How is "The Guest" an existential narrative?

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Over the course of his literary career, Camus frequently alluded to the meaninglessness of existence. Existentialism, for him, seemed to center around the human attempt to make meaningful decisions in a meaningless universe. According to Camus, in many situations, there are no right choices that can be made. In the short story "The Guest," this is certainly the case for schoolmaster Daru.

Daru feels alienated in an area that should feel very much like home. He is caught up in a conflict with which he wants nothing to do, but has no way to escape. Being forced to be responsible for an Arab prisoner, he decides to wash his hands clean of the matter by freeing the prisoner and giving him money. The prisoner, however, seemingly dedicated to his fate, turns himself over to the sheriff of his own (seemingly) free will.

This short story holds more elements of absurdism than existentialism, even though the philosophies are often closely entwined. We can certainly see the absurd nature of Daru's situation. When he returns to his schoolhouse after his ordeal, he has been left a threatening message by the prisoner's comrades, who only saw him leave and have no idea that he let the prisoner go. By showing that Daru would have been in exactly the same dangerous situation no matter what he did, Camus illustrates the difficulty, and perhaps the ultimate meaninglessness, of making moral decisions.

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With few exceptions, an existentialist asserts that an individual is determined from within, not from outside forces. On the human and literary level what makes existentialists and their heroes homogeneous is their "perfervid individualism."

Camus presents no existential heroes in "The Guest."  Instead, all three of the characters make bad decisions because they are determined from outside forces instead of from within.  The great existential choice they face, of course, is between life and death.  Camus says, ironically, that most men refuse to choose for themselves.  Instead, they let others make their decisions for them and, therefore, choose death by default.

  • Balduccui is defined by his role as gendarme.  Rather than take responsibility for his foreign rule in the country, he blames the natives.  Rather than deliver the prisoner himself, he pawns the Arab off on Daru.
  • The Arab is defined by his fear.  Rather than escape to a life of freedom with the nomads, he chooses to walk toward his execution.
  • Daur is defined by trying to escape all choices.  He blames Balducci for putting him in an untenable position.  He tries to give the Arab a kind of freedom, but it backfires because of a lack of communication.

In the end, all three characters in "The Guest" make bad choices because of outside influences rather than taking individual responsibility for each.  As a result of refusing to make individual choices, each character ironically chooses death over life.  The Arab will be executed; Balducci will be killed in the civil war; and Daru will be revenged by the Arab's brothers.

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