Meursault and the Death Penalty Argument

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As an illustration of Elaine Scarry’s interpretation of pain, as quoted by Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, in his book Gruesome Spectacles: Pain, literary theorist Elaine Scarry observes, ‘has no voice…

When one hears about another’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterraneous fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth.’ (25) The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment this description of pain is a true representation of how we do not know what the person is truly going through at the time if the execution. The manifestation of one’s pain does not show to others until after an individual has started to experience such pain for a duration of time.

The time that it takes for the executed person to show their pain until it is too late. They have already felt the pain, even though they had not had a chance to show it on the outside yet. It takes time for someone’s pain to show on the outside for another person to be aware of it (Sarat). Another key point, Sarat, quotes Justice Shaw, “‘while beheading results in a quick, relatively painless death, it entails frank violence (i.e. gross laceration and blood-letting) and mutilation (i.e. decapitation), and disgrace…and thus is facially cruel’” (24).

Justice Shaw interprets his ability to read pain confidently. Although Justice Shaw does not seem to apply the same rules to pain as Scarry, his statement that the guillotine is “relatively painless” gives proof to my theory that it is not painless, but he belittles the issue at hand (Sarat). Consequently, he does tell us how cruel a form of punishment decapitation is. The guillotine is inhumane because brain death does not occur instantly, and the ordeal can be painful and terrifying for the intended victim and horrifies onlookers. Finally, the most important reason Meursault does not deserve the death penalty is, the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.

Camus himself did not support the death penalty; Camus’ purpose for the novel, The Stranger, is for the reader to sympathize with Meursault, as he has attributes and the Arab, is nameless and does not. David Carroll, Professor Emeritus, French, and Italian at School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine, reports that, “Camus firmly believed that any system of justice that punishes criminals by taking their life is unjust; any state or revolutionary party or movement that uses terrorism as means to achieve its ends in fact perverts those ends, no matter how noble those ends may be” (85). Carroll tells about the lack of justification that Camus’ viewed on the death penalty. Camus wrote a great deal on the death penalty and emphasized the significance of not using the death penalty. He also demanded less painful means of capital punishment such as lethal injection when he discovered disagreement with his cause (Carroll).

Notably, as Camus expressed when he distinctly compared capital punishment to premeditated murder: But what is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life. (“Reflections” 151-152) Camus acknowledges that the death penalty was unequal to the crime that the murderer committed.

The time the prisoner had to wait until the penalty was like a sentence, not knowing when the execution was going to occur. Anxiety and anticipation of the unknown, waiting in fear of death to come. Animalistic as it is, this is, it is worse than the murder that resulted in the sentence. Camus felt very strongly against the death penalty and he wrote this as a justification for his plea to abolish the death penalty. Camus was very adamant about how he felt through his writing. At the time, the death penalty, imposed by guillotine which is a mutilation of the body (“Reflections”).

This is what Camus felt was the main problem. Similarly, Camus in The Rebel, states, “But his hatred for the death penalty is at first no more than a hatred for men who are sufficiently convinced of their own virtue to dare to inflict capital punishment, when they themselves are criminals. You cannot simultaneously choose crime for yourself and punishment for others” (The Rebel 40). In The Rebel, Camus shows that he does not support the death penalty, this is another example of such in his writing. Camus expresses here as he refers to Sade and his interpretation of his position on the death penalty and at the time of his imprisonment (The Rebel).

It is important to understand how Robert Brock, French Professor, interpreted the anonymity of the Arab in The Stranger as, “Why does the Arab have no name? Why does he not have a face or age or profession? Why has he no family, no friends? Who speaks for him at the trial? No one! He simply does not exist other than as a means to get Meursault condemned to the guillotine” (Brock 29). Brock’s point of view is important because it shows how the Arab was merely a tool in the novel, used by Camus to force the reader’s focus onto Meursault and beg for the sympathy of the reader. Meursault, condemned for his crime, sentenced to death by the guillotine, the reader must feel that this is unjust.

