Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Daru is a French-Algerian schoolteacher who lives alone at the top of a remote plateau. Since the local police force is understaffed and overwhelmed by mounting threats of an Arab revolt, they order Daru to help escort an Arab prisoner to the nearby town of Tinguit. Daru is distressed by this request, and although he expresses disgust over the prisoner’s crime, he remains resistant to the idea of taking away the man’s freedom.
Daru is deeply uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of his situation. One of the first things he asks after receiving his orders from Balducci is what the Arab man did to warrant being arrested. However, he is dissatisfied with Balducci’s vague and uncertain answer, so he poses the same question to the Arab man—though the answer he receives also proves confusing and frustrating. Daru seems to pride himself on his relative neutrality; although his ultimate loyalty lies with the French, he is nonetheless willing to hear both sides of the conflict.
Daru’s sense of honor and discomfort with moral ambiguity are paralyzing forces within “The Guest,” and they ultimately shape how he decides to handle the situation. His disgust with the murder the Arab man committed renders him unable to outright assist the man in freeing himself; however, he also views handing the man over to the authorities as “contrary to honor.” In the end, he attempts to satisfy his sense of morality while also relieving himself of the burden of choice by allowing the man to decide his fate. Unfortunately, this only results in the wrath of the Arab man’s compatriots in addition to the potential disintegration of his friendship with Balducci and the French government, leaving Daru in an isolated—and potentially dangerous—position.
The Arab Prisoner
The Arab man—who goes unnamed throughout the story—is a somewhat enigmatic figure within “The Guest.” At the beginning of the story, Balducci brings him to Daru’s schoolhouse, explaining that the Arab man has been taken into custody by the French colonial police for murdering his cousin. Balducci cannot explain precisely why the murder occurred but indicates that it was likely some form of a dispute over grain. Daru attempts to ask the man for his version of events, but the Arab man merely claims that the other man “ran away,” so he chased after him. This—combined with the fact that the Arab man’s village attempted to shelter him from the police—calls into question the nature of guilt and honor.
During the Arab man’s interactions with Daru, he becomes increasingly insistent that Daru should accompany him to Tinguit. Although Daru’s questions about remorse and guilt seem to confuse the Arab man at first, he also seems to seriously consider the ideas. He also seems to have submitted entirely to his fate, expressing panic when it becomes clear that Daru intends to leave the final choice in the Arab man’s hands.
Indeed, the Arab man displays a level of passivity that Daru finds incompatible with his supposedly murderous history, not even attempting to escape, despite having multiple opportunities. One interpretation of his actions suggests that he truly does feel guilt over killing his cousin, continuing toward Tinguit to receive the punishment he believes he deserves. Alternatively, he could simply be allowing events to play out according to the whims of the universe, continuously allowing others to dictate the course of events—starting with Balducci and ending with the police in Tinguit. Yet another interpretation draws attention to the relatively poor outcomes represented by either choice: by choosing to go to Tinguit, the man sacrifices his freedom—and potentially even his life. However, had...
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he sought refuge with the nomads, he would be forced to live as an exile, separated from his community and relying on the protection of strangers.
Balducci is a gendarme, or police officer, who serves under the local branch of the French colonial government in Algeria. He seems to know Daru well, greeting him affectionately upon first arriving at the schoolhouse and referring to him as “son.” However, their relationship sours throughout the story, culminating in Balducci leaving Daru’s home feeling angry and insulted. This newfound estrangement between former friends represents the potential fallout of Daru’s refusal to abide by the commands of the French colonial government.
Balducci is a man of the law and represents the justice system of the French government in Algeria. In his view, it is Daru’s duty to escort the Arab man to Tinguit, just as it was Balducci’s duty to escort the man to Daru’s schoolhouse in the first place. Although he takes no pleasure in “putting a rope on a man,” Balducci nonetheless believes in the righteousness of his actions: the Arab man is a murderer and should therefore be punished according to the law. Furthermore, the tension between the French and Algerian factions means that Balducci has adopted a wartime mentality, dividing the population into the French—which he refers to using words like “us”—and the local Arabs—who Balducci figures as a separate and potentially hostile “them.”