Summary – Chapter Five
Meursault has just refused to see the prison chaplain for the third time. He thinks he will be seeing him soon anyway and is now only interested in ‘circumventing the machine, learning if the inevitable admits a loophole’. He also narrates how has been moved to another cell and when he lies on his back he can see the sky (but nothing else).
He wishes he could remember just one account of someone escaping before the guillotine falls. He cannot stomach this ‘brutal certitude’. He notes the arbitrariness of events leading up to the verdict, and that after it was stated its effects became as tangible as the wall he is leaning against. When such things cross his mind, he remembers a story his mother used to tell him about his father. He never set eyes on him, and perhaps only knows him through his mother. This particular story is of when he went to see a murderer executed. The thought of it turned his stomach and when he came home he was violently sick. At the time, Meursault found his father’s conduct ‘rather disgusting’, but now understands it as natural as it is ‘the only thing that can genuinely interest a man’. He decides he will attend every execution that takes place if he gets out of jail, but knows he should not think of this possibility.
A moment later he has a shivering fit after this momentary sense of exultation. He also has a ‘ridiculous’ of framing new laws and altering the penalties so the criminal has a chance. On the other hand, he has to admit to the efficiency of the system as the condemned man is obliged to ‘collaborate mentally’ because it is in his interests that the punishment goes without a hitch (as the blade would be dropped twice).
He also realizes now that he has had wrong ideas on the subject. He had been thinking he would have to climb steps to the guillotine but then remembers seeing a photograph of an execution where it is on the same level as the man. He sees this as disappointing too as at least the business of climbing the scaffold ‘gave something for a man’s imagination to get hold of’. He also sees it as an example of the ‘machinery’ dominating everything.
He keeps thinking about the dawn and about his appeal. He knows they always come for the condemned man at dawn and does not like to be taken by surprise. From midnight on, he listens intently but is lucky not to hear footsteps. He remembers his mother saying there is always something to be thankful for however miserable one is; he agrees with this every morning.
In the day, he thinks about his appeal and how death is inevitable for everyone. Only when he has thought of the worst outcome does he allow himself to think of the appeal being successful and has to take care to control his emotions.
The chaplain comes to see him and asks Meursault to sit beside him. Meursault refuses and after some time the chaplain asks why he does not let him come to see him. Meursault says it is because he does not believe in God. He also says he is not full of despair, but fear the chaplain says that God can help him. Meursault replies that he does not want to be helped and has not got time to work up interest for something that does not interest him.
The chaplain stands up and looks at him directly and Meursault recognizes this as a trick he has used on Emmanuel and Celeste and they would often look away uncomfortably. He asks Meursault if he has no hope at all, and if he thinks we die outright, and Meursault says ‘yes’. The chaplain begins to bore him, but he begins to listen again when he notices his distress. He asks Meursault why he does not address him as Father, and says he is on his side (despite what Meursault says).
He says he will pray for him and something seems to break in Meursault and he starts yelling at the top of his voice. He hurls insults and says it is better to burn than disappear; he also grabs his neckband and pours out all his thoughts. This is because the chaplain seems so certain, yet Meursault thinks he is the only one who has certainty (how everyone is condemned to inevitable death).
The warders rush in and one makes to strike Meursault. The chaplain quietens them down at gazes at Meursault for a moment without speaking. Meursault can see tears in his eyes, and he turns and leaves.
The novel ends with Meursault feeling calm and then sleeping. When he awakes his thoughts turn to his mother for the first time in many months and now understands why she took a fiancé at the end of her life: ‘She’d played at making a fresh start’. He sees nobody has a right to weep for her and he feels ready to start his life over again. It is as if his anger has washed him clean and he lays his heart open to the ‘benign indifference of the universe’. ‘For all to be accomplished’, and to feel less lonely, is only hope is that there will be a huge crowd of spectators at his execution greeting with ‘howls of execration’.
Analysis – Chapter Five
Finally, Meursault reaches a point of hope for the future, in this universe of ‘benign indifference’, as he recognizes that we are all condemned to death at some point and fairness is not included in such indifference. The influence of the absurd has been apparent throughout the narrative as Meursault acts as a trope for explaining our insignificance on the world. Ultimately, we all die and are forgotten in time. By the final paragraph, though, he has reached a position where he is able accept this.