Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2041
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...
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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 and philosophical milieu in Paris when Camus came to prominence, and because existentialist were among his sharpest philosophical critics. Not everyone sees Daru as successful or a hero. Many do indeed see Daru’s isolation at the end as a ‘‘loneliness of weakness’’ or a predictable result of his failure to fully accept his responsibility for the Prisoner. One doesn’t have to be an Existentialist to offer such interpretations, but they can certainly be grounded and elucidated in an Existentialist framework. While Camus insisted that there was no way to make sense of the absurd, many existentialists saw this activity as a fundamental responsibility and freedom of each individual. Each person must constantly make him or herself through and in actions, striving for an authentic existence; this is not an easy path; at best, people will struggle with reactions such as despair (at the meaninglessness of the universe) and anxiety (over the choices which must be made in an authentic existence), at worst, they will avoid this responsibility, living passively, letting others determine choices and actions, and living unauthentically with what Sartre called ‘‘bad faith’’ or self-deception. This second course leads to progressively worsening estrangement from what one can be, and ultimately a profound sense of nothingness, an existential crisis.
It’s not hard to see how some of this might apply to Daru. While it has been convincingly argued that it is too simple to say that Daru fails to act or make a decision, there are any number of problems with both the decision he makes, and the way he makes it. His refusal to turn the Arab in is clear from the start. But in taking charge of the Prisoner, he hedges. One authentic choice might have been to refuse to accept the Prisoner altogether, and, more importantly, refuse to sign for him, accepting fully and freely Balducci’s anger and whatever reprisals came after. Once Daru has made the decision to honor his friendship with Balducci by signing the receipt, he struggles with unwanted responsibility. Daru’s repeated hope that the Prisoner will simply escape, thereby freeing him of his dilemma, points to a certain level of self-deception and an unwillingness to face the implications of his accepting responsibility for the Prisoner. Similarly, the plan to escort the Prisoner halfway and then invite him to make his own choice reveals a desire on Daru’s part to have it both ways—i.e. at some level not to choose. In Existentialist terms this can only be a kind of bad faith, a self-deception about one’s motives and actions, and an unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility of one’s freedom to forge an authentic existence. From this perspective, Daru’s bitter estrangement form the world and landscape he had felt connected to is a predictable result of his bad faith and lapse into unauthentic existence. One can read some bad faith in Daru’s interactions with the Prisoner as well. On the one hand Daru offers him compassion and hospitality, yet he rejects the ‘‘strange brotherhood’’ he feels forming and can scarcely bring himself to look at the Arab. When finally leaving the Arab, Daru behaves brusquely and ignores his own mixed feelings.
Part of the complexity of Daru’s relationship with the Arab cannot be fully examined without considering the colonial context which has brought them together. Thus far, in interpreting the story in terms of Camus’ ideas or the competing philosophy of existentialism the characters and conflicts have been treated as universal. While the events take place in a specific location and at a specific time, the philosophical themes of moral or individual choice in a meaningless universe are not limited in their significance to that setting. But many critics would argue with the very notion of universal themes or representative characters and events. In particular, critics adopting a postcolonial perspective would look at the way in which Algeria in the 1950s created a very particular set of experiences that need to be understood and analyzed on their own. While there were certainly critics of the colonial empires during their heyday, the term postcolonial refers generally to the period since independence was gained by many former colonies; thus it is post (after) the end of colonialism as a widespread political system. As a critical orientation, postcolonialism can encompass many modes of analysis. But central to all postcolonial critiques is a tendency to reveal the ‘‘universal’’ as specific to a European or Western cultural viewpoint, and to pay much more attention to heretofore ignored cultures and philosophies from outside the Western tradition. To analyze ‘‘The Guest’’ from this perspective raises new questions, especially about the portrayal and traditional interpretations of the Arab. The basic portrait of the Arab draws on two traditional colonial perceptions of non-Europeans. The first has been called Orientalist, in which the non-European is seen as silent, mysterious, and often alluring. The second views indigenous peoples as uncivilized and animalistic. Both of these views are at work in Daru’s descriptions of the Prisoner. His lips and mouth are described as ‘‘Negroid’’ and ‘‘animal’’; he is seen as ‘‘feverish’’ and ‘‘vacant and listless.’’ At the same time, he speaks and interacts little, and what he does say is largely incomprehensible to Daru. Certainly his choice of the road to prison is an enigma.
Daru may be sensitive and humane enough to care about the poverty and hunger of the his students and their families and to treat the Arab prisoner gently and hospitably, but he remains clearly allied with the French and the colonial system: he is a civil servant and he knows that in a war he would defend the French. His position as a colonizer creates a blind spot for him in his perception of and relation to the Arab. He feels disgust at the Arab’s killing on two counts—its violence and the apparent weakness that let him be captured. But certainly such internecine violence is not limited to Arabs or indigenous peoples, and the Arab did hide in his village for a month before he was finally captured and taken away. In the central conversation between the two men, Daru maintains his position of power by deflecting or refusing to respond to the Arab’s questions, and when they part in the desert, Daru refuses to listen at all to the Arab’s protest. Part of this is to protect himself from knowledge or intimacy that would deepen his conflicted feelings; part of it is an exercise of his authority; part of it comes from a colonial expectation that the Arab will have little to say—ultimately he is not and cannot be an equal. The result of this is that Daru, and hence the reader, knows very little of what the Arab believes and feels. Many recent critics have tried to close this knowledge gap by drawing on ethnography and trying to understand the Prisoner from the perspective of Arab culture and law. A number of salient points arise in these kinds of analyses. To begin with, the details of the Prisoner’s crime are fuzzy at best. Balducci relates the little he knows with a series of tentative and speculative statements. From within Arab culture, the Prisoner may have been acting appropriately, defending a point of honor. The fact that his village was willing to protect and defend him suggests strongly that from their perspective he had not committed a crime. Similarly, the fact that he makes no effort to escape or choose the road to freedom may be a point of honor for him; having been charged, he must face his accusers. What he wants from Daru is that he accompany him, as he recognizes Daru’s fairness and believes that he can aid him in the alien French legal system. There are other reasons he might choose not to escape, the most powerful being that he comes from a strong village culture. His entire life and sense of identity are connected to his village and tribe. Freedom among the Berbers could well be meaningless for him. Finally, with a rebellion about to break out, he could well fear that his escape could bring reprisals to his village, again making escape a dishonorable and unconscionable action.
