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the strangerThe Stranger – Analysis of a Character

Why do people read books? Is it for entertainment? Is it to escape the world for an hour or two? Is it to invoke imagination, or to experience life through another’s eyes? Reading is for all these reasons at some time or another, but more than that, we read books for the characters we discover within the pages.

If there was no character, there would be no story. As members of humankind, we crave connection with others – and connection with a character – hoping to discover that we are not alone in the way we think or relate to others or see the world; believing that if a faulty character can develop and transform throughout the chapters, maybe we can too. If there is no change in a character, no growth or progress, there is no satisfaction at the end of a story. Mersault, from The Stranger, is one of these unchanged characters.

During the first couple of pages in chapter two, it’s hard to determine whether The Stranger reads like a novel, or more like someone’s personal diary. All the character speaks of is what happened that day, nothing too interesting; nothing that has much bearing on the rest of the story. While reading, “After lunch I was a little bored and I wandered around the apartment. I washed my hands and then I went out onto the balcony” (21), one wonders if the author is outlining this basic material to get to the good stuff about to take place, or whether these mundane details are the story in itself.

When realizing that this emotionless telling really is the story, the next question is, “Is the author going to portray the character arc of this young man? In the beginning of the story, he is detached and disinterested; will he develop into a character with feeling and passion?” The story continues from beginning to end without this anticipated character development taking place.

As the story progresses, the narrative character, Meursault, portrays no backbone, no sense of moral values, and no perspective on much of anything. It is not that I expect a hero. Readers are not necessarily looking for Prince Charming or Superman, but simply someone relatable and likeable – someone with whom they can connect. Author Nancy Lamb explains one reason that readers want to read about realistic characters when she states, “Almost nothing yanks readers out of a story faster than when they feel a character’s actions are inauthentic. If readers can’t believe in or don’t understand your hero, they have absolutely no reason to invest in your story” (140). This makes it clear why it is difficult to invest in a story like The Stranger, and a character like Meursault.

When he states, “When I had to give up my studies, I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered” (41), a measure of insight can be gained from the moment. It might explain why Meursault is such a disconnected character; he had to give up his dreams. As a result of that moment, perhaps he convinced himself nothing mattered. Perhaps that is why he puts forth the idea that, “People never change their lives. In any case, one life is as good as the other” (41) Perhaps it is why, when his girlfriend asks if she wants him to marry her, he said that “It didn’t make any difference and we could if she wanted to” (41) It is almost as though he has forced himself to close off his mind and heart, his soul even, from anything that might seek to touch it, warm it, or bring it to life.

The act of murder, and the whole blazing afternoon, is a masterful rendering written in a manner true to this narrative character. Meursault conveys, “I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I been happy. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (51). Looking at the facts of Meursault’s character thus far, questions arise as to the motive of the shooting. Was it the sun? Was it his inability to grieve for his mother, which was then projected into anger? Was it the fact that he didn’t care about anything at all – or did he simply want to prove that he didn’t care? The reader expects insight into the narrative character’s motives, his reasoning, or if nothing else, his perspective of the event in hindsight; however, Meursault refuses to offer that insight. His unreliable narrative remains silent regarding his motivation, and his character is unchanged.

The unfeeling narration continues, like the metronomic drumming of a leaky tap. “My heart felt nothing” (105), when his eyes met Marie’s in the courtroom. “Remembering Marie meant nothing to me” (115), when he thought of her not long before his death. “What he was talking about didn’t interest me” (116), when the chaplain spoke to him about God. Yet again, one wonders if the character is only trying to convince himself of his unfeeling nature, but the story itself drags because there is no connection between the character and the heart of the reader. The Art and Craft of Storytelling indicates the importance of this connection: “Readers like to identify with the characters they are reading about. If your reader can’t empathize with the character in some way, you risk losing your audience” (Lamb 140).

The reader trundles toward the end of the book, looking for some insight, some hope that Meursault will develop as a character. Finally, three pages from the end, his detached façade cracks, and raging emotions pours out as Meursault narrates, “I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy” (120). But at the end of the emotional outburst, the narrative character remains unchanged, bloody but unbowed. He experiences no character arc, but a simple resignation without repentance.

