The Stranger (1946) was originally published in French as L’Etranger in 1942. The edition used here is a translation of the original by Stuart Gilbert.
Summary – Chapter One
This novel begins with the infamous line, ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.’ Meursault, the first-person narrator and eponymous anti-hero, goes on to explain that the telegram sent by the home where his mother lived has made the date uncertain. This Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo and is some 50 miles from Algiers where he lives.
He has arranged to have two days off from work and will spend the night there ‘keeping the usual vigil beside the body’ and be back home tomorrow evening. He thinks his employer looked ‘annoyed’ when he asked him for the time off and said without thinking that it is not his fault. Only afterwards does he realize he did not need to excuse himself.
It is a rush as he leaves and borrows a black tie from Emmanuel. On the bus journey, he sleeps and when he arrives at the village he has to walk a mile to the home. When he arrives, the porter tells him he has to wait for the warden, which he does.
The warden is described as very small, with grey hair and is wearing a Legion of Honor rosette. He gives the narrator (Meursault) a long look for so long that he begins to feel embarrassed. He says to Meursault how his mother entered the home three years ago with no private means and depended entirely on him. Meursault feels like he is being blamed and tries to explain, but the warden cuts him short. He says he does not have to excuse himself as he knows he was not in a position to care for her properly and does not earn much money. He also tells him his mother had good friends here, and he is too young. Meursault thinks this is true and thinks that when he lived with his mother she was always watching him, but they hardly talked. During her first weeks at the home she cried a great deal, but a month or so later he thinks she would have cried if she had had to leave. He explains that this is why he visited so little in the past year. He also thinks that this would have meant losing his Sunday.
The warden takes him over to the mortuary and says they propose to have the funeral tomorrow morning and adds that her friends say she wished to be buried with the rites of the Church. Meursault thanks him, but thinks that as far as he knows his mother ‘had never given a thought to religion in her life’.
The porter comes to Meursault and says they were to fully unscrew the lid of the coffin when he came, but Meursault tells him not to go to the trouble. He asks why and Meursault tells him, ‘well, really I couldn’t say.’ The porter draws up a chair for him and also sits down and the (Arab) nurse who had been present leaves. He tells Meursault that she has had a tumour and Meursault notices for the first time that she has a bandage across her face.
He feels sleepy and hears two hornets buzzing. Before the porter leaves, he asks how long he has been there and he tells him five years. He then explains that he is 64 and from Paris. Night falls quickly and the nurse returns. The porter switches the lamps on and Meursault is almost blinded. He brings Meursault cafe au lait and after some consideration Meursault offers him a cigarette and they both smoke.
The porter warns him his mother’s friends will be coming to join the vigil and Meursault asks if one of the lamps can be turned off as the glare from the white walls is making his eyes smart. He is told this is not possible as they are arranged to be either all on or all off.
Meursault thinks he dozes for a while after the porter puts out more chairs. He wakes when he hears the friends enter. They glide almost soundlessly and none of the chairs creak when they sit down. He describes most of the women as having paunches and the men as being as thin as rakes. As they look at him, for a moment he thinks they are sitting in judgement on him. One of the women starts sobbing and the others remain silent. The porter whispers something to her and she whispers something back. The porter then comes to Meursault and tells him she said his mother was her only friend and now she is alone. Meursault has ‘nothing to say’ and eventually the woman falls silent.
The quietness tells on Meursault’s nerves and he notices the only sound is of the men sucking the inside of their cheeks and they are not aware of it. The night passes without exception, except for one of the old men staring hard at him, but Meursault then falls back to sleep.
At dawn, they wake to one of the old men coughing repeatedly and spitting into his handkerchief. When they leave, Meursault is surprised that each of them shakes his hand, ‘as though this night together, in which we hadn’t exchanged a word, had created a kind of intimacy between us’.
Analysis – Chapter One
In this first part of Chapter One it is possible to see that Meursault’s reaction to the death of his mother is one that avoids histrionics; one may even describe it as emotionless. As the first-person narrator, events and thoughts are delivered through his perspective and he never reveals what may be considered standard responses in mourning. His reaction to this bereavement is of paramount importance as later in the novel it is used against him after he commits a murder.
It is also possible to see at this stage (and throughout the narrative) that he is easily affected by the environment he is in. The light and heat, and buzzing of flies are all aspects that are detailed here or elsewhere and it is apparent that they distract him from whatever is happening around him.
Summary – Chapter One continued
After Meursault goes out and sits in the sun for a while, the porter tells him the warden wishes to see him. He informs him that he and the nurse will also come to the funeral as usually the ‘inmates’ are not allowed to attend for their own sakes. This time, though, he is making an exception for Thomas Pérez to come as he was an old friend of his mother’s and tells Meursault how the others used to tease him that she was his fiancée. He was not at the vigil because the warden forbade it for medical reasons.
The warden and Meursault sit in silence for a while until the warden spots the padre approaching. He then warns Meursault it will take a good 45 minutes to walk to the church in the village. The priest has two acolytes with him and they go to the mortuary. Meursault notices immediately the screws in the lid have been driven home. The hearse arrives and four men go to the coffin and take it out.
The sky is already ‘a blaze of light’ and the air is ‘stoking up rapidly’; Meursault cannot imagine why they are taking so long to get under way. He looks at old Pérez and remembers how the warden told him that he and his mother used to take strolls in the cool of the evening. He understands and thinks of this time of day as one of ‘mournful solace’; he is uncomfortable in this morning light.
When they move, Meursault notices Pérez has a slight limp and loses ground as the hearse gains speed. Sweat is trickling down Meurault’s face and he tries to fan himself with his handkerchief as he has no hat. One of the undertaker’s men refers to the heat, asks if it is mother, and then asks her age. Meursault tells him she was getting on as he does not know her age exactly.
Meursault notices Pérez is 50 yards behind and the warden is walking with economical care and has beads of sweat on his face. Wherever Meursault looks, he sees ‘the same sun-drenched countryside’ and dares not raise his eyes as the sun is so dazzling. They come to a patch of freshly tarred road and their feet squelch in it. Meursault’s eyes grow blurred with the heat, sights and smells.
He notices Pérez take shortcuts and catches back up with them each time, but soon loses interest in him as his temples throb and can hardly drag himself along. On the outskirt of the village the nurse says if one goes to slowly there is the risk of heat stroke, but if one goes too quickly the perspiration will lead to getting a chill in the church. He sees her point, and thinks either way ‘one was for it’.
Some other memories of the funeral have stuck in his mind, such as the ‘old boy’s face’ when he catches up with them for the last time. His eyes are streaming with tears of exhaustion or distress, or both. His wrinkles stop them flowing down and they spread out instead. He also remembers the look of the church, Pérez’s fainting fit and the white roots mixed with the tawny earth that patters on her coffin. He also remembers the ‘little thrill of pleasure’ when the bus home enters Algiers and he pictures himself sleeping for 12 hours.
Analysis – Chapter One continued
As Meursault looks back to the day of his mother’s funeral, he remembers little but the effects of the heat and light as he walks with the few other mourners to the church in the village.
His heightened awareness of how his senses are affected by the heat and light is in sharp contrast with how he never refers to any sense of loss at the death of his mother. This point is not made in moral terms, but as a straightforward reading of how he accounts for the day.