Paul M. Willenberg
6 mai 1996
Senior Honors English
The Overlake School
Reader Response Criticism
Je Suis Absurde,
Tu Es Absurde,
Nous Sommes une Famille Heureuse
In L’étranger, Albert Camus anticipates an active reader that will react to his text. He wants the reader to form a changing, dynamic opinion of Meursault. The reader can create a consciousness for Meursault from the facts that Meursault reports. By using vague and ambiguous language, Camus stimulates the reader to explore all possibilities of meaning. Camus also intends to shock the reader into rereading passages. Through discussion of narrative structure, the opening lines, the role of pity, resentment toward Meursault’s judges, and the relationship between murder and innocence, I will prove that Camus’ purpose is to bring the reader to introspect on their own relationship with society.
Through narrative structure, Camus invites the reader to create and become the consciousness of Meursault. Utah Sate University Professor David Anderson notices that “Meursault takes the stance of simply reporting these impressions, without attempting to create a coherent story from them.” Indeed, in Part One, what Meursault reports are exclusively facts. Micheline Tisson-Braun comments that Meursault “registers facts, but not their meanings; ... is purely instantaneous; he lacks the principle of unity and continuity that characterizes man” (49). Through generalization, the reader links the details of Meursault’s life. The reader thereby creates their own meaning for Meursault’s actions. Meursault, without a memory or an imagination, refuses to spend time connecting events and contemplating essences. The reader does this for Meursault. Thus, the reader creates a consciousness for Meursault that is uniquely the reader’s. It exactly represents Meursault’s effect on the reader. When the court forces Meursault to confront his past and use his memory and when in his jail cell when he has nothing to do but imagine, Meursault develops an independent consciousness. The reader is intentionally left to compare Meursault’s impression on themselves with the consciousness that Camus creates. Camus uses this other, reader-created Meursault as a bridge and a tool to put the reader in Meursault’s shoes. On trial, the reader compares the mental reaction of Camus’ Meursault with their consciousness for Meursault. Already the reader sympathizes with Meursault (ostensibly because we create his consciousness and it is inherently similar to the reader’s), but in the court, Camus has the reader to place themselves on trial. The reader introspects on whether they are guilty of indifference to society. Camus has the reader create a consciousness for Meursault so that Camus can inspire introspection in the reader.
Camus anticipates the reader will re-read his startling opening. By the opening lines, he sets a tone and standard that the reader should continually reassess their attitude toward Meursault.
Aujord’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: << Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. >> Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier (L’Etranger 9).
At first, Camus shocks the reader into believing that Meursault does not care about the death of his mother. Camus’ intention, however, is to compel the reader to create a dynamic approach to Meursault. The reader must have an open mind and constantly be willing to change their view of Meursault for Camus’ later surprises to have the desired effect. As the reader reconsiders their initial negative response to Meursault, they find his humanity. Camus shifts the reader’s reaction to Meursault from negative to neutral. This sets the stage for the reader to begin to identify or pity Meursault. Demosntrating his humanity, Meursault refers to his mother affectionately as “maman.” Camus also carefully words Meursault’s observations. “Maman est morte.” Camus is intentionally vague and ambiguous. Meursault states a fact the reader must interpret. On one hand, the sentence could be interpreted as “maman is dead.” A reader who has taken the opinion that Meursault’s indifference is the result of an incredible state of shock could take this interpretation. The reader could also read that “maman was dead.” This would show that Meursault is indifferent to the physicality of her death because he has already dealt with it mentally. By interpreting Camus in the Passé Composé, the reader acknowledges that maman’s death is a completed action. Camus asks the reader to decide if Meursault lives completely in the present and if he reports events exactly as he sees them. Meursault’s reporting builds a trust with the reader. By encouraging the reader to reread the opening, Camus hopes to have the reader change their opinion of Meursault. Camus implores the reader to wonder what Meursault is thinking, explore the possibilities of Meursault’s thoughts.
The reader’s initial reaction that Meursault is heartless begins to fall apart as Meursault reports further. “Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” (L’Etranger 9). Meursault factually does not know when his mother died. It is not that he does not care, as the reader might first interpret, but that he does not know. Camus intends this confusion so that the onus lies on the reader to determine whether Meursault is heartless, indifferent, or innocent. Meursault continues, “c’était peut-être hier” (L’Etranger 9). By not telling the reader or Meursault the exact date, Camus stresses the date’s importance, or lack thereof. Already Camus has the reader reassess societal assumptions. One of the first things we do when confronted with the news of a death is ask the exact time. The reader introspects on the importance of temporal markers. By inviting the reader to share in Meursault’s exploration of the present and disregard for the past, Camus accomplishes his goal.
Through encouraging the reader to identify with Meursault, Camus also lures the reader into pity for Meursault. René Girard comments that, “the undergraduates quickly learn, of course, that it is not smart to pity Meursault” (26). Girard not only misses Camus reader response oriented intention, but he even wants his students to forego the process that Camus desires. Through the reader first identifying with Meursault and then pitying him, Camus sets up an epiphany for the reader. By pitying Meursault, the reader also feels a varying degree of negative attitude toward Meursault. By implanting in the reader a sense of looking down at Meursault, Camus orchestrates the epiphany. The greater the reader pities Meursault, the greater the realization of the essence of l’absurde. The reader finally realizes that every person is partly Meursault and that the pity transfers back onto the reader. Camus, through Meursault, shows the reader to pity themselves and all other humans. The reader demonstrates to themselves, through their conclusions, the essence of l’absurde: the reader is like Meursault, naked in the face of impossible odds, living in a deplorable and pitiable state. The reader pities their own relationship with society. Anderson argues that,
Pity is a social construction which violates the text's notion that ‘one life [is] as good as another’ (Stranger 41). It divides the individual who pities from the one who is pitied by creating the illusion that either fate is any different. Meursault argues that ‘we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people ...[who will] all be condemned one day’ (Stranger 121).