Meursault’s insight is poetic, yet mislaid, when he states, “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself” (122). No reader wants to hear of an indifferent world, knowing deep down that the world groans beneath the sorrow of a fallen nature. It cries to be delivered with every drop of blood spilled upon its broken surface. Instead of opening his eyes, Meursault further blinds himself with a subtler insight that excuses his own detachment from life and love and all things beautiful.

This lack of character growth is not only frustrating, but it also blatantly ignores the deep desire of the reader to connect with a character. This brings the reader to wonder, not as much about the motives of the narrative character as wonder about the motives of the author. What self-seeking author would disregard the reason for which so many readers pore through books, and choose to leave a character unmoved by the end of the book?

One article regarding characters in story writing states, “There are two types of characters in every story—pebble people and putty people. If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape. … Your main character needs to be a putty person. When you throw him into the crisis of the story, he is forever changed … He’ll always be a different shape at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. If he’s not, readers won’t be satisfied” (James).

Readers want to read about putty people, because they know that they are also made of putty, with feet of clay. Meursault, however, was a pebble. His rock-like character made The Stranger incomplete at best. At worst, it served as a reflection of our deepest fears – that we will reach the end of life unchanged, unmoved, and refusing to admit that we so often have feet of clay and hearts of stone.

 

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print.

James, Steven. “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients.” WritersDigest.com. Writer’s Digest, 9 May 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.

Lamb, Nancy. The Art and Craft of Storytelling. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. Print.

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The StrangerAs I mentioned in a blog post a couple weeks ago, I read The Stranger, by Albert Camus, in a Literature class this semester. The professor asked us to keep a dialectical journal. I already posted my journal of the first part. Here is my dialogue with the second half of the book.

 

Page 63 “Right after my arrest I was questioned several times, but it was just so they could find out who I was, which didn’t take long. The first time, at the police station, nobody seemed very interested in my case. A week later, however the examining magistrate looked me over with curiosity.”

The author seems every bit as unconcerned as the narrator. He ignores details the reader would obviously be interested in, such as what happens immediately after the murder, what was Marie’s response … even what his own response was (if anything). Most likely, since the narrative character doesn’t care about much of anything, his response was most likely as frustrating as everything else I’ve read about him so far.

 

Page 63 “Then he wanted to know if I had hired an attorney. I admitted I hadn’t and inquired whether it was really necessary to have one.”

Mersault hasn’t gotten an attorney and wonders whether he really needs one; this is after a week has passed. What has he been doing all week? If the author doesn’t care to fill in these important gaps that the reader would clearly like to know, why should the reader care to finish the story?

Page 65 “I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything.”

I’m sorry, what??? I don’t know if I’m more frustrated with the character – which means that the author did a very good job of creating an unlikeable character – or more frustrated with the author for writing such a disagreeable character into existence. At first, I thought Mersault must have narcissistic personality disorder. But it is more that he has absolutely no emotions whatsoever. Even Spock was far more emotional (and far more likeable) than this narrative character.

 

Page 68 “He was waving his crucifix almost directly over my head. To tell the truth, I had found it very hard to follow his reasoning, first because I was hot and there were big flies in his office that kept landing on my face, and also because he was scaring me a little. … But from across the table he had already thrust the crucifix in my face and was screaming irrationally, ‘I am a Christian.’”

I think I realize what I do not like about this character. He is so dispassionate that he is altogether unnatural as a character. Every character has problems, but he seems so unemotional that he has no soul whatsoever. And of course every contemporary story needs the dangerous “religious freak.” This one brandishes a crucifix, forcing it in Mersault’s face and screaming irrationally. All Mersault can think of is the heat and how to get rid of someone he doesn’t want to listen to. It’s kind of interesting (and also irritating) that from the standpoint of faith, this character does seem almost soulless, if that were possible – which it isn’t. There is no depth. Even in this charged encounter, he is more concerned with the heat and the flies.

 

Page 78 “I thought it was unfair treatment. ‘But,’ he [the guard] said, ‘that’s exactly why you’re in prison.’ ‘What do you mean that’s why?’ ‘Well, yes—freedom, that’s why. They’re taken away your freedom.’ I’d never thought about that.”

There is no remorse from Mersault. No awareness that he killed a man. He ended a life. And the only concern he has is being treated unfairly in prison. Why he even sided with Raymond rather than the abused woman, in the beginning, makes no sense to me. Why write a book about such a repugnant character?

 

Page 89-90 “ … for the first time in years I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me.”

Maybe a cry would have done him good. It might have woken those emotions asleep or suppressed for so long.