The feelings that readers of The Stranger should recall the full development of Meursault’s character by Camus and not of the Arab’s character. This is intentional, so that we, as readers, feel sympathetic to the unfair verdict that Meursault receives. We are confused by the state of the trial, want to understand why this man sent to the guillotine, for the simple repression of feelings at his mother’s funeral. Critics interpret The Stranger in diverse ways. Some people felt that Camus had hatred toward Arabs and that is the reason behind the killing of the Arab, but that could not be further from the truth. Camus did not respond to these attacks.

The Arab being an unknown character in the novel specifically used as a tool in Camus’ writing, for Meursault to kill so the reader will feel that there is unfairness because the reader is unfamiliar with the Arab. As they are familiar with Meursault, Camus believes the reader will see that the murder trial is unjust, as it has only to do with Meursault’s lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral (Brock). Consider this and what Richard Lehan, Professor Emeritus of English, points out: Meursault commits a ‘symbolic’ murder on the beach. The point is that the murder of the Arab is as accidental and gratuitous as Camus’s world itself. Meursault does not mean to kill the Arab. He goes to the spot by accident. He meets the Arab by chance.

The sun happens to be un-pleasantly hot, and Meursault happens to feel terribly uncomfortable. When the Arab draws a knife, the blade by chance catches the sun and the reflection flashes into Meursault’s eyes whereupon he responds mechanically – like a coiled spring – and the gun goes off. (234) The importance of the murder happening under the perfect circumstances is the verification of the absurd. The accidental murder of the Arab has an important purpose in the novel. It stands for the events that led up to the murder that occurs by pure coincidence that offers validation of the theme of the absurd. As The Stranger compared to other writings, the author decides it is more closely aligned with Hemmingway due to the style in which it is written. Meursault as well compared to other protagonists.

The author feels that to understand The Stranger, there is also a need to understand Sisyphis in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphis. Awareness and commitment of the absurd are the two things that Camus uses with these two characters that are of the utmost importance to correctly interpret the writings. The importance of the murder happening under the perfect circumstances verifies the absurd. Meursault is unaware until the moment that the gun goes off the first time. He follows up with the four other shots to confirm or commit to the absurd (Lehan).

Camus had just reason for his position against the death penalty, although his philosophy is not specifically supportive of religion. The death penalty is against the word of God, Jesus taught us forgiveness, and God is the judge of life and death. The most compelling evidence, as quoted by Peter Riga, priest and lawyer, in his article on capital punishment, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Evangelium Vitae: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against the aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they correspond better to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.’ (6, 10) The CCC and EV both share the same quote saying that the common good and respect of human beings is important when determining punishment by the least aggressive means possible.

Jesus taught forgiveness, and God is the one judge of life and death, these words taken from the two texts show that to protect others, we cannot as a society use the death penalty (Riga). Is the person condemned to death any longer an aggressor? He is present before us without a defense; have we no other alternative than his death? Clearly the answer is no. If there were only an individual defense, the answer is clear: the one whom we condemn, and judge is no longer an aggressor. If we remain strictly on that plane, to execute him would be simply legal murder. (Riga 7-8) Once we have arrested someone, they should no longer pose a threat to society, so they are no longer an ‘aggressor’ therefore the execution of this individual would be ‘legal murder’ (Riga). But can the death penalty have a medicinal effect?

Clearly not. By suppressing the individual, one eliminates all possibility of his rehabilitation into the community again. By condemning someone to death, civil authorities inflict a punishment which has no curative value and in this sense is not a true punishment. (Riga 9) Since we cannot rehabilitate the condemned, there is no therapeutic value of the death penalty as a punishment method. “The criminal constitutes a danger for society which cannot judge with certitude about his eventual conversion. Society must therefore deprive him of his freedom and cannot leave his rehabilitation up to himself” (Riga 9).

Nobody knows what will happen in the future, who can say that a murderer will murder again or not? Life imprisonment is the cure for this, not the death penalty. (Riga) There is other biblical evidence that supports the same stance on the death penalty, take the story of Cain and Abel for instance, as an example used by Hugo Adam Bedau, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in “Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy” (129). Not only is the death penalty a violation of the word of God. The death penalty is a violation of human rights and the right to life. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” As Steven Freeland, Professor of Law, points out, “Building upon Art 3 of the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights], both the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the 1966 ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] confirm the existence of a legal ‘right to life’” (15).

