(Short Story Criticism)

“The Guest” Albert Camus

Algerian-born French novelist, essayist, dramatist, journalist, short-story writer, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism of Camus's short story “L'hôte” (“The Guest”), which was published in the short-story collection L'exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom) in 1957.

“L'hôte” (“The Guest”) is regarded as Camus's best-known work of short fiction. One of the six stories comprising L'exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom), “The Guest” chronicles the moral conflict of Daru, a schoolteacher assigned to guard and transport an Arab prisoner. Critics assert that the story reflects Camus's interest in the themes of colonialism, alienation, and the tension between justice and freedom.

Plot and Major Characters

The protagonist of “The Guest” is Daru, an Algerian-born French schoolteacher posted to a remote schoolhouse in a bleak Algerian mountain region in the late 1940s, at the outset of the conflict between Algerian nationalists and French colonialists—a conflict that would eventually end with the independence of Algeria from France. Without any students, Daru has been isolated and lonely. One day, a gendarme named Balducci brings an Arab prisoner to the schoolhouse. He explains that the man has been accused of the murder of his cousin and asks Daru to keep the prisoner overnight and deliver him to the police headquarters in Tinguit the next day. Although Daru refuses the responsibility, Balducci leaves the prisoner with him. Daru unshackles the prisoner, makes him tea, prepares dinner, and sets up a comfortable bed for him. At first hostile to the man—he perceives him to be not only a murderer but an Algerian insurgent—he begins to soften and the two men form an easygoing intimacy. The next morning, over breakfast, Daru is faced with an important moral dilemma: Should he do his duty by turning in the Arab prisoner or let him escape for the sake of brotherhood and friendship? At the crossroads, Daru allows the prisoner to choose between captivity or freedom when he leaves him alone on a forked road—one direction leads to police headquarters, the other leads south to the nomads in the desert. As Daru watches, the prisoner chooses the road to police headquarters. With a heavy heart, he returns to his schoolhouse and finds a threatening message on the blackboard: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.”

Major Themes

Critics identify loneliness and alienation as central themes in “The Guest.” Daru's isolation—both geographical and emotional—results in his contact with the Arab prisoner becoming a turning point in his understanding of self. Exile is another major theme; thrust into an untenable situation despite his reservations, Daru is forced to make an impossible moral choice, and he finds himself in exile in his own home. Daru's choice is often viewed as conflict between his feelings of brotherhood and his respect for authority. Commentators also view Daru as representative of a repressive colonial regime who is destined to be replaced by indigenous authority through violence. They also maintain that “The Guest” explores the existential and metaphysical issue of whether justice and freedom—as well as solitude and solidarity—will ever be compatible. Critics perceive the story to be an examination of man's moral responsibility for the fate of his fellow man and man's inhumanity to man in the name of duty and honor. The changing interdynamic between Daru and the Arab prisoner is traced, as critics note that what begins as a captive-captor relationship turns into a guest-host relationship.

Critical Reception

“The Guest” is viewed by critics as a metaphysical parable about the human condition and one of Camus's most enigmatic fictional works. Many commentators have focused on the uneasy conclusion of the story, which leaves the reader to reflect on Daru's moral conflict with the Arab prisoner and what it will cost him in the end. Others have analyzed the baffling decision of the Arab to turn himself in instead of escaping to the south. Most critics contend that the lack of insights into the Arab's motives and the ambiguous ending only deepens the mystery of the story. Several commentators have discussed autobiographical elements of “The Guest”: Camus was a French Algerian, had empathy for the Arab Algerians, and became deeply involved in the intellectual debate over the French-Algerian conflict. A few critics have examined the story in light of the ritual of hospitality, which is so imperative in Arab culture. In fact, it has been noted that the title of the story in French, “L'hôte,” means both guest and host, signaling the ambiguous configuration of power in the guest-host relationship and in the colonial situation.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

