The earth lay white under the night sky."(Kawabata, 1) This opening phrase of the novel is very revealing: the hero comes from the intimacy of darkness (the tunnel) into the open blankness of the Snow Country. The setting thus translates the sense of innocence but also that of emptiness and loneliness.
Camus' Stranger also hints at solitude and alienation even from the title. Mersault is already a famous literary character, the modern alien in society. The main difference between him and Shimamura is the fact that the latter has a Romantic bent towards fantasy and a narcissism that keeps him locked in his own world. The common trait that they share is their permanent sense of anxiety. Mersault, unlike Shimamura, is literally afraid of the people that surround him. Incapable of empathy, Mersault feels like a complete stranger not only because he cannot connect with the others but because he find them always puzzling. He is always uneasy around other people, and he over-explains and justifies himself in front of the others. For instance, when he talks to his superior at work about taking two days off for his mother's funeral, Mersault uselessly justifies himself, pointing out that death of his mother is not his fault: "Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: "Sorry, sir, but it's not my fault, you know."(Camus, 1) This will be again echoed in the end of the novel, when he will actually be incriminated for deserting and neglecting his mother. Just like Shimamura, Mersault is in a permanent sense of alarm, only feeling at ease when he is by himself. The setting here is also important, as the novel is filled with the torrid landscape of Algeria. The almost desert-like setting accentuates the feeling of desolation. A telling example is Mersault's drowsiness all through his mother's funeral and even through the other events. He feels unable to focus because of the heat: "As a matter of fact, I had great difficulty in following his remarks, as, for one thing, the office was so stiflingly hot and big flies were buzzing round and settling on my cheeks."(Camus, 85) the extreme heat is thus a distraction that supposedly only widens the gap between him and the others. Thus, if the absolute emptiness of the Snow Country invaded the spirit of Shimamura, Mersault is terrorized from the beginning to the end of the book by the merciless, glaring sunshine: "The day on which my trial started was one of brilliant sunshine."(Camus, 103) the extreme heat and the bright light impose again a dream-like mood on the scenery. Because of the hot season, everything seems to have a sense of mirage or unreality about it, like that given by the desert. This is the most appropriate context for the alien hero of the novel, who always seems to have difficulty in concentrating and understanding what is happening to him. Again, as in the Snow Country, the opening paragraph is famous: "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."(Camus, 1) the detached and odd way in which Mersault announces his mother's death without even paying attention to any details indicates the utter state of alienation in which the reader finds him. The death of the mother is chosen here as a trope precisely because it is supposed to move anyone at any time. Mersault however remains unfeeling in front of the tragedy as then in front of his own crime and death. His continuous puzzlement is enhanced by the desert-like setting with its torrid heat and blinding light.
Thus, in both novels, the setting plays a major role in shaping the main characters and the story: the glaring snow and the blazing heat are the fit contexts for the two heroes, both of whom have an impaired sense of reality.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York, Vintage, 1954.
Kawabata, Yasunari. Snow Country and Thousand Cranes.…