Daru, a French-Algerian teacher, watches out of the window as two men—one on horseback, one on foot—approach the schoolhouse where he both lives and works. His students have not been to school for the past few days due to heavy snowfall, and he is thankful that the delivery truck was able to bring him supplies in advance of the blizzard. Daru hopes that the snow will end the terrible drought that has plagued the rocky plateau upon which the schoolhouse and the surrounding villages sit. The French government has been supplying him with grain rations to distribute amongst his impoverished students to help them through the drought.
As the two men arrive at the schoolhouse, Daru recognizes the man on horseback as Balducci, a gendarme—or French colonial police officer—whom he has known for years. The other man is an Arab prisoner, his hands tied together as he walks behind Balducci’s horse. Balducci keeps his horse walking at a slow pace, so the prisoner does not have to struggle too hard to keep up.
Balducci greets Daru warmly, and Daru invites the two men to wait inside while he takes the horse to the shed behind the schoolhouse. Once inside, Daru makes tea for everyone. He then asks Balducci’s permission to unbind the Arab man’s hands, to which Balducci agrees. When Daru asks about their destination, Balducci informs him that the schoolhouse—and Daru himself—were their goal. Balducci’s police department is small and understaffed, especially with a possible war brewing in the region, so headquarters has determined that Daru should transport the prisoner to Tinguit, the nearest town.
Daru assumes Balducci is joking and becomes increasingly distressed upon learning that he is serious. He argues that transporting prisoners is not his job. However, Balducci reminds him of the growing unrest in the villages, indicating that even civilians should step forward when needed in such an uncertain political climate. He reassures Daru that he is only responsible for escorting the man to Tinguit; afterward, he may return to his “comfortable life.”
Daru then asks Balducci what crime the Arab man has committed and whether or not he speaks French. Balducci explains that not only does the man not speak French, but he was also arrested for the murder of his cousin—likely over a petty grain dispute. Daru is repulsed by the crime and wonders aloud whether the police suspect that the Arab man is “against” French colonial rule. Balducci says it is unlikely but acknowledges that it can be hard to tell.
Before he leaves, Balducci encourages Daru to arm himself in case of a possible attack and leaves behind his pistol. Daru seems unconcerned, claiming that the location of the schoolhouse will allow him to see any potential enemies before they arrive. He also firmly tells Balducci that, while he is disgusted by the crime the Arab man committed, he will not turn him over to the French police. Balducci attempts to sympathize with Daru’s feelings, but he ultimately reminds him that they are both acting under orders. When Daru remains insistent, Balducci has him sign the transfer paperwork, tells Daru that his decision about what to do with the prisoner—and its consequences—is now his responsibility, and leaves the schoolhouse.
After Balducci returns to the station, Daru goes into his room to nap and leaves the prisoner alone in the schoolhouse. He is dismayed to find the prisoner still present when he wakes up; Daru had hoped the man might take advantage of his slumber and escape. Now resigned to his circumstances, Daru makes food for both of them and begins speaking Arabic with the prisoner. The Arab asks if Daru is the judge but is confused when Daru responds negatively. He asks why Daru is eating with him; Daru replies that he is hungry.
As the two men eat, Daru attempts to question the man about the murder he committed, asking him why he did it. The man replies that his cousin “ran away,” so he “ran after him,” which baffles Daru. When Daru asks the Arab man if he feels remorse for murdering his cousin, the man seems confused and does not answer. He asks Daru whether Balducci will return the next day and asks if Daru will accompany them to Tinguit—having not understood Daru and Baluducci’s earlier conversation because they were presumably speaking in French.
During the night, Daru sleeps poorly. At one point, he watches as the Arab man gets up and goes outside, hoping he will make his escape. However, the man instead uses the restroom and then returns to bed.
The next day, Daru and the Arab man set off down the rocky slope that leads toward Tinguit. However, once they reach a fork in the path, Daru stops. He hands the prisoner a package of food and a thousand francs. To the east is Tinguit, where the prisoner may turn himself in to French authorities. To the south are communities of nomads, who Daru explains will take the Arab man in if he so desires. The man looks panicked and attempts to say something. However, Daru tells him to “be quiet” and departs, heading back toward the schoolhouse alone. Once he reaches the top of the slope, he sees that the Arab man appears to be heading east toward Tinguit—and prison.
Upon returning to the schoolhouse, Daru finds a message scrawled on the chalkboard: "You handed over our brother. You will pay for this." He is left feeling utterly alone.
A sense of isolation pervades “The Guest.” The protagonist, Daru, is first introduced as the sole inhabitant of a remote schoolhouse set atop a rocky plateau. The landscape is vast and largely barren, especially in light of the recent drought, which left many of the already-impoverished inhabitants of the surrounding villages struggling for food. However, rather than feeling disconnected or alienated by his surroundings, Daru seems to draw comfort from the vast and untamable landscape. Although life on the plateau is coarse and unforgiving, Daru regards “the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man” as home, comfortable with his place in an uncaring universe.
