Albert Camus Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1981

Albert Camus published a single collection of short stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom near the end of his life. Its six stories are an important encapsulation of Camus’s humanistic philosophy enveloped in his quasirealistic style and dramatized by exotic backgrounds. According to Camus’s recondite views, the universe is meaningless;...

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Albert Camus published a single collection of short stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom near the end of his life. Its six stories are an important encapsulation of Camus’s humanistic philosophy enveloped in his quasirealistic style and dramatized by exotic backgrounds. According to Camus’s recondite views, the universe is meaningless; however, the human beings in it may become significant (even happy) if they can acquire and maintain a clear awareness of its ultimate absurdity. Each story in Exile and the Kingdom unfolds a situation which brings the protagonist to an intimation of the lack of lawfulness and coherence in his or her life and depicts the protagonist’s response to this traumatic realization. Some of the stories go no further than this; others move away from understatement and describe wrong-headed or perverse reactions; and the last story offers a solution which seems to step beyond mere awareness of absurdity.

Readers of Camus’s novels and plays will recognize the cavalcade of alienated heroes, the metaphysical paradoxes, and Camus’s own preoccupation with criminals and their police counterparts—all tendered in lucid, tight prose which differentiates him from the strained cerebralisms of more philosophically rigorous existentialists such as Sartre. This collection of short stories also avoids the imperious eloquence and plain sententiousness which often mar Camus’s longer works.

“The Adulterous Woman”

“The Adulterous Woman,” first published in English in Redbook magazine, portrays the mounting depression of a housewife (Janine) traveling with a husband (Marcel) who is almost wholly absorbed in selling wools and silks to disdainful, according to Marcel, Arabs who are reluctantly emerging from the wintry Algerian landscape.

Janine is pictured as tall and “thick,” yet possessing a languid sensuality which attracts the desultory glances of bus passengers, pedestrians, and hotel guests. She often returns a look, and in spite of the characteristic prejudices of her class against Arabs she can spontaneously admire one of that race who is striking in his slender virility. She frequently counters the ennui of the endless bus rides by basking in the adoration of her husband. He can speak of little else but the volume of dry goods he can move, how much profit he will reckon by dispensing with the middleman, and how much he loathes his customers. He has made Janine his refuge from the sordidness and triviality of his life, however, and becomes instantly solicitous when prodded.

Thus, after another day of selling in yet another ordinary town, Janine rebels at the thought of retiring to their icy room for the customary nap before supper. She proposes to follow the hotel manager’s suggestion to “climb up to the terrace around the fort to see the desert,” and Marcel automatically assents. A marvelous description of the twilight desertscape is counterposed against Marcel’s impatient complaint that he is cold and there is nothing to see anyway.

That night, however, Janine slips out of bed to return to the fort. There, alone under the chilly and vast firmament, she suffers a moment of awareness—an epiphany. She feels the sensual presence of her body, and she encompasses the sky full of stars stretched out over her as she lies against the cold parapet. This encounter with the night sky is her act of “adultery,” which she does not share with Marcel, who is oblivious of her absence and only awakes to reach for a bottle of mineral water.

In all this, however, there is a note of disconcerting ambivalence. The distant tone of the narration raises the possibility that the reader has been “taken”: Is this story actually only revelatory of Janine’s disconsolate banality? More important, has Camus played a joke on readers by forcing them to choose between two diversely wretched characters?

“The Guest”

These questions also arise in “The Guest,” the best story in Exile and the Kingdom, also set in North Africa—specifically in the snows of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. Daru, an Algerian schoolteacher of French extraction, has fully provisioned himself to weather an expected blizzard which has emptied his one-room schoolhouse of its Arab pupils. He is comfortably awaiting its onset when he observes two figures, one on horseback, toiling up the steep slope leading toward the school building. The man on horseback is Balducci, a gendarme dragging behind him a trussed and cowering shepherd who killed his cousin with a billhook during a squabble over a share of grain.

Balducci asks the astonished Daru to safeguard the prisoner for the night and deliver him the next morning to police headquarters at Tinguit, twenty kilometers away. He explains that the Algerian revolt is on and police manpower is stretched thinly over the plateau. When Daru protests that delivering criminals is not his job, Balducci counters by insisting bitterly that “In wartime people do all kinds of jobs.” Then he leaves Daru a revolver and departs.

Daru has little physical fear of the obviously spent murderer but knows full well that he is caught in an impossible situation: Delivering his charge will assure the probably lethal (in view of his isolated circumstances) enmity of the local Arab population; releasing him will make him a rebel and a traitor to his European countrymen. In the first case, his life would be in jeopardy, in the second his career and perhaps his freedom. Daru also feels morally affronted by the repugnant nature of his imposed task. The next day Daru escorts the felon to a trail juncture where he hands him a food package and a thousand francs. He gives him the choice of walking east for two hours to Tinguit and the police, or walking south across the plateau where nomads will shelter him according to their laws of hospitality.

