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The novel A Happy Death, written in the late 1930s and published posthumously in 1971, has a main character named Patrice Mersault. Camus's novel The Stranger, written a few years later and published in 1942, has a main character named Meursault. I was struck by the fact that these two characters in two different novels by the same author have almost identical names. It would've been less surprising if the names were completely identical, as a more obvious reflection of some relationship between the characters/stories; making them almost-but-not-quite identical just seems confusing for anyone who wants to read both stories.

What is the significance of this? Either the significance of either/both of the names themselves (do they mean something?) or the significance of the difference between them (that letter U) or the significance of their similarity (denoting very similar characters?)

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Camus loved the sea and nature generally. His unfinished early novel La Mort heureuse contains a scene in which Patrice Mersault goes swimming in the sea; the scene is described in very sensuous terms. (See Albert Camus, La Mort heureuse, Le bain de mer, in French.)

So on a very literal level, Mersault can be read as mer (sea) and sault/saut (jump; the 'l' in 'sault' is silent); when ignoring that French creates compounds in a very different way than English, the name can be read as "jump into the sea" (French equivalent: "saut à la mer").

After abandoning La Mort heureuse, Camus started working on L'étranger. He reused elements from La Mort heureuse, but obviously changed many other things, including the narrative perspective (the third person narrative was replaced with a first person narrative). The change from Mersault to Meursault leads to a name that actually already existed: Meursault is the name of a commune in France (now familiar to anyone who has watched the 1966 film La Grande Vadrouille).

The change also introduces a wordplay: "meur" sounds like "meurs" and "meurt", which are singular forms of the present indicative of the verb mourir. From this point of view, Meursault "jumps" to his death by killing the Arab in the first part of the novel.

In Looking for the Stranger (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Alice Kaplan presents the following story about how the name change may have come about (page 65-66):

In the only surviving manuscript of the novel, (...), Camus still spells his narrator's last name "Mersault", identical to the hero of A Happy Death. Later, he would differentiate him from the main character of A Happy Death, by adding the "u" to Meursault's name. When you pronounce "Meursault" without the "u", it sounds ethnically Spanish, like "Merso" (...).
(...) Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine, Meursault. Whether or not the story about the Paris dinner party is true, there is something more expected about the way Meur-sault sounds to a French ear than Mer-sault, and the coincidence might have pleased Camus since the extra "u"—signifying meur (death)—served his novelistic purposes in every other way.

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  • Thanks - I love wordplay. I assume "Maur-sault" is a typo in your quoted text, rather than yet another variant of this name? Alice Kaplan also wrote about this on a blog, with the interesting note that Meursault wine was awarded as a literary prize, so Camus might have chosen the character name as a joke hoping for nominative determinism in the prize. – Rand al'Thor May 30 at 19:33
  • Thanks for pointing out the typo. The story about the prize sounds strange, since Kaplan knows that The Stranger is set in Algeria, while Burgundy is in France. – Tsundoku May 30 at 19:54

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