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Meursault's dinner with Raymond: a Christian theme in Albert Camus's L'Etranger.

As most readers of Albert Camus's masterpiece, L'Etranger [The Stranger] are aware, Camus conceived his protagonist Meursault as a type of Christ figure. In his famous introduction to the 1955 American University edition, he wrote, "[this is] the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth ... I had tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve." Noting the irony in equating Jesus and Meursault, he reiterated, "I have sometimes said, and always paradoxically, that I have tried to portray in this character [Meursault] the only Christ we deserved. ... I said this without any intention of blasphemy and only with the slightly ironic affection which an artist has the right to feel toward the character whom he has created ("Preface" 337)." An expert in Biblical exegesis, at the time of writing L'Etranger Camus was steeped in early Christian thought. He completed his doctoral dissertation (diplome d'etudes superieures) in philosophy at the University of Algiers, a study of the neo-Platonist thinker Plotinus and his influence on St. Augustine titled, "Neoplatonism et pensee chretienne" in 1936, at age twenty-three (Lottman 91-92, 109). Obviously, he did not draw comparisons between Jesus and Meursault lightly.

At first glance, Meursault bears scant resemblance to Jesus for the average reader. Although Camus evidently conceived of him as a Jesus persona, not many scholars have tried to decipher Camus's meaning. By contrast, numerous critics emphasize how Camus's writing in general combines "humanism" and a strongly religious temperament. They conceive him longing for a God of love, a fraternal but absent Jesus. For example, John Cruickshank, observing that Camus was denounced more often during his lifetime as anti-Marxist than anti-Christian, argues that he sensed the "appetite for divinity" in human beings. For that reason, he rejected blatantly atheistic or anti-religious positions (314-15). As Cruickshank observes, "What makes Camus so significant, and in many ways representative, a figure of his own generation is the fact that he experienced a religious need in its widest sense yet was unable to accept religious belief" (324). The eulogistic religious philosopher James W. Woelfel concludes that Camus was an "agnostic."

Nevertheless, several critics have emphasized the "religious" or "Christian" aspect of L'Etranger. In a significant early comparison of the styles of Voltaire and Camus, Patrick Henry observes,
 "The only Christ that we deserve," as Camus enigmatically and
 ironically referred to his hero, is offered up as a tribal
 sacrificial victim, not to placate the whims of a revered god, but
 to insure the validity of the social structure. Both Christ and
 Meursault epitomize the scapegoat issue, for neither of them is
 killed for content but for form, the maintenance of the form or
 structure upon which society is fabricated. Neither attempts to
 save his life, for each knows that, by doing so, he would lose the
 validity of that life, its authenticity and its redeeming quality
 that are only sustained if they are maintained to the end. (162)

Reiterated by many other critics, Henry's standard interpretation echoes Camus's 1955 avant-propos to L'Etranger.

In an assessment similar to Henry's, Eamon Maher's often-overlooked brief analysis of Meursault's Christ-like characteristics chafes at Camus's analogy to Christ. Attempting to mitigate the force of Camus's statement, the devout Maher observes, "He is careful not to say that Meursault is a modern Christ which would be blasphemous, as he is about as far removed from the lofty position as you could get" (276). Maher interprets Camus's avantpropos thusly, "We didn't deserve the real Jesus Christ; maybe Meursault is a more fitting model for us" (277). At the same time, Maher supports Camus's denunciation of a hypocritical society that, living by "appearances" is outraged by Meursault's "brutal honesty" and is less repulsed by Nazi genocide and atrocities than by Meursault's failure to weep at his mother's funeral. He does not think Camus intended to belittle Jesus by indirectly comparing him to Meursault. In Maher's interpretation, the legal system rejected Christian ethics by its callousness toward Meursault.

Arguing that "people like Meursault make others feel uncomfortable because of the way they openly flout convention and live instinctively" Maher likens the Algerian's worldview to that of Jesus. Like Christ, during his trial Meursault is silent in the face of his accusers: "The court scene evokes many aspects of the last judgment of Christ as Meursault can find nothing to say to defend himself" (Maher 279). Justifying Camus's comparison between Meursault and Jesus, Maher concludes: "When saying that his outsider [Meursault] was the only Christ that we deserved, Camus was not casting any aspersions on his protagonist or on Christ" (280). With regard to Meursault and Jesus, Maher observes, the courtroom rejects both the messenger and the message (280). Noting that the examining magistrate calls Meursault "Mr. Antichrist" after Meursault proclaims his atheism (281), Maher agrees with Camus that the hypocritical judicial functionaries are Antichrists.

Although disagreeing with Camus's assertion that Christianity has failed to explain the prevalence of evil and death in the world, Maher defends him against charges of atheism. Understatedly observing that Camus's sympathetic depiction of the Roman Catholic priest Paneloux in La Peste "does not reveal a highly developed anticlericalism" (277), he concludes that L'Etranger is "a provocative and spiritual work and I believe that Camus has much to teach the believer and the non-believer alike" (281). Like John Loose and Jean Onimus before him, he asserts that Camus was not so much anti-Christian as non-Christian, more agnostic than atheist. Likewise, Robert G. Cohn's study of Camus's Exile and the Kingdom's short story, "The Growing Stone," tends to minimize Camus's ubiquitous alienation, viewing him as often Christian in temperament. Stressing affinities between Camus and Mallarme, Cohn argues that both men were obsessed with the figure of Saint John the Baptist: "Like Mallarme, he [Camus] is giving us a suggestion of how belief is prolonged and modified, even in our indifferent era." He finds that Camus espoused the "perspective of sacred faith, to help right the 'higher balance' of an era which he knew to be frighteningly askew" (160). It seems likely that Cohn would perceive similar currents in L'Etranger.