L'exil et le royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] 1957

L'envers et l'endroit [The Wrong Side and the Right Side] (essays) 1937

Noces [Nuptials] (essays) 1939

Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays] (essays) 1942

L'étranger [The Stranger; also published as The Outsider] (novel) 1942

Caligula (drama) 1944

Le malentendu [The Misunderstanding; also translated as Cross Purpose] (drama) 1944

La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947

L'etat de siege [The State of Siege] (drama) 1948

Les justes [The Just Assassins] (drama) 1949

L'homme revolté [The Rebel] (essays) 1951

L'eté [Resistance, Rebellion, and Death] (essays) 1954

La chute [The Fall] (novel) 1956

Requiem pour une nonne [adaptor; from the novel Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner] (drama) 1956

Les possédés [adaptor; from the novel The Possessed by Fydor Dostoyevsky] (drama) 1959

Lyrical and Critical Essays (essays) 1967

La mort heureuse [A Happy Death] (novel) 1971

Le premier homme [The First Man] (unfinished novel) 1994

Michael L. Storey (essay date fall 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Storey, Michael L. “The Guests of Frank O'Connor and Albert Camus.” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 3 (fall 1986): 250-62.

[In the following essay, Storey finds similarities between Frank O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation” and Camus's “The Guest.”]

To the casual reader of fiction, the works of Irishman Frank O'Connor and those of Frenchman Albert Camus must seem worlds apart. The heavy, existentialist stories of Camus—The Stranger, The Fall, “The Guest,”—fix him as the serious writer of twentieth-century exile and alienation, whereas the light, humorous stories that O'Connor is best known for—“First Confession,” “The Drunkard,” “My Oedipus Complex,” among others—mark him in the public's eye as the masterful comic writer of Irish realism. All the more odd it is, then, to find two stories—one by each of these writers—that are remarkably similar in theme, setting, plot construction, character portrayal, and tone, as well as in title: O'Connor's “Guests of the Nation” and Camus's “The Guest.”

These two stories have appeared frequently in short-story anthologies, even at times in the same anthology, and yet no critic has ever remarked on the great resemblance that they bear to one another. This lack of critical notice, however, can be explained by the fact that, despite their extensive similarities, “Guests of the Nation” and “The Guest” remain essentially different kinds of stories—a point that I will return to after I have described the similarities in the stories.

Although they take place in different countries and at different periods of time, the two stories have similar backgrounds and settings. O'Connor's story takes place in Ireland during the 1919-21 Anglo-Irish war, one of several Irish uprisings fought to achieve independence from English colonialists. “The Guest” is set in Algeria in the late forties or early fifties, just before the outbreak of hostilities between Algerian nationalists and French colonialists in which Algerian Arabs sought independence from France. Furthermore, both stories are set on or near bleak and isolated terrain, which serves to emphasize the loneliness that the protagonists feel in facing their moral dilemmas. Camus's characters move “on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau”—a “solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man.”1 The climax of O'Connor's story occurs “out in the middle of a blasted bog” that renders the characters “still and silent.”2 Against the bleakness and isolation of plateau and bog, the characters find some refuge in human habitations—a schoolhouse in “The Guest” and a boarding house in “Guests of the Nation.” That neither “house” is just a one-person or a one-family dwelling, that both are designed to serve a broader human community, emphasizes the loneliness and isolation of plateau and bog upon which the protagonists must work out their moral dilemmas.

The two stories are also similar in that their plots are constructed upon the same theme: the development of a relationship between captor and captive from formal hostility to intimacy, resulting in a moral dilemma in which the captor is faced, in dealing with the captive, with choosing between his sense of brotherhood for the captor and his sense of duty toward an authority.

