I wrote this essay for one of Dr. Graham McAleer’s classes. He said that he particularly liked the thesis for this one. May you also enjoy this meditation on the modern world’s loss of the moral imagination as we see it in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. This essay has been divided in two parts.
How The Stranger Reveals the Lack of Moral Imagination in Modern Times
In many ways, Mr. Meursault in The Stranger demonstrates a particular problem in modern man: the lack of a moral imagination. As Russell Kirk describes it, the imagination is where intellect, reason, and emotion meet; hence, the imagination governs the moral life of a person. Where the imagination is weak, morality cannot flourish. And in Mr. Meursault, his imagination is incredibly weak: he cannot seem to see the interiors of his fellow man or come to accurate judgments about them. We shall see that his powers of imagination do not come to fruition until he is placed in prison and all the sensual delights which usually keep him occupied are taken away from him.
But, let us first go into the proofs that Mr. Meursault effectively lacks a healthy imagination. Look at the way he describes the scene on the street outside his apartment:
After them, the street slowly emptied. The matinees had all started, I guess. The only ones left were the shopkeepers and the cats. The sky was clear but dull above the fig trees lining the street. On the sidewalk across the way the tobacconist brought out a chair, set it in front of his door, and straddled it, resting his arms on the back. The streetcars, packed a few minutes before, were almost empty…It was Sunday alright.1
This is a purely superficial description of the scene. Ernest Hemingway may also be accused of being sparse with language, but not to the extent that the intellectual and emotional worlds are excised from his writing. The only time where emotion might enter the scenery is when Mr. Meursault describes the sky as “clear but dull,” but this comment only makes the superficial description more precise. One notes that there is no curiosity in regard to what is happening inside the minds of the shopkeepers or even the tobacconist, who gets the most attention in this description. We might wonder what the emotions running across these figures’ faces were. Did they seem relaxed, bored, or animated? How were they spending their time now that no customers were approaching them? Were some cleaning, fussing with their merchandise, idling, or conversing? Mr. Meursault does not seem to care about any of this, because he does not care about other people.
This also comes across in his incessant preoccupation with himself. While The Stranger is a first person narrative, the use of the word “I” seems excessive at time. As a matter of fact, excessive use of “I” in narratives usually comes across as amateurish, but in Albert Camus’s case, this must be a deliberate method to show Mr. Meursault’s narcissism. For example, his reason for joining a friend for dinner has nothing to do with a desire for companionship: “I figured that it would save me the trouble of having to cook for myself, so I accepted.”2 This ought to be a motivator for joining an acquaintance to dinner, not the person who is most nearly a friend to Meursault. It also goes along with his general disinterest in creative activities. Many people enjoy making dinner for themselves if they are not enamored of the company around them!
But, Mr. Meursault is only partially at fault for his inability to think outside of himself. After all, he used to have ambitions: “When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I quickly learned that none of it really mattered.”3 This speaks to the fact that modern man is overly economic, as we see also in movements like commercialism, feminism, socialism, and Marxism. People have lost their appetite for things pertaining to the imagination and idealism. Since God creates everyone with a unique soul, Mr. Meursault seems to have been made for an intellectual life, but was convinced that these things don’t matter. Basically, either the circumstances surrounding him giving up his studies or the people who persuaded him to do so robbed Mr. Meursault of his moral imagination. Eventually, the humdrum business of life led to the purely sensual Meursault of the novel. Thus, he does not care for Sundays because there is not an economic point to the day, nor is it a day to have fun like Saturday.
1Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. by Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989: p. 22.
Thank you for reading. I hope that you enjoy the second part, which shall be posted this Tuesday.