The opening lines of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus are shocking and disturbing: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure." .
With the first sentence "Mother died today." Camus elicits sympathy from us, the readers. A sympathy, which he snatches away with the next sentence "Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." , which depicts the protagonist as an insensitive monster.
He then elicits sympathy from us again by having Meursault tell us that his boss was annoyed, when the former asked him for two days' leave for his mother's funeral. But he swipes sympathy away again from us when we understand Meursault is unable to feel anything for his mother and thinks that going to the funeral will "bring it home for (him), put an official seal on it, so to speak."
Camus then inverts this pattern. Insensitivity is shown by using the "black tie" as a metaphor for mourning, something to be worn, but not necessarily to be felt.
Something that may be borrowed from a friend and returned, when the ceremony is over.
And as we consider this, we discover that it was Meursault that was paying for his mother's Home.
It was he who had taken care of her financially over the last few years.
Meursault is a difficult man to judge.
We think we know him, but we don't.
We think we're better than him, but we're not.
We think we can judge him, but we can't.
And Camus is a master; he has us treading this dichotomy like a tightrope walker.
We try not to look down, but we do.
And sometimes we're scared by what we see.
What we see in ourselves, through the mirror he holds up to us.
THE STRANGER by Albert Camus translated by Stuart Gilbert
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday. The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.” Afterwards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no reason to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sympathy and so forth. Probably he will do so the day after tomorrow, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Mother weren’t really dead. The funeral will bring it home to me, put an official seal on it, so to speak. ... I took the two-o’clock bus. It was a blazing hot afternoon. I’d lunched, as usual, at Céleste’s restaurant. Everyone was most kind, and Céleste said to me, “There’s no one like a mother.” When I left they came with me to the door. It was something of a rush, getting away, as at the last moment I had to call in at Emmanuel’s place to borrow his black tie and mourning band. He lost his uncle a few months ago. I had to run to catch the bus. I suppose it was my hurrying like that, what with the glare off the road and from the sky, the reek of gasoline, and the jolts, that made me feel so drowsy. Anyhow, I slept most of the way. When I woke I was leaning against a soldier; he grinned and asked me if I’d come from a long way off, and I just nodded, to cut things short. I wasn’t in a mood for talking. The Home is a little over a mile from the village. I went there on foot. I asked to be allowed to see Mother at once, but the doorkeeper told me I must see the warden first. He wasn’t free, and I had to wait a bit. The doorkeeper chatted with me while I waited; then he led me to the office. The warden was a very small man, with gray hair, and a Legion of Honor rosette in his buttonhole. He gave me a long look with his watery blue eyes. Then we shook hands, and he held mine so long that I began to feel embarrassed. After that he consulted a register on his table, and said: “Madame Meursault entered the Home three years ago. She had no private means and depended entirely on you.”