Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

The Guest appeared in Camus’s 1957 collection of stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom. The stories received a mixed but generally positive reception. Camus’s writing career had been largely stalled for many years owing to writer’s block and personal difficulties. Thus some critics saw in the stories a renewed energy that bode well for his next major work of fiction. Some specifically saw these stories as short explorations of themes and situations that he would explore at novel length. Many found, however, that Camus had not successfully mastered the distinction between philosophy and fiction. As Irving Howe wrote in The New Republic: ‘‘Camus still seems torn between the impulse to offer testimony (which means to reduce his fiction to mere examples) and the impulse to tell stories and create characters. . . . The result is a curious mixture of the threadbare and the obscure. . .’’. His untimely death three years later foreclosed the possibility of further development and ‘‘The Guest’’ became his last published work. In general, while they were not regarded as on a level with his best previous fiction, his short stories were understood as an important contribution to his oeuvre. Camus himself had been reluctant to declare them finished, revising them throughout 1956 and 1957 and extending the publication date until late that year. ‘‘The Guest’’ is often regarded as one of the strongest stories in the collection and it has been widely anthologized.

Early interpretations placed the story easily within a philosophical framework similar to that of Camus, finding in Daru’s action his self-realization as a moral human being, with the necessary sense of alienation that comes from acting in an absurd world. Others noted and analyzed the ambiguity the story forces on its readers. Balducci’s uncertainty about the prisoner’s crime, Daru’s inability to understand the Arab’s explanation, and, at their parting, Daru’s unwillingness to listen to the prisoner’s plea, or to fully examine his own feelings, all ensure that the story will be read as a bit of a puzzle. More recently critics have been influenced by a growing awareness of different cultural perspectives and have paid more detailed attention to the Arab. Often critical of those who judge the Arab too quickly as slow or evil, they have pointed to unexamined aspects of Arab culture and Islamic law that can make the prisoner a fuller, more comprehensible character, and have suggested that European cultural biases made it easy for critics to perceive the Arab as primitive or animalistic.

Camus’s story stands as a masterful example of the short story genre and the use of free indirect discourse. In addition, it illuminates some of the profound literary and cultural ideas of the midtwentieth century (such as existentialism and absurdism) and it offers a powerful representation of colonialism and colonial relationships.

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Essays and Criticism