Source: Julia Burch, ‘‘Overview of ‘The Guest’,’’ for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1997.
Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1444
Interpretations of Albert Camus’s short story ‘‘The Guest’’ so far have had a tendency to make rather little of the prisoner, typically treating him as a primitive, brutalized, somewhat dull or even dimwitted character. In an influential early reading, Laurence Perrine helped establish this view, claiming that ‘‘his incomprehension . . . is emphasized’’ [Studies in Short Fiction, 1, 1963–64]. His comments in the Instructor’s Manual accompanying his widely used textbook Story and Structure  reinforce the view: ‘‘From the beginning the Arab is pictured as passive, uncomprehending, a little stupid.’’ Nor does John K. Simon’s reply to the original article in [Studies in Short Fiction] contradict this general view when he states, for example, ‘‘Having always lived under French law and authority, with no education or independence, the Arab can follow only the negative dictate of inertia and passivity’’ [Studies in Short Fiction, 1, 1963– 64]. More recently, Elwyn F. Sterling, while allowing the Arab some measure of moral awareness (‘‘aware that the act of murder has set him apart from men’’ [French Review, 54, 1981]), again endorses the view that he doesn’t know very clearly why he committed the murder: ‘‘As a reason for killing his cousin, he can only answer, ‘il s’est sauve. J’ai couru derrière lui’.’’ And again, as recently as 1988, Diana Festa-McCormick repeats the claim that the Arab ‘‘hardly knows why he had killed (‘He ran away, I ran after him’).’’ [Critical Essays on Albert Camus, 1988].
A close study of the way in which the story deals with the Arab’s act of killing his cousin will throw a different light on his character. The question of his motives arises twice. First, in the course of the discussion between Daru and Balducci, the policeman offers this information: ‘‘A family squabble, I think. One owed grain to the other, it seems. It’s not at all clear.’’ What is remarkable here is Balducci’s great uncertainty, emphasized in each of the three short successive sentences. Obviously his is not a very definitive version of the story; the reader is alerted to watch out for further clues. For the time being, Daru’s response is not very helpful in that it merely expresses strong feelings against a barbaric deed: ‘‘Daru felt a sudden wrath against the man, against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust.’’ He generalizes and is clearly not aware of a need to investigate further and to penetrate Balducci’s uncertainties.
The question comes up again when Daru and the prisoner are alone and have shared a meal, i.e., Daru’s kindness has earned him the Arab’s deep respect. Struggling with his own feelings of hostility, possibly in the hope of finding the prisoner a contrite sinner, Daru asks him: ‘‘Why did you kill him?,’’ only to elicit the response that so many critics have construed as being less than clear or plausible: ‘‘He ran away. I ran after him.’’ But what can we make of this reply if we try to take it seriously? Could it be that the cousin’s act of running away, instead of taking full responsibility in the family squabble over a debt of grain, constitutes the complete loss of his honor, and a severe injury to the family honor as well, in his own indigenous culture? And could it be that the prisoner, in running after him (possibly because he was the first to notice, or the one with the best starting position as pursuer), and then killing him, was merely acting in accordance with his own tribal custom?
The assumption that the prisoner’s own cultural norms play a crucial part in the matter has a number of interesting ramifications. It certainly helps to explain his body language in the passage in question. The fact that he ‘‘looked away’’ in giving his reply may well indicate some doubt as to whether Daru the French colonist will be able to appreciate what he says. His wordless response to Daru’s next question, ‘‘Are you afraid?’’ is to stiffen, which strongly suggests a proud rejection of such an insinuation; at the same time he repeats the gesture of ‘‘turning his eyes away,’’ as if once again appealing to those who could appreciate him better. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when Daru asks, ‘‘Are you sorry?’’ the prisoner ‘‘stared at him openmouthed. Obviously he did not understand.’’ Surely he is not being stupid; rather, he does not see the relevance of the question. Why, indeed, should he feel sorry about the killing if it was the honorable thing to do? To him, under the circumstances, regret is a perfectly incongruous, meaningless kind of response.
Yet, in spite of such signals of Daru’s limited understanding of his plight, the Arab has developed an almost compulsive trust in Daru, in response, no doubt, to Daru’s earlier kindness, the significance of which lies not merely in Daru’s humane and compassionate behavior, but in his acceptance of the Arab as an honorable man who deserves all the privileges of a guest. That is not easy for the Arab to grasp, so that he asks, ‘‘Why do you eat with me?’’ Encouraged by such honorable treatment, he hopefully asks next, ‘‘Are you the judge?’’ And upon hearing the negative reply, he still urges Daru twice to come with him to Tinguit, presumably in the hope that Daru will secure him a fair and honorable trial.
The view that the Arab’s indigenous culture plays a key role in the story finds additional support in certain historical and systematic features of Islamic law. In pre-revolutionary Algeria, the substitution of the French legal system for Islamic law, extending even to the local level and to rural areas, was particularly offensive to the Arabs because of the religious foundation of their traditional system, and was one of the motives behind the incipient rebellion. The two legal conflicts the prisoner is involved in, the family squabble over a debt of grain and even the homicide, are matters that can both, under Islamic law, be settled privately, unless one of the parties seeks a trial before the local judge, the kadi. In either case, enforcement of the terms of the settlement or judgment is left up to the plaintiff, for ‘‘No sharp distinction is made between execution and self-help’’ [Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law, 1964]. On the basis of these observations it seems understandable (a) that the Arab man ‘‘punished’’ his cousin through self-help, (b) that his community hid him for a month from the French authorities, as someone who was not culpable unless a complaint was raised against him in his own tribe, and (c) that he worries in ‘‘woeful interrogation’’ about what the French authorities will do to him.