So, the reader’s feelings toward Meursault actually manifests the reader’s attitude toward all people. Any negative reactions or emotions the reader feels for Meursault are indicative of their relationship to others. It is the reader’s relationship with other individuals that defines their relationship with society as a whole. Camus needs the reader to pity Meursault in Part One so that the realization that all people are in a universal circumstance in Part Two becomes even more great, even more revealing.
Girard argues that the reader links pity for Meursault with resentment for his judges. “Sympathy for Meursault is inseparable from resentment against the judges. We cannot do away with that resentment without mutilating our global esthetic experience. This resentment is really generated by the text” (Girard 16). So, Camus uses the reader’s pity for Meursault. The reader identifies with Meursault and sympathizes, perhaps empathizes, with Meursault’s absurd situation. Only once Camus sets up the link between the reader and Meursault can he impart in the reader a resentment for the judges. The resentment operates through the consciousness that the reader creates for Meursault and because the reader identifies with him. Camus provokes the reader to resent the judges of Meursault by having the reader feel that they are also judges of the reader. The reader begins to resent not only Meursault’s judges, but all those who judge others for their past actions.
Camus induces the reader to question their view of society. Girard argues that Camus “set out to prove that the judges are always wrong” (18). Camus’ intention, however, is more complex than Girard would have us believe. Camus intends for the reader to come to an independent conclusion that Meursault’s judges are wrong and unjust. From there, the reader can apply the same theme to their own lives. Ultimately, Camus does question all judges. But by traveling first through the reader, Camus compels the reader to make the determination that all judges are inherently unfair. So, by anticipating reader response, Camus makes his point more strongly. He does not blatantly tell the reader that those who judge are criminals in their own right, rather he lets the reader make that decision based on prompting from Meursault. By setting up the court as a manifestation and metaphor for society, Camus opens the door for the reader to explore the concept even further. Through a reader response analysis, we uncover that Camus actually points the finger at all judges in society, that is, all people who judge the thoughts and actions of others.
Through the Arab’s murder, Camus has the reader reassess the definition of innocence and murder. They are not opposing terms and do not even have opposing connotations. Camus intends, however, to use the neutrality of innocence to affect our view of murder. “The contradiction between the first and the second Meursault, between the peaceful solipsist and the martyr of society; it is that contradiction in a nutshell, as revealed by the two conflicting words ‘innocent’ and ‘murder’” (Girard 17). Meursault fires an involuntary shot followed by four voluntary ones. Through the dynamic murder, Camus creates the perfect scenario that forces the reader to deconstruct these two terms. In the reader’s mind, Camus starts a process where innocence subverts murder. The reader questions who is innocent in relation to their society and who is the murderer. This reflects back to and depends upon the reader’s attitude toward both Meursault’s judges and all who judge. Furthermore, the reader questions the dynamic morality of murder. The reader constructs a new meaning for innocence and murder that applies to Meursault and how he affects the reader.
By the court connecting Meursault’s indifferent past to his crime, the reader explores exactly how they are related and applies new significance to their definition. Purposely stark, Camus lets the reader make their own decision about the relationship of Meursault’s crime to his sentence. Girard states that “from a purely textual standpoint, Meursault’s condemnation is almost unrelated to his crime” (13). Camus intentionally disassociates the two and allows the reader to make the connection.
It is natural to consider the attitude of the judges both unfair and inevitable. ... Thus, the gap between this portentous action and an afternoon cup of café au lait is gradually narrowed, and we are gently led to the incredible conclusion that the hero is sentenced to death not for the crime of which he is accused and that he has really committed, but for his innocence, which this crime has not tarnished (Girard, 18).
It is the reader inserting their interpretation that connects the verdict with the crime. Camus leads the reader to believe that the court kills Meursault for his indifference, and in doing so, the reader deconstructs innocence, again. Through reader response criticism we find that Camus’ message is that no one living in a society is truly innocent. We are all creators and contributors to l’absurde. The reader begins to prosecute Meursault for opposing society. Camus, then, wants the reader to introspect on their relationship with society. The reader asks: in what way am I a Meursault? Am I guilty of feeling indifferent to other people? Even my parents? The reader prosecutes themselves. Camus leads the reader to make a connection that is entirely their own between Meursault’s actions and his sentence. Camus has the reader put Meursault on trial to determine his innocence. Camus communicates his message through the reader’s identification with Meursault.
Albert Camus anticipates an active reader and forces them to introspect. Although Camus relies heavily on the reader to stop and contemplate, reread, and identify with an indifferent man, Camus successfully provokes the reader to experience the trial in the place of Meursault. Perhaps Camus wrote all of Part One to set up the reader in a situation where they must reassess their relationship with society. Whatever the reader’s emotional response, Camus places the reader in position to experience the trial, l’absurde. Through anticipation of a responsive reader, Camus communicates the essence of l’absurde.
Camus, Albert. L’étranger. France: Éditions Gallimond, 1942.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger, trans. Mathew Ward. New York: Random House, Inc., 1988.
Girard, René. “Camus’ Stranger Retried.” “to double business bound” Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1978.
Tisson-Braun, Micheline. “Silence and the Desert: The Flickering Vision.” Critical Essays on Albert Camus, ed. Bettina L. Knapp. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.