The Guest, Albert Camus
“The Guest” Albert Camus
Algerian-born French novelist, essayist, dramatist, journalist, short-story writer, and critic.
The following entry presents criticism of Camus's short story “L'hôte” (“The Guest”), which was published in the short-story collection L'exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom) in 1957.
“L'hôte” (“The Guest”) is regarded as Camus's best-known work of short fiction. One of the six stories comprising L'exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom), “The Guest” chronicles the moral conflict of Daru, a schoolteacher assigned to guard and transport an Arab prisoner. Critics assert that the story reflects Camus's interest in the themes of colonialism, alienation, and the tension between justice and freedom.
Plot and Major Characters
The protagonist of “The Guest” is Daru, an Algerian-born French schoolteacher posted to a remote schoolhouse in a bleak Algerian mountain region in the late 1940s, at the outset of the conflict between Algerian nationalists and French colonialists—a conflict that would eventually end with the independence of Algeria from France. Without any students, Daru has been isolated and lonely. One day, a gendarme named Balducci brings an Arab prisoner to the schoolhouse. He explains that the man has been accused of the murder of his cousin and asks Daru to keep the prisoner overnight and deliver him to the police headquarters in Tinguit the next day. Although Daru refuses the responsibility, Balducci leaves the prisoner with him. Daru unshackles the prisoner, makes him tea, prepares dinner, and sets up a comfortable bed for him. At first hostile to the man—he perceives him to be not only a murderer but an Algerian insurgent—he begins to soften and the two men form an easygoing intimacy. The next morning, over breakfast, Daru is faced with an important moral dilemma: Should he do his duty by turning in the Arab prisoner or let him escape for the sake of brotherhood and friendship? At the crossroads, Daru allows the prisoner to choose between captivity or freedom when he leaves him alone on a forked road—one direction leads to police headquarters, the other leads south to the nomads in the desert. As Daru watches, the prisoner chooses the road to police headquarters. With a heavy heart, he returns to his schoolhouse and finds a threatening message on the blackboard: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.”
Critics identify loneliness and alienation as central themes in “The Guest.” Daru's isolation—both geographical and emotional—results in his contact with the Arab prisoner becoming a turning point in his understanding of self. Exile is another major theme; thrust into an untenable situation despite his reservations, Daru is forced to make an impossible moral choice, and he finds himself in exile in his own home. Daru's choice is often viewed as conflict between his feelings of brotherhood and his respect for authority. Commentators also view Daru as representative of a repressive colonial regime who is destined to be replaced by indigenous authority through violence. They also maintain that “The Guest” explores the existential and metaphysical issue of whether justice and freedom—as well as solitude and solidarity—will ever be compatible. Critics perceive the story to be an examination of man's moral responsibility for the fate of his fellow man and man's inhumanity to man in the name of duty and honor. The changing interdynamic between Daru and the Arab prisoner is traced, as critics note that what begins as a captive-captor relationship turns into a guest-host relationship.
“The Guest” is viewed by critics as a metaphysical parable about the human condition and one of Camus's most enigmatic fictional works. Many commentators have focused on the uneasy conclusion of the story, which leaves the reader to reflect on Daru's moral conflict with the Arab prisoner and what it will cost him in the end. Others have analyzed the baffling decision of the Arab to turn himself in instead of escaping to the south. Most critics contend that the lack of insights into the Arab's motives and the ambiguous ending only deepens the mystery of the story. Several commentators have discussed autobiographical elements of “The Guest”: Camus was a French Algerian, had empathy for the Arab Algerians, and became deeply involved in the intellectual debate over the French-Algerian conflict. A few critics have examined the story in light of the ritual of hospitality, which is so imperative in Arab culture. In fact, it has been noted that the title of the story in French, “L'hôte,” means both guest and host, signaling the ambiguous configuration of power in the guest-host relationship and in the colonial situation.
L'exil et le royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] 1957
L'envers et l'endroit [The Wrong Side and the Right Side] (essays) 1937
Noces [Nuptials] (essays) 1939
Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays] (essays) 1942
L'étranger [The Stranger; also published as The Outsider] (novel) 1942
Caligula (drama) 1944
Le malentendu [The Misunderstanding; also translated as Cross Purpose] (drama) 1944
La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947
L'etat de siege [The State of Siege] (drama) 1948
Les justes [The Just Assassins] (drama) 1949
L'homme revolté [The Rebel] (essays) 1951
L'eté [Resistance, Rebellion, and Death] (essays) 1954
La chute [The Fall] (novel) 1956
Requiem pour une nonne [adaptor; from the novel Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner] (drama) 1956
Les possédés [adaptor; from the novel The Possessed by Fydor Dostoyevsky] (drama) 1959
Lyrical and Critical Essays (essays) 1967
La mort heureuse [A Happy Death] (novel) 1971
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SOURCE: Storey, Michael L. “The Guests of Frank O'Connor and Albert Camus.” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 3 (fall 1986): 250-62.
[In the following essay, Storey finds similarities between Frank O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation” and Camus's “The Guest.”]