An interesting consequence of this view of the Arab’s motivation for the killing is the light it throws on his behavior when Daru, toward the end of the story, provides him with the means to regain his freedom instead of handing him over to the authorities. The fact that he chooses to face his trial is perfectly consistent with the notion, presumably a part of his cultural identity, that one cannot run away from an accusation without losing one’s honor. In spite of the hostility between the Arabs and their French colonial oppressors in general, Daru’s hospitable, honorable treatment of the prisoner seems to have struck a chord in him so that his indigenous code of honor asserts itself in an automatic response, despite Daru’s lack of understanding of other parts of his cultural identity.
A further interesting consequence of this view of the prisoner lies in the fact that his final choice, to face his trial, creates an ironic existentialist impasse very similar to that of Daru. Both men have acted according to the dictates of their different moral codes, and yet both are threatened with annihilation, in a system that does not recognize their respective merits. Daru has given the prisoner his freedom of choice, but is threatened by the man’s Arab brothers with punishment for allegedly handing him over to the authorities. The prisoner, following his moral code, chooses to face his trial; yet he will most certainly not be judged on the basis of that code, but must expect lifetime imprisonment or, worse, a death sentence. That the French intellectual and the Arab tribesman are aligned in this existentialist dilemma seems to me to add significantly to the poignancy of the story’s resolution.
Source: Eberhard Griem, ‘‘Albert Camus’s ‘The Guest’: A New Look at the Prisoner,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, no. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 95–8.
Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327
Daru, the protagonist of ‘‘The Guest’’ [is a misfit in the landscape]. The ambiguity of the title word, l’hote, meaning both ‘‘guest’’ and ‘‘host,’’ and of which meaning should be applied to which character, is resolved by the landscape. Paul Fortier has shown how the landscape and its changing aspects offer an interpretation of historical events and of moral values (‘‘Decor,’’ pp. 535–42). Daru believes himself in harmony with the natural world around him. But it is an illusion. The sun is dominant during the drought, ‘‘the plateaus charred month after month, the earth gradually shrivelling, literally scorched.’’ The snowfall represents a brief reprieve, a temporary truce before hostility is renewed. When the sun shines again, Daru feels a kind of exaltation, but it is as if the sun were in league with the rocks against him, quickly drying out the puddles of melting snow and returning the landscape to its former rockiness. Now the sun becomes destructive, and ‘‘began to devour his brow . . . sweat trickled down it.’’
The physical attack portends the human violence with which the teacher is threatened on his return to the school. The wind ‘‘lurking’’ around the school building parallels the activities of the rebels who are following his movements. And the precise location of Daru’s school, on an isolated plateau, an intermediate stage between the coastal plain and the mountains, reflects the moral stance of neutrality and isolation maintained by the schoolteacher (Fortier, Une Lecture, p. 29). The Arab prisoner, as Fortier points out, resembles the desert, ‘‘his skin sunburnt but slightly discolored by the cold.’’ He fears what the Frenchmen may do to him, but he does not fear the desert. Of course in reality the natural world is hostile to the Arabs too: Daru is well aware that ‘‘in the desert, all men, both he and his guest, were nothing.’’ But Camus’s landscapes are never innocent. A welcoming environment can become inimical and can inflict pain and even death on the unwary individual. . . .
The opinions Camus expressed in a political context are apparently contradicted by the fictional worlds of these short stories. Camus opposed independence because it would lead to the expulsion of his own people. Yet the European characters he places in an Algerian setting are uncomfortable strangers in a country they regard as theirs. In ‘‘The Guest,’’ for example, despite the sympathetic portrayal of characters, it is clear that Daru’s position is untenable. Warm human bonds between individuals are not enough to assure a peaceful settlement of struggle in the political arena.
Daru fits in with Albert Memmi’s portrait of the left-wing colonizer. He ‘‘refuses to become a part of his group of fellow citizens. At the same time it is impossible for him to identify his future with that of the colonized. Politically, who is he? Is he not an expression of himself, of a negligible force in the varied conflicts within colonialism?’’ (The Colonizer, p. 41). Daru has isolated himself from his fellow Europeans, and lives alone on a barren plateau in the foothills. As a schoolteacher he is obviously committed to the welfare and education of his pupils, and sympathetic towards their impoverished and illnourished condition. He feels at home: ‘‘Daru had been born there. Anywhere else he felt an exile.’’ In earlier versions of the manuscript, Daru was a disenchanted businessman from the coast, who had given up his old life and become a teacher. In the final version, Camus stresses Daru’s roots in this harsh landscape; yet his origins continue to separate him from the indigenous population: ‘‘Faced with this wretchedness [Daru], who lived almost like a monk in this isolated school, yet was happy with the little he had and with this simple life, had felt like a lord.’’ Colonialist rule is symbolized by the drawing on the school blackboard of the four rivers of France: the local schoolchildren follow the same curriculum as children in metropolitan France even though it may be irrelevant to their culture and their needs. The colonial administration uses the schools as distribution centers for emergency supplies of food during the drought, so that children have to come to school to receive their allocation. Daru is thus placed in the position of an overlord, separate from ‘‘that army of ragged ghosts.’’ The word army evokes a sense of hostility and violence which runs through the whole narrative and explodes across the map of France at the end of the story.
The advent of Balducci and his Arab prisoner brings the reality of the current situation into Daru’s monastic retreat, brings movement into a static world, and forces him to take a position. ‘‘Commitment comes like a guest who does not want to leave’’ (Cryle, Bilan critique, p. 142). It is his failure to choose in a positive way that leaves him helpless to affect the course of events. His attitude toward Balducci and the Arab is entirely laudable: Balducci is a tough but sympathetic Corsican who dislikes mistreating an Arab, but who believes in discipline, while the Arab, despite his act of violence, is nevertheless a man who deserves to be treated with human dignity. By refusing to take the Arab to prison, Daru offends Balducci personally; by allowing the Arab a choice he does not understand, he alienates himself from the local people. His actions are misunderstood by the groups represented by the two individuals, just as Daru fails to recognize the political reality behind those two people.
