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The first lines of Albert Camus' The Stranger go something like this:

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday

It's told in the present tense, as in, when Meursault is recounting the event it had happened that very same day. This tense continues for the next two paragraphs, emphasis mine:

The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.”

and

Afterwards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no reason to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sympathy and so forth. Probably he will do so the day after tomorrow, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Mother weren’t really dead. The funeral will bring it home to me, put an official seal on it, so to speak. ...

Basically, these paragraphs have Meursault speaking as is the telegram arrived the day is speaking, the funeral the next day, and Meursault already having taken time to act on it and call off work. He can take the 2:00 bus tomorrow to arrive on time.

However, the next paragraph and the rest of the book go like this:

I took the two-o’clock bus. It was a blazing hot afternoon. I’d lunched, as usual, at Céleste’s restaurant. Everyone was most kind, and Céleste said to me, “There’s no one like a mother.” When I left they came with me to the door. It was something of a rush, getting away, as at the last moment I had to call in at Emmanuel’s place to borrow his black tie and mourning band. He lost his uncle a few months ago

Reading from this, he's speaking as if he had already taken the bus, lunched, and so forth in the past tense. This continues for the rest of the book and it's finally revealed at the end of the story that Meurasault was speaking in the past tense after the court case and just before the execution.

When I first read this, I thought it was a bad translation or something in the first few paragraphs. But every copy I can get hold of keeps the tenses as they are. The line "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday" and its variations have even come to represent the book.

Why is the tense different for the first few paragraphs of The Stranger?

  • If this is quoted from an English translation, could you please add which one? (The first one by Stuart Gilbert, which had several issues? Or a more recent one?) Or are those quotes your own translations? – Tsundoku Aug 23 at 11:59
  • The whole context of 'The Stranger' is from the perspective of someone who exists on the fringes of society and therefore experiences time through a distorted frame. – Charles M Saunders Sep 7 at 16:51
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+100

I'm not sure if whole books have been written on the topic, but at least whole book chapters have been. I haven't read this book, but I'll share my first impression.

One thing to note is that the English translation you quote is reasonably faithful. It slightly misses the effect of the original, however, in that it doesn't use a future tense. A more accurate translation of the beginning of the second paragraph would be (my translation):

The old people's home is in Marengo, eighty kilometers from Algiers. I will take the bus at two o'clock and I will arrive in the afternoon. This way I will be able to hold the wake, and I will come back tomorrow night.

Another thing that isn't apparent in the English translation is which past tense is used in most of the book. The normal tense in a novel is the passé simple. This is a literary tense, rarely used in everyday life in the 20th century, suitable for expressing that something happened at some past time. The Stranger is (apart from the first two paragraphs) written in the passé composé, which in literary usage is only used to indicate that something has been accomplished, but in everyday language is used for any past action. The use of passé composé gives a feeling of immediacy — the events that are narrated are still very relevant, whereas passé simple would tend to indicate a tale from the past. The use of passé composé also gives a feeling of informality, which is expressed in other ways: Meursault is a working class person, who uses simple language (also visible, for example, in the tendency to use of short sentences).

In many ways, the book is written like a personal diary. In this respect, the succession of tenses makes sense. The first few sentences are written in the present tense. They describe what Meursault thinks when he writes the first entry in this diary, soon after receiving the news that his mother has died. The part starting with “I took the two-o'clock bus” is the next entry in the diary, written after the bus trip.

Where this simple interpretation fails is that as far as I can tell, the opening is the only place where Meursault uses the present tense. It is unlikely that he would never need to express actions in progress. This singles out Meursault's mother's death as an exceptional event. Furthermore, that event is not only where the book starts, it's where the idea of the book starts. This singular use of the present makes it look like the news of Meursault's mother's death caused Meursault to start holding this diary. He was considerably shaken, and this kicked off the chain of events in the rest of the book.

The whole book is built on several ambiguities, including the extent to which Meursault is emotionally shaken by his mother's death and other events. The text, superficially, makes him look extremely detached, cold, emotionless. He writes simple descriptive sentences, showing no emotion, just like he shows no emotion in many other ways (not crying at his mother's funeral, shrugging when asked about marriage, ...). Yet there is subtext that shows him more affected under his cold attitude. I think the use of the present tense in the opening shows that he is emotionally shaken at his mother's death but does not realize it consciously.

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9

The first two (three, depending on the translation) paragraphs take place at a specific time after Meursault receives the telegram but before he boards the bus. The paragraphs after that describes his journey as he boards the bus, went to the home, etc. The change in tense (and the fact that the change in tense is accompanied by a new paragraph) is a very clear indication of the fact that the story fast forwarded.

Imagine you have a story with two events: you phone a friend the first day, and the second day you get lunch with that friend. One way to tell this story is "I called my friend, and the next day, we got lunch." Another way to tell this story is:

I'm calling my friend Jen. We're going to talk about our plans to get lunch.

We got lunch, and ___________.

The second approach can be confusing, but it is more concise. It has the benefit that you don't need to state the amount of time that took place between the phone call and the lunch.

