Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Birth of the Subject in Camus' 'L'Etranger.'

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Birth of the Subject in Camus' 'L'Etranger.'

Article excerpt

The source of Meursault's transformation

Although, as I have argued elsewhere, Meursault does not undergo a fundamental change in mentality while awaiting the guillotine nor experience a revelation that drastically alters his relation to his past, as the prevailing critical view maintains, by the end of the novel he is, nevertheless, profoundly different from what he was at the beginning.(1) In the first few chapters he anxiously wonders whether he has properly understood the thoughts and intentions of others, especially those in authority like his boss and the director of the old-age home. He is particularly concerned to justify his conduct in light of the expectations and standards of society, even though he by no means conforms blindly to those standards. Thus he goes out of his way to explain things that other people would have taken for granted: how his friend Emmanuel happened to have a black tie, or why he needed two days leave from work. During his interrogations as well as the trial, he is still vulnerable to the opinions and feelings that others have toward him. He wants the defense attorney to like him; he is hurt by the hostility of the audience in the courtroom; he'd like to explain his thoughts "cordially" to the prosecutor. But in the final scenes of the novel, the state of doubt and dependency has given way to one of determination and certainty. The content of Meursault's truth has not varied: the equal importance of everything he proclaims to the priest ("rien n'avait d'importance" 1208) conveys nothing different from his assertion to his boss in I,5 that all lives amount to the same thing ("toutes [les vies] se valaient" 1154). The status of that truth for him, however, has changed radically.

In some way Meursault has been transformed, even though his beliefs have not. L'Etranger is precisely the enactment of that modification, the process of narration whereby Meursault formulates a desire that both confirms and contradicts his previous aspiration towards self presence.

The exact nature of that change will become perceptible only if analysis of the novel can yield accurate characterizations of the hero at the beginning and end as well as of the steps of the process leading to his transformation. In "La creation absurde," Camus describes the set of circumstances which make an absurd work of art possible:

Pour que soit possible une oeuvre absurde, il faut que la pensee la

plus lucide y soit melee. Mais il faut en meme temps qu'elle n'y

paraisse point sinon comme l'intelligence qui ordonne. Ce paradoxe

s'explique selon l'absurde. L'oeuvre d'art nait du renoncement

de l'intelligence a raisonner le concret .... L'oeuvre d'art incarne

un drame de l'intelligence, mais elle n'en fait la preuve

qu'indirectement. (Sisyphe 176) A very adept critic, Pingaud, has taken the three logical elements of this "drama of the intellect," the concrete, lucid thought, and the renunciation of the latter, and laid them out end to end, so to speak, in his effort to explain Meursault's progression. Part I deploys the "American technique," the purely objective description of character in order to convey the sense of "un homme sans conscience apparente" (Camus, cited by Pingaud, 29). In opposition to the majority of critics, who tax Meursault with being "indifferent" to his life in Part I, Pingaud insists that the hero is too involved with every happening, with each detail of his experience of the moment. In Part II, Meursault experiences the doubling characteristic of self-conscious interpretation; and at the end, he chooses the voluntary impoverishment of a return to subjective nothingness, a kind of indirect suicide (82). As it stands, this reading is unacceptable, for it ignores the fact that Meursault has already renounced the habit of introspection in Part I (see "Confession" 12). It does have the advantage, however, of highlighting the paradoxical quality of Camus's notion of writing the absurd. …

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