On a personal level, ambiguity and humanitarian instincts are possible; but on a political level, actions cannot bear any nuance without being misconstrued. Thus the colonial administration will view Daru’s refusal as a treacherous act, while the Arabs interpret the result of his inaction as a betrayal too: ‘‘You have handed over our brother. You will pay.’’ The words ‘‘hand over’’ recall mockingly Daru’s thrice-repeated ‘‘I will not hand him over’’; Camus obviously had some biblical references in mind, for in an earlier version of the story, the teacher’s name is Pierre (Peter), and at one time he considered ‘‘Cain’’ as a title. Daru’s future in Algeria is precarious, and the use of the pluperfect in the final sentence bears out this sense of finality. ‘‘Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and beyond it the invisible landscape that stretched out to the sea. In this vast country he had loved so much, he was alone.’’ The reference to the sea indicates the direction in which Daru will now have to travel, into his exile.
The individual’s viewpoint cannot be reduced to a single vision, and yet circumstances often demand it. By refusing to commit himself to one side or the other, Daru loses all. He deplores the Arab’s resigned decision to accept his fate, and yet his own indecisiveness allows him also to be swept away by events; he is no better than the Arab at choosing his own future. The text clearly shows that Daru’s behavior is understandable but sterile. In a polarized situation, one must choose between black and white and put aside all the shades of gray that intervene, if one is to have any impact on the situation. . . .
The stories of Exile and the Kingdom reveal the impasse in which Camus found himself with regard to the Algerian situation. His existence as a writer depended on his identity as a Frenchman, yet his experience as an Algerian made liberty his foremost social ideal. There was no political solution to his personal dilemma. Had he lived, he would doubtless have accepted the inevitable tide of events, just as Daru did. But his vision of the trends in society, of the triumph of violence over dialogue, of the state over the individual, is now generally recognized as a relevant indictment of the modern world.
Source: Susan Tarrow, in Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus, The University of Alabama Press, 1985, pp. 173–93.
Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3199
Camus situates this short story in the North African desert at a time when revolutionary violence is about to break out. There are three characters: the schoolmaster Daru, a policeman, and an Arab. Because of the extraordinary circumstances, the policeman hands the Arab prisoner over to Daru, telling him that he is to take the prisoner to the jail in the neighboring town. Finding this task odious, Daru takes the prisoner to a crossroads, gives him food and money, then leaves him, after showing him the road that leads to prison, and the one that will permit him to escape. This gesture is misunderstood by the Arab, who goes off docilely to prison, and by his compatriots who announce that they will take vengeance on the man who has turned in their brother. This story is of interest especially because of the moral and political questions that it raises. This article will attempt to define the role of the numerous descriptions of nature which are also an important element in the story.
In this third person narrative, everything is presented from the point of view of the protagonist. Certain passages allow us to see how, in general, he perceives the country in which he lives, while others deal with the precise settings for the action. These two series of descriptions constitute the essential elements in the creation of a decor which, in our opinion, produces an additional level of meaning and suggests an interpretation which, perhaps, goes beyond the strictly historical framework. In order to identify this level of meaning and arrive at this interpretation, a careful reading of the descriptive passages is essential.
Daru is meditating on the normal appearance of the desert where his school is located: ‘‘In the beginning, the solitude and the silence had been hard for him on these wastelands peopled only by stones.’’ . . . Man has little place in this ‘‘ungrateful’’ and completely mineral country. The ‘‘silence’’ characteristic of an uninhabited region prolongs the notion of ‘‘solitude’’ reinforced by the word ‘‘only.’’ However harsh the country may be, Daru affirms that it is the only place where he can ‘‘really live.’’
The evocations of the seasons associate several new themes with these dominant traits of the countryside:
It would be hard to forget that poverty, that army of ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight, the plateaux burned to a cinder month after month, the earth shriveled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one’s foot. The sheep had died then by thousands and even a few men, here and there, sometimes without anyone’s knowing. . . . And suddenly this snow, without warning, without the foretaste of rain. This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men—who didn’t help matters either. But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else he felt exiled.
Snow had suddenly fallen in mid-October after eight months of drought without the transition of rain. . . . [One had to wait for fair weather.]
When all the snow was melted, the sun would take over again and once more would burn the fields of stone. For days, still, the unchanging sky would shed its dry light on the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man. . . .
‘‘Stone,’’ ‘‘dust’’ and ‘‘dry’’ recall the mineral aspect of the countryside. ‘‘Army,’’ ‘‘bursting,’’ ‘‘died,’’ blow, ‘‘without warning,’’ without . . . respite, ‘‘cruel,’’ brutally, ‘‘without . . . transition’’ and ‘‘would burn’’ introduce the theme of violence; in summer as in winter, the desert is a country of violence.
The image of the sun is surrounded by a constellation of secondary themes. ‘‘Burned to a cinder,’’ ‘‘shriveled up . . . literally scorched,’’ ‘‘would burn,’’ would pour: a violent entity, the sun, moreover, acts with an excessive force on the countryside. It ‘‘takes over,’’ and makes the sky ‘‘unchanging.’’ The text underscores the persistence of the sun’s domination: ‘‘again,’’ ‘‘once more,’’ ‘‘still,’’ ‘‘for days,’’ ‘‘month after month.’’ The sun creates a type of eternity. The countryside appears like a limitless expanse; the domination of the sun also evokes, it seems, the theme of immensity. The vision of thousands of sheep during the period of intense heat, and the metaphorical transformation of men into ‘‘ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight’’ associate the desert under the sun with a world of death. Although he evokes a countryside which is not only ‘‘solitary,’’ but actively hostile to man, Daru insists for a second time that he loves this world.
The descriptions of the desert create a decor characterized by the following elements: mineral countryside, silence, solitude, inhumanity, violence, sun, excess, eternity, immensity, death. Daru feels bound to this inhuman desert by strong sentimental attachments. When he describes the Arab—‘‘his weathered skin now rather discolored by the cold’’— the schoolmaster establishes, probably without being aware of it, a parallel between his guest and the desert, which is also being weathered and discolored by the cold snow.
Daru is plunged into a very particular environment when the policeman arrives with the prisoner:
The schoolmaster was watching the two men climb toward him. . . . They had not yet tackled the abrupt rise leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside. They were toiling onward, making slow progress in the snow, among the stones, on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau. . . . They were following the trail although it had disappeared days ago under a layer of dirty white snow. The schoolmaster calculated that it would take them half an hour to get onto the hill.
