[(essay date 2014) In the following essay, Scherr discusses Camus’s development of “the linkage between stones, human guilt, and Messianic redemption” in “The Growing Stone” and The Stranger.]
Among the most controversial themes around Albert Camus’s novel, L’Étranger [The Stranger] is Camus’s ostensibly outrageous, if not sacrilegious claim that the novel’s protagonist, Meursault, is a modern-day Jesus Christ. At least on the surface, Meursault is an insignificant, seemingly insensitive office-clerk. He fails to weep at his mother’s funeral. He kills an Arab who is resting under a rock because he wants to take his place there. Nevertheless, Camus clearly believed that Meursault is in some sense a Messianic, Christ-like figure. In his “Preface” to the American University Edition of L’Étranger, published by Appleton-Century-Crofts in 1955, he wrote that Meursault was “a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth” (Lyrical and Critical Essays, 337). Aware of the incongruity in equating Jesus with Meursault, he observed, “I have sometimes said, and always paradoxically, that I have tried to portray in this character [Meursault] the only Christ we deserved. … I said this without any intention of blasphemy and only with the slightly ironic affection which an artist has the right to feel toward the character whom he created” (337). Except for a handful of studies, few analyses of The Stranger take notice of Camus’ contention that Meursault is a modern day Christ.1
Camus was always interested in Christianity and, especially later in his career, concerned with the figure of Jesus. Perhaps he identified with him as a self-sacrificing individual who wanted to serve his fellow man. “Jacques Cormery” was the protagonist of Camus’s last, autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme, the incomplete manuscript of which was in the car with him when he died in an automobile crash (his publisher Gallimard was driving). The initials are the same as “Jesus Christ” (Vistica).
Camus regarded Jesus’s crucifixion, the moment when Jesus, as a mere mortal, suffered human agonies on the Cross and reproached God for abandoning him, as the New Testament’s only tragic event. Especially after the horrors of the twentieth century Jesus’s death on the Cross was the only aspect of his life meaningful to humanity. “There is only a single tragedy in the Christian Bible,” Camus said in a lecture on tragedy at Athens in 1955. “It celebrates itself on Golgotha in an imperceptible instant, at the moment [when Jesus burst out], ‘My God, why have you abandoned me.’ This fleeting doubt, and this doubt alone, sanctifies the ambiguity of the tragic situation.” The immortal Jesus, the Son of God honored in the Mass, was for Camus a burlesque of this tragedy, constituting “the true form of religious theater in the West” (quoted in Scherr , 204).
Camus could be mocking of Christianity. He told interviewers that he was not an atheist, even though he “did not believe in God.” With tongue-in-cheek, he protested that sentiments favorable to Christianity could be found in La Chute [...