Two important symbols in Albert Camus' story "The Guest" are the schoolhouse and the ethnic origins of the three characters. These are essential to the main themes of isolation and futility that are so prevalent in much of Camus's work. The story revolves around three characters: Daru, the local schoolmaster; Balducci, a Corsican gendarme; and an unnamed Arab who is brought to Daru by Balducci for transfer to a prison several hours' walk away. The theme of futility continues after the Arab is left with Daru to be transferred into the hands of the police for punishment for killing his cousin; Daru must choose whether to hand him over to the authorities or let the prisoner make his own destiny by running away to the protection of the local nomads.
At the beginning of the story, Daru stands outside his schoolhouse watching the two men approach. The topographical isolation of the schoolhouse between the desert plateau and the foothills of Algeria is exacerbated by the remains of a three-day blizzard following an eight-month dry spell that has left the local population close to starving. The schoolhouse is modest by all accounts—the narrator states that only twenty pupils attend school there—but it does hold an important space in the community, as the ruling French government has been sending rations of wheat to the school to be dispersed among the students' families in order to get them through the deprivation of the drought. The schoolhouse is Daru's domain, and yet he as a local is working directly for the colonial government—a sore spot that is hinted at by Balducci when he describes how local tensions are simmering. The lesson on the chalkboard that is described at the beginning of the story, and is again visited at its end, even seems a bit absurd given the current climate: the four rivers of France are drawn in different colored chalks on the board. Drawing rivers rolling through a faraway country would seem almost a metaphorical slap in the face to the local children in their arid world:
Occasionally, furrows suggested cultivation, but they had been dug to uncover a certain kind of stone good for building. The only plowing here was to harvest rocks. Elsewhere a thin layer of soil accumulated in the hollows would be scraped out to enrich paltry village gardens. This is the way it was: bare rock covered three quarters of the region. Towns sprang up, flourished, then disappeared; men came by, loved one another or fought bitterly, then died.
If Daru's lonely schoolhouse is a symbol of the absurdity of the French ruling system, the ethnic origins of the three men in the story also speak to the conflict between the colonial forces and the locals. Daru describes himself as a local who would feel exiled anywhere else. The gendarme Balducci, who is described by the narrator as an "old Corsican," is the epitome of an outside authoritarian figure. According to Miriam-Webster, a gendarme is "a member of a body of soldiers especially in France serving as an armed police force for the maintenance of public order." It further details that the very word for the position "gendarme" is an evolution of a Middle French word meaning "man at arms." Balducci is somewhere between a civilian police officer responsible for keeping the peace and a member of an occupying military force. No matter his efforts of behaviors toward the local population, he will always be seen by the locals as an interloper, a villain, and a thorn in their collective side.
The Arab prisoner, on the other hand, is symbolic for the local North African population. It is deeply telling that he remains unnamed throughout the story, even though Daru gives him the hospitality of the titular guest. Daru asks the prisoner the nature of his crimes, whether he is sorry for what he did, and whether he is afraid of the punishment he is destined for—all the while never asking him the most simple question one human being can ask another: "What is your name?" Perhaps Daru wants to avoid any emotional attachment with a condemned man; perhaps Camus does not want us as readers to see the Arab as a singular human, but rather as a symbol of an oppressed people who will turn to the darkest sides of human nature in order to survive.
The symbolic nature of the topographical isolation as well as the degrees of cultural isolation of the characters speaks deeply of the central theme of the work: that of futility. Camus loved to write about the futility of the human condition, and it is on display throughout the story—from Daru's recounting of the hardscrabble life of the locals to his choice between taking the prisoner to the authorities or letting him escape on his own. Daru and the reader are faced with the same essential question: is it better to do the wrong thing for the right reason, or the right thing for the wrong reason? No man in the story—or in Camus's worldview, for that matter—is a man completely independent of destiny or of the futility of surviving in a hostile climate. It is the essential question of the story, and it is perfectly described in Daru's musing about the area:
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.