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The birth of the subject in Camus' 'L'Etranger.'

by Gilbert D. Chaitin

The source of Meursault's transformation

Although, as I have argued elsewhere, Meursault doesnot undergo a fundamental change in mentality while awaiting the guillotine nor experience a revelation that drastically alters his relation to his past, as the prevailingcritical view maintains, by the end of the novel he is, nevertheless, profoundly different from what he was at the beginning.(1) In the first few chapters he anxiously wonderswhether he has properly understood the thoughts and intentions of others, especially those in authority like his boss and the director of the old-age home. He is particularlyconcerned to justify his conduct in light of the expectations and standards of society, even though he by no means conforms blindly to those standards. Thus he goes out of his wayto explain things that other people would have taken for granted: how his friend Emmanuel happened to have a black tie, or why he needed two days leave from work. During hisinterrogations as well as the trial, he is still vulnerable to the opinions and feelings that others have toward him. He wants the defense attorney to like him; he is hurt by thehostility of the audience in the courtroom; he'd like to explain his thoughts "cordially" to the prosecutor. But in the final scenes of the novel, the state of doubt anddependency has given way to one of determination and certainty. The content of Meursault's truth has not varied: the equal importance of everything he proclaims to the priest ("rienn'avait d'importance" 1208) conveys nothing different from his assertion to his boss in I,5 that all lives amount to the same thing ("toutes [les vies] se valaient" 1154). Th...
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