They were no longer visible. Hence they must have tackled the rise. The sky was not so dark, for the snow had stopped falling during the night. The morning had opened with a dirty light which had scarcely become brighter as the ceiling of clouds lifted. At two in the afternoon it seemed as if the day was merely beginning. But still this was better than those three days when the thick snow was falling amidst unbroken darkness.
He stepped out onto the terrace in front of the schoolhouse. The two men were now halfway up the slope. . . . He watched them climb. . . . ‘‘Hello,’’ said Daru when they got up onto the terrace. ‘‘Come in and warm up.’’
Daru was looking out the window. Decidedly, the weather was clearing and light was increasing over the snowy plateau. When all the snow was melted, the sun would take over again and once more burn the fields of stone. . . .
Daru is on the ‘‘high plateau’’ of the Sahara. The word ‘‘plateau’’ appears sixteen times in the twelve pages of this short story. A plateau, flat like a plain and raised like a mountain is however neither one nor the other: it is an intermediate region. A series of verbs underscores the position of the schoolmaster relative to the plateau: ‘‘[to] climb,’’ ‘‘had not yet tackled the abrupt rise,’’ ‘‘tackled the rise,’’ ‘‘were now halfway up the slope,’’ ‘‘got up onto.’’ The school where he lives, although ‘‘on the plateau itself’’ is located on a ‘‘hill,’’ not on the summit, but on the ‘‘hillside.’’ The schoolmaster finds himself in an intermediate position on the hill which separates him from yet another intermediate position, the plateau. The school itself is built on a ‘‘terrace,’’ i.e. on a little plateau. In the text, then, two closely related notions describe the geographical situation of the protagonist: separation, intermediate zone.
The description of the weather contributes to the creation of a particular atmosphere. The sky is less dark, the light is dirty, the ceiling of clouds lifts, the weather is clearing, the light is increasing, the snow will be melted: the protagonist is between two climatic conditions. The scene is linked, in Daru’s mind, to the past as well as to the future. The evocation of this moment of detente between two extreme types of weather recalls for a second time the themes of separation and of intermediate zone already implicit in the description of the school’s location. The violence normally associated with the decor has been suspended during the period of transition: the only allusion to this theme—attacked— relates to the men and not the countryside.
The snow which hides the trail is described as a ‘‘dirty white layer’’ neither perfectly clean nor completely transformed by the desert. It is present but about to disappear. The snow changes the nature of the countryside; for example: ‘‘His steps were muffled by the snow. . . . A big stone could be heard rolling softly.’’ The snow mutes the sharp sound of boots on rocky ground as it attenuates the harshness of the stone which, because of it, rolls ‘‘softly.’’ For the moment, the snow neutralizes the countryside’s mineral hardness, a fundamental element of the universe of the desert.
The descriptions of the school’s location, of the weather and of the snow all point out the moral situation of the protagonist. An unwilling guardian of the Arab prisoner, Daru is caught between two loyalties. He must decide between solidarity with the threatened European community, or with the broader human fraternity which motivates him to free the Arab. The themes of neutrality and of separation inherent in the description of the setting, and reinforced by the evocation of ambivalent weather, reflect the neutrality and isolation of a mind which has not yet made a decision. The snow softens the hardness of the countryside; the violence of the blizzard is now at an end, and the sun’s has not yet begun again. Everything is undecided.
The schoolmaster daydreams a little during the day without deciding anything. Then the night comes:
When Daru turned out the light, the darkness seemed to coagulate all of a sudden. Little by little, the night came back to life in the window where the starless sky was stirring gently. . . . A faint wind was prowling around the schoolhouse. Perhaps it would drive away the clouds. . . . During the night, the wind increased. . . .
Blow, ‘‘was prowling’’ and ‘‘would drive away’’ suggest violence; but ‘‘little by little’’ and ‘‘gently’’ are opposed to this suggestion. Each evocation of violence is attenuated:‘‘seemed to coagulate all of a sudden,’’ ‘‘a faint wind was prowling,’’ ‘‘perhaps . . . would drive away.’’ The night’s atmosphere, like the day’s, is neutral. However, the wind, associated with violence, is increasing. The neutrality and indecision are not permanent.
The next morning, Daru is contemplating the countryside before leaving with the Arab:
When he awoke, the sky was clear; the loose window let in a cold, pure air. . . . Then he went through the classroom and out onto the terrace. The sun was already riding in the blue sky; a soft, bright light was bathing the deserted plateau. On the ridge the snow was melting in spots. The stones were about to reappear. . . .
‘‘Terrace,’’ ‘‘plateau,’’ ‘‘ridge’’ and ‘‘snow’’ evoke the neutral decor of the preceding night. But the sky is not ‘‘clear.’’ The light floods the scene: it is already excessive. The snow is melting in a short while, dominated by the rising sun, the countryside will be completely mineral once again. Daru is contemplating a world which is in the process of returning to its normal state: mineral, dominated by the sun, excessive and implicitly—thanks to the associations already established— violent and human. The time of transition is coming to an end. But the air is ‘‘pure,’’ the sky ‘‘blue,’’ the light ‘‘soft and bright.’’ The countryside that is reappearing is the one Daru loves; he sees no threat in it.
At this point, the protagonist decides to refuse all solidarity, both with the Europeans and with the Arab. But the latter has been integrated into the desert by means of two characteristics they have in common: both are weathered and discolored. At the moment that Daru makes his decision, he ‘‘threw a pebble that whistled through the air before sinking into the snow.’’ . . . The plateau is composed exclusively of stone. Symbolically, and certainly without being aware of the meaning implicit in his action, Daru thus rejects the countryside he loves.
Daru leaves the school with the prisoner, then, resting after an hour’s walk, glances at the surrounding countryside:
The snow was melting faster and faster and the sun was drinking up the puddles at once, rapidly cleaning the plateau, which gradually dried and vibrated like the air itself. When they resumed walking, the ground rang under their feet. From time to time a bird rent the space in front of them with a joyful cry. Daru breathed in deeply the fresh morning light. He felt a sort of rapture before the vast, familiar expanse, now almost entirely yellow under its dome of blue sky. . . .
