The Outsider: Chapter Notes – Part 1, Chapter 1
· Meursault receives a telegram from the home where his mother lived informing him that she had died.
· He asks his boss for “2 days leave” and rides the bus to the home.
· He meets the warden and caretaker, then has a night-long vigil with his mother’s old friends (during which he falls asleep).
· He endures the gruelling walk to the church where the funeral is held.
· He goes back home.
· Throughout the chapter, we sense an absence of externally validated meaning. The only validations/justifications we get are entirely human and mostly linked to simple empirical truths: “I’m very fond of white coffee, so I accepted.”
· Meursault begins to become conscious of the absence of meaning in life in general and social constructs in particular. He refuses to really grieve for his mother because he sees no reason to, and he refuses to engage in petty small talk out of politeness because subconsciously he realises that “politeness” is simply another human construct: “I said ‘Yes’ so as not to have to talk any more.” (page 10) and “Is that your mother in there?’ – ‘Yes.’”
· The ‘Home’ is like a microcosm of the larger world, portraying how artificial life is:
o All the ‘inmates’ would not have talked to each other under normal circumstances, yet here, forced together, they make friends, even romantic interests; they force routine and therefore meaning into their lives.
o All the men and women look the same: “I’d never noticed what huge paunches old women can have.” And “The men were almost all very thin” (page 15). Points to the ‘fact’ that all of us in the World are not as individual as we think we are!
o “He was the caretaker, and to a certain extent he had authority over them.” (page14) This pinpoints how artificial authority can be: simply because this man was the caretaker, he was in power, although some of the inmates “were no older than he was.”
“It really doesn’t matter”
· Meursault’s personal desires are constantly at war with the common perception of what is ‘right’ by people around him, and in the first chapter we see the basic internal struggle this gives him, and the subsequent triumph of his own, personal desires: “I hesitated because I didn’t know if I could smoke in front of mother…it really didn’t matter…we smoked.” Society dictates that Meursault show respect for his mother by, among other things, abstaining from smoking in front of her coffin. As Meursault struggles with his desire for a smoke, he comes to a realisation that there was no point in having to do exactly what society dictated because, in the end, none of it “really mattered;” ‘respect’ was, after all, simply another human construct, and there was no real, tangible reason (that he could see) why he should show respect to his mother.
· “It really doesn’t matter” is a phrase repeatedly used throughout the chapter (and, eventually, the whole novel) to not only show the pointless triviality of eg. Small talk, but Meursault’s personal viewpoint shift from the ‘prison of his mind.’ All his life, Meursault has lived in a world dictated by human constructs (such as love, family units) and what is and isn’t socially ‘acceptable.’ By realising the ‘truth’ that none of the above really mattered in the end, Meursault breaks free of the constraints he was originally under because he suddenly comes face to face with true freedom: the freedom that comes from the realisation that nothing he does has any value, therefore everything he does has the same value, and he is free to do anything he wants to. From having to struggle through the abovementioned social constructs and futilely create meaning in his life, he slowly comes to the Absurdist realisation that all these social expectations don’t, after all, really matter. In the grand scheme of things, our everyday choices have absolutely no import, except for satisfying our desires of the moment.
· Camus explores death as an inevitable reality in this chapter, and not something to pointlessly grieve over. Meursault seems more bothered by the fact that his boss “didn’t seem pleased’ (page 9) rather than the fact that he doesn’t know which day his mother died.
· The general tone throughout the chapter is that of the meaninglessness of death: for Meursault, it takes a telegram, a funeral (a religious service) and clothing (in mourning) to give the whole event an “official aura.” This suggests that it is only the physical, tangible things that give any sort of ‘meaning’ to an event: it is not grief that marks his mother’s passage, but the changes in his routine and appearance that finally do make it ‘real.’
· The chapter furthermore explores people’s natural reaction to death, and the way they cover up anything that disturbs their own oblivious existences: The warden says, “we’ve transferred her…so as not to upset the others. Every time one of the inmates dies [they] feel bad for two or three days.” Although they are upset by the obvious inevitability of death, they cover it up with meaningless routine after a few days.
· A recurring motif throughout the chapter, Meursault constantly makes references to how he sees coffee as “good” and his personal liking towards the drink based on empirical evidence.
· Equivalent importance to everything else he does. Just as important as crying at one’s mother’s funeral, etc. No bigger picture because there isn’t one.
· Reappraisal of value – because nothing has value, so therefore everything is valuable.
Intense Sensory Experience:
· When Meursault speaks of nature, there is a marked increased in eloquence in his language; it takes on a considerably more poetic tone. It is as if he feels as close to content as he can get around nature because it is the only real thing one can find in this world; everything else is merely constructs of humanity.
