Common Place Book #10

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

The Stranger – Albert Camus

It cannot be denied that this is quite an opening by Albert Camus. First, anyone reading The Stranger for the first time would quickly be taken off guard. The main character stating that his mother has died, on a day he cannot remember, goes a long way in creating a first impression on the reader. Right from the beginning, Meursault, the main character, is presented as disengaged from the world and uncaring. The simplicity of each clause, all of them only three words, highlights the indifference that Meursault feels.

Had Camus written something such as “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I cannot remember. The past few hours have been a blur,” Meursault would come across as having some feeling. Instead, the lack of feeling is almost dark and inhuman, exactly what Camus wanted. The novel itself is a challenge to the morals of human society. The main character Meursault’s trial transitions from a trail over the murder of a man, to a trial over the amount of grief he went through after his mother’s death. In essence, Meursault is sentenced to death over a lack of feeling that is quickly developed from the first line on.

In addition to attacking societies moral standards, Camus, through Meursault, presents a case for the insignificance of humans. He argues that the universe has no care for the lives of humans, similar to what is presented in Richard Rorty’s “Universalist Grandeur and Analytical Philosophy,” through Meursault’s own lack of care for the lives of humans. No line is able to demonstrate Meursault’s lack of care more effectively than the first. He does not even care about the death of his mother. The death of his mother should have crushed him and sent him into a state of misery.

By stating that his mother has died in the same fashion as someone who cannot remember what day they last ordered a coffee, Camus almost creates comedy. I have to admit, I laughed the first time I heard this line. Camus uses a simple and common form and fills it with very deep and emotional tragedy. The effect that is created, a sense of guilty laughter, is intentional. Laughing at the death of someones mother puts the reader in the same moral boat as Meursault.

As an eye catcher, few lines can beat this one by Camus. Camus’s ability to both catch eyes and set the tone for the entire story makes this line genius. He quickly delves the reader into issue of morality that will be discussed throughout the novel.

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