Stephen Ohayon's psychoanalytically-based article in American Imago views The Stranger as an allegory of Meursault's, and Camus's, repressed guilt over patricidal wishes toward the absent father. (Camus's father was killed at the Battle of the Marne a year after his birth). Meursault hates the father figure, personified by the sun, but simultaneously desires homoerotic union with him, accounting for his ambivalence toward the surfs heat and rays. By killing the Arab, Meursault deliberately invites his beheading / castration as punishment for repressed patricidal drives. In Ohayon's (201) interpretation, Meursault realizes his "self-mutilatory project" by being guillotined for murder, tantamount to being "castrated for his crime against the sun-father," although we might add that castration, unlike the guillotine, is not fatal. Ohayon argues that Camus's guilt led him to apologize for Meursault in his avant-propos; his words performed "an analgesic function" (191).

Jesus-like, Meursault exhibits "his identification with the sacrificial offering" (Ohayon 201) when he says (like Jesus's "It is finished"), "For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate" (Ward 123). (1) According to Ohayon (201), "The identification with Christ is now complete. 'Pour que tout soit consomme,' is the 'consummatum est' uttered by Christ on the cross (John 19: 30)." Ohayon (201) vaguely implies it may be significant that Meursault commits the murder on a Sunday, the day of Jesus's resurrection (on the other hand, as his only day off, Sunday was the only time he could go to the beach), which leads to Meursault's spiritual "rebirth" in prison. However, in light of Meursault's role as a Jesus figure who submitted to his Father's will, Ohayon inconsistently argues that Meursault unleashed "patricidal rage" at the Sun-Father by killing the Arab (204).

Perhaps Camus himself identified with Meursault as a Christ figure: Influenced by his study of such predestinarian religious philosophers as St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal, he posited a universal sense of guilt. However, at the roman s end Meursault ironically derides the violent crowds he anticipates will jeer at this "matricide's" execution, unlike Jesus's tragic invocation of his father. In this respect, it is hard to take Ohayon's (and Maher's) analogies between Meursault's palpable disdain when contemplating his execution and Jesus's tragic attitude at the crucifixion seriously. (2)

Arguing for an identity between Camus and Meursault, Ohayon points out that as a student in Algiers, Camus, like Meursault, had worked as a clerk (191). In his notebooks, Carnets, Camus cryptically observed, in a famous phrase, "Three characters went into the composition of The Stranger: two men (one of them me) and a woman" (qtd in Ohayon 191). Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that to some extent Meursault represents Camus's thoughts and feelings. Usually, studies of L'Etranger confine their analogies between Meursault and Jesus to the murder trial in Part II, chapters three and four. They find Meursault's silence during his trial in the Algiers courtroom analogous to Jesus's silence when Governor Pontius Pilate judges him at his capital trial for sedition in Jerusalem. Apart from the courtroom drama, reminiscent of Jesus's encounter with Pilate, few incidents in L'Etranger partake of a biblical cast. This consideration makes an examination of the forensic aspects of L'Etranger relevant here.

An article with a uniquely jurisprudential perspective, Mary Ann Frese Witt and Eric Witt's paper on the character of the Algerian-French judicial system at the time Camus wrote L'Etranger, unlike Maher's and Ohayon's more directly literary analyses, illuminates implicit similarities between Meursault's response to his treatment at the trial and that of Jesus at his. Their article indicates how the nature of France's judicial processes affected the proceedings. According to the Witts, Meursault's involvement with and murder of the Arab threatened French colonialism. It exposed French imperialism's festering relationship with its indigenous Algerian underclass, as Jesus represented a threat to the Roman Empire's Palestinian dominion. Meursault's responses at his trial, like Jesus's were essentially silent or uncommunicative. The Witts observe, "His [Meursault's] stubborn, paratactic, non-causal and non-rhetorical discourse becomes a formal as well as a substantive threat to the body politic" (12).

The Witts explain that the French trial procedure was inquisitorial and took more consideration of the defendant's personal life than the Anglo-Saxon evidentiary (confrontational) system, which depends more on information about the crime itself. "According to French law, almost anything in the defendant's personal history may be brought into the courtroom," the Witts inform us. Based more on the judge's intuition of the character and personality of the defendant, French law utilizes emotional, subjective factors more than English law, which essentially relies on the evidence. At the novel's conclusion, they note, Meursault is not told precisely what type ("degree") of murder he has been convicted of, cavalier treatment that the legal system generally relegated to Muslims rather than pieds-noirs (14-15). In colonial Algeria, the French Supreme Court was the court of last resort; and Algerians were under French legal jurisdiction. In France, most death sentences were overturned or commuted (Witt and Witt 18 n34), making Meursault's fate atypical and unrealistic. (3)

In the following pages, I will depict an instance in which Meursault indeed appears as a Jesus manque, but which critics have not considered from this perspective. The episode I will examine is the unlikely case of his dinner with Raymond Sintes, the upshot of which was that "he wrote the letter for the pimp Raymond, designed to deceive the Arab girl and expose her to humiliation" (Ohayon 189). Students of The Stranger generally fail to take the dinner with Raymond very seriously. For example, in a fine brief essay that emphasizes the misadvised nature of Meursault's friendship with Raymond, K. N. Daruwalla (62) merely observes, "He is quite happy to have his black pudding with Raymond so that he does not have to cook dinner." (4)

Meursault's dinner with his neighbor Raymond Sintes at the latter's apartment by his invitation occurs in Part One, chapter three. This is a critical point in the novel. It is during this dinner that Meursault commits his one untruthful, inadvertently "evil" act. At Raymond's request, he writes a deceitful, conciliatory letter under Raymond's name for him to mail to his Arab ex-mistress, designed to lure her to Raymond's room so that he can have sex with her and then beat her up. This is the one instance where Meursault's "innocence" is put to the test, and he is found wanting. He identifies with the colons, even to the extent of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, in order to sacrifice himself for them. Moreover, Camus has provided an excuse for Meursault's "un-Christ-like" behavior: his intoxicated condition.

