The as if it were a routine

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The murder of the Arab is clearly the central event of the novel. Camus placed
it in fact right in the middle of the book. It is the last incident recounted in
part 1, so its importance is underscored by a structural break in the story. It
is related in one of the longer chapters, which records in fine detail the
events of the day, even when their relevance is not obvious – for example,
several paragraphs are devoted to describing how Marie and Meursault frolic in
the sea. The murder marks an obvious change in Meursault’s life, from free man
to prisoner, and some more subtle associated changes, such as his increasing
introspection and concern with memory. Meursault himself describes the shooting
in terms that emphasise both the destruction of a past and the start of
something new: “and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same
time, is where – ‘it all started’ – I shook off the sweat and the sun. I knew
that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach
where I’d been happy”. This violent crime also interrupts the routine flow
of the story. Until the murder, nothing very dramatic has happened and nothing
dramatic seems likely to happen. Partly, of course, this air of normality
results from the way Meursault tells the story. His mother’s death could have
been a momentous event, but he begins the novel with the statement: ‘Mother died
today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’. The matter-of-fact tone and the
uncertainty combine to make us feel that this is not a significant event. In
many stories the first moments of love seem portentous. Of his first night with
Marie Meursault says, ‘Toward the end of the show, I gave her a kiss, but not a
good one. She came back to my place. When I woke up, Marie had gone’. One could
hardly be farther from romantic rapture. A few days later Meursault agrees to
marry Marie, and that too could have been presented as a turning point in his
life; but he relates their engagement as if it were a routine decision: ‘That
evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it
didn’t make much difference to me and that we could if she wanted to’. In
narrating the murder itself, Meursault expresses very much the same attitude as
he has previously; his actions have no conscious motives. The stage is set as if
by accident, and that impression is reinforced by the accumulation of details.

Meursault tells this day almost moment by moment. He tells of his headache and a
bitter taste in his mouth, of Marie’s white dress and Raymond’s blue trousers,
of their decision to take a bus rather than walk. Some of the details have
symbolic functions. Marie remarks that he has a ‘funeral face’, alluding both to
the funeral and to the impending murder. They bang on the Raymond’s door to
summon him, foreshadowing the gunshot raps ‘on the door of unhappiness’ at the
time of the murder. The impression that this is just another day dominates the
first part of this chapter, right up to the first confrontation with the Arabs.

Meursault’s role in this initial fracas is very passive. He accepts the task
assigned to him by Raymond, to stand by to help ‘if another one shows up’. He
tries to shout a warning to Raymond, but too late. In the aftermath the three
men return to the bungalow, and Masson then takes Raymond to a doctor, leaving
Meursault, as he puts it, ‘to explain to the women what had happened. I didn’t
like having to explain to them, so I just shut up, smoked a cigarette, and
looked at the sea’. As usual, he gives no clue as to the content of his
thoughts, and nothing is reported of his conversation with the two women. Masson
and Raymond return from the doctor at one thirty, two hours after the walk first
began. Raymond is in a surly mood and eventually announces that he is ‘going
down to the beach . . . to get some air’. Masson and Meursault both propose to
go with him, but he tells them to mind their own business. Masson complies, but
not Meursault: ‘I followed him anyway’. This is Meursault’s first rejection of
authority, almost his first wilful act of the novel. The two men come upon the
two Arabs by a stream near a large rock. The description becomes more and more
lyrical and mythical from this point. The sun has grown unbearably fierce. The
Arabs are lying peacefully by the stream, one of them playing three notes on a
reed flute. Apart from the three notes and the tinkling water, there is total
silence and stillness. Raymond is eager to provoke an encounter but Meursault
takes command of the situation, eventually persuading him to ‘take him on man to
man and give me your gun’. As Raymond hands over the gun, ‘we just stood there
motionless, as if everything had closed in around us.’ In this strange suspended
state Meursault’s indifference takes on alarming proportions: ‘I realized that
you could either shoot or not shoot’. As in the first encounter, the Arabs flee,
slipping suddenly behind the rock. Meursault and Raymond return once more to the
bungalow, and Raymond seems satisfied. But Meursault halts at the bottom of the
stairs, unable, he says, ‘to face the effort it would take to climb the wooden
staircase and face the women again’. He goes back to the beach and starts
walking back toward the site of the last encounter. Only when he comes to the
rocks and the stream does he realize that one of the Arabs is still there; in
fact, he claims he had forgotten about the earlier incidents. Then, for a long
time the two men stand facing each other without doing anything. Meursault is
not so passive that he fails to recognize his freedom to choose what to do. He
knows that he could have avoided the third confrontation; he even knew it at
then time: ‘It occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and that
would be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing
on my back. I took a few steps towards the spring’. And then he takes one final,
fatal step: ‘It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me
move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by
stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without
getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun’. Meursault
knows that his action makes no sense; as in the previous instance, he knew it at
the time, to the extent that he thought about it. But he did not think; he took
one more step, in a series that goes back not just to the bungalow, but to the
beginning of the book, for that is how Meursault has lived his life, acting by
reflex rather than by reflection. The instant of the murder has arrived. Aware,
at least in retrospect, of the significance of this action, Meursault relates it
at length. Even here, he has almost nothing to say about his own thoughts and
ideas: ‘All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead
and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me’.

What he talks about is external – the sweat dropping from his eyebrows, the
gleam of the knife, the glare of the sun, the hot wind off the sea. When he
actually pulls the trigger, he phrases the sentence so that he himself
disappears: ‘The trigger gave’. After the shot, his perspective changes
abruptly. He recognizes, first of all, that a momentous event has occurred:
‘there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all
started’. Unlike his mother’s death or his betrothal to Marie, this deed marks a
turning point. Curiously, he regards it as a beginning rather than an end, even
though he has lost his freedom and, as he puts it, ‘shattered the harmony of the
day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy’. Furthermore, he
re-establishes himself in the active role: ‘Then I fired four more times at the
motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace’. Meursault
offers no more explanation for the additional shots, in terms of motive, than
for any of his previous actions. The act itself still belongs to his habitual
pattern of behavior – impulsive, instinctive, unconscious. It is easy enough to
imagine reasons for Meursault’s behavior. It seems probable that his macho
attitude and unacknowledged rivalry with Raymond enter into it. He has for the
first time really thought about being married; he reacts by rejecting both the
company of women and whatever might be thought feminine in himself: fear, pity,
conciliation, even passivity, which had been his dominant trait. On the first
sally he recognizes that Raymond and Masson are old friends who form a pair from
which he is excluded. His isolation is exacerbated when Raymond consigns him to
an onlooker’s role in the first fight, and still more when he is obliged to wait
with Marie and Masson’s wife while the other two men go to the doctor. He then
outdoes Raymond both in sullen stubbornness and in aggressiveness. In the second
trip to the beach Meursault replaces Raymond as the dominant male. He must make
the third trip to vindicate his honor. One could argue that Meursault was
suffering from sun-stroke. One could also mention that he has drunk a good deal
of wine. It is possible to imagine ways in which Meursault could be defended in
court, such as temporary insanity, or a plea of self-defence – after all, the
Arab drew his knife first. Raymond escapes any blame, not only in Meursault’s
retelling but also in court; yet he provoked the quarrel with the Arab and drew
Meursault into it. The point of this crime, however, is that it has no purpose
and no excuse. Meursault’s originality as a character is precisely that he has
no interest in telling a story that explains his crime, either to make it
forgivable or to make it comprehensible.

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