Verisimilitude in the Conclusion of Albert Camus’s L’étranger


Arthur Scherr (, adjunct assistant professor of history at New York University, has worked also on Voltaire and French literary existentialism. His articles on existentialism and Camus’s L’étranger have appeared in American Imago, The Psychoanalytic Review, The Explicator, Romance Notes, and Christianity and Literature.


In discussing the historical accuracy and verisimilitude of Camus’s L’étranger, critics disagree whether the death sentence the court imposes on Meursault for killing an Arab realistically depicts the French-Algerian legal process. Most studies, such as Conor Cruise O’Brien’s brief classic, and works by English Showalter and Patrick McCarthy, consider this aspect of the roman the most unrealistic and ahistorical, since racial discrimination against Arabs in the Francophone world was such that no white colon would be convicted for shooting an Arab armed with a knife, and counsel’s demands for a “not guilty” verdict based on self-defense would have convinced a jury. Critics have not sufficiently addressed whether the novel itself indicates that Meursault/Camus regarded the death sentence for killing an Arab as uncommon or not in accord with verisimilitude. That Meursault shows no remorse for killing an Arab in cold blood suggests he shares the racial prejudices of his people. Moreover, in the course of his arrest and trial the legal authorities initially pay little attention to his case. Apparently believing that he will be released, perhaps even without trial, he thinks he does not need a lawyer. After he is imprisoned, his conduct toward the Arab prisoners, the legal authorities, his defense attorney, and his paramour, Marie, indicate that he expects to be found “not guilty.” Even the Arabs in jail with him find the presence of a white pied-noir in prison anomalous. In these ways, Camus subtly suggests cognizance of the racist historical context in which L’étranger takes place. Indeed, the judicial system turns on Meursault only after he admits to the examining magistrate that he is an atheist and the authorities learn that he had not wept at his mother’s funeral and was in other ways seemingly indifferent to her death. Thus, Camus attempts to preserve some semblance of historical authenticity.