What are some examples of existentialism in "The Guest" by Albert Camus?

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samcestmoi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As another educator has mentioned, alienation is a common theme of existentialism, and one that plays a large part in “The Guest.”  Daru is completely isolated in his empty schoolhouse on the desert plateau, and by refusing to take the gendarme’s prisoner to Tinguit he isolates himself from Balducci, a previously friendly acquaintance.  His “guest” has isolated himself from society by his criminal act, for which, at the end of the story, he condemns himself when his village would willingly take him back.  This final point is important:  both Daru and the Arab willingly alienate themselves, and are dependent, as individuals, on the reality of this isolation.  As Daru notes, “No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest, mattered.  And yet, outside this desert neither of them, Daru knew, could have really lived.”  This is indicative of a key aspect of existential thought, Sartre’s idea that “existence precedes essence.”  We live, we breathe, we are, and yet this existence is wholly absurd and meaningless – none of it matters.  All the meaning we can find for our own existence is created by ourselves. 

By refusing to obey Balducci’s orders Daru is also exhibiting the existential notions of authenticity and freedom – that is, the use of one’s own free will to make one’s own decisions, based on the premise that life is uncontrolled by any divine set of rules, and that all rules are simply abstract fabrications of society, of the “crowd,” and by accepting the burden of responsibility for one’s own decisions, the individual is further isolating himself from this society.  By disobeying the local police, Daru is being true to his own beliefs and acting accordingly, a trait which is emphasized through addressing the Arab as his “guest,” rather than the prisoner or the killer or something equally damning.  And by giving his guest the same option – freedom or self-condemnation – he is acknowledging the Arab’s ability to do the same; to judge himself and react according to his own responsibilities.  We are all our own prisoners, and it is from ourselves that we create meaning and grace, hatred and punishment.  All that occurs in the world is happenstance, is neutral, and we much choose how to act on these occurrences and imbue them ourselves with any degree of importance.  And yet the fact remains, beyond and despite our efforts to do what we deem is right (according to our own analysis), that the world is indifferent to our struggles.  As Daru notes, when he sees the threat scrawled across the classroom blackboard upon his return from offering his guest a choice, “In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.”

[It should also be noted that although Camus’s works can (and should) be examined from an existential perspective, he did not identify himself as an existentialist philosopher].

Further Reading:
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Guest," Daru finds himself in a situation that his moral compass is unable to deal with. By letting the Arab go free, he will run afoul of French colonial authorities, and by turning him in, he will anger the Arab's people. He wants to let him go free, but ultimately the Arab chooses to go to prison, which does in fact anger the people in his village, who blame Daru. Daru is stuck in a situation where his individual ethics conflict with the society where he lives, and by trying to take a middle course (by inviting the Arab to take a path toward freedom or prison) he is still unable to absolve himself of responsibility for events that are essentially beyond his control. The alienation and the notion that people sometimes have very little control over their lives are central themes common to existentialism.