Alcohol consumption was extremely high in France and ill Meursault's Algeria, as a 2004 article by Vincent Gregoire has emphasized. It is well known, as Meursault's conversation with Raymond implies, that drinking reduces our inhibitions so that we generally think, do, and say things we would not do when sober. In addition, the importance of wine in the novel is indicated by Meursault's name--Meursault is a type of burgundy wine, usually white, and produced near Beaune in eastern France (New Oxford American Dictionary 1076). This generally unnoticed aspect of his surname conveys Meursault's identity as a pure-hearted ("white") individual, his "white" color as opposed to the darker-skinned Arabs, as well as the significance of wine drinking in his fate. (5)

Ironically, the term pied-noir, although it denotes Algeria's creole, native-born white French population, is literally translated, "black foot." The reason for this is that the earliest French Algerians produced wine, one of the country's leading exports, by tramping on the dark-colored grapes with their feet, hence staining their feet with grape juice (Gregoire 25 n2). Thus, by analogy with the type of wine they produce, we can conceive of Meursault's character as pure, or "white," as opposed to that of the "black," or evil pieds-noirs who judge and condemn him.

Meursault informs the reader that he had been drinking earlier in the day on the evening of his dinner with Raymond. It was Monday, the day after his mother's funeral, and, cutting short the mourning process, he had gone to work. At lunch, he had "drunk a glass of wine too many" (32), perhaps to escape his unexpressed grief at his mother's death. Afterward, he went home to take a brief nap, and (self-destructively) he was late returning to work. This part of the novel is important insofar as it reveals that Meursault adopts self-destructive behaviors, perhaps acting out guilt about his mother's death; he is unaccustomed to drinking large amounts of alcohol, and is vulnerable to the effects of wine. Thus, it provides a backdrop to what occurs next--the crucial dinner with Raymond later that day, when Meursault inadvertently gets drunk, and immediately, in his inebriated state, writes the letter for Raymond.

When Meursault arrives home from work, he is annoyed by having to cook dinner. This sets the stage for his dinner with Raymond. He anticipates only boiling some potatoes ("I went straight home, as I had to put some potatoes on to boil" [32]). From the tone of Meursault's apathetic aside to the reader on Salamano's mistreatment of his dog, "This has been going on for eight years. Celeste [Meursault's friend, a restaurateur] is always saying, 'It's pitiful; but really, who's to say?" (Ward 27), one gains the impression that Meursault equably accepts human nature's ambiguous quotient of violence and evil and concludes that there's not much one can do about it (32-34). At this point, Raymond appears (34), and, like Satan in the Garden of Eden, intervenes irreparably in Meursault's life.

Meursault's dinner and conversation with Raymond, in which he writes the letter, occur on pages 34-42 of Stuart Gilbert's translation of the novel (which remains the most widely available). First, he encounters his elderly neighbor Salamano, who is screaming at his dog, on the staircase while going up to his room. Then Raymond, a suspected pimp, enters from the street. Meursault feels strangely empathetic with him, as something of an alter ego, a reductio ad absurdurn of his own antisocial tendencies. They chat on the staircase: "He often has a word for me, and drops in sometimes for a short talk in my room, because I listen to him. As a matter of fact, I find what he says quite interesting. So, really I've no reason for freezing him off" (34). As Meursault is about to open the door to his apartment, Raymond says, "Look here! How about having some grub with me? I've a black pudding and some wine" (35). In Matthew Ward's translation (28), he says, "I've got some blood sausage and some wine at my place. How about joining me?" The following sentence conveys how little conscious significance Meursault attaches to Raymond's offer: "I figured it would save me the trouble of having to cook for myself, so I accepted" (Ward 28).

Meursault explains to the reader that he enjoys talking with Raymond despite his unpopularity in the neighborhood. As we have noted, he has spoken with his mysterious neighbor before: "As a matter of fact, I find what he says quite interesting" (34). Raymond's abrupt offer to share his dinner of "black pudding and some wine" seems a caricature of the wine and bread that are Christ's body and blood in the Mass and at the Last Supper. This is the foreground of Meursault's tragic act--his hamartia being his unacknowledged post-mortem depression after his mother's death, what Patrick McCarthy calls a condition of being "haunted by death and unable to come to grips with grief and love" (Albert Camus 33). His mother's death exacerbates his consciousness of his existing, chronic condition of general friendlessness. Consequently, he is more willing than usual to assist someone like Raymond, who seemingly befriends him. (6) This dinner ultimately costs him his freedom and his life.

The dinner scene parodies a Last Supper or Black Mass, in which Christ / Meursault is made drunk by Raymond--who, in supplying the wine and sausage (analogous to Christ's blood and body) plays the role of a counterfeit, "Satanic" Christ, the "good Christ" Meursault's alter ego. By writing the letter for Raymond, Meursault provokes the events that culminate in his shooting and killing the nameless Arab woman's nameless brother, leading to his trial and conviction for murder. Thus, it is among the most important events in The Stranger. It links Meursault with the concept of the Jesus Christ figure that Camus suggested following the novel's publication.

Those familiar with the New Testament are aware that Satan's Temptation of Jesus Christ before he starts on his preaching mission is one of its most important events. It includes several eloquent maxims. Matt. 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 describe the encounter between Satan and Jesus in nearly identical terms, although the words of their conversation slightly differ in their order. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to endure hunger and Satan's enticement.

Food plays a major role in Satan's temptation of Christ, as it does in Meursault's dinner with Raymond and his ensuing composition of the letter. After Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, he is hungry. Satan comes to him in the wilderness and advises him to convert nearby stones into bread, to which Jesus aptly retorts, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God" (Matt. 4:4). (7) Satan then takes Jesus to a high mountain, where they may view all the kingdoms of the world, and promises Jesus control over all the kingdoms if he worships him. Jesus, unimpressed, utters the immortal words, "Get behind me, Satan!" (Matt. 4:8). Undeterred, Satan takes Jesus to the Temple of Jerusalem, and suggests he jump off to demonstrate his powers. However, Jesus again rebuffs Satan, asserting, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God" (Matt. 4:12). After this final rejection, Satan leaves the scene, hoping for better luck in the future. In many ways, the dinner between Meursault and Raymond parallels the encounter between Jesus and Satan, although Meursault succumbs to Raymond / Satan's request that he write a letter and ultimately sacrifices his life as a result.

