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In chapter II of Part II of Camus's novel The Stranger, Meursault narrates a story that he read in an old newspaper cutting that he found under his mattress in prison. Below is a summary.

A man from a Czech village makes a fortune abroad and returns to his village twenty-five years later. He leaves his wife and daughter in a hotel and then checks into the hotel run by his mother and sister (to surprise them), who don't recognise him. During the night, they kill him for his money. The next morning, the man's wife and daughter arrive at the hotel and unintentionally reveal who the man was. The victim's mother and sister kill themselves.

As far as I can remember, Meursault never refers to this story again in the remainder of the novel. What is its relevance here or to the novel as a whole?

  • Camus also published this story as a standalone play in 1943. Apparently it was based on a real story he heard while on holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936. – Rand al'Thor May 12 at 20:53
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Both the newspaper article that Meursault finds in his prison cell and the play Le Malentendu / The Misunderstanding are inspired by a newspaper article that Camus cut out off an Algerian newspaper in June 1935, which reported a real event (B. Pingaud: L'Étranger d'Albert Camus. Gallimard, 1992; page 145). The story's significance becomes clear when we compare the traveller's attitude towards truthfulness with Meursault's.

When Meursault talks to his lawyer for the first time after his arrest, the lawyer tells him that witnesses had described him as insensitive at his mother's funeral and that this might be used against him during the murder trial. The lawyer asks him whether he would be willing to say that he had tried to control his emotions at the funeral ("dire que ce jour-là j'avais dominé mes sentiments"), Meursault responds, "No, because it would be untrue" ("Non, parce que c'est faux"; emphasis added). The lawyer is not pleased by this answer.

The rest of the narrative is also constructed in a way that suggest that Meursault is put on trial for being committed to the truth, as opposed to agreeing to follow the rules of the game by lying when necessary. However, in order to present Meursault as someone whom society wants to eliminate for his commitment to truth, he also needs to be portrayed as an "innocent murderer". There are two important ways in which the novel achieves this. First, the killing of the Arab (end of Part One, chapter VI) is described as a unfortunate accident (Meursault is half-blinded by the reflection of the sun on the Arab's knife blade, and just at that moment, the sweat that had gathered over and in his eyebrows rushes down into his eyes, so he pulls the trigger). In the second part of the novel, the Arab is never mentioned again (except once, during the trial; questions about the killing are otherwise about "the shots" or "the body"). The prosecution asks him why he fired five shots (Meursault says it was the sun) but the trial focuses mostly on Maursault's behaviour at his mother's funeral, what he had done the day after (go swimming with a woman he likes, then go to the cinema and spend the night with her) and what he had done for Raymond Sintès, who is suspected of being a pimp.

The behaviour of the traveller from the newspaper article contrast with Meursault in that he is willing to play games: by not revealing who he is to his own mother and sister, he shows that he is willing to pretend to be different that he really is. He pretends to be a stranger. (Ironically, this makes him another stranger inside a story discovered inside a novel about the stranger.) Meursault comments: "I thought that the traveller had deserved it to some extent and that you should never play games" ("ju trouvais que le voyageur l'avait un peu mérité et qu'il ne faut jamais jouer").

The conclusion from the comparison between Meursault and the traveller is rather depressing: if you consistently stick to the truth, society will try to get rid of you; if you play games, those may also end deadly. There is no way out. And this impression of having no way out is present in other passages in the novel. At the end of Part One, Chapter 1, the nurse who accompanies the funeral procession comments on the heat:

"If we walk slowly, we risk risk getting sunstroke. But if we walk too fast, we work up a sweat and catch a chill inside the church." She was right. There was no way out.

(Note that the French text uses the indefinite pronoun "on", which may be translated as "one" (very formal when compared to the novel's overall style), "we" (which is plausible in this specific context) or "you" (as some translators have done).)

Meursault's struggle with the heat leading up to the killing (the end of Part One, chapter VI) is also reminiscent of this concept. When Meursault sets out to the rock where the "Arabs" had been earlier, he feels as if the heat were pressing against him, but once he is close to the Arab, he feels as is the heat is pressing him forward, as if preventing him from turning around and letting go of the earlier incident. Again, there seems to be no way out.

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The story reminds me of Oedipus, who unintentionally kills his actual father and marries his mother, and on finding out the truth, exiles himself.

Most likely, Camus himself was interested in this ancient story as we know he studied classics, and he also wrote an essay, the Myth of Sisyphus. But this does not mean that this story is of any direct relevance to l'Etranger, after all, it's mentioned only in a newspaper cutting, and then in passing.

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    The reference to Oedipus sounds interesting but I'm not convinced that the story has no direct relevance to the rest of the novel. – Tsundoku May 6 at 14:20
  • @Tsundoku: What do you suppose is its 'direct relevance' and what direct evidence do you have for supposing so? – Mozibur Ullah May 6 at 14:46
  • @tsundoku:as you point out yourself it's not mentioned again in any way in the rest of the novel... – Mozibur Ullah May 6 at 14:48
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    If I knew that, I could answer my own question :-) – Tsundoku May 6 at 14:48
  • @Tsundoku: well you seemed to be convinced of its relevance even when pointing out its own irrelevance. – Mozibur Ullah May 6 at 14:49

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