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  • Interesting... so it is incorrect to say that the entire story was told from his point of view after the trial? I had assumed the entire manuscript was told by him after the events played out, but this skipping around means it was never "told" by him at one point in time at all. – GGMG-he-him Feb 12 '17 at 2:51
  • @GGMG The Stranger is one of the few books where knowing when/from what perspective the story is being told isn't relevant to the story. Meursault is a thought experiment; his perspective is constant throughout the book. – user111 Feb 12 '17 at 4:00
  • @medica you misunderstood my comment. Character development, and questions about Meursault's reliability as a narrator, are (intentionally) not important aspects of The Stranger. Hence why Camus is lazy about what tense he uses; he isn't thinking about when Meursault is narrating this story. – user111 Feb 12 '17 at 21:30
  • "Looking at the original French, a very small amount of this confusion is due to the translation." - could you elaborate on this, e.g. by quoting some of the original French or mentioning the grammatical differences between English and French in terms of tenses and their temporality? – Rand al'Thor May 1 '17 at 15:13
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In 1946, Stuart Gilbert translated the novel's first sentence as “Mother died today” instead of “Mother has died today”. Since "today" implies a time frame that is not yet closed, you would expect the present perfect instead of the past simple, but the past simple sounds terser. (For the rules regarding past simple and the present perfect, I assume British English, since Stuart Gilbert was English. See e.g. the article Present perfect on the British Council's website.)

One of the challenges of translating L'Étranger is how to render its past tenses. Novels and autobiographies traditionally used passé simple (e.g. "elle mourut": she died) to represent events in the past. This tense is not used in spoken French, and even in written French it has gradually been replaced by the passé composé (e.g. "elle est morte": she died or she has died, depending on the time frame). For a long time, roughly from the sixteenth to the late twentieth century, French authors used a 24-hour rule to choose between the passé simple and the passé composeé: for events more than 24 hours ago, use the passé simple, for events less than 24 hours ago, use the passé composé.

The first time indication in the novel, "aujourd'hui" (i.e. "today"), refers to a point in time less than 24 hours ago, hence the passé composé ("maman est morte").

However, the novel spans at least eleven months and Meursault relates the events from a point in time that is not consistent throughout the novel: in the novel's second paragraph, he says he'll take the bus; starting from the third paragraph, everything is in the past, and as the novel progresses, the distance in time between the events and the narration gradually increases until the end of the trial (Part Two, chapter IV). The first three chapters in the second part of the novel narrate events that are more than 24 hours in the past, so it is reasonable to expect the passé simple based on the rule mentioned above. In spite of this, Camus chose the passé composé. In the book's last two chapters, the distance in time is less obvious, but these also use the passé composé, like the rest of the novel. (Camus uses the imparfait when grammatical rules require this. I have found only two instances of the passé simple in the entire novel.)

One of the most famous analysis of the novel is Jean-Paul Sartre's "Explication de L’Étranger", first published in Cahiers du Sud in February 1943. This essay contains insightful comments on Camus's choice of tenses. According to Sartre, each sentence is an island separated from the story's other sentences; each sentence is another creation ex nihilo. Sarter writes:

C’est pour accentuer la solitude de chaque unité phrastique que M. Camus a choisi de faire son récit au parfait composé. Le passé défini est le temps de la continuité : « Il se promena longtemps », ces mots nous renvoient à un plus-que-parfait, à un futur ; la réalité de la phrase, c’est le verbe, c’est l’acte, avec son caractère transitif, avec sa transcendance. « Il s’est promené longtemps » dissimule la verbalité du verbe ; le verbe est rompu, brisé en deux :(...)

Translation:

It is in order to emphasise the solitude of each sentence unit that Mr. Camus chose to write his narration in the *parfait composé" [i.e. passé composé]. The passé défini [i.e. passé simple] is the tense of continuity: "Il se promena longtemps" ("He walked for a long time"), these words refer to a plus-que-parfait [pluperfect], to a futur [literally "future" but also future tense]; the reality of the sentence is in the verb, the action, with its transitive nature, with its transcendence. "Il s’est promené longtemps" ("He walked for a long time") conceals the verb's "verb nature"; the verb is fracture, broken in two pieces: (...)

The identical translations of "Il se promena longtemps" and "Il s’est promené longtemps" illustrate the issue: it is impossible to translate the passé composé without undoing the fracturing of the verb that resulted from Camus's choice for that tense. For example, "J'ai pris l'autobus à deux heures" is translated as "I took the two-o’clock bus". a literal translation would be "I have taken the bus at two o'clock", but that would fix the narration in a time frame that is less than 24 hours after the event and it is not obvious that this is what Camus intended. For this reason, the English translation of the passé composé will never be "right" because the use of a specific English tense will always imply a choice of time frame that Camus appears to have left open.

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The first sentence, in French, contains an ambiguity about time which can't be translated into English. The original line is: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Où peut-être hier, je ne sais pas."

In written French the past historic tense is normally used, but as this novel has a first person narrator, he uses the "passé composé" tense normally used in everyday speech. To form this tense, you usually use the verb "to have" followed by the past participle (similar to one of the past constructions in English, e.g. "I have written a letter").

However - a peculiarity of French is that certain verbs (15 common ones, mostly to do with motion) use the verb "to be" instead of the verb "to have". So in French you don't say, for example, "I have gone"; you say "I am gone".

One of these non-standard verbs is the verb "to die".

Therefore, you can legitimately translate the first line of the novel as "Today, Mum died" or "Today, Mum is dead". Most translations take the first option (though they unaccountably change the word order!), because otherwise the second sentence doesn't follow on too well.

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  • 1
    This is an excellent point, and shows why it's best to look at literature in its original language if possible. – Rand al'Thor May 28 '17 at 13:12
  • 3
    Maman est morte” could either mean “mom is dead” or “mom died” depending on the context. In the sentence “aujourd'hui, maman est morte”, there is no ambiguity: it means that mom died today (i.e. it implies that she was alive this morning). – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 28 '17 at 21:28
  • @Gilles meaning to ping you about this question. That was pretty much what I thought. – user111 May 28 '17 at 23:09

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