 

Page 100 “I would have liked to have tried explaining to him cordially, almost affectionately, that I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything.”

Do such people truly exist? I don’t think so. In my opinion, when writing – even if you want to make a unique statement or be different in your writing style – at least create a character that is real. If you want to create an alien, write sci-fi.

 

Page 114 “Everybody knows that life isn’t worth living.”

No, I don’t know that. I know that life is the greatest gift. Every morning our eyes wake to beauty and love, joy and sorrow, is a gift. Even the shortest life, or the most difficult, is worth the living, because the world is blessed by every life. The soul is enriched by every smile, by every tear. Life is worth living.

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[This story begins where “The Stranger” ends]

Live Long and ProsperI leaned into a sitting position when I saw a shadow in the corner. It shifted and grew taller, and I saw it was not a shadow, but a man.

“Meursault,” he said, as he stepped into the dim light of the fading stars. “We do not have much time.”

The way he said “we,” as if he was somehow a part of my life, and I of his, struck me more than the fact that a stranger stood in my cell on the morning of my execution. As he stood in front of my cot, I wondered what preparations they required of a man about to die.

At least it was not the chaplain visiting one final time. I had said everything I wanted to say to that man, every bit as condemned as I.

“Meursault, do you know me?”

I shook my head and stood. My eye level came only to his shoulders.

“What did Maman tell you … about your father?” More than his question, the urgency in his voice sent a tremble whispering through me. I did not like the sudden feeling and sat back down.

“Who are you?” Even as I asked, I told myself it did not matter. Whoever he was, he would only be another spectator. Another voice reviling me in hatred as I walked my final steps. He also was condemned. As I. As the chaplain. As everyone walking the streets of Algers, believing they have forever.

“I am your father, and I cannot explain all the reasons why I was not here until this time, why I could not raise you and love you as a father should. I think, in time, you will understand.” His words rushed together, and carried with them a strange light that hurt my heart much as the blazing sun struck my eyes the day happiness died on a burning beach.

“You cannot be,” I said, although I knew that I was no surer of those words than I was of any other moment in my life. Or perhaps I did not want to be sure.

“I know why you are here, Meursault. I know what happened. I do not blame you.” I blinked hard against the tears brimming beneath my eyes. Crying was more foreign to me than the stranger in front of me claiming to be my father. Whoever he was, he had no right not to blame me.

Everyone blamed me. Everyone despised me, and they had every right to. I abandoned my mother. I abandoned every dream I dared to hope for. In their place, I surrounded my heart with a throbbing core of emptiness. For that, more than anything, I was despised. And he had no right to deny me blame.

I turned away. “I am dying today.” That moment, I knew I would rather die than face the terrifying freedom of forgiveness.

“No, my son, you are not dying today. That’s why I am here.”

I heard voices outside my cell door. The echoing siren began once more. Sounds announcing my condemnation, and the price of my deeds. A chill rippled into my heart. How had fear reached past my defenses?

“Meursault, you are different. You always have been, and you never knew why.” I looked up at him, seeing for the first time his small eyes, his upturned eyebrows, his hair the color of a raven’s wing. He took my hand, his grasp like the grip I held on my heart for so long, protecting it. Stifling it.

“I don’t have time for a mind probe. You could not absorb it all. Not now. My son, come with me.”

He touched his other hand to his chest. “Scottie,” he said, “two to beam up.” Light shivered around me, and for the first time, it brought a tremor of hope.

The End – The Beginning

[Posted in honor of Leonard Nimoy; may his soul find joy and peace.]

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the strangerThis semester, I’m taking “Contemporary World Literature.” The first book the class read was The Stranger, by Albert Camus. It is a novel by a French author, and was published in 1942.

The professor asked us to keep a dialectical journal as we read, as a sort of dialogue or conversation with the book and with our own thoughts. I’ve never kept a dialectical journal while reading a book, although I’ve written a number of literary analyses, essays, and reports. This was something new.

Here is the first set of dialectical journal entries I made, from reading the first half of the book.

Page 3 “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

Some first paragraphs draw me in immediately. This is one of those. The narrator’s mother died. He doesn’t know whether it was today or yesterday; all he received was an impersonal telegram. I do not know when this story was supposed to take taken place. Perhaps it is not really that impersonal, but it seems a harsh way to receive word of one’s own mother dying. Or perhaps it is the narrator’s own rendering of the tragic event that seems harsh and impersonal.