In “The Guest,” a gendarme named Balducci brings an Arab murderer to Daru, the French Algerian schoolmaster, and charges Daru with the duty of delivering the Arab to police headquarters in Tinguit, 20 kilometers away. Daru's initial feelings toward the Arab are mostly hostile, partially because the Arab might be a potential rebel against the French Algerians but mostly because of the Arab's act of murder (“Daru felt a sudden wrath against the man, against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust,” p. 93). Before leaving for Tinguit the next day, Daru must administer to the Arab's basic needs: he makes him tea and cooks his dinner; he sets up a folding bed for the Arab to sleep on during the night; he feeds him breakfast in the morning. Camus dwells on these seemingly insignificant details in order to emphasize their significant role in changing Daru's relationship to the Arab from hostility to intimacy. “Eat,” Daru tells the Arab after placing his dinner in front of him. When the Arab hesitates because he is not used to being served by a Frenchman, Daru tells him politely, “After you. I'll eat too” (p. 99). The intimacy of the meal leads Daru to ask intimate questions of the Arab: “Are you afraid?” “Are you sorry?” (p. 100). The change from hostility to intimacy creates a moral dilemma in Daru, for now he must make the painful choice between duty—delivering the Arab to police headquarters in Tinguit—and brotherhood—allowing the Arab his freedom.

The situation in “Guests of the Nation” is quite similar. Two members of the Irish Republican Army, Bonaparte (the narrator/protagonist) and Noble, are given the responsibility of guarding two English prisoners, Belcher and Hawkins. Although formally hostile adversaries, the Irishmen and Englishmen soon become intimate friends through living together in a boarding house. Besides living, eating, and sleeping in the same house, the four men play cards together and two of them—Noble and Hawkins—argue incessantly about the two favorite and timeworn topics of religion and politics. In addition, Hawkins has learned several Irish dances, and Belcher voluntarily helps the old woman who runs the boarding house in her daily chores. The effect of all of this is the same as in Camus's story: hostility dissolves and an intimacy grows between Irishmen and Englishmen. Then Jeremiah Donovan, Bonaparte's and Noble's superior, brings orders that Belcher and Hawkins are to be shot in retaliation for the executions of Irish prisoners by the English. Bonaparte experiences Daru's moral dilemma of having to make a choice between duty—shooting Hawkins and Belcher—and brotherhood—granting them a more humane fate.

The two stories also resemble one another in their character portrayals of both the protagonists and the minor characters. The protagonists, Daru and Bonaparte, respond in much the same way (although there is at least one important difference) to the situations in which they find themselves. Each man is reluctant to perform the duty required of him; each regrets, because of the dilemma that the intimacy creates, that he has become intimate with the prisoner; each hopes that the prisoner will escape, thereby dissolving the moral dilemma; and, finally, each finds himself at the end, after having made his moral choice, with an extreme sense of aloneness and insignificance.

When Balducci brings the Arab to Daru and explains what is required of the Frenchman, Daru takes on an “obstinate look” and twice tells the gendarme, “I won't hand him [the Arab] over” (p. 95). Despite Daru's refusal to perform his duty, Balducci leaves the Arab with Daru. Daru then goes to his room to lie down, leaving the Arab alone in the classroom with the obvious opportunity for escape. When Daru gets up from his couch, there is no sound coming from the classroom, and the narrator states that Daru “was amazed at the unmixed joy he derived from the mere thought that the Arab might have fled and that he would be alone with no decision to make” (p. 98). But in fact the Arab is still there, and so is Daru's moral dilemma.

During the night, Daru lies awake, realizing that he is bothered by the Arab's presence because he is used to being alone and because the Arab's presence “impos[ed] on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances” (p. 102). In other words, the sense of brotherhood is unwelcome because it creates in him a moral dilemma. Later in the night, Daru sees the Arab get up, and although his first response is to “act at once,” he merely observes the Arab and thinks, “He is running away. … Good riddance!” (p. 103). The prisoner, however, has simply gone outside to relieve himself, and he soon returns to bed. Daru is thus still left with making the moral decision of what to do with the Arab.

