“I had a busy morning in the office. My employer was in a good humor. He even inquired if I wasn’t too tired, and followed it up by asking what Mother’s age was. I thought a bit, then answered, ‘Round about sixty,’ as I didn’t want to make a blunder. At which he looked relieved—why, I can’t imagine—and seemed to think that closed the matter.”
Meursault, the titular character in Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” is odd in many ways, one being that instead of fulfilling societal norms through small pleasantries and everyday gestures, he stays true to himself in the way he behaves and interacts with others. There is an idea in literature that I learned about not too long ago— that there is in fact a fundamental difference between the two words authenticity and sincerity. I often mistook these words as synonymous of each other, but as it turns out “The Stranger” does a perfect job of showing their differences. All the characters in the book are sincere in the respect that they all fulfill their duties by interacting with each other in a way that society would deem appropriate. Some characters cry at Meursault’s mother’s funeral, they wave to him from the streets below, or they ask him how his day is going—some are genuine in their pleasantries, though these are sincere gestures all the same. Meursault never understands these societal expectations, considering them pointless and stiff. Meursault is authentic, in the sense that he is true to his own standards of what his interactions and behavior should be like, and because of this authenticity to self he feels awkward in many social situations, and is often viewed as impolite and cold.
The above quotation highlights the striking difference between authenticity and sincerity, when Meursault and his boss have a conversation about the funeral Meursault has just returned from. In the passage, the sincere boss asks Meursault how the funeral went, if he is tired, and finally, a more personal question, what his mother’s age was when she passed. For any normal person in grieving, a reply might be about her age, if she was strong until the end, or if she died peacefully. Any of these responses would be sincere and would give the person who asked the question comfort. These questions aren’t meant for the relative of the deceased, but rather to comfort the questioner. After receiving a sincere response, the person who asked the sincere question can end the conversation, knowing that they have performed their societal duties by offering condolences that were well received.
Meursault is an authentic character who is being questioned by a sincere character, and herein lies the awkwardness. When asked the question about his mother’s age, Meursault truly doesn’t know. He realizes the importance of his answer; indicating uncertainty about her age would signal to his boss that he doesn’t care about her, and her death doesn’t hold much significance to him. To avoid this fraught conversation, Meursault gives a vague answer, to which his boss appears relieved to receive. Why is this? Because Meursault’s boss already thinks that Meursault is cold and not receptive to the norms of basic human interaction. He knows that Meursault might not know his mother’s age, and he is relieved because even though Meursault did not give a correct answer, he gave an answer nonetheless. Now the employer’s job of giving condolences is finished and he can go about his day knowing that in the smallest way, his societal expectations have been fulfilled. It will be interesting to continue reading, and to see what further roles authenticity and sincerity will play in “The Stranger.”