Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The style of the story is taut, concise, stripped of inessentials. One sees in this the influence of Ernest Hemingway, whom Camus admired very much. All that is there is there for a reason; accepting that truth, all the reader has to do is relate the making of the story to its meaning. The reader has already seen how the title, with its ambiguity, sets the stage for various reversals, displacements, and contradictions. From the beginning to the end of the story, for example, the two main characters shift roles unexpectedly or do, or have done to them, unexpected things. Daru is a host to the Arab but is a guest in the Arab’s homeland, making the Arab Daru’s host. Received by Daru as a prisoner, the Arab is set free, made his own host; received in hostility, he is accepted in hospitality and amity. Though he is a gracious host, Daru is treated as, at the very least, an unwelcome guest and, at the end of the story, is condemned to a solitude that is absolute.
The description of solitude and isolation at the beginning of the story prepares the reader for the theme of alienation. Daru is alone at the top of a mountain whose ascent is steep and rocky. The difficulty in scaling the heights (reminiscent, incidentally, of the plight of Sisyphus) defines the difficulty of communication. Daru is far from society. He has no vehicle for transportation and has no significant contact with his family, colleagues, or friends. His only acquaintance (except with his...
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The Algerian War
The encounter depicted in ‘‘The Guest’’ takes place in ‘‘mid-October,’’ on the eve of the outbreak of the Algerian War. The revolt, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) began on October 31, 1954, and lasted until July, 1962, when Algeria achieved independence. There had been scattered uprisings and nationalist movements in Algeria since the first French colonial presence in Africa in 1830. But the nationalist movement had gained considerable strength after World War II. By the time the story takes place, the revolt was imminent, so when Balducci talks of war, he is describing a realistic fear. Likewise, the positions of ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ refer not just to cultural differences, but to the now clear battle line between settlers of European origin and the Arab rebels and sympathizers. While the events and characters in the story are fictional, Camus drew on his early experience as a court and police reporter for some of the details and context of the story. The devastating effects of the drought, the crushing poverty of the villagers, the monotony of the schoolteacher’s life, and the collision between Arab culture and the European justice system were all phenomena he had witnessed at close hand.
Many people describe the Algerian War...
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‘‘The Guest’’ tells of an encounter between a French Algerian schoolteacher and an Arab prisoner on the eve of the Algerian uprisings. The story emphasizes many of Camus’s most characteristic themes: individual alienation, freedom, the value of human life, responsibility, the difficulty of moral choice, and the ambiguity of actions. It gains additional layers of meaning through its incisive portrait of colonial life and the psyches of colonizer and colonized alike.
Point of View
The narrative style in ‘‘The Guest’’ is a classic example of the use of free indirect discourse— essentially an interior monologue told in the third person rather than the first. In contrast to the objective and external viewpoint of the traditional third person narrator, or the clearly subjective viewpoint of a first person narrative, this technique places the character between the author and the reader, diminishing authorial independence and authority. At the same time, the thoughts and feelings of the character may be selectively expressed to serve the purpose of the narrative. In Camus’s story, much of the background information about the setting and about Daru is provided through his extended reflections.
The rich descriptions of the Algerian landscape are weighted with symbolic importance. To begin with, the schoolhouse is located in the desert on a high plateau—an intermediate area...
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Compare and Contrast
• 1950s: Revolt against French rule in Algeria begins in 1954 and is led by the Front de Liberation (FLN).
1990s: After the FLN separates from the government in the late 1980s, Algerian voters approve a multiparty political system. The first multiparty elections are held in 1991. In 1992, government authorities cancel a general election in which radical Muslims were gaining a strong lead. In 1996, a referendum approves reforms which prevent the use of Islam as a political platform. In 1997, more than 1,000 civilians are killed by Muslim rebels. A cease-fire is declared in October. In November, Algeria implements an international civil and political rights treaty.
• 1950s: With FLN terrorist activity on the rise, the French Parliament votes Premier Bourges- Mannoury special powers in 1956 to suppress the group. Charles de Gaulle is voted Premier in 1957 as the Algerian crisis threatens civil war.
1990s: Algerian President Chadli Benejedid resigns in January of 1991 after Islamic fundamentalists triumph in national elections. Former FLN rebel Mohammed Boudiaf returns from 27 years of exile and is sworn in as President. He is assassinated in June of 1991.
• 1950s: Muslims comprise approximately 88 percent of the population of French Algeria.
1990s: About 99 percent of Algeria’s population is Muslim.
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Topics for Further Study
• Outline the history of the Algerian War and connect that history to allusions in the story. What kinds of events would have led to Balducci’s and Daru’s questions about the Prisoner’s loyalties and talk of impending war? Who might have written the threatening note on the chalkboard?
• Research the basic principles of Islamic law. Under what circumstances would the Prisoner have been guilty of a crime for killing his cousin? Under what circumstances might the action have been justifiable? Use your knowledge to prepare a defense of the Prisoner in the French legal system.
• Study the geography of Algeria and match it to places and events described in the story. What does the area Camus described look like on a map? What kind of climate conditions lead to severe drought? What kinds of government policies have contributed to, or prevented droughts like the one described in the story?
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What Do I Read Next?
• The Stranger, Camus’s first novel from 1942. Mersault, the protagonist, is on trial for the senseless shooting of an Arab. He is condemned as much for his social alienation and indifference as for his crime. Provides an introduction to Camus’s themes of absurdism and alienation.
• The Plague, Camus’s second novel, published in 1947. It tells the story of several men confronting a plague in the Algerian city of Oran. Introduces the theme of revolt.
• Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea, published in 1938, treats a number of Sartre’s philosophical themes, including meaninglessness and the responsibility of each individual to achieve an authentic existence.
• ‘‘Zaabalawi’’ is a well known story by the Nobel Prize winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. Published in 1963, the story tells of a quest to find a holy man who will provide a physical cure and spiritual salvation for the ailing narrator. Mahfouz uses some Absurdist techniques and focuses on individual experience in a social rather than alienated context.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Greim, Eberhard. ‘‘Albert Camus’s ‘The Guest’: A New Look at the Prisoner.’’ Studies in Short Fiction 30, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 95-8.
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.
Noyer-Weidner, Alfred. ‘‘Albert Camus in His Short Story Phase.’’ In Essays on Camus’s ‘‘Exile and the Kingdom,’’ translated by Ernest Allen, ed. Judith Suther. University of Mississippi: Romance Monographs, Inc., 1980, pp. 45-87.
Perrine, Laurence. ‘‘Camus’s ‘The Guest’: A Subtle and Difficult Story.’’ Studies in Short Fiction 11, No. 1 (Fall 1963): 52-8.
Tarrow, Susan. In her Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus, pp. 173-93. Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
Howe, Irving. ‘‘Between Fact and Fable’’ Review in The New Republic, March 31, 1958, pp. 17-18. Early, mostly favorable review that discusses the tension between Camus as a man of ideas and a creative artist.
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. An analysis of why many critics have been quick accept or further...
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