The sun—which is melting the snow, drinking up the puddles, and spreading its light—is beginning to dominate again. The snow is no longer masking the mineral countryside, which is once again ‘‘yellow,’’ ‘‘dry’’ and hard—suggested by ‘‘vibrated’’ and ‘‘rang.’’ The air too is hard: it ‘‘vibrate[s]’’; the birds ‘‘ren[d]’’ it. The countryside is assuming ‘‘faster and faster,’’ ‘‘rapidly,’’ ‘‘at once’’ the appearance of the inhuman desert.
Daru recognizes that this mineral and solar decor is ‘‘familiar.’’ He breathes in the light; he unites himself by deep breaths with the countryside that he loves. From this union comes his ‘‘rapture.’’ When he describes the bird’s cry as joyful,’’ he is probably expressing his own feeling. But he has already noted that the countryside is indifferent to men. Now, it seems to him that a gratuitous happiness in the natural world corresponds to his own joy. Daru believes that he is being united with the countryside without anything in the text suggesting that the countryside is being united with him. The two joys are essentially parallel; the union between Daru and the decor thus established could well be the product of the schoolmaster’s imagination.
The two men finally stop on a flat hill. There, Daru shows the Arab the road leading to prison, then the one leading to freedom. Leaving the choice up to the prisoner, he starts to return to the school:
Daru hesitated. The sun was rather high in the sky and was beginning to beat down on his head. The schoolmaster retraced his steps, at first somewhat uncertainly, then with decision. When he reached the little hill, he was bathed in sweat. He climbed it as fast as he could and stopped, out of breath, at the top. The rock- fields to the south stood out sharply against the blue sky, but on the plain to the east a steamy heat was already rising. And in that slight haze, Daru, with heavy heart, made out the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison. . . .
‘‘Rock,’’ ‘‘sun’’ and ‘‘heat’’ point out that the desert has become mineral and inhuman again. The violence of the decor is now directed against Daru: the sun ‘‘beat[s] down on his head’’ and makes him sweat profusely. The unevenness of the terrain impedes his movements: when he arrives at the top of the hill, he is ‘‘out of breath.’’ At the moment when he sees that the Arab has misunderstood him, Daru finds himself in a world which is both familiar and hostile.
When, a little later, the protagonist learns that he is threatened with revenge, the countryside takes on another aspect:
The schoolmaster was watching the clear light bathing the whole surface of the plateau, but he hardly saw it. . . . Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and, beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone. . . .
This countryside is the normal decor of the protagonist. All the elements are there: the sun suggested by ‘‘light,’’ the mineral landscape evoked by ‘‘plateau.’’ Heights, ‘‘sky’’ . . . , ‘‘the whole surface,’’ ‘‘stretching out’’ and ‘‘vast’’ underscore the immensity of the decor. The image of a ‘‘young light’’ which ‘‘leaps’’ evokes joy. But Daru, who is looking at the countryside without seeing it, does not share in this joy nor in the immense panorama which stretches out before him. The countryside is no longer hostile; it is indifferent. Henceforth, Daru will be an exile in it.
Daru, who loved the desert, identified it with life: only there ‘‘could [he] have really lived.’’ . . . He believed, it seems, that the countryside could resolve the problem which confronted him. The freedom that he gives the Arab is presented in the form of a choice between two human solidarities which intervene between him and the countryside. Daru manifests a tendency which Camus had noted in his Notebooks in May, 1937: ‘‘In our youth, we attach ourselves better to a landscape than to a man.’’
Attached to the desert, Daru was not able to see his situation clearly. The descriptions of the school’s location, of the weather and of the snow have a symbolic value. They show that, as long as the Arab remained with him, the schoolmaster enjoyed a certain freedom of action. But that indecision could not continue. A choice was necessary: Daru had to join with either his threatened community or with a broader and more wretched humanity, represented by the Arab. He refuses to choose, daydreams about the countryside that he loves, and does nothing. Finally, the next morning, he rejects both the European community and the Arab. The similarity between his guest and the countryside plays a prophetic role; because of his refusal to join with the Arab, Daru loses the countryside. Even the gesture which accompanies the decision, the throwing of the stone, indicates that he has set in motion a mechanism which, in the end, exiles him from the country he loves.
The choice imposed on Daru orients the short story toward an underlying theme, the necessity for action. His indecision, when confronted with the need for action, exiles Daru from the comforting state of harmony with an indifferent nature which had satisfied him to that point. In all probability, he will be a victim of the quite human conflict which he could not escape. Whatever the outcome, Daru, a human being, a moral being, could not, without serious consequences for himself, deny his responsibility by identifying himself with a countryside.
The structure of the short story increases the value of the motif of inhumanity inherent in the presentation of the decor. Joy emanates from nature when Daru is joyful, but it also emanates from it when he is profoundly unhappy, overwhelmed by solitude. Daru has gambled on nature instead of on men. He has lost the help which human solidarity offers. The feeling of perfect union with the desert, a countryside after his own heart, has proven to be an illusion. From a certain point of view, this short story, published in 1957, states in esthetic terms one of the essential ideas concerning Camus’s vision of nature, an idea which he formulated as early as 1937 in The Wrong Side and the Right Side: nature, an independent entity, does not lend itself to the schemes of man.
Source: Paul Fortier, ‘‘The Symbolic Decor of ‘The Guest’,’’ translated by Joseph G. Morello, in Essays on Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom, Romance Monographs, Inc., 1980, pp. 203–15. Laurence
Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2835
When I entered the classroom that morning, I was just in time to catch the class wag writing some ‘‘clumsily chalked up words’’ on the blackboard: ‘‘You have handed us a difficult assignment. You will pay for this.’’ She was absolutely right. When I read the papers my students had written defining the theme of Camus’ short story ‘‘The Guest,’’ I found that, though they had sped their arrows bravely, none, in my opinion, had nicked the center of the target. The assignment was more difficult than I had anticipated. I paid by having to write lengthy notes in margins. Yet they were bright students, a selected group, not the usual cross-section of mediocrity.
Although there were scattered unique mistakes (e.g. Daru is an Arab schoolmaster), the misreadings clustered in four areas. I wish to examine these major misinterpretations. But first I must shoot my own arrow.