On the way back to his schoolhouse Daru looks behind him and discerns the black dot of the Arab moving toward the police station. Arriving at the schoolhouse he reads a message chalked over his drawing of the four main rivers of France: “You handed over our brother, you will pay for this.”

Thus the paradoxical title of this collection is explained. Daru, like his “guest,” was born and has lived his life in this inhospitable plateau—this is his kingdom. Yet an accidental turn of events has transformed his kingdom into a place of exile. His strategy for eluding this onrushing absurdity has been unavailing; worse, Daru will become a casualty with little time left to savor his newly acquired awareness of the meaninglessness of the universe.

“The Guest,” because of its artistic virtuosity, is a landmark which forces comparisons for English-speaking readers with such pinnacles of the adventure story with moral and epistemological overtones as Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel.” Apropos of this analysis, however, “The Guest” is an excellent and mercifully succinct distillation of Camus’s outlook and provides a take-off point for an important criticism of it in line with the previous discussion of “The Adulterous Woman.”

At least one critic, John K. Simon, writing in Studies in Short Fiction, shifts the focus of attention from the unsolvable quandary facing Daru to an assertion that Daru himself is morally flawed for abandoning the Arab under the pretense of giving him a choice when it is patent that this outcast is neither morally, psychologically, nor physically (a walk to the police station is shorter than one across the plateau) able to decide on a proper course of action. Daru’s obsession with solitude—as exemplified by the fact that at one point Balducci calls him “cracked,” and also by the puzzling observation that Daru’s hostility toward the Arab and toward his new role as policeman cannot be fully accounted for within the text—explains his abandonment of the prisoner and reinforces the suspicion that Daru does not understand social process. If all this is true, then Camus’s philosophic message becomes irrelevant and Daru is not a victim of an indifferently cruel universe, but rather he is a man who has been consistently guilty of social omissions and blunders.

“The Growing Stone”

The last story in the collection, “The Growing Stone,” has an overtly neopagan motif, a recurring interest of Camus which critics have attributed to his North African upbringing. D’Arrast, a French engineer descended from an aristocratic family, is chauffeured by a Brazilian named Socrates across the jungle to a seaside town where he will build much-needed jetties and roads. During the all-night drive they pass through the town of Registro, which is populated by Japanese immigrants who still dress in their kimonos. Arriving at Iguape, D’Arrast is effusively received by the town officials, who are grateful for his services. The welcome is spoiled, however, by the inexplicable belligerence of the drunken police chief, who loutishly proclaims that D’Arrast’s passport is not in order. D’Arrast insists on touring the quarters where his future laborers reside, and while there, he encounters a ship’s cook who tells him that he survived a shipwreck after making a promise to St. George to carry a one-hundred-pound stone at the forthcoming procession.

D’Arrast also meets a “black Diana” who lures him to a ceremonial dance held the night before the procession. The poor of the town crowd into a large hut and engage in a frenetic, obscene, grotesque, and at times sinister ritual which at first nauseates D’Arrast but then bewitches him. At a certain point, D’Arrast is asked to leave. The ship’s cook, contrary to his resolve to get a good night’s sleep, stays on. The next day the weary cook falters while carrying the rock to the church. In an inspired moment D’Arrast wrests a cork mat from the encouraging crowd and shoulders the stone. Being young, strong, and well rested, he bears it easily; but nearing the portals of the church he veers away from them dramatically and, ignoring the enraged and mystified commands of the mob which dins “to the church,” he heads for the cook’s hovel and hurls the rectangular block onto the glowing fire in the center of the room, where it immediately becomes another idol.

This then is Camus’s tentative answer to the problem of absurdity: In the face of the prevailing incongruity, arbitrariness, and disorganization, human beings can strive for an emotional coherence which sidesteps the question of absurdity, which Camus now views as merely an intellectual problem.

“The Renegade”

“The Renegade” depicts in the first person the psychotic state of mind of a missionary who, after mental and physical torture, surrenders morally to the Saharan heathens he has come to civilize. His tongue cut out, the renegade conducts a frenzied interior monologue as he waits to ambush the priest sent to replace him. Is this tour de force Camus’s revenge upon Christianity? Can it also be construed as an attack upon the paganism which is more favorably presented in “The Growing Stone”? “The Silent Men” is more mundane. Set in a French city, it narrates how a crew of coopers returning to work after a failed strike decide not to communicate with their boss in an attempt to salve their humiliation. In spite of Camus’s socialist sympathies, this story remains one of his few treatments of skilled craftsmen who, in this case, practice an obsolete craft.

“The Artist at Work”

Finally, “The Artist at Work” is notable only because it contains the only humor in the collection. It is an overlong cataloging of the distractions of wife, children, and zealous friends, all of whom drive a moderately talented painter to isolation and artistic impotence. “The Artist at Work,” like the other stories in Exile and the Kingdom, presents themes that are central to Camus’s philosophy. They demonstrate the world of human suffering, solitude, humiliation, and isolation in an absurd world.

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