in the trial.

For more details about aphantasia, see this personal description by Blake Ross (former director at Facebook and co-founder of Firefox): Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.

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