The protagonist of ‘‘The Guest’’ is Daru, a French Algerian who teaches a one-room school for Arab children in the middle of the bleak Algerian plateau where he was born and which he loves. Into his solitude during a spell of bad weather comes the gendarme Balducci, leading an Arab who has killed his cousin in a dispute over some grain. Balducci insists on handing the prisoner over to Daru for delivery to police headquarters at a village some four hours distant. Daru protests that this is not his job; but Balducci, citing police shorthandedness in the face of an incipient Arab revolt, makes Daru sign for receipt of the prisoner, and departs.
A sensitive, humane, and compassionate man, Daru treats his hostage as a human being rather than as a member of a subject race, as a guest rather than as a prisoner. He unties the Arab’s wrists so that he can drink his hot tea; he refuses to put the rope back on him afterwards; he eats his supper beside the Arab, much to the latter’s surprise, for the Arab is not used to being treated as an equal by a Frenchman; he neglects to keep a pistol near his bed that night, though he has given the Arab a cot in the same room. Even though he is a French civil servant, he rebels against the notion of handing the Arab over to French authorities for trial.
The story centers around Daru’s dilemma. Should he do what Balducci would consider his duty, obey orders, and deliver the prisoner? Or should he follow his own human impulse and give the Arab his freedom? On the one hand, Daru is responsible for the prisoner; he has been given an order; he has signed a receipt. In addition, he is a Frenchman; he will fight against the Arabs if war is declared; for him, as for Balducci, the French are ‘‘us’’ and the Arabs are ‘‘they.’’ Moreover, the Arab is a murderer; and Daru, a peaceable man, cannot repress his wrath against all men who wantonly kill, motivated by hate, spite, or blood lust. But then, on the other hand, the Arab is a human being, and it offends Daru’s ‘‘honor’’ to treat him, however guilty, with anything less than human dignity. Such treatment demands that the Arab should be judged by his own people, not by alien French masters. It also demands that the Arab shall be treated as a ‘‘guest’’ while under Daru’s roof. But this very treatment introduces an additional complication into Daru’s dilemma, and one that is morally irrelevant. The stranger’s presence in his room that night
imposed on him a sort of brotherhood he refused to accept in the present circumstances; yet he was familiar with it. Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue.
A guest, even an unwanted guest, exercises a rationally unjustifiable claim on one’s loyalties.
The necessity of moral choice can be an almost intolerable burden, and Daru several times wishes he were free of it. In the afternoon, when he awakes from his nap, Daru is ‘‘amazed at the unmixed joy he derived from the mere thought the Arab might have fled and that he would be alone with no decision to make.’’ During the night, when the Arab gets up to urinate, Daru at first thinks, ‘‘He is running away. Good riddance!’’ In the morning the Arab’s continued presence irks him. ‘‘He simultaneously cursed his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab who had dared to kill and not managed to get away.’’ But the decision must be made.
Daru solves his dilemma by taking the Arab a two hours’ journey across the plateau to where two ways divide. Giving him a thousand francs and enough food to last for two days, he first points out the way to prison, a two-hour walk, and then the way to freedom, a day’s journey to the pastures where the nomads will take him in and shelter him according to their law. When Daru looks back, later, he sees ‘‘with heavy heart’’ the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison. Still later, back in the classroom, he finds ‘‘clumsily chalked up’’ on the blackboard the words, ‘‘You have handed over our brother. You will pay for this.’’
Camus’ story is about the difficulty, the agony, the complexity, the necessity, the worth, and the thanklessness of moral choice. It tells us that moral choice may be difficult and complex, with no clear distinction between good and evil, and with both rational and irrational, selfish and unselfish claims justifying each course of conduct. It tells us that moral choice is a burden which man would willingly avoid if he could, but also that it is part of the human condition which man cannot evade and remain man. It shows us that man defines himself by moral choice, for Daru makes the choice which the reader wants him to make, and establishes his moral worth thereby. But the story also shows that moral decision has no ulterior meaning, for the universe does not reward it. Not only does the Arab fail to take the freedom offered him, but ironically the Arab’s tribesmen misinterpret Daru’s action and threaten revenge.
In large terms, Daru is representative of moral man, and the desert is representative of the world. Daru is essentially alone in this world, which is ‘‘cruel to live in,’’ and life in it has no overarching or transcendental meaning.
This is the way it was: bare rock covered three quarters of the region. Towns sprang up, flourished, then disappeared; men came by, loved one another or fought bitterly, then died. No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest, mattered.
In Camus’ world man lives alone, makes his moral decisions alone, suffers alone, and dies alone. At the end of the story, in consequence of the very action by which Daru has affirmed his selfhood, he has cut himself off from those he had tried to aid. ‘‘In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.’’ His loneliness is both literal and symbolic.
This account is doubtless incomplete, but it provides a context for discussing the major misinterpretations to which the story seems peculiarly subject. These are as follows:
1. The main conflict is between conscience and society. Daru must choose between doing what he himself believes right and what is expected of him. He must decide between his own standards and society’s.
This interpretation is not so much wrong as it is an oversimplification. It is true that Balducci, the gendarme, is the voice of society, and that by Balducci’s standards Daru’s duty is clear and unequivocal. It is true also that Daru’s immediate human impulse, his individual inner direction, is opposed to Balducci’s concept. But the story is not a fictional counterpart of Emerson’s Self-Reliance or Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, with individual right opposed to social wrong. Actually Daru’s conscience is divided: it is on both sides of this conflict, and so are his loyalties. He does consider it contrary to honor and humanity to hand the prisoner over; but he is also revolted by the Arab’s ‘‘stupid crime,’’ which deserves trial and punishment. He does feel loyalty to the Arab as a member of the human race, but he also feels loyalty to his countrymen, with whom he will fight if war breaks out. What is required of Daru is not simply the courage to resist the pressures of society and do what is right, it is the courage to make a moral decision between alternatives neither of which is right. Balducci is not the representative of shallow social convention, nor is his request unreasonable: it makes sense in terms of ordinary‘‘justice’’ and in terms of the national danger. Balducci, it must be noticed, is not portrayed unsympathetically. Though not so quickly sensitive as Daru, he is a fundamentally decent and kindly man, careful not to ride too fast and hurt the Arab, quick to approve of removing the bonds from the Arab’s wrists, still ashamed, when he thinks of it, of putting a rope on another man. Fond of Daru as he is of his own son, he will not denounce Daru and he trusts Daru to tell the truth. He is representative, moreover, as is Daru, of a government which has tried to educate the Arabs and which provides wheat in times of drought. Daru is reluctant to hurt such a man, and feels remorse when he has done so. Conscience, that is, is on Balducci’s side as well as on the Arab’s.
