Mersault is meandering through life in French Algeria without purpose or ambition. His actions are driven by his physiological needs and his general desire to escape boredom. There is an emptiness within him that precludes any meaningful emotional connection with others. He is devoid of empathy. For Mersault the passing of his mother is an event most notable for its inconvenience with respect to having to attend her funeral.
Mersault’s attitude of indifference entangles him in the morally corrupt activities of a vile acquaintance. A chance encounter with an adversary of his associate escalates into a shooting and Mersault is arrested for murder. He faces death by guillotine in a public square if he is convicted at his trial.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus, was originally published in Nazi-occupied France in 1942.
Camus wrote the novel in the first person, which allows the reader to experience the events from Mersault’s unsettling point–of-view.
Camus’s detached protagonist shows us the extent to which emotion underlies all aspects of human relations and how appeals to emotion can impact on trial fairness. The prosecutor vociferously argues for a conviction based in large part on Mersault’s disagreeable character, drawing on testimony demonstrating his contemptible behaviour in circumstances unrelated to the matter scheduled for trial.
Mersault’s estrangement from his own lawyer and his marginalization in the trial process remind counsel that we advocate for and on behalf of our clients, not in spite of them.
The novel also examines the extent to which societal conventions govern our judgment of the actions of others and demonstrates how both the Crown and the Defence seek to impose a neat and tidy narrative on past events in order to provide coherence and meaning.
In the Canadian criminal justice system the prosecution is prohibited from tendering evidence unrelated to the offence charged that casts the accused in a negative light for the purpose of arguing that the accused’s disagreeable character should be used to determine whether he committed the specific offence charged.