A month ago, your Tuesday Tome article consisted of a discussion of the topic of authenticity in the existential classic The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This week, I would like to look at this same theme, authenticity, in the context of a work that is not merely labeled existential, but existentialist, appearing as it does among the canon of the French existentialists in the 20th century: The Stranger by Albert Camus.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of The Stranger, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.
Specifically, I would like to talk about the ending epiphany of protagonist Meursault, and what it is that allows Meursault to face his death happily at the end of The Stranger. My initial premise is that attainment of the aforementioned authenticity allows Meursault to do so, but this premise will be complicated by the novel’s very last line, for which I will offer three different but related readings.
Authenticity at the end of The Stranger:
At the end of The Stranger, Meursault is able to die happy because he (like Ivan Ilyich) is able to come to terms with himself as a constituent part of existence, and so live authentically. In a night before his execution, subsequent to his outburst at the chaplain for the chaplain’s inability to conceive of a secular path to happiness—as well as for the hypocrisy of the chaplain’s certainty in his own beliefs while telling Meursault that he is blind-hearted—Meursault practically melts into the existing world he perceives, as his senses are filled by the smell, look, and sound of the night.
In the case of Meursault, a truth about life is imparted by the proximity to nonexistence: “So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. [. . .] I felt ready to live it all again too. [. . .] I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world” (Camus 122). The universe’s utter inability to care, so often depicted as hostile, is here a “gentle indifference.”
Meursault has noted that it is only by some amazing and benevolent quirk of fate that he has come into conscious existence, and in view of this awareness Meursault can not help but be happy. And in the experience of existing, he now acknowledges at the close of The Stranger a happy brotherhood with all existence—which is much like the authenticity achieved by Ilyich just before his passing.
This reciprocal feeling of happiness between oneself and one’s context, and the ultimate denial of self-importance, reflects a deep understanding of the lack of meaning in the universe.
Three Interpretations of the Last Line of The Stranger:
It is this state of mind (an authentic relationship with existence) that allows Ilyich to destroy his fear of death and selflessly, ecstatically remove himself from the presence of his family. But, while it is this state of mind which makes Meursault happy as his execution nears, one gets the sense that the understanding of indifference is not fully realized in the final line of The Stranger, wherein he is fixated on the antagonism of his peers. This fixation recalls the scorning of absurdity Camus advocates in The Myth of Sisyphus.
There is, however, another reading of this line, more consistent with the rest of the passage; it may be the case that Meursault simply means that he knows that the crowd will “greet [him] with cries of hate” and that he wants to experience that aspect of existence as well, in his newfound state of purely enjoying experiences.
A further possibility would be that the last line is meant to be read much as is Ilyich’s sympathy for his family, insofar as he knows that the crowd wants to hate him, just as Ilyich knew his family could not move on with him alive, and Meursault may have wanted to selflessly provide that fervent emotion for the crowd.
Any of these three are possible, but one must acknowledge the aforementioned odd fixation with antagonism, and one can not help but wish Meursault had wanted nothing more on the day of his execution than to have a bright, indifferent sun shining overhead, devoid of the unfortunate potential lament for meaning seen in the present text.
Regardless of whether Meursault does truly overcome his existence (or his apparent overcoming is belied by the attentions of his final line), The Stranger‘s ending is clearly one which goes to far greater lengths than the ending of Tolstoy’s novella to showcase a harmony between the subject (Meursault) and existence (taken as the contingent sum of the subject and its context). And once again, this is a lesson in authenticity which we would all do well to learn: to define life subtractively (oriented toward its brevity and its eventual end) is the antithesis of the most beneficial practice. Rather, one must reflect on and dwell realistically within the finite positive gain of the life lived and every sensory experience experienced.
Smiling While Despised: