Imagery in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (1942)

Blog post written by Dr Ronald Batchelor, the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011) & A Student Grammar of Spanish (2006).

The flat, lifeless, may we venture monotonous? style of Camus’s L’Étranger, a seminal work in mid-twentieth century French literature, would seem to offer the sharpest of contrasts with any reference to its imagery. The protagonist narrator, Meursault, writes in a moral vacuum, a Godless, valueless universe which promotes an apparently pointless presentation of events leading to the shooting dead of an Arab on a sun-drenched beach near Algiers: a murder leading to the trial, conviction and guillotining of the hero. The first person point of view, the unconventional, even uniquely focussed narrative in the perfect tense as opposed to the traditional preterite or past historic, the marked lack of explanatory or modifying conjunctions such as “et”, “mais” and “tandis que” (and/but/while), the striking brevity of the sentences, they all converge on the meaningless process of the existence of an alienated hero, having attracted numerous critical comments, including those of the present author. The reader is left with a linear, rigorously non-analytic presentation of the experience of life’s absurdity, and the main character’s failure to connect with society.

Clearly, the entire novella follows a repetitive, neurotic pattern, uninterrupted save for one crucial point in the centre of the novel, and it is upon this pivotal feature that the whole narrative hangs. L’Étranger divides neatly into two parts, “Première Partie” and “Deuxième Partie”, and it is precisely at the very end of part one that a surprisingly abrupt change in stylistic technique occurs. In other words, the reader’s attention is suddenly, unexpectedly jolted from a seemingly lacklustre arrangement of words to an unrestrained flourish of sustained images, largely similes and metaphors. This febrile recourse to imagery, and we insist on “febrile”, perfectly illustrates Meursault’s temporary transformation from a dispassionate, unresponsive character to a man of  uncontrolled fear. He shoots the unknown Arab for self-protection, only guessing that he might be in danger from a knife he is carrying.

The murder is explained less by psychological analysis than by a skilfull, cumulative use of images that slowly rise in a crescendo to a paroxysm of loss of self-control. The unrelenting use of metaphor and simile cuts the novel in two, punctuating it at the very point where Meursault’s life is violently disturbed from an experience of happy indifference. Only a very close reading of the text enables the reader to perceive the change in the character’s awareness and experience. It is all a question of tacit suggestion rather than clarity of explanation.

A study of the tropes, or figurative language, henceforth indicated by words placed in bold, offers us access to what is going on in Meursault’s mind during the murder scene, the beginning of which occurs on page 1166 of the Pléiade Edition of Camus’s writings (Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles, Paris, 1962): “Je l’a accompagné jusqu’au cabanon…” (I accompanied him ((Raymond, another character)) as far as the small house). The unbearable exposure to the heat of the Algerian summer sun overwhelms Meursault who undergoes a sense of disorientation. We read in rapid succession: “la tête retentissante de soleil” (my head reverberating with the sun); “Toute cette chaleur qui s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance” (All this heat that was bearing down on me and was preventing me from moving forward). For brevity’s sake, we omit several further tropes until we read of the throbbing sensation of the sun’s heat: “Je ne sentais plus que les cymbales du soleil” (I could only feel the cymbals of the sun); “pleuvoir du feu” (to rain fire).

Intertwined with intense heat is the dazzling onslaught of a brilliant sun: “la pluie aveuglante qui tombait du ciel” (the blinding rain falling from the sky); “La lumière a giclé sur l’acier”  (The light squirted on the steel); “et c’était comme une longue lame étincelante qui m’atteignait au front” (and it was like a long sparkling blade striking me on the forehead). Allusions in these last two examples are to the Arab’s knife, the danger of which is stressed by the alliterative “l”=longue lame éincelante”. The culminating, metaphoric point is reached in the sentence: “Cette épée brûlante rongeait mes cils et fouillait mes yeux douloureux” (The burning sword gnawed at my eyelashes, searching into my painful eyes). Meursault no longer sees what is happening to him. He blindly pulls the trigger on the Arab. The killing of the Arab is to be construed as an act of self-defence, justification denied by the subsequent court hearing. The art of the imagery is too intimate and personal for this truth to be seized upon by society’s laws.

An integral part of Camus’s figurative art is the frequent use of pathetic fallacy which invests nature with human attributes. Its function emphasizes, once again, intensity of sensation, and the universe’s collaboration in Meursault’s downfall. Thus we read: “La mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues” (The sea panted with all the quick, stifled breathing of its small waves); “…soleil et de cette ivresse qu’il me déversait” (…sun, and of this opaque drunkenness that it waa pouring over me);  “Le bruit des vagues était encore plus paresseux” (The sound of the waves was even lazier); “Mais toute une plage vibrante de soleil se pressait derrière moi” (But a whole vibrant beach was crowding behind me).

The sharpness of sensation increases with several references, sometimes oblique, to the Arab’s knife, his “couteau”: “à chaque épée de lumière” (at each sword of light, i.e. shaft); “acier” (steel); “lame” (blade); “glaive éclatant” (shining sword). These references stress the cutting edge of the knife, the vulnerability of human flesh, constituting a forerunner of bullets sinking into the Arab’s body.

The entire passage ends on one short, premonitory, fateful and harrowing sentence built upon a simile and a metaphor, following the one bullet, then four more, that Meursault shoots into the Arab’s flesh: “Et c’était comme quatre coups brefs que je portais sur la porte du malheur” (And it was like four sharp blows that I gave on the door of misfortune). Part two sees Meursault immediately in prison. He has gone through this door of misfortune, irrevocably.

All the preceding instances of imagery leading to the death of an anonymous Arab are already contained in, and tacitly announced by, the protagonist’s very name, unusual although not unique in the French-speaking world : Meursault: (je) meurs=(I) die, “sault” suggesting “soleil”. i.e. sun. Emblematic conclusion: death in the sun.

The sustained use of imagery exclusively applied to the murder scene is designed to offer the reader a privileged insight into the reasons for Meursault’s behaviour while, at the same time, denying this insight to the court and the condemning magistrate. Camus’s well-known and oft-commented-upon preoccupation with the inhuman legal machinery of the death sentence requires no further remark.

One final point: why does Meursault, an ordinary office worker with no obvious claim to literary acumen, indifferent to and alienated from, his society he regards as fruitless and irrelevant, indulge in such a wealth of richly powerful, highly charged and apposite language? How can he reconcile a randomly pursued life and a carefully crafted work of art? An insoluble contradiction inherent in the application of his particular first person viewpoint.

Read more blog posts from Dr Ronald Batchelor here

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