During the dinner at Raymond Sintes's apartment (strangely, Sintes was Camus's mother's maiden name, possibly revealing that Camus perceived her as a vindictive or handicapping force in his life), the ordinarily harmless Meursault performs his only malevolent act before the shooting--writing the letter that Raymond sends to his mistress. By this means, Raymond tricks her into coming to his room and assaults her, reviving her brother's desire for vengeance. This leads to a fight between Raymond and the Arab on the beach, begun by Raymond, during which he is stabbed. Raymond then returns to the beach house to get a revolver, but Meursault persuades him to give the gun to him for safekeeping. Ironically, Meursault, who now has the gun, returns to the beach and commits the murder that he took the gun from Raymond to prevent him from carrying out. Thus, Meursault's dinner with Raymond may perhaps be considered a kind of "Black Mass": "good" Meursault is made drunk by the satanic Raymond and manipulated to do the latter's will, in a mocking satire of Satan's failed seduction of Jesus in the wilderness in the Temptation episode of the New Testament. (8) Unlike Jesus, who refuses to drink wine at the Last Supper (Matthew 26: 29), the "human-all-too-human" Meursault Christ-figure ardently consumes wine during the fateful dinner with Raymond, precipitating his downfall. (9)

In a similar vein, Meursault shows his human-all-too-human frailty as a Jesus manque in composing the letter to Raymond's girlfriend as Raymond's surrogate. By lying and by drinking alcool, he distances himself from the flawless Christ and seemingly aligns himself more closely with the French colons. In effect, he becomes a human Christ--with the faults of human beings; but ready to sacrifice himself for them. The "truth" (as Camus calls it in his avant propos) that Meursault dies for is to expose the evils of French colonialism and the discord between Muslims and colons by means of Meursault's crime and its anomalous capital punishment, which was hardly ever the penalty in Algeria when a pied-noir killed an Arab. This is similar to Jesus' fate, in that the Jews, whose laws prohibited capital punishment (John 18:31-32), delivered him to Pontius Pilate, expecting him to be executed according to Roman law.

Although he writes in the preface to L'Etranger that it is "the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth" Camus, cognizant that Meursault's initial prevarication set him on his road to dying for the truth, alludes to the inherent contradiction: "I also happened to say, again paradoxically, that I had tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve" ("Preface" 336-37).

Feminist critics and other scholars often point to Meursault's agreement to write the disingenuous letter for Raymond as evincing his cynicism or misogyny. (10) However, a closer look at the circumstances of the event reveals that Camus intended to mitigate Meursault's guilt in the matter, by suggesting that he was intoxicated at the time. The dinner, in which Raymond serves Meursault "black pudding" and wine, caricatures the Last Supper and the Eucharist. The black pudding (which the most faithful translation of The Stranger, by Matthew Ward, translates as "blood sausage" [28], thereby making it even more analogous to Christ's blood) and wine represent the body and blood of Meursault--Camus's Jesus-figure--because it is as a result of the dinner that he loses his life. On a more mundane level, we can say that Raymond, by offering Meursault a slapdash dinner, thereby saving his grateful neighbor from cooking for himself, whatever his motives, is one of the few people who help Meursault.

Another friend, Meursault's coworker Emmanuel, lends him a black tie and mourning band for his mother's funeral. He possesses these things, having recently attended an uncles funeral (2). Emmanuel has an impish quality. He runs with Meursault to jump on back of a truck so that they can arrive more quickly at Celeste's restaurant for lunch (Ward 25-26). Meursault only mentions him once more in the novel, informing the reader: "I went to the movies twice with Emmanuel, who doesn't always understand what's going on on the screen. So you have to explain things to him" (Ward 34). Thus, unlike Meursault, whose superficial naivete conceals a passion for truth, Emmanuel is a genuinely simple-minded character. In a sense, he is Meursault's alter ego, despite his relatively minor role. Perhaps Camus intended Emmanuel to represent a satirical depiction of the Messiah or an ironical version of God or Jesus himself. The Book of Isaiah (7:14) predicts "a virgin shall conceive" a son named Immanuel, who, in most interpretations is actually God. However, The New English Bible depicts Immanuel more as the Messiah: "For a boy has been born for us, a son given to us to bear the symbol of dominion on his shoulder; and he shall be called in purpose wonderful, in battle God-like, Father of a wide realm, Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6, New English Bible). Other depictions of Emmanuel include, "his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

The New Testament revives Isaiah's prophecy, referring to the Messiah as "Immanuel" or "Emmanuel" (Matt. 1:23): "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name, Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, 'God is with us'" (New English Bible). Emmanuel, although he is Meursault's coworker, is not involved in Meursault's and Raymond's encounters with the Arab. Apparently, he is less friendly with Meursault than the restaurateur Celeste, who along with his paramour Marie, Raymond, Masson, and even decrepit old Salamano, testify on Meursault's behalf at the murder trial. Indeed, in light of his name's connotations, Emmanuel's failure to participate in the proceedings and his minor role in the novel suggest that Camus intended him to serve, somewhat ludicrously, as an existential "absent God."

By accepting Raymond's offer of dinner and ensuing friendship (at least, he concurs when Raymond says they are copains (breakers of bread together, or "pals") (36, 41), the ordinarily isolated and withdrawn Meursault is sucked into the evil of pied-noir male society, whose racial and gender abuses are epitomized by the reputed pimp Raymond's beating of his Arab girlfriend and his altercation with her Arab male avengers.

It becomes evident that Raymond's motive in offering Meursault victuals was to enlist him in his quest for revenge on his ex-mistress, who he suspects had been unfaithful, and to persuade him to write the letter summoning her to his room, in effect acting as his surrogate. Moreover, in Part I, chapter 6, by seizing the gun from Raymond and putting it in his pocket, Meursault is enabled to accomplish the murderous act that Raymond only contemplated (Ward 56). Acting as Raymond's substitute, he suffers imprisonment and execution as a result. Thus, he martyrs himself for Raymond, who symbolizes Algerian colon society.