· Light: Meursault always describes light as “harsh” or “blinding,” even depressing as opposed to the “melancholy truce” of early evenings. Perhaps because he:
o Awareness of things changing, seeing things more clearly, seeing the world more sharply. He doesn’t, unlike most people, need to create ‘pictures in the sky,’ a meaning in everything he sees, because he finally sees everything for what it really is (i.e. nothing) and although later that is enough for him, at first it seems to come as an unwelcome realisation
o Doesn’t like it – like a responsibility
o Defence mechanism to ignore harsh reality: as abovementioned, the disappearance of any externally validated meaning in life is immediately resented by human beings in general as this will require the understanding that their existence is, fundamentally, pointless. Oftentimes, this could cause extreme depression and pain, and for many, it is better to remain in denial than accept the ‘truth’ that Meursault has found. Perhaps Meursault, in this first chapter, is still grounded too much in the basic concerns of society and he resents the harsh light as it brings all his doubts to the surface.
o Feels exposed or vulnerable and does not want to be judged, which is ironic, and perhaps even foreshadows the future
In chapter 1, we are first introduced to Meursault’s character and the reader is shocked by his seeming indifference not only to the fact that his mother has died, but to anything unrelated to himself and his wants. The chapter begins by immediately accosting the reader with the offhand statement, “mother died today. Or it might have been yesterday.” The chapter then goes on to outline Meursault’s starkly honest thoughts, like the fact hat he claims “it wasn’t [his] fault” that his mother had died and that he had to miss 2 days of work, or that “it really didn’t matter” if he smoked in front of her coffin before his vigil. Even when he notices others in abject discomfort, eg. Perez “fainting like a dislocated doll” he only mentions this as a matter of course; an observation, rather than as an expression of concern.
Nevertheless, as abovementioned, Meursault’s personal desires are constantly at war with the common perception of what is ‘right’ by people around him, and in the first chapter we see the basic internal struggle this gives him, and the subsequent triumph of his own, personal desires.
The only seemingly ‘redeeming’ quality in Meursault’s quality is his appreciation for the beauty of nature: one feels that anyone who could appreciate such beauty does actually have some soul in him, even though we later realise that this is simply because nature is one of the only real, tangible elements in the lives we lead.
· Mainly in the ‘home,’ which, as abovementioned, is like a microcosm for life in general. It illustrates a number of things: how many of us force routine into our own lives to create meaning, as in the home, forced together, the inmates make friends, even romantic interests, as in the case of Meursault’s mother and Perez. As abovementioned, the artificiality of authority is also illustrated: “He was the caretaker, and to a certain extent he had authority over them.” (page14) Although some of the inmates were “no older than he was,” the caretaker grasped a sense of power and authority simply because of the title and responsibility he was given.
· The walk to the church is portrayed as simply a long scene of what seems to be sensory overload for Meursault: it explicitly exemplifies how external circumstances and empirical truths – the heat, the discomfort he was feeling, etc. affect his more intangible truths: his feelings and emotions.
The narrative style is very dry and banal, focusing mainly on simple facts rather than outside emotions or ideologies. An example of this is in the way Meursault describes how he plans to commute to his mother’s funeral, an event that in most instances would be considered one of the saddest in anyone’s life: “The old people’s home is at Marengo...I’ll catch the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. Then I can keep the vigil and I’ll come back tomorrow night.” Meursault seems to do this because he feels like he should describe everything simple as it is. Living in a meaningless universe, he did not need to exert any external value on anything rather than what he senses, so this is exactly what he describes. Everything, including people, are illustrated in a purely external way, such as Perez: “his lips were trembling underneath a nose pitted with blackheads.” Meursault does not find the need to describe the obvious anguish behind those trembling lips; to him, they are as significant as the blackheads on the man’s nose.
The only break from the almost dry monotony of Camus’ style is the implicit way he describes every sensory detail, his attention to colour and sensation, and most of all, his almost fond descriptions of the beauty of nature: “seeing the lines of cypresses leading away to the hills against the sky and the houses standing out here and there against the red and green earth, I understood mother.” It seems that it is only through the momentary, tangible reality of nature that Meursault’s inner self and emotions are unlocked.
Relation of Part to Whole:
Essentially, the first chapter lays the foundation for what the reader will encounter in the rest of the novel: the introduction of Meursault and his seeming disassociation from what the rest of society dictates, the start of his realisation of the lack of any externally validated meaning in life and what this entails, and hence the things he does that, at the end of the novel, condemn him to his death.
This chapter launches the reader into the Absurdist mindset that Meursault has (although he does not actually realise what this mindset is called) and introduces them to the problems that this may cause, such as the alienation from society.