Defining the Villain in The Outsider

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” This dispassionate utterance, the opening line of Camus’ The Outsider, immediately captures the cool impassiveness that is Meursault.  Meursault’s indifference to the world and to others in it, is what marks him as an ‘outsider’ in society, and is ultimately what leads to his condemnation as a soulless criminal. He has committed murder, incontestably; firing five shots into the chest of an Arab, in broad daylight, can leave no one in doubt of this fact. However, it is his lack of remorse, and perhaps more significantly, his lack of grief over the death of his mother, that has a far greater influence in his sentence. To put it another way, Meursault is sentenced to death because he refuses to exhibit the emotional reactions that society expects of him. In the afterword to the novel, Camus highlights this point, declaring that, “the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game.” I certainly agree with the premise here, and yet something struck me as misplaced when I read this sentence: hero?

While I undeniably found Meursault questionable as a villain, the idea of him as a hero seemed to me, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch. He killed a man at close range and with no remorse, he exhibited no concern for the woman being beaten by his “mate”, he felt no “disgust” towards Salamano’s abusive treatment of his dog, and he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. Surely these are no less than the deeds of a bona fide, black-hat-wearing villain? Okay, not quite, when we take the whole picture into account, but a hero?

In the same afterword, Camus describes Meursault as someone who “refuses to lie”, someone with “the passion for absolute and for truth”. While this may, at first sound rather honourable, the defiant actions of a lone man who refuses to bend to society’s warped and imposed demands, in practice, and certainly within this novel, the effect was something quite different. Ordinarily when we think of concepts such as ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’, we may do so with highly moral connotations in mind. Yet, for Meursault, ‘truth’ holds no such connotation; it seems merely to be his default position, almost as if within the chronic apathy of his mind, he just can’t see the point in lying.

When recounting interactions between himself and his girlfriend, Meursault states, “she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.” The straightforward bluntness of this answer demonstrates not only Meursault’s strict and unfrivolous adherence to the truth, but his innate lack of empathy; if he is aware of the emotional effect this statement may have on his girlfriend, then it would apparently seem he just doesn’t care. That Meursault felt it ‘didn’t mean anything’, suggests his indifference towards the idea of love and reflects his somewhat nihilistic and benign attitude towards the value of human experience, towards life in general.

Meursault certainly doesn’t speak his truths from any moral high ground, yet neither does he seem to be acting with immoral intent when his truths are hurtful. It seems most accurate to describe Meurasult’s viewpoint as ‘amoral’, and this is perhaps why his status as a hero, or as a villain, becomes so difficult to define. He is neither black nor white, and a person who dwells in the gray waste land of indifference is arguably unworthy of either praise or condemnation for any of their actions towards other beings. But then, I’d venture he wouldn’t really care what anyone thinks anyway.

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