Among Camus's leading principles is the importance of helping one's fellow human beings, as Meursault helped Raymond by writing the letter for him, albeit with unintended malign consequences for the Arab woman, Raymond, and most of all Meursault. At the end of World War II, referring to himself as a "non-Christian" in speaking of his rejection of Christianity, Camus said:
 I believe I entertain a just idea of the greatness of Christianity;
 but there are a number of us in this persecuted world who feel
 that, if Christ died for certain men, he did not die for us. And at
 the same time we refuse to despair of man. If we do not cherish the
 unconscionable ambition to save him, we wish at least to serve him.
 We consent to be deprived of God and of hope, but do not do so
 easily without man. (qtd. in Peyre 24)

Despite the disastrous results of his dinner with Raymond--including the assault on the Arab girl, her brother's death, and Meursault's conviction for murder--Meursault could not logically be expected to foresee the consequences of such simple acts as eating dinner at a new friend's apartment and helping him write a letter. He was participating in common social activities as a member of pied-noir society, with which he showed a renewed eagerness to be involved after his mother's death left him feeling more isolated than before.

Many readers are disturbed by Meursault's general complicity with evil in the course of the novel. Meursault seems complacent about Raymond's beating his girlfriend, both when he tells him about it initially and when it recurs after she returns to his apartment as a result of Meursault's apparently seductive letter (whose exact contents we are never shown). Likewise, Meursault accepts Salamano's brutality toward his mangy dog. When his friend Celeste and even bestial Raymond deplore Salamano's behavior as "pitiful" and "disgusting," Meursault quietly disagrees (Ward 27-28). This seems similar to Sartre's later observation in Les Mots (30) that those who are kind to dogs are often cruel to human beings.

Strangely, Meursault's ostensible apathy concerning Raymond's and Salamano's violent actions toward the weak in some ways reiterates Jesus' teachings. In various immortal phrases, Jesus enjoins us not to condemn others: In the famous instance of the adulteress, he warns the crowd, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:1). He also instructs his followers to "resist not evil" (Matt. 5:39), and, "Judge not, lest thou be judged" (Matt. 7:1). Jesus's (and Meursault's) resigned attitudes are the result of awareness that all people have been violent and committed evil acts. Jesus himself can be violent, as when he drives the money-changers from the temple (Matt. 21:12-13). And, of course, Jesus voices the ultimate exculpation of the evil and violent, in requesting that God forgive his own murderers, who, like the judge and jury who convict Meursault, have the veneer of law on their side: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). As Paul later declares, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

Willard Bohn points out, and Monique Wagner even more strongly emphasizes, that Meursault is a victim of his physical sensations. He is also an essentially lonely person, with no intimate friends to whom to confide his inner thoughts and feelings. (11) This inner desolation combined with extreme physical sensitivity helps explain his acute vulnerability to the wine's effects. As students of Camus's religious views point out, his passion for the quantity of experience was a psychological trait that devout Christians usually lack (Loose). But this does not prevent Camus from depicting Meursault as a halo-bearing, ironically saintly figure. In the encounter with the priest at the end of The Stranger, Meursault recalls, "The chaplain looked at me with a sort of sadness. I was now completely back up against the wall and the daylight was flowing over my forehead." (12)

There is some similarity between Camus's conception of Meursault in L'Etranger and Simone Weil's view of the value of common suffering (she includes criminals' punishment here) and affliction in uniting humanity. In an analysis of the affinity of their ideas, John Dunaway observes, "It is obvious, for example, that the similarities ... between certain aspects of L'Etranger and Weil's ideas on criminal justice and rootedness are not a question of influence, since Camus wrote his first great novel before encountering Weil's writings" (41). In a manner that Weil would appreciate, Meursault takes Raymond's and pied-noir evil in general, upon himself (if we acknowledge that Sintes would have inevitably attacked the Arab). By his conduct after his arrest, he is simultaneously a Christ figure who stoically bears up against judicial assault, and a rebel who refuses to enact social norms such as inordinate public expressions of grief or to embrace Christianity when the priest comes to his cell. Simone Weil and Camus both want to know, "What does a just man do to contend with evil?" J. P. Little's synopsis of Well's idea of the "just man" may readily be applied to Meursault, although Camus seems not to have been aware of her thought until after he wrote The Stranger: "Taking as her model various mythological and historical figures of the just man, she felt that the only way of dispelling evil was for such a just man to take the evil upon himself, to refuse to pass it on, and by absorbing it into himself, to transmute it into suffering" (46).

At his first--and last--supper with Raymond, hunger tempts the Christ-figure Meursault, like Jesus in the wilderness, but unlike the Nazarene, he fails to resist Raymond's offer of food. The ensuing repast is the equivalent of Christ / Meursault's Last Supper. He drinks wine and eats bloodied sausage. As gifts from the sadistic Raymond, they are ironically the converse of Jesus's benign offer of his blood and body in the form of bread and wine at the Last Supper. By performing a simple favor, writing a letter for another individual, Meursault, perhaps unwittingly, sacrifices himself, unlike Jesus, who, despite some last-minute misgivings ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" [Matt. 27:46]), deliberately died for humanity on the Cross. In return, Jesus rose from the dead and a new, powerful religion emerged to honor him. Although the fate of Meursault, the atheistic Christ, is less clear, it seems likely that he will be ingloriously guillotined, rather than receive a pardon, have his sentence commuted, or experience personal resurrection. (13)

Perhaps Meursault's dinner with Raymond left him with an awareness of culpability in the evil of the human condition. Indeed, Camus's remark in an earlier book of aphorisms, L'Ete, seems to anticipate the dinner's outcome: "At first innocent without knowing it, we become guilty without wanting it" (qtd. in Ohayon 204). At the same time, Camus said, "No cause justifies the death of the innocent" (qtd. in O'Brien, "Camus and Christianity" 159). In their own way, both Meursault and the Arab he killed were innocent men, and there is no convincing way to justify their deaths. As a Jesus figure manque, Meursault murdered the Arab to warn his beloved pied-noir society of the errors of its ways: that they should cease persecuting the Arabs, and try to compromise with them, before they lost their Algerian homeland in a civil war. Toward the end of his life, in an appendix to his last, unfinished novel, Le Premier Homme, there is even an indication that Camus hoped Algeria would experience peaceful communistic reform in which the land would be divided among the impoverished Arab masses and those pieds-noirs who were poor (320-21).