2. The story concerns the impossibility of isolating oneself from society and from human responsibility. Though a man cannot accept the world, he is inevitably a part of the world. However hard he tries to escape it, the world will break in upon him and compel him to acknowledge its claims.
If my students had not made occasional references to the characters and plot, I would have sworn that some of them were describing Conrad’s Victory. According to this interpretation Daru, like Conrad’s Heyst, disgusted by mankind, feeling wrath ‘‘against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust,’’ has disclaimed human involvements. He thus lives ‘‘almost like a monk’’ in the middle of a bleak plain far from humanity.
Again, this statement of theme is not so much wrong as it is an oversimplification. The story does show the impossibility of escaping human involvement. But Daru has fled neither responsibility nor mankind. He is an employee of the French government. He is engaged in the responsible task of education. In times of drought he distributes wheat, and deals not only with his pupils but with their fathers. If war comes, he will be a soldier, as he has been before, not a deserter. He has chosen this isolated region to live in because he loves it, not because he hates mankind. ‘‘Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.’’ This is the place where he is rooted, not one that he has fled to. If his schoolhouse is remote from human habitation, it is probably so in order to serve all the neighboring villages equally. Moreover, he ‘‘had requested a post in the little town at the base of the foothills’’; it was not his own choice that had assigned him to this more isolated spot, where at first he had found ‘‘the solitude and the silence’’ hard to bear.
3. Daru evades making a decision. Taking the easy way out, he shifts the entire responsibility for decision to the Arab. By thus refusing to become involved in the affairs of men, he rejects their brotherhood, and the consequences of his failure to act are worse than either of the alternative choices would have been.
It is true that Daru several times wishes he might be relieved of the necessity of choice. It is true also, as one perceptive student wrote, that Daru in pointing out the two ways to the Arab, ‘‘was trying to transfer some of the weight of decision from himself to the Arab.’’ Some of the weight— precisely. For Daru is not paralyzed by inaction. He does not simply wait in indecision till the authorities or the Arabs crash in on him. By putting the Arab two hours on his way, by giving him a thousand francs and enough food to last two days, Daru takes positive action. The decision to let the Arab make his own decision is itself a decision. In effect, moreover, Daru is presenting the Arab with his freedom, if he will only take it. That the Arab does not take it leaves Daru with a ‘‘heavy heart,’’ and is an ironical reward for all his trouble and agitation. He needn’t have troubled himself. Except that, by troubling himself, he defines himself as a man, however little the action means to the total cosmos. He has not, like Pilate, washed his hands of evil; rather, in allowing the Arab to make his own choice, he has given the Arab the ultimate freedom—the only real freedom, Camus might say, that men have.
4. The Arab chooses the road to prison because of Daru’s kindness. Responding to Daru’s humane treatment, he feels that it would be dishonorable to violate Daru’s trust. Like Daru he has a moral decision to make for right or wrong, and, like Daru, he chooses right. This decision is a point of honor to him.
If this interpretation is correct, then Daru’s decision has indeed made some impact on the outer world, has meaning, however ironical, beyond a meaning for Daru himself. For this reason the reader who is repulsed by Camus’ bleak portrayal of life is tempted to accept it. But it rests on too little evidence. From the beginning the Arab is pictured as passive, uncomprehending, a little stupid. Though his face has ‘‘a restless and rebellious look,’’ he at no point makes any motion toward attempting to escape. When Daru asks Balducci, ‘‘Is he against us?’’ Balducci replies, ‘‘I don’t think so.’’ A prior attempt to escape, or an act of rebellion, would be necessary to establish a change of attitude on the Arab’s part after Daru’s decision. Instead, his passivity is stressed from the beginning of the story. He first appears, following Balducci, hands bound and head lowered, and the point is made that he not once raises his head. In the schoolroom he squats ‘‘motionless in the same spot’’ and ‘‘without stirring.’’ During the night he makes no attempt to get away or to seize Daru’s pistol, though he might easily have done so. His incomprehension also is emphasized. When Daru asks him why he killed the cousin, he gives an almost inconsequential answer. When Daru asks, ‘‘Are you sorry?’’ the Arab stares at him openmouthed. ‘‘Obviously he did not understand.’’ He sleeps with ‘‘his mouth open’’; the next morning his expression is ‘‘vacant and listless’’; when Daru returns, after the journey has begun, to investigate a noise, the Arab watches ‘‘without seeming to understand’’; when Daru gives him the food and money, he acts ‘‘as if he didn’t know what to do with what was being given him.’’ The Arab is, of course, anxious about his fate at the same time that he seems resigned to it. He wants to know whether Daru is the judge, and whether the gendarme is coming back the next day. He is also warmed by Daru’s humanity; but his response is that he wants Daru to accompany him and Balducci to the police headquarters. Exactly what he is trying to communicate to Daru when Daru finally leaves him is of course a matter of speculation.
The Arab had now turned toward Daru, and a sort of panic was visible in his expression. ‘‘Listen,’’ he said.
But a good guess is that he is trying to repeat his earlier request, ‘‘Come with us.’’ He doesn’t want to be left alone in a hostile world. He wants the man to come with him who has treated him as a human being.
Camus’ ‘‘The Guest’’ is a subtle and complex story. At one level it tells us about the French situation in Algeria between World War II and the Algerian War, a situation as difficult as Daru’s, where also no choices were right ones. But primarily it is less about a political situation than about the human situation. It is about the difficulty, the complexity, the futility, and the glory of human choice.
Source: Laurence Perrine, ‘‘Camus’ ‘The Guest’: A Subtle and Difficult Story,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, no. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 52–8.