All three documents include protection for the human rights of individuals place restrictions on the use of the death penalty. The ICCPR and ECHR allow a ‘right to life’ to be protected by the law (Freeland). Specifically, Section 1 article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights states, “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law” (ECHR Sec 1 art 2). Additionally, Protocol 13 article 1 states, “The death penalty shall be abolished. No one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed” (ECHR protocol 13 art 1).

The ECHR specifically restricts the use of the death penalty (ECHR). Another example from, Geoffrey Robertson, trial lawyer, and UN war crimes judge, in Crimes Against Humanity, “The most basic right of all is that to life- guaranteed by Article 8 of the Universal Declaration“ (131). The Universal Declaration as well, affirms a guaranteed right to life; These international rights are for all of humankind. As international standards show, human rights are due to every human being (Robertson).

The death penalty is not a punishment that any human being should endure because of the cruelty involved. Robertson also states, “The court concluded that the death penalty was an infringement both of the right to life and of the right to avoid ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’, because these rights were unqualified in the new post-apartheid constitution” (179). The decision made here by the court was that capital punishment was a violation of ‘right to life’ and ‘right to avoid cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’ (Robertson). This proves human cruelty in general. In the Encyclopedia of Bioethics Tom Sorell, Professor of Politics and Philosophy, talking about the moral argument against capital punishment says “standards of humane punishment have now risen to a point where killing a human being-even one who is guilty of a terrible crime-can only be understood as cruel, and therefore immoral.”

Specifically, as Sarat quotes Judge Reinhardt when he discusses the cruelty concerning punishment by execution when the method of hanging was put on trial in Campbell vs. Wood, “Cruelty can arise ‘from the relatively painless infliction of degradation, savagery, and brutality…. Indignities can be inflicted even after a person has died’” (20). Judge Reinhardt makes a good point of the degradation of the memory of a person in the minds of their loved ones. The person is also physically affected at the time of their death (Sarat). Also, as Robertson quoted, in Furman vs. Georgia, the 1972 case that almost caused the abolition of the death penalty in the United States, Justice Stewart remarked that, “‘Death sentences are cruel and unusual in the way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.’

It is in this sense that every prisoner who is actually executed may be said to have been ‘arbitrarily’ deprived of his life, simply because others who may be equally, or more, ‘deserving’ of death have avoided the same fate” (181). Justice Stewart noted the racial divide in the application of the death penalty in the US (Robertson). Camus sought abolition of the death penalty and wrote The Stranger intending the reader to have Meursault’s sympathy in mind, the death penalty is against the word of God, no human should endure due to the cruelty involved and violation of human rights. As we have seen, the murder of the Arab was consequential, the guillotine is a dreadful excuse for a punishment, and capital punishment is a harsh ruthless and unwarranted punishment for any human being.

It is extremely unfortunate that Camus’ met such an unfortunate end at such an early age and was unable to continue in his journey in writing and publicizing against the death penalty. It would be interesting to find out the result of crime rates if the complete abolition of the death penalty occurred. Although, the World, especially the United States may not be ready for this. Given these points, Meursault should not lose his head. “Only those totally indifferent to the suffering of others-even those guilty of monstrous crimes-would praise rather than vomit at the sight of sick justice and any form of terrorism whatsoever” (Carroll 105)


Cite this paper

Meursault and the Death Penalty Argument. (2020, Sep 08). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/meursault-and-the-death-penalty-argument/



How does Meursault feel about the death penalty?
As a character who is emotionally detached and indifferent towards most things in life, Meursault does not express any strong feelings or opinions about the death penalty. He simply accepts it as a part of the legal system and does not dwell on it.
What are Meursault's views on death?
Meursault views death as a natural process that happens to everyone and is not something to be feared.
What reason does Meursault give the court for killing the Arab?
Meursault claims that he does not know why he killed the Arab and that it was not premeditated.
Why did Meursault get the death penalty?
Meursault is found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to death by guillotine.
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