However, instead of executing him for murdering a fellow human being, an Arab whose countrymen would eventually overthrow French domination unless the colons made restitution for their injustice and treated the Arab inhabitants as equals, the prosecuting attorney, judge, and jury are determined to convict and execute Meursault for asocial impropriety, the unrelated "crime" of putting his mother in a nursing home and not showing sufficient grief at her funeral, i.e., not exhibiting the appropriate deference for "white" European social norms. Thus, his efforts to "save" French and Arabs from a bloody Algerian civil war were rendered nugatory. Marie foreshadows the meaninglessness of Meursault's death when she comments on the morning of the Sunday he kills the Arab, that he has a "funeral face" (Ward 47).

Many of Camus's early writings, especially Noces and L'Ete, the exuberant, soulful essays he wrote a few years before L'Etranger, expressed his love for French Algeria's pied-noir, colon society, whose virility, physical uninhibitedness, camaraderie, and closeness to Nature he idolized. He admired the male society's sense of honor and defiance of authority. When Meursault refuses to call the police despite Marie's entreaties, tersely explaining that "I didn't like cops" (Ward 36), he is evoking the pieds-noirs' folk morality that Camus writes about so effusively in "Noces" (Thody 86-87): "There are still many of us who observe the highway code, the only disinterested one I know.... I have always seen the faces around me take on an expression of pity at the sight of a man between two policemen."

Indeed, Meursault, the pied-noir Messiah, seems willing to sacrifice himself, unconsciously serving as a scapegoat if that will lead his semblables to act in a more conciliatory manner toward the Muslim majority, who will otherwise ultimately revolt against pied-noir persecution and overthrow French rule. Depressed at the thought that the colons will one day suffer exile from the beautiful "unity" of "sea and sky" they find in their patrie, Algeria, Camus regrets the loss of such "purity" cryptically asserting in "Noces" ("Nuptials"), "It is a well-known fact that we always recognize our homeland at the moment we are about to lose it" (Thody 90).

Meursault commits his one act of lying and deception, that of writing the letter to Raymond's mistress, thereby sinking to the level of his fellow men, the pieds-noirs he loves despite their violence and bigotry, and sacrifices himself for them. By lying in pretending to be Raymond, writing the untrue letter qua Raymond, Meursault, the invariably honest Jesus figure who, as Camus says, "refuses to lie" paradoxically sets himself up for symbolic "crucifixion" by the guillotine. Like Jesus at his trial, Meursault disdains to lie, not telling the judge, prosecutors and jurors the maudlin, tearful stories about his reaction to his mother's death that they want to hear. Thus, Jesus / Meursault is a God who becomes Man. As the Bible often says, "And the Word was made flesh' (1 John 1:3, 14), and God was "put to death in the flesh" (1 Pet. 8:18). By lying for the first and only time in the novel, and getting drunk as well, Jesus-Meursault at his dinner with Raymond becomes one with humankind: and "God becomes Man." The letter's "human-all-too-human" lie, as Nietzsche might call it, provokes the ensuing tragic action: the fight with the Arabs, Meursault's taking the gun from Raymond, and his final encounter with and murder of Raymond's paramour's brother.

Occasionally, Meursault indicates an acute awareness of Arab hostility toward the truculent white minority. At the police station, Raymond is not arrested for assaulting his Arab paramour. The following fateful morning, Meursault, Marie, and Raymond are on their way to the beach when they see Raymond's Arab foes, his ex-girlfriend's brother and a friend, standing across the street from his apartment building. "They were staring at us in silence, but in that way of theirs, as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees" Meursault observes (Ward 48). Meursault's remark on the native majority's festering anger foreshadows the eventual doom of the pieds-noirs during the Algerian Revolution, when the French presence in Algeria will be obliterated like dead matter. Sadly, Meursault's society, standing judgment on him in the courtroom, is deaf to his message of fraternity with its Arab neighbors, and instead convicts him for the "crime" of indifference to its hypocritical customs. (14)

In a different context, Patrick McCarthy, adhering to Camus's avantpropos, emphasizes the connection between Meursault and Jesus. Paraphrasing Meursault's final remarks, McCarthy writes,
 Christ was God and man, and Camus believed he was chiefly the
 latter. But Christ is an uninteresting figure unless He retains
 some tiny trace of the Godhead, and this trace is what lurks behind
 the "night full of signs." At the very least the absence of God is
 not to be forgotten or overcome. (Albert Camus 78)

Meursault may represent Camus's secularized version of the Holy Spirit. Applying Rene Girard's methodology in his essay, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning to The Stranger (although he earlier labeled Meursault a "juvenile delinquent" in a famous, brilliantly iconoclastic article (15)), we may regard Meursault as the paraclete or Holy Spirit, which in Greek and Latin means "lawyer for the defense" or "defender of the accused" By contrast, Satan in Hebrew signifies "accuser [i.e., prosecutor] before a tribunal." Confronting his accusers--judge, jury, most of the witnesses, and the prosecutor--the taciturn Meursault, like Jesus and the Holy Spirit, serves as "defender of the accused" both himself and in his persona Raymond and the mass of pieds-noirs who oppressed the Arab majority ("Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"), driving them to revolt. The whites convict and execute him, rendering him the scapegoat for their own brutal treatment of the Muslims.

But Meursault's intent was to enlighten them about their secular sin against the patrie. As Girard puts it in his book (although not in reference to The Stranger, which he does not mention here): "We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens the persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: 'They don't know what they are doing" (I See Satan 189-90). While what Alexis de Tocqueville called the "tyranny of the majority" manifests itself in the Algiers courtroom and its desultory procedures, in subdued form constituting a kind of mass hysteria and mob justice, Meursault inevitably realizes, at the novel's end, that his sacrifice has not accomplished anything useful. In a subliminal manner, this may be the reason for his tirade against the priest, who represents the Establishment that has failed to recognize the true meaning of an Arab's murder and instead convicted him for an insufficient display of socially sanctified grief at his mother's funeral.

