Characters Discussed

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Jean-Baptiste Clamence

Jean-Baptiste Clamence (zhahn-bah-TEEST klah-MAHNS), the narrator and the only speaking person in this novel. Every word of this book is spoken by this character, to the unidentified listener. Clamence describes himself as formerly a lawyer in Paris, not a judge-penitent. As a lawyer, he did not accept bribes and was not involved in shady dealings. His courtesy was famous and undeniable; he was a person of incredible politeness and manners. Only near the end of the novel does the reader learn the narrator’s definition of judge-penitent: the one who announces the law. His profession after being a Parisian lawyer consists of indulging in public confession as often as possible. He describes himself as bursting with vanity, and in the course of the novel he reflects on every facet of his life that he finds meaningful. The narrator says that his love for life is his only true weakness. He calls himself a prophet and happens to have a name strikingly similar to Saint John the Baptist. The bulk of this text consists of Clamence scrutinizing his life on the premise of two important events. The first is that he heard laughter behind him and could not discover its source; the second is that a woman jumped off a bridge into the river Seine and he made no effort to help her.

The unidentified listener

The unidentified listener, who is explained to the reader only so far as Clamence makes observations about him. The narrator attaches himself to this unidentified listener, and single words of the listener occasionally are repeated by the narrator, thereby making the modest and vague insinuation of dialogue that continues throughout the text. The listener is much like the narrator. They are about the same age, in their forties, and the listener is well dressed and appears sophisticated. The listener has smooth hands, which causes Clamence to exclaim that he is a bourgeois, though a cultured one. Because Clamence amuses the listener, Clamence assumes his listener is open-minded. The listener is considered again only briefly as Clamence repeats answered questions and at the ends of the days, which are chapters.

The proprietor of Mexico City

The proprietor of Mexico City, who is spoken of by the narrator in the opening pages, as a means of stage setting. Mexico City is the bar in Amsterdam where half of the novel takes place. The proprietor of Mexico City does not enter as a true character, as there are no true characters in this novel except the narrator. The proprietor speaks only Dutch, and even that very grudgingly. He frequently snubs patrons and does not serve people if he has a whim not to. The business of this bar owner is to entertain sailors of all nationalities. The narrator speaks of this man as a barbarian and as having extremely low intelligence.

Unknown laughing voice

Unknown laughing voice, a voice Clamence hears behind him; when he looks, he is unable to find its source. The laughing voice is found to be the narrator laughing at himself, a psychological trick that forces him to analyze his conscience.

Woman who jumps off the bridge

Woman who jumps off the bridge, who is mentioned in a story told by the narrator to the unidentified listener. The narrator walked by her one night, “a slim young woman dressed in black,” as she was standing on a bridge, looking over the railing into the river. The narrator continued past her and later heard a splash in the water, followed by several cries and screams. Then there was silence. The narrator...

(This entire section contains 636 words.)

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did not interfere in the woman’s life in any way. In the closing sentences of the novel, the narrator wishes for the same opportunity again, so that he might have a second chance to save them both.


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Jean-Baptiste Clamence, John the Baptist crying in the desert, dominates the work. There are shadowy figures in the background: the unknown woman who jumped into the Seine, the women whom Clamence frequented in his moments of debauchery, and above all, a mute interlocutor who is possibly the alter-ego of the narrator. Clamence is the only one who speaks, however. He is an intelligent, lucid, gifted talker, who tries to persuade himself that he has soothed his conscience. He had been a brilliant lawyer in Paris, a good-looking and charming gentleman. After the incident on the Pont des Arts, however, he lapses into debauchery and alcohol to effect a slow but unsuccessful anaesthesia of conscience. He then becomes a "judge-penitent," who by first accusing himself assumes the right to judge others.

Despite his clever solution, he has not alleviated his guilt, his main preoccupation. Contrary to Meursault, who refuses to play the game of society, Clamence plays another kind of role, one in which he tries to convince himself and others that he has soothed his conscience. Yet not unlike Camus's early heroes, Sisyphus and Meursault, who found happiness in living the absurd, he too finds happiness in the acceptance of the evil within him and around him. According to Maquet, his "absolute purity . . . heals and stimulates us in the long run, and far from casting us down into despair, whips up our energy to live a life finally disintoxicated and freed from the imposture of false satisfaction."




Critical Essays