However, the end of the story forces Daru to deal with a different form of alienation: by refusing to choose how to treat the Arab man, he has alienated himself from everything and everyone around him—even his sense of morality. He has insulted Balducci, made an enemy of the local Arab population, and found himself utterly “alone” within the “vast landscape he had loved so much.” Even though Daru seemingly succeeded in avoiding the devastating choice placed in front of him, he must face the consequences of his inaction, resulting in a newfound—and deeply unsettling—distance between himself and the rest of the world.
Choices and Consequences
At the center of “The Guest” lies a choice: will Daru turn the Arab prisoner over to the police, or will he allow him to escape? Daru is disgusted by the murder the man has committed, but he also feels severely uncomfortable with the idea of escorting the prisoner to the police station in Tinguit. He even tells Balducci that he “won’t hand him over.” However, Daru is not a revolutionary at heart and does not seem to consider the possibility of helping the Arab man return home. He spends much of his time after Balducci leaves the prisoner with him hoping that the man will escape and take the decision out of Daru's hands. Daru wishes to remain neutral, but when Balducci forcibly casts him as a prison guard, he must choose between his sense of honor and his loyalty to the French colonial government.
Ultimately, Daru avoids making any choice at all. However, this solution proves equally damaging, alienating him from both sides of the emerging conflict between the French and the native Arab population. Though Daru acts according to his moral code, he fails to recognize that—regardless of who makes it—a choice must be made regarding the prisoner’s fate. Although he allows the Arab prisoner to make his own choice, Daru has also already claimed responsibility for the man by signing the paperwork Balducci gave him. He spares himself the emotional burden of making the final decision, but true neutrality is impossible; both the French government and the Arab locals may still hold him accountable for the outcome.
In a way, the Arab man also seems to struggle with the notion of choice. Rather than trying to escape at any point, he passively allows Balducci and Daru to lead him around and rejects every opportunity to escape. Daru’s questions about the murder for which he is supposedly responsible seem to confuse and disturb the man, who cannot provide a motive beyond the fact that the victim “ran away.” He greets Daru’s apparent abandonment with a sense of “panic” fearful at the prospect of determining his fate. The man ultimately chooses to take the path toward Tinguit, though whether this is out of a sense of guilt, confusion, or passivity remains unclear.
Morality and Honor
Each character in “The Guest” illustrates a different version of honor and moral obligation. Balducci represents adherence to duty, viewing himself as an instrument of justice. He scolds Daru for “being a fool” and tells the school teacher he does not enjoy transporting prisoners either. Balducci explains: “You don't get used to putting a rope on a man even after years of it, and you're even ashamed - yes, ashamed. But you can't let them have their way." In Balducci’s view, the Arab man has committed a crime, and, by the laws of the French colonial government, he must be punished. Furthermore, Balducci has an additional moral buffer: he acts exclusively under orders. As such, his sense of morality can be sidelined so long as he is serving as an instrument of the justice system.
By contrast, the Arab man seems to represent an alternative notion of honor. His people shielded him from the colonial police for a month, indicating that—at least among the local population—his actions may have been either misconstrued or in some way justified. Alternatively, his people may have protected him out of the belief that the Arab community should be allowed to administer justice internally and independently from French authorities. The fact that the man ultimately chooses to go to Tinguit indicates that, on some level, he may either desire punishment or be seeking atonement for his crimes.
Daru, meanwhile, struggles with his moral code. He is disgusted by the murder the Arab man committed but is also unwilling to turn him over to the police. Daru’s moral dilemma paralyzes him, rendering him anxious and, ultimately, indecisive. However, by failing to make a decision, Daru is left to reckon with the outcome of another person’s choice, effectively sacrificing his own free will to the whims of an absurd and uncaring universe.
Daru is a French-Algerian schoolteacher who lives alone at the top of a remote plateau. Since the local police force is understaffed and overwhelmed by mounting threats of an Arab revolt, they order Daru to help escort an Arab prisoner to the nearby town of Tinguit. Daru is distressed by this request, and although he expresses disgust over the prisoner’s crime, he remains resistant to the idea of taking away the man’s freedom.
Daru is deeply uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of his situation. One of the first things he asks after receiving his orders from Balducci is what the Arab man did to warrant being arrested. However, he is dissatisfied with Balducci’s vague and uncertain answer, so he poses the same question to the Arab man—though the answer he receives also proves confusing and frustrating. Daru seems to pride himself on his relative neutrality; although his ultimate loyalty lies with the French, he is nonetheless willing to hear both sides of the conflict.