 

Page 4 “When I woke up, I was slumped against a soldier who smiled at me and asked if I’d been traveling long.”

It has been a while since I read a book written in first person. When I began writing, the first-person narrative was my natural point of view to write from, perhaps because at that age (11 or 12) I read Judy Blume and her stories were written in first person. It seemed natural. Over the past year, although I’ve read probably 30 or 35 novels, most of them were written from a third-person perspective. It seems disjointed to read a story from a first-person narrative and only receive the limited information he is willing to give, rather than see into his mind and know what he is thinking about his mother’s death, or his ride on the bus, or his waking up to realize he had been sleeping against another person. I’m waiting for some emotion, some reaction, some deeper response.

Page 4 “I wanted to see Maman right away. But the caretaker told me I had to see the director first. He was busy so I waited awhile.”

He wants to see his mother first, but he must see the director; I’m expecting to read of his emotions. His frustration. But the books skips details that I would expect to see in a novel. Perhaps I am too accustomed to American novels, and the point of view that they are usually written from. This novel seems lacking in the emotion of the narrative character. Perhaps this is simply the way books are written in certain countries?

 

Page 6 “… the funeral is set for ten o’clock in the morning. This way you’ll be able to keep vigil over the departed.”

I like the idea of an overnight vigil with the departed family member. It seems foreign as a practice – and it is foreign – but it also seems the right thing to do. To remember, to pray, to commit the person’s soul to the afterlife, to honor a life well lived. In America, we seem afraid of death. We hide it away. Even people close to death are left in hospitals or homes; although it’s understandable because they need more care, we are all too eager to leave them there. Perhaps to forget that death is a natural part of life. A vigil, I believe, would help to bring that home more; maybe even take away some of the fear.

Page 6 “While not an atheist, Maman had never in her life given a thought to religion.”

It’s odd that we get very little about the narrative character’s emotions or inner thoughts, yet he states that his mother never in her life gave a thought to religion, as if it’s something he would really know. The narrator jumping into her point of view without us really knowing his struck me as funny.

 

Page 10 “The woman kept on crying. It surprised me, because I didn’t know who she was … ‘She says your mother was her only friends and now she hasn’t got anyone.’”

I want to know more about the woman who cried at the vigil. She said the narrator’s mother was her only friend. Who was she? Why was that woman her sole friend? Where had she come from? Did she have any family? Some stories – although I know I can’t know the back story of every minor character – bring in someone I wish I knew better.

 

The last paragraph of chapter one flies past. Everything leading up to it reads almost too slow. The long bus ride that he almost sleeps straight through. The slow, almost painful, vigil that he slept through. Walking towards the town; the colors, the blinding heat, the blue and white of the sky against the monotony of the colors around him. Then everything flies by so fast and it’s over. Perhaps, in a way, like life itself. It seems like it will stretch out forever and then, almost before we know it, it’s gone.

Page 31 “I’d smack her around a little, but nice-like, you might say.”

Maybe I’m old school, but “nice-like” and “I’d smack her around a little” do not fit in the same sentence. It’s disturbing. I hope that the narrative character stands up for this abused woman. He needs a backbone. He seems a bit too unemotional and unconcerned about things.

Page 56 “You can either shoot or not shoot.” Page 57 “To stay out or go in amounted to the same thing.”

I think I’m figuring out the bottom line of why I don’t like this character. He seems to have no sense of right or wrong, of good or evil, of any values whatsoever.

On the back cover, it states that this book has had a “profound impact on millions of American readers.” I’m surprised that such a book would make a profound impact on anyone? The only impact it’s having on me right now is a sense of irritation mingled with sadness that books like these are highly acclaimed while truly meaningful material is forgotten or put aside as unimportant.

I’ll post the next set of dialectical journal entries in my next blog post. Then I’ll post an essay/analysis I wrote about the book, from the perspective of the character’s development. For fun, I’ll also share an “alternative ending” to The Stranger.  Because every story deserves a good ending, even if it has a sprinkling of speculative. 🙂

If you read The Stranger, I’d be interested in knowing your response to the book. I believe that I was the only one in the literature class who disliked the rendering of the main character (the reasons for which I’ll explain in the character analysis). Please leave a comment if you have a perspective on The Stranger or the main character, Meursault.

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