To the casual reader of fiction, the works of Irishman Frank O'Connor and those of Frenchman Albert Camus must seem worlds apart. The heavy, existentialist stories of Camus—The Stranger, The Fall, “The Guest,”—fix him as the serious writer of twentieth-century exile and alienation, whereas the light, humorous stories that O'Connor is best known for—“First Confession,” “The Drunkard,” “My Oedipus Complex,” among others—mark him in the public's eye as the masterful comic writer of Irish realism. All the more odd it is, then, to find two stories—one by each of these writers—that are remarkably similar in theme, setting, plot construction, character portrayal, and tone, as well as in title: O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation” and Camus's “The Guest.”
These two stories have appeared frequently in short-story anthologies, even at times in the same anthology, and yet no critic has ever remarked on the great resemblance that they bear to one another. This lack of critical notice, however, can be explained by the fact that, despite their extensive similarities, “Guests of the...
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SOURCE: Black, Moishe. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’ as a Ritual Hospitality.” Nottingham French Studies (spring 1989): 39-52.
[In the following essay, Black reads Daru's behavior in “The Guest” as part of the ritual of Arabic and nomadic hospitality.]
Daru's behaviour, first towards the policeman and his Arab prisoner, then towards the Arab alone, has always made me feel that I am watching a ceremony of hospitality acted out, and I wish to explore the possibility of reading Camus's story in that way.1
Four elements in the tale might authorize such an interpretation. Firstly and most obviously, its title. Quilliot (p. 2048) refers to no fewer than four other titles—‘Sous la neige’, ‘Caïn’, ‘La Loi’ and especially ‘les Hauts Plateaux et le Condamné’—considered by the author before he chose ‘L'Hôte’, and since each one would have made the reader view the story from a different angle, Camus's careful selection means that what he finally chose to stress was the host-guest relationship and, it will be suggested here, hospitality, which is the formal expression of that relationship.2
Of more weight than the title, however, is the text, ten percent of which is devoted to the things Daru says, and especially the things he does, to promote the mental ease and physical well-being of the Arab and Balducci.3 These details—an...
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SOURCE: Léger, Susan. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’: The Lessons of an Ending.” French Literature Series 17 (1990): 87-97.
[In the following essay, Léger analyzes the ending of “The Guest,” and considers several critical interpretations of that enigmatic section of the story.]
For most readers of Albert Camus's “L'Hôte,” the story seems to end not with its final words, but with the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph, which brings the narrative events to a dramatic and surprising close: “Et dans cette brume légère, Daru, le coeur serré, découvrit l'Arabe qui cheminait lentement sur la route de la prison” (1623). Daru, the French schoolteacher, turns back to see that the Arab prisoner, to whom he has shown the road to freedom, has chosen instead to go on in another direction. The reader has expected, even hoped with Daru, that the Arab would head south to take refuge with the nomads in the desert. With the discovery that the prisoner is heading for the prison, the reader is baffled. Until now, the story had centered on Daru's dilemma about what to do with his strange guest. At this point, the reader is made to focus instead on the Arab's enigmatic choice.
The concluding paragraph of “L'Hôte” takes us back to the schoolhouse on the hill. The teacher is standing alone, gazing out of the window of his classroom. Behind him on the blackboard is an inscription...
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SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’.” The Explicator 48, no. 3 (spring 1990): 222-24.
[In the following essay, Cervo asserts that Camus utilizes elements of Roman Catholic, Marxist, and Gnostic dialectic in “The Guest.”]
In Albert Camus's short story “L'hôte” (which is generally translated as “The Guest” in English, although hôte simultaneously means host), the “old gendarme” Balducci (baal, duce: Jehovah) comes from El Ameur (a pun on Semitic el, that is, god, and Latin amor, meaning love) leading a roped, Christlike Arab up the hill to the secular-humanist teacher Daru's “schoolhouse.” The Arab, it turns out, has killed his “cousin” with a “sheephook.” In keeping with Camus's prevailing dialectic, involving Roman Catholicism, Marxism, and Gnosticism, the Arab may be viewed as a kind of Bonus Pastor (Good Shepherd) who has killed a wolf (the “cousin,” Satan qua Christ's “elder brother” in Miltonic and Joycean projections from Gnosticism) threatening his sheep. This is part of the story's subtext. Balducci entrusts the Arab to Daru, whom the “old gendarme” constantly addresses as “son.”
Daru, however, is indifferent to the psychic need of the guilty to be punished. He shows brotherly kindness to the wary Arab, by way of a mock-seder, and gives him every chance to...
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SOURCE: Ellison, David R. “Summer and Exile and the Kingdom.” In Understanding Albert Camus, pp. 194-99. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Ellison contends that the ultimate lesson of “The Guest” is “that, in some circumstances, the refusal to choose is already a choice.”]
As was the case in “The Adulterous Woman” and in “The Renegade,” the fourth story of the collection “The Guest” takes place in a secluded area of Algeria, far from the cities, their order and their laws. The narrative centers on a man named Daru, a schoolmaster from France who teaches the indigenous children of this mountainous region the rudiments of the French language and culture. Although no specific dates are given, it is evident that the story takes place during the early stages of the Algerian conflict, when the native population had begun to organize itself against the repression of colonialist rule. In living far from the coastline and from the centers of French influence, Daru is an isolated representative of a civilization whose norms and values are now subject to scrutiny and criticism.