Daru’s sense of honor and discomfort with moral ambiguity are paralyzing forces within “The Guest,” and they ultimately shape how he decides to handle the situation. His disgust with the murder the Arab man committed renders him unable to outright assist the man in freeing himself; however, he also views handing the man over to the authorities as “contrary to honor.” In the end, he attempts to satisfy his sense of morality while also relieving himself of the burden of choice by allowing the man to decide his fate. Unfortunately, this only results in the wrath of the Arab man’s compatriots in addition to the potential disintegration of his friendship with Balducci and the French government, leaving Daru in an isolated—and potentially dangerous—position.
The Arab Prisoner
The Arab man—who goes unnamed throughout the story—is a somewhat enigmatic figure within “The Guest.” At the beginning of the story, Balducci brings him to Daru’s schoolhouse, explaining that the Arab man has been taken into custody by the French colonial police for murdering his cousin. Balducci cannot explain precisely why the murder occurred but indicates that it was likely some form of a dispute over grain. Daru attempts to ask the man for his version of events, but the Arab man merely claims that the other man “ran away,” so he chased after him. This—combined with the fact that the Arab man’s village attempted to shelter him from the police—calls into question the nature of guilt and honor.
During the Arab man’s interactions with Daru, he becomes increasingly insistent that Daru should accompany him to Tinguit. Although Daru’s questions about remorse and guilt seem to confuse the Arab man at first, he also seems to seriously consider the ideas. He also seems to have submitted entirely to his fate, expressing panic when it becomes clear that Daru intends to leave the final choice in the Arab man’s hands.
Indeed, the Arab man displays a level of passivity that Daru finds incompatible with his supposedly murderous history, not even attempting to escape, despite having multiple opportunities. One interpretation of his actions suggests that he truly does feel guilt over killing his cousin, continuing toward Tinguit to receive the punishment he believes he deserves. Alternatively, he could simply be allowing events to play out according to the whims of the universe, continuously allowing others to dictate the course of events—starting with Balducci and ending with the police in Tinguit. Yet another interpretation draws attention to the relatively poor outcomes represented by either choice: by choosing to go to Tinguit, the man sacrifices his freedom—and potentially even his life. However, had he sought refuge with the nomads, he would be forced to live as an exile, separated from his community and relying on the protection of strangers.
Balducci is a gendarme, or police officer, who serves under the local branch of the French colonial government in Algeria. He seems to know Daru well, greeting him affectionately upon first arriving at the schoolhouse and referring to him as “son.” However, their relationship sours throughout the story, culminating in Balducci leaving Daru’s home feeling angry and insulted. This newfound estrangement between former friends represents the potential fallout of Daru’s refusal to abide by the commands of the French colonial government.
Balducci is a man of the law and represents the justice system of the French government in Algeria. In his view, it is Daru’s duty to escort the Arab man to Tinguit, just as it was Balducci’s duty to escort the man to Daru’s schoolhouse in the first place. Although he takes no pleasure in “putting a rope on a man,” Balducci nonetheless believes in the righteousness of his actions: the Arab man is a murderer and should therefore be punished according to the law. Furthermore, the tension between the French and Algerian factions means that Balducci has adopted a wartime mentality, dividing the population into the French—which he refers to using words like “us”—and the local Arabs—who Balducci figures as a separate and potentially hostile “them.”
Albert Camus is strongly associated with the rise of absurdist philosophy, which asserts that the universe lacks inherent meaning or logic. In these terms, the natural world is not a beautiful and nurturing presence—as romanticism may indicate—but rather an indifferent and even chaotic one. The remote landscape surrounding Daru’s schoolhouse is a bleak place in which “nothing had any connection with man.” An unseasonable blizzard might immediately follow eight months of devastating drought, no matter how much the people inhabiting the land may suffer for it. However, Camus’s brand of absurdism is not necessarily nihilistic; although the universe may lack meaning, humans may still create a sense of purpose.
When people seek connections and make choices, they exercise free will and embrace life. Although the universe may be absurd, those who embrace its absurdity attain freedom from deriving joy and constructing significance out of subjective experiences. In “The Guest,” Daru is confronted with a choice. From an absurdist lens, the outcome of that choice is irrelevant; it is instead the act of grappling with a moral dilemma that forces a person into a confrontation with the world’s arbitrary nature. Rather than deciding what to do with his prisoner, Daru defers responsibility to the Arab man. At first, this seems like a way for Daru to avoid the moral—and political—ramifications of his dilemma; however, the reality is quite the opposite.