In Camus's "absurd" world, as he depicted it in the Myth of Sisyphus, Meursault, by taking Raymond's--and pied-noir evil as a whole--upon himself, only accomplishes his death. He fails in his goal: to achieve increased social awareness by the pieds-noirs of the injustices perpetrated against the native Arab majority. On the contrary, he faces execution primarily for not demonstrating enough sorrow after his mother's death, thereby violating hypocritical bourgeois norms that emphasize public displays of grief notwithstanding individual authenticity of feeling or the lack of it. To a certain degree, therefore, my interpretation bears out J. P. Little's view of tragedy in the works of Camus, which requires
 a sense of inevitability, of something which is beyond man's
 control, of an individual pitted against forces which he cannot
 match. He may fail because of hamartia, or he may do evil
 unwittingly, but there is always the sense that he is kept ignorant
 of some vital factor, knowledge of which would have enabled him to
 avoid tragic consequences. (50)

For Camus, the New Testament's only tragic aspect was the moment that the crucified Jesus viscerally felt human, in perceiving the abandonment by his Father. This was the most authentic moment of his story; much of the rest, for Camus, was mere fantasy. As he said in a speech sur l'avenir de la tragedie, possibly influenced by the works of Simone Weil, which he discovered several years after writing The Stranger:
 Peut-etre n'y a-t-il eu qu'une seule tragedie chretienne dans
 l'histoire. Elle s'est celebree sur le Golgotha pendant un instant
 imperceptible, au moment du 'Mon Dieu, pourquoi m'as-tu abandonne:
 Ce doute fugitive, et ce doute seule, consacrait l'ambiguite d'une
 situation tragique. ("Conference" 1706)

 Perhaps there is only a single Christian tragedy in the whole story
 [of the New Testament]. It celebrates itself on Golgotha in an
 imperceptible instant, at the moment of [Jesus uttering], "My God,
 why have you abandoned me." This fleeting doubt, and this doubt
 alone, sanctifies the ambiguity of the tragic situation. (my

For Camus, Jesus as an immortal figure cannot be a tragic one, since he cannot authentically undergo the fear of death. Once he has risen from the dead, unlike Meursault, he can no longer be considered a tragic representative of humanity: "Ensuite la divinite du Christ n'a plus fait de doute. La messe qui consacre chaque jour cette divinite est la vraie forme du theatre religieux en Occident. Elle n'est pas invention, mais repetition" ("Conference" 1706). ("Afterward Christ's divinity is no longer a matter of doubt. The mass that daily consecrates this divinity is the true form of religious theater in the West. It is not contrivance, but redundancy" [my translation].) Nevertheless, Robert Sutton suggests that Jesus may have shared Camus's disbelief in the immortality of the soul and the superior significance of the afterlife (162).

To some extent, Camus mocked the concept of Messianism. On the secular level, he considered it a hypocritical invention of the postwar superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, part of the rhetoric of their potentially cataclysmic confrontation. In 1948, in "Helen's Exile" he wrote, "We are now witnessing the Messianic forces confronting one another, their clamors merging in the shock of empire" (Thody 151). Camus had become disillusioned because people no longer respected natural beauty, only the power and immortality they thought were conferred by Reason taken to extreme limits, including totalitarianism and nuclear holocaust.

By contrast, writing a decade earlier, he negated the wish for immortality while virtually deifying Algerian pieds-noirs sensuality, spontaneity and love of life. He was almost willing to exempt them from punishment for sin. "There are some words that I have never really understood, such as sin," he wrote in 1939 in "Summer in Algiers."
 Yet I think I know that these men [the exuberant, working-class
 piedsnoirs of his acquaintance] have never sinned against life. For
 if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing
 of it than in hoping for a better life and evading the implacable
 grandeur of the one we have. (Thody 91)

Camus similarly exalts the earthiness and physicality of the piedsnoirs in his glorified description of amateur boxing matches in Oran. With poignant empathy for the audience, Camus, with a journalist's flair, writes, "In this atmosphere, the announcement of a draw is badly received. It runs counter to what, in the crowd, is an utterly Manichean vision: there is good and evil, the winner and the loser. One must be right if one isn't wrong" When a draw is declared and the competing Parisian and Oranian boxers embrace, the crowd bursts into applause, inadvertently showing its civility, Camus observes ("The Minotaur, or Stopping in Oran" in Thody 123).

As revealed by his "Last Supper" with Raymond and its fateful aftermath, Meursault embodies a human, existential version of Christ. Uncharacteristically, unfeelingly killing the Arab as a brutal pied-noir like his friend Raymond might do, Meursault sets himself on a scapegoat's sacrificial course but fails during his trial in his efforts to serve as an exemplar leading sinning fellow men to see the "truth." This is the hidden, Christian meaning of his blundering, needless murder of the Arab, which precipitates his senseless execution. As adumbrated by Meursault's earlier awed, pantheistic, mystical contemplation of Nature when he is on the beach and with Marie, whom he basically treats with respect (Scherr), his tragic fate and culminating self-revelation ultimately reveals to him that the absurdity, what Sartre called "contingency" (see Bourgeois), underlying life's joy and suffering inhered in a colon society immune and indifferent to his Christ-like warning and sacrifice. This is one of the undetected meanings of his enigmatic, bitter last words: "For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate" (Ward 123).

