“Heroic but hardly admirable”, how accurate is this assessment of Meursault in “The When Meursault is described to us in the early stages of the novel we see. That he does not obey society’s codes therefore is it fair for us to assess him using societies interpretation of “heroic”?
If we are to judge him by them then. We are given ample examples throughout the novel of his having no compassion or even of his thinking of the consequences of his actions. Hardly heroic, but the converse is also demonstrated in many places. An example of the former is when Raymond asks Meursault to “draft” a letter to an Arab prostitute. Meursault knows what will result from his actions but seems unemotional. And views the letter as being a favour for a friend and not a vicious conspiracy.
This lack of emotion is reinforced when the prostitute is beaten up by Raymond. And Meursault remains impartial whilst his girlfriend, Marie, thought it was “terrible” and is sickened by the beating. Another display of his apathetic views is in the opening lines ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know This indicates that either he does not care or he had no comprehension of what had happened. An additional illustration of his detached attitude is after his mothers funeral.
When he goes to see a humorous ‘Fernandel’ film with Marie. His girlfriend, and then he takes her home and sleeps with her just hours after his Mothers funeral. This indicates that aswell as having a detached viewpoint that he has no perception of morality. A section of the novel that reinforces this occurs that after the murder when he is in jail; he never mentions the Arab at all; it is as if he does not care about the Arab’s life; just about what he is going to do for the rest of the day. This is hardly admirable nor heroic and does not give the reader a pleasant view of Meursault and his character.
His unconventional train of thought and attitude is reflected not only in Meursaults unorthodox observations but also in the way the novel is composed. All of the sentences in the novel are short and in staccato rhythm. There are no connective conjunctions in any of Meursault’s speeches, reflecting his simple, existentialist attitude to life. His philosophy is reflected in the way that he describes things; when he describes locations he gives precedence over people to material objects.
This is illustrated in his description of the room in the mortuary where his mother’s coffin is. He first notices the ‘very bright room’ then the ‘whitewashed walls’ and he then goes on to describe the furniture and eventually he reaches the coffin but before thinking about his mother he notices the ‘row of shiny screws’. This preoccupation with physical properties is repeated throughout the novel as we are always given a very extensive description of each person Meursault meets before he talks to them. This unconventional attitude is supported throughout the novel and portrays Meursualts difference from the other characters we meet.
All of these quirks and eccentricities help us understand Meursault’s character and we soon understand his thought process. When he meets the Arab that attacked Raymond we are shown that Meursault feels he is under threat from the knife held out to the sun’. Then Meursault becomes oppressed by ‘cymbals of the sun’ ‘clashing’ against his forehead and the sea sweeping ashore ‘a great breath of fire”. I think Meursault felt under threat but was reluctant make the first move, but when the trigger “gave” he “shook off the sweat and the sun”, realised what he had started and then fired “four more shots” into a “lifeless body”.
In my opinion Meursaults self restraint despite the coercion to shoot and the ‘terrorism’ of his surroundings made his grip on the gun tighten and because of this ‘the trigger gave’. After this I believe that Meursault realised he had hit the Arab and in his minds eye saw the ‘long flashing sword’ and so ‘fired four more times’ until he acknowledged the Arab’s “lifeless” body. This, combined with our earlier concept of Meursaults psyche, makes me believe that Meursault felt he was threatened by the sun and the Arab and that he had acted accordingly. He was tense, confused and this resulted in his killing the Arab.
A further element that I feel is conveyed in the novel is Meursault’s racism. This is depicted in the way that Meursault describes Arabs and never refers to them as anything else other than Arabs. Despite this, however, he does refer to the prostitute that Raymond wants him to write to as “Moorish” and this may suggest that Meursault describes people he knows nothing about by their ‘ethnic origin’, maybe another idiosyncrasy of his character.
Meursault’s insecurity is conveyed in the way that he plans all of his actions and becomes unsettled when he is caught off guard. If this were a person who conformed to society’s principles we would view them as being nonchalant and uncompassionate but in my opinion Meursault cannot be judged by comparisons to the ‘man on the street’ as he has a very different set of morals. In the court I think Meursault is being tried for being different as what should be the focus of the trial, the murder, is only used as a base and is strayed from on numerous occasions to question him on separate matters such as his lack of emotion at his mothers funeral.
His being ‘different’ is exemplified many times throughout the novel; as mentioned earlier he shoots the Arab and writes the letter for Raymond but despite doing this we do see he has regard for other people as he takes the gun from Raymond when the Arab threatens them and when they later meet the Arabs resting on the beach Meursault comments that as he hasn’t done anything to you yet’ so “it wouldn’t be fair”. This is reinforced in the next sentence as Meursault tries to dissuade Raymond from provoking the Arab.
This demonstrates that despite our views on Meursault having radically different morals to those of an orthodox citizen there is some overlap between the two. During the trial this is never brought up but the fact that he paused between firing the first and then the next burst of shots is; the fact that he showed no signs of emotion at any of the upsetting or distressing events is. This lack of emotion on Meursault’s part is emphasised not by the court but by his observations regarding Marie’s hair when she is called to give evidence in a trial that will decide his fate.
One of the final points that demonstrates the strange attitude he adopts is when he is sitting in a trial to decide if he lives or dies he only listens when the lawyer asks ‘is it true that he ‘killed a man’. One major instance that stresses his being different is when he says in court that he ‘didn’t know what a sin was’ showing that he has no concept of socieites morality. This helps explain his apparent apathy toward the Arabs and his Mother.
Despite his imminent conviction Meursault continues to support his own set of ideals and will not repudiate them for those of other people. This is seen when he refuses to lie to the court in spite of his lawyer’s pleading with him to say that at his Mothers funeral he had “controlled” his “natural feelings”, knowing full well that if he does not lie he will most probably face death. I think that this is an admirable quality as Meursault knows that what he has done is wrong, but refuses to lie to escape the inevitable punishment even if it is death.
The last point that gives the reader a view that Meursault did not know what he was doing and that he abides an alternative set of morals is when he is convicted he accepts that the court must be right and he is guilty and so he wishes to have a crowd of spectators at his execution.
Meursault is also seen, however, as acknowledging society’s expectations as he tries to obtain a black armband to wear to his mothers funeral, and he wears a black tie to “the vigil”. This is an admirable quality as despite his alternative views he still conforms to socities standards when he feels it is pertinent.
In the afterword Camus describes the court in an extremely paradoxical statement that “any man who doesn’t cry at his monther’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death”, Meursault is condemned as he does not conform and people cannot understand him. In my opinion Meursault is admirable as despite his iminent conviction he maintains his unconventional viewpoint and standards throughout the novel. He is a “man who, without any heroic pretentions, agrees to die for the truth”. In my opinion this is the essence of Meursaults character, if he believes in it not even death will alter his views.