The Fall is an extended monologue conducted over the course of five days by a man who calls himself Jean-Baptiste Clamence. The setting is Amsterdam, whose fogginess is miasmic and whose canals are likened to the concentric circles of hell. Like some infernal Ancient Mariner, the speaker attaches himself to a stranger who happens to wander into a raffish bar incongruously named Mexico City. A master of guile, Clamence deliberately piques the curiosity of his listener, who remains an unnamed “you.” Gradually, cunningly, he implicates him—and the reader—in his diabolical tale. Clamence infers that his auditor is a successful Parisian lawyer in his forties, and he tailors his story to appeal to and expose the weaknesses of the stranger.
Clamence claims that he, too, used to live in Paris, where, as a widely respected magistrate, he exuded self-confidence. He then recounts an incident that forever undermined his certainties about personal worth.
One November evening, walking across a bridge, he heard the cry of a woman who had thrown herself into the river. His reaction was to deny that he had heard anything and to continue walking. He remains, however, haunted by that dying cry and the fact that he evaded responsibility toward another human being.
Written at a troubled time in Camus’s own life, The Fall is the bitter fictional tirade of a brilliant misanthrope who dismisses civilization with a mordant epigram: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” Clamence admits that his name is a cunning alias. Like the biblical vox clamans in deserto, the narrator is a voice crying in the wilderness mocking specious hope for clemency toward universal guilt. “Every man testifies to the crime of all the others—that is my faith and my hope,” declares Clamence. It is also the rationale for his narrative, a strategy of confessing his culpability and coercing the listener—and reader—into acknowledging and sharing it.
Duplicitous Clamence has assumed the function of what he calls “judge-penitent,” a deft way of being both condemner and condemned. He eventually lures his listener to his apartment, where he reveals a stolen Van Eyck on the wall. The reader’s knowledge of the purloined painting now implicates the reader, too, in the crime. The subject of the work, The Just Judges, reinforces the novel’s theme of judgement even as it mocks the possibility of justice. It is not merely perverse bravado that impels Clamence to entrust his felonious secret to a stranger; he realizes that in a world devoid of innocence, no one dare judge anyone else. Yet he dreams of being apprehended, of finding release from his personal burden by a stroke of the guillotine. Jean-Baptiste longs for the decapitation that was the fate of his namesake John the Baptist:I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and could again dominate—an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to come forth.
Such redemption never comes. The Fall portrays all as trapped in a fallen world. Like Sisyphus, Clamence is condemned to repeat his futile gestures. Every time he encounters another listener (and reader), he is compelled anew to spread his gospel of universal guilt, to confirm it by his very success in persuading readers to share his story.
In an Amsterdam bar called Mexico City, Jean-Baptiste Clamence is involved in a strange dialogue, strange because he addresses an unidentified silent listener who never answers his questions or comments on his remarks. Clamence, in his forties, talks daily for five consecutive days with the stranger whom he meets in Mexico City bar. The subject of this one-sided dialogue is Clamence, specifically his fall from innocence...
(The entire section is 1,393 words.)