Aptly enough, the final words of Meursault, the atheistic Christ, after crucifixes have been menacingly waved in his face by the examining magistrate and an overzealous priest looking for a premature "confession" remind one of the jeering claques ("multitudes") of Jews recruited against Jesus by the relentless high priest Caiaphas. They harassed Jesus after Caiaphas had him arrested, during his brief, improvised "trial" and on the way to the cross, rejecting his healing invocation to "love thy neighbor." In the ultimate humiliation, they called for Pontius Pilate to release the rebel and murderer Barabbas in his stead. (The precise nature of Barabbas's crime is unclear. Mark 15:6-11 identifies him as a rebel who had committed murder during the rebellion, while John 18:40 calls him a robber.) Like Jesus, Meursault is hated by the mob (Mark 15:8-14, 29-32). Like Jesus during his trial and punishment, Meursault is treated in a degrading fashion in the courtroom, although not to the extent of being barbarically scourged as Jesus was by Governor Pontius Pilate (John 19:1, Mark 15:15, Matt. 27:26). Unlike the judges, jurors and attorneys, Meursault is not given a straw fan on a hot day (87, 88). Always acutely sensitive to his physical surroundings, Meursault "wipe[s] the sweat covering my face" (89), reminiscent of Jesus praying in solitude after the Last Supper, dreading impending death: "And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44).

There are numerous other affinities between Meursault and Christ in the novel. Ironically, when Meursault asserts that he does not believe in God, the outraged examining magistrate (whose temperament resembles the Jewish high priest Caiaphas) waves a crucifix at him (68), and from that point on seems determined to convict him of murder, while adopting the derisive nickname for him, "Monsieur Antichrist" (71) to mask his anger, similar to the Roman soldiers mockingly calling Jesus "King of the Jews" (Luke 23:36-38). At Meursauh's trial, the jurors draw lots (for what purpose is not clear), just as the Roman soldiers drew lots for Jesus's clothing at his crucifixion (Matt. 27:35). After the chief judge incongruously directs incriminating remarks at Meursault, mainly in connection with reports of his conduct at his mother's funeral, Meursault admits to himself, "For the first time in years I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me" (89-90). He may have found solace in Christ's words to his disciples, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18).

As this article has argued, Meursault's "last supper" with Raymond is an event of central significance in delineating Meursault's Christ-like role. It is a pivotal circumstance in the unfolding necessity leading to his murder of the Arab, analogous to Jesus at the Last Supper revealing to his disciples that one of them will betray him. This is shortly followed by Judas Iscariot kissing Jesus near the Mount of Olives, thereby exposing his identity to the high priest's soldiers, rendering his crucifixion inevitable. With the similarity of his mission, his persona and his fate to that of Jesus, Meursault in many ways is, as Camus said, "the only Christ we deserved."

City University of New York


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(1) Except where otherwise noted, citations to The Stranger refer to the translation by Stuart Gilbert, which is listed under Camus in the Works Cited list. Citations to the translation by Matthew Ward will be cited as "Ward;' and that translation is listed in Ward's name in the Works Cited list.

(2) Ohayon provides an occasionally confused discussion of Meursault's similarities to Jesus in his account of the trial. His interpretation of Meursault's final remarks, when he states that, "For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone" (Ward 123; Ohayon 201), as literally akin to Jesus's cry from the cross is moot. Ohayon and Loose both consider this statement as analogous to Christ's calling from the cross, "It is finished:' The analogy seems strained in this instance.

(3) See also Brock, who argues that Camus wrote L'Etranger primarily as a polemic against capital punishment.

(4) In one of the best of numerous explications of L'Etranger, English Showalter, Jr., does little more than depict Raymond as an unsavory character and impugn Meursault's integrity for befriending him (65-67).

(5) For an interpretation of the color "white" as representing purity in L'Etranger and linking Meursault's mother's social humiliation when he places her in the Marengo nursing home with that of her alter ego, the cancerous Arab nurse, who is swathed in white, see McCarthy, "First Arab."

(6) See Willard Bohn, "The Stranger and Kafka's The Trial" in Maus's Readings on The Stranger, 127.

(7) Quotations from the account of Jesus's temptation are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible.

(8) "Black Mass" refers to the blasphemous and often obscene burlesques of the Christian Eucharist, allegedly performed by satanic or anti-Christian cults in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Various ritually cannibalistic and sexually perverse rites and worship of animals or idols took place. Naked women's backsides were often used as ersatz altars, and consecrated hosts were supposedly obtained, urinated on and in various ways mutilated. The idea of the Black Mass was most widely disseminated in France, where charges of Satanism and celebration of the black mass were made in the Middle Ages against persons accused of heresy and witchcraft, most notably by King Philip IV against the Knights Templar in 1307, seeking to expropriate their wealth and eliminate their political power by imprisoning them and burning their leaders at the stake. The French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans described celebration of a Black Mass in late nineteenth-century France in his novel, La-Bas (1891). As part of the Francophone culture, it is likely that Camus was familiar with the concept of the Black Mass

(9) Gregoire provides the most detailed treatment of the role of alcohol and excessive drinking in causing loss of control among Camus's characters, but he does not perceive the episode at Raymond's apartment in the way that is done here.

(10) See Conor Cruise O'Brien, Louise K. Horowitz, Anthony Rizzuto, and Christine Margerrison, "Albert Camus and 'Ces Femmes qu'on raie de l'humanite': Sexual Politics in the Colonial Arena" Compare the defense of Camus in Jan Rigaud.

(11) Willard Bohn's "The Trials and Tribulations of Josef K. and Meursault" is excerpted in Derek C. Maus's Readings on The Stranger, 125-37. For the view that Meursault was essentially sociable, see Robert Champigny, 7-11.

(12) L'Etranger, quoted in Onimus 113. Ward's translation is: "I now had my back flat against the wall, and light was streaming over my forehead" (119).

(13) Elwyn F. Sterling argues that the tone of the novel's conclusion indicates that Meursault will eventually be pardoned, not executed.

(14) For the argument, questioned in this essay, that Camus in The Stranger intentionally depicted Arabs as non-persons without an identity, see Margerrison (2001).

(15) For Girard's brilliant, iconoclastic characterization of Meursault as having the personality of a "juvenile delinquent" and a "derelict," and his unfavorable comparison of L'Etranger with Camus's La Chute, see "Camus's Stranger Retried."
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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