The Arab man ultimately decides to continue toward Tinguit, where the police await his arrival. Daru watches him go with a “heavy heart,” suggesting that his refusal to choose has freed Daru from neither the moral dilemma nor the emotional implications associated with the Arab man’s fate. Furthermore, upon returning to the schoolhouse, he is confronted with an even harsher reality: the Arab man’s compatriots hold Daru accountable for the man's impending imprisonment. Daru attempted to follow his sense of honor but must instead reckon with the disparity between intention and impact. While he perhaps intended—and even hoped, based on his reaction—for the Arab man to go free, his refusal to commit to a choice has led to unforeseen consequences. Daru, then, is left to bitterly face his uncertain future and understand that even his attempts to do the right thing cannot save him from the whims of an uncaring universe.
Camus wrote and published “The Guest” during the Algerian War of Independence, which began in 1954 and extended through 1962, as the local Algerian population fought for freedom from French colonial rule. Camus was born in French Algeria and retained a strong connection to his homeland throughout his life. Although his family was quite poor, their French citizenship and European background entitled them to certain privileges that the native Arab and Berber populations did not receive. Indeed, most French citizens living in Algeria supported a continuation of French colonial rule.
Camus, however, felt it necessary for the two nations to find a middle ground. He advocated for greater rights for Algerians but did not support full-scale independence, believing instead that the colonists and native Algerians could come to coexist on more equitable terms. His beliefs were mocked by the French, the Algerian colonists, and the native Algerians for being too naive. Critics and biographers have often drawn parallels between Camus’s attempts to mediate between the French and the Algerians and Daru’s similarly moderate sensibilities—both men ultimately finding themselves alienated from all sides for their efforts.
Camus’s familiarity with French Algerian culture also influences the story in other ways. Daru reflects some of the attitudes commonly held by colonists of French descent—in addition to some of the more moderate ones held by Camus himself. The Arab man is often described in animalistic terms, with Daru drawing attention to his “thick lips,” “shining" and "feverish eyes,” and “animal mouth.” In many cases, French citizens living in Algeria viewed the native Arabs as a more primitive people, and schools—possibly including the fictionalized one Daru runs—were set up to help educate and civilize the locals.
The characterization of the Arab prisoner in these terms betrays some of Daru’s more French sensibilities, as well as his relatively privileged position in society as a French citizen living in the Algerian colony. These privileges are further highlighted by the fact that Daru receives frequent supply deliveries; most of the local villagers, however, rely on meager grain handouts to survive the recent drought. In addition to political disenfranchisement, these forms of socioeconomic inequality helped inspire the Algerian Revolution.
Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.
This line encapsulates Daru’s feelings about the remote plateau on which he lives. Although the climate and relative solitude of his plateau-top schoolhouse can be difficult, Daru also finds beauty within his surroundings. The natural world may be indifferent to human life, but Daru has found a sense of peace and belonging within a harsh and uncaring landscape. This foreshadows and punctuates the tragedy of the story’s ending, as Daru is forced to realize that he is now utterly alone and forsaken—now an exile everywhere, even in the space he once considered home.
In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him. But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances. Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue.
Sleep puts people in a vulnerable position, and by opening his home up to the Arab man, Daru is struck by a sense of unwelcome camaraderie. Although he feels burdened by his task and is disgusted by the very notion of murder, Daru cannot help but empathize with the other man—even as he is simultaneously repulsed by him and the crime he committed. Ultimately, humans are social creatures, and forming interpersonal connections is one of the ways people create meaning in an otherwise absurd universe. Whereas Balducci can treat the Arab man as a sort of duty, Daru views him as a fellow human being—complete with all of the complexities humanity entails.
That man's stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor. Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation. And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away.
Daru’s refusal to choose how to handle the Arab man is also a rejection of responsibility. While Daru justifies his inaction with notions of honor and morality, he also ultimately blames the entire situation on outside forces, viewing himself as a passive victim of other people’s choices. The Arab man chose to murder someone, and Balducci chose to send the prisoner to Daru for transport. In his mind, none of these choices were his, so the final verdict regarding the Arab man’s fate also should not be his to make.
And in that slight haze Daru with heavy heart made out the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison.
Though Daru left the choice in the prisoner’s hands, he remains invested enough in the outcome to watch and see which path the prisoner takes. In a sense, this is Daru’s admission that true neutrality was never possible. The fact that he has a “heavy heart” as he watches the man walk towards Tinguit suggests that Daru wanted the man to go free, but was uncomfortable with being the one to let him go. On a practical level, setting the man free likely would have gotten him in trouble with the French government and compromised his otherwise comfortable lifestyle—especially with the possibility of war brewing. On a moral level, the man was—at least as far as Daru was aware—a murderer, creating tension between Daru’s notions of justice and honor.
In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.
The final line of the story conveys Daru’s complete devastation at the chalkboard note left by the Arab man’s compatriots. Daru attempted to abide by his moral code by letting the Arab man choose his fate but has still been interpreted negatively by the man’s compatriots—in addition to his earlier falling out with Balducci and, by extension, the French government. This suggests that refusing to make choices still entails consequences and that efforts to remain neutral can lead to profound isolation.