Summary – Chapter One
Meursault is questioned several times immediately after his arrest. At first, nobody takes much interest in the case. When with the examining magistrate, however, he notices he is eyed with curiosity. He is asked if he has chosen a lawyer and Meursault says no, and thinks his case is very simple. The magistrate informs him it is the law and if he does not choose one, he will have one appointed. Meursault tells him this is an excellent arrangement. He does not take him (the magistrate) ‘quite seriously’ and it seems like a game at this early stage until they have their first conversation. When they finish talking, he almost holds out his hand to him and remembers in time that he has killed a man.
The next day a lawyer comes to him in his cell. He tells Meursault he has read his case and thinks there is every chance of him getting off if he follows his advice. He then explains that investigations have been made into his private life and they know that his mother died recently. ‘They’ made inquiries and the police informed ‘them’ that he showed ‘great callousness’ at her funeral. The lawyer says he needs to ask him about this and if he felt grief on the ‘sad occasion’.
This strikes Meursault as odd, but tells him he has lost the habit of noting his feelings. He also says he had been quite fond of his mother. He adds that all normal people have desired the death of those they loved at some point. The lawyer interrupts him and asks him to promise not to say anything of this sort at the trial or to the examining magistrate. To satisfy him, Meursault promises and says his physical condition often influences his feelings, but can assure him he would rather that his mother had not died. The lawyer still looks displeased, though, and asks if he kept his feelings under control. Meursault denies this and the lawyer looks at him as if slightly revolted.
Meursault suggests his mother’s death has nothing to do with the charge against him, and the lawyer says this shows he has never had any dealings with the law. He leaves shortly after looking vexed. Meursault had wanted to assure him that he is just an ordinary person, but saw this would not help and laziness also stopped him.
Later that day, he is taken to the magistrate again and is told his lawyer cannot make this appointment. He is told he does not have to answer the questions, but Meursault says he can answer for himself. After being prompted, Meursault tells him again about the murder, but in more detail. The magistrate says he would like to help him, but first he must ask more questions. He begins by asking if he loved his mother and Meursault answers ‘yes, like everybody else’. The recording clerk had been typing at a steady pace, but Meursault thinks he must have hit a wrong key as he hears him push the carrier back and cross something out. The magistrate then asks about the shots and why he paused. Meursault is silent and the question is repeated twice more to no avail.
The magistrate then takes out a silver crucifix and asks Meursault if he knows who this is. Meursault says of course and the magistrate says even the worst sinners can be forgiven by Him, but first they have to repent and become like a child.
He leans across the table brandishing the crucifix before Meursault’s eyes, but Meursault has trouble following him. The office is stiflingly hot and flies are buzzing around, and he finds the magistrate alarming. He does his best to understand him and thinks the main point is that he explains why he paused after the first shot.
Meursault begins to explain that this is not so important and the magistrate interrupts and asks if he believes in God. When Meursault says ‘no’, the magistrate sits down indignantly and says this is unthinkable; if so, life would have no meaning. He then asks Meursault if he wishes his life to have no meaning, and Meursault says he does not see how his wishes come into it.
The room is getting hotter and Meursault pretends to agree with him (as he usually does when he wants to get rid of someone). However, he thinks he must have shaken his head when asked if he believes in God. The magistrate tells him he has never known a soul so ‘case-hardened’ as his and says all the other criminals have wept over Christ’s suffering. Meursault is on the point of saying that this is because they are criminal, and then realizes he comes under this description. His last question is if he regrets what he has done and Meursault replies (after some thought) that it is less a regret than a kind of vexation.
He comes before the magistrate many times after this, but is always with his solicitor. As time goes on, the magistrate seems to lose interest in him and never shows the religious fervour again (which Meursault had found embarrassing). These examinations last eleven months and Meursault begins to have the ‘absurd impression’ that he is ‘one of the family’. He has also got used to the magistrate calling him ‘Mr Antichrist’ as part of his farewell.
Analysis – Chapter One
As Meursault gives the details of his encounters with the justice system, it becomes apparent that it is increasingly criticized for hypocrisy. This is not stated overtly by Meursault, but is evident in the descriptions of the magistrate’s religious fervour and in his view that not believing in God makes Meursault ‘case-hardened’. It is as though he is under attack for his beliefs, or lack of them, than for the murder he has committed. Once more, the murder of an Arab is for the most part overlooked; it is his reaction to his mother’s death and his atheism that is regarded as shocking.