As the story begins, we see Daru in his small dwelling (a simple building that serves as schoolhouse, as storage-place and as Daru's home) awaiting two unknown visitors who are gradually climbing the steep slope toward him. Before they...
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SOURCE: Hurley, D. F. “Looking for the Arab: Reading the Readings of Camus's ‘The Guest’.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 79-93.
[In the following essay, Hurley reviews several interpretations of “The Guest” and argues that contrary to prevailing critical opinion, there is textual evidence that points to the innocence of the Arab prisoner in the story.]
Albert Camus is no longer quite the cultural hero in the Western world that he was both before and, for a time, after his death, but at least one of his stories seems to have achieved a kind of canonical permanence, if 35 years of constant anthologizing constitutes canonical permanence. “The Guest,” Camus's story of a French-Algerian schoolmaster's unwilling involvement in the transportation of an Arab accused of killing, perhaps deserves special scrutiny now, 30 years after the French-Algerian tragedy played itself out, because the Western powers—this time led by the United States—have again attempted to impose themselves on a large part of the Islamic and Arab worlds.
If there is one continuous thread in the commentaries on Camus's story it is the constant, virtually unexamined, assumption that the Arab prisoner has committed a foul murder and is on the outer boundaries of the human, whether he is vicious or mad or deeply stupid. This near unanimity seems unjustified by reference to the definitive...
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SOURCE: Griem, Eberhard. “Albert Camus's ‘The Guest’: A New Look at the Prisoner.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 95-8.
[In the following essay, Griem addresses the existentialist dilemma faced by both Daru and the Arab prisoner in “The Guest.”]
Interpretations of Albert Camus's short story “The Guest” so far have had a tendency to make rather little of the prisoner, typically treating him as a primitive, brutalized, somewhat dull or even dim-witted character. In an influential early reading, Laurence Perrine helped establish this view, claiming that “his incomprehension … is emphasized” (“Camus' ‘The Guest’” 57). His comments in the Instructor's Manual accompanying his widely used textbook Story and Structure reinforce the view: “From the beginning the Arab is pictured as passive, uncomprehending, a little stupid” (24). Nor does John K. Simon's reply to the original article in SSF contradict this general view when he states, for example, “Having always lived under French law and authority, with no education or independence, the Arab can follow only the negative dictate of inertia and passivity” (290). More recently, Elwyn F. Sterling, while allowing the Arab some measure of moral awareness (“aware that the act of murder has set him apart from men” ), again endorses the view that he doesn't know very clearly why he...
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SOURCE: McGregor, Rob Roy. “Camus's ‘The Silent Man’ and ‘The Guest’: Depictions of Absurd Awareness.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 307-21.
[In the following essay, McGregor argues that Camus's “The Silent Men” and “The Guest” can be regarded as “companion pieces that symbolically depict unawareness and awareness, respectively, of the distressing state of the absurd human condition as articulated in Le Mythe de Sisyphe.”]
In Le Mythe de Sisyphe,1 Camus commends the profundity of Kierkegaard's perception regarding despair: “[There is] nothing more profound than Kierkegaard's view that despair is not an act but a state: the very state of sin. For sin is what separates from God. The absurd is the metaphysical state of the conscious man. … Perhaps this notion will become clear if I hazard this outrageous remark: the absurd is sin without God” (127-28).2
Both Kierkegaard's and Camus's emphasis here, of course, is that despair is not an act but a state of being in the same way sin is not an act but a state of being. The state of despair, along with its consequent anguish, results from separation. For Kierkegaard, it results from separation from God; for Camus, from separation from the universe, the condition that characterizes the exile of absurd solitude.3 In short, for Camus, the state of despair, like...
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SOURCE: Beer, Jill. “Le regard: Face to Face in Albert Camus's ‘L'Hôte’.” French Studies 56, no. 2 (April 2002): 179-92.
[In the following essay, Beer explores the dynamics of Balducci's and Daru's relationship with the Arab prisoner in “The Guest,” maintaining that Camus is somewhat successful in “dismantling the frontiers which demarcate human relationships, blurring the boundaries between Self and Other and so creating a space where ethical encounter with alterity is possible.”]
Although Camus's short story ‘L'Hôte’ has attracted much attention, the critical gaze has rarely focused on the significance of the regard, the notion of seeing and being seen, which appears to pattern the narrative, to direct and dictate the multiple encounters which take place through the course of this relatively short text.1 Much has been made of the narrative's postcolonial currents, the status of the Arab, the story's significance poised as it is on the eve of Algeria's war for independence.2 Other critics have sought to make sense of the ambiguity Camus offers his readers, the teaser, the twist in the tale.3 Yet I would suggest that the currents of Camus's creation run deeper still. To read ‘L'Hôte’ is to be drawn into the rapids of human encounter, to grapple with the notion of our subjectivity, to engage with the Other.4 While...
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