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Overview of ‘The Guest’

(Short Stories for Students)

Camus best-known short story, ‘‘The Guest’’ is also notoriously subject to conflicting interpretations. Virtually all critics recognize the tale as obscure and enigmatic. Some of this is certainly part of Camus’ artistic intent. He worked on the story for at least two years, and continued to revise it right up until the publication date. Some, including perhaps Camus himself have regarded the stories in Exile and the Kingdom as transitional works, or explorations of themes to be treated more fully in novels to come. Certainly Camus’ philosophy and political thought were still developing, and he never lived to see or make sense of the end of the Algerian War and the establishment of an independent Algeria. While Exile and the Kingdom was completed in his lifetime and stands as Camus’ last published work, part of the interpretive difficulty a story like ‘‘The Guest’’ poses may be due to the fact that Camus’ life and thought were works in progress, interrupted and unfinished by his untimely death. However, there are a number of established frameworks which can go a long way to grounding different interpretations. The first is Camus’ own philosophy as he had articulated it. The second is the related philosophy of existentialism, which Camus steadfastly disavowed. Finally, there is the discourse of postcolonialism, which would not have been fully available to Camus in his lifetime, but which now seems essential to understanding the world which he described.

If we try to make sense of ‘‘The Guest’’ in terms of Camus’ own philosophy, we can see Daru as a moral man confronting an absurd and indifferent world, symbolized especially by the landscape. He manages his existential feelings of alienation by living near the place where he was born and carrying out his duties with compassion. Like Sisyphus in Camus’ early essay ‘‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’’ Daru lives stubbornly ‘‘as if’’ existence were not meaningless and the world not absurd. The arrival of Balducci and his prisoner presents a moral quandary. Daru must confront the fact that his world is not just absurd—meaningless—but also unjust and violent. His basic position is clear from the start; while he cannot condone, and indeed is disgusted by, the Prisoner’s internecine violence, to turn him in to face French law would be dishonorable and unjust. Moreover, his conversations with Balducci make it clear that the transporting of the Prisoner takes place in and depends on a context of ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them.’’ With a rebellion brewing, this divide represents not just a cultural conflict, but two extreme political positions, both willing to back their beliefs with violence and force. Daru’s heroism then, comes from being a rebel of the sort Camus described in L’Homme Revolte (The Rebel), the individual who acts against unjust ideologies–in this case, of both the French colonial government and the Arab nationalists. His solution is both a refusal to take sides and a humanist stand against extremism and violence. For Camus, to make the right moral choice, is a necessarily isolating act. It is staking out a position as an individual, and while it is the appropriate decision and the route to Camusian self-realization, there is no expectation that it will provide a coherence or sense of meaning in an absurd universe. As Alfred Noyer-Weidner puts it: ‘‘Daru’s final loneliness is a loneliness of tragedy and not of human weakness. . . . For Daru . . . to have remained true to the absolute respect for that which is human, up until the final moment of isolation, seems to be a condition of the Camusian ‘kingdom’.’’ If such a conclusion seems hard to accept, it indicates perhaps less a misreading of the story than an argument with the Camusian philosophy on which this interpretation depends.

One major position from which to argue with Camus is that of Existentialism, since Existentialism was fundamental to the political...

(The entire section is 10,846 words.)