Bonaparte is also reluctant to perform the duty required of him, although he is not as adamant as Daru, and he regrets the intimacy with the prisoners into which he and Noble have been drawn. Although he and Noble at first accept “with a natural feeling of responsibility” (p. 17) the task of guarding the two Englishmen, he is very upset when Donovan explains to him that Belcher and Hawkins are being kept hostages and will be shot if the English execute any of the Irish prisoners. “Shoot them?” Bonaparte asks Donovan in astonishment. “Wasn't it very unforeseen of you not to warn Noble and myself of that in the beginning?” (p. 21). His point is that, had they known of this possibility, he and Noble would not have become friendly with the prisoners, just as “[i]f it was only an old dog that was going to the vet's, you'd try and not get too fond of him” (p. 21).

When Donovan brings the orders to execute Belcher and Hawkins, Bonaparte reluctantly joins in. But as they are escorting the prisoners to the bog where they are to be shot and buried, Bonaparte wishes that Belcher and Hawkins would either fight or run. “I knew,” he says, “if they did run for it, that I'd never fire on them” (p. 24). Like the Arab prisoner in “The Guest,” however, the Englishmen neither fight nor attempt to escape. Instead Belcher silently acquiesces to his fate, while Hawkins maintains a steady barrage of questions and arguments that intensify Bonaparte's awareness of his moral dilemma. Bonaparte tells us that Hawkins asks, “Weren't we all chums? Didn't we understand him and didn't he understand us? Did we imagine for an instant that he'd shoot us for all the so-and-so officers in the so-and-so British Army?” (p. 24). Bonaparte is so sickened by his moral dilemma that he cannot answer Hawkins's questions, and he desperately wishes to be relieved of his moral burden: “I was hoping that something would happen; that they'd run for it or that Noble would take over the responsibility from me” (pp. 24-25). Like Daru, however, Bonaparte is not relieved of making his own moral choice in this matter.

An important difference in the responses of Daru and Bonaparte is in the choices they make. Daru figures out (he believes) a way to avoid the moral decision. He takes the Arab to a point on the plateau that slopes to the east and the south. He gives the Arab food and money and tells him that he can choose to walk either east to Tinguit and prison or south to nomads who are bound by their laws to provide him with food and shelter (and thus freedom). He then leaves the Arab and heads back to the schoolhouse. When he lasts sees the Arab, the man is walking eastward, having chosen prison over freedom. Bonaparte, on the other hand, chooses to carry out his duty to his superior, despite the strong feelings of brotherhood for the Englishmen. Although it is Donovan who first shoots Hawkins and Belcher, Bonaparte has to finish off the dying Hawkins with a second shot and thereby participates fully in the execution, even though as he does so, he says, “I didn't seem to know what I was doing” (p. 26).

Despite the different choices that Daru and Bonaparte make, the consequences of the choices are similar in terms of the emotional impact on the protagonists. When Daru looks to see which road the Arab has taken, he sees “with heavy heart” (p. 109) that it is the road to prison, thus suggesting that Daru cannot fully escape feelings of moral responsibility for the Arab's fate. Later, back in the schoolhouse, he reads a chalked message on the blackboard: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this” (p. 109). The implication is that the Arab rebels hold Daru responsible for the Arab's fate. The story then ends with two sentences that describe the emotional impact of his moral choice on Daru: “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” (p. 109). Daru's moral choice has led to feelings of aloneness and insignificance in a vast universe.

Such also is the effect on Bonaparte. When the Irish soldiers return from the bog, the old lady of the boarding house tells them that she knows what they have done to the Englishmen, and she and Noble fall to their knees to pray. But Bonaparte leaves them and stands “at the door, watching the stars and listening to the shrieking of the birds dying out over the bogs” (p. 28). The story ends with Bonaparte attempting to describe his feelings. Noble, he says, saw everything enlarged,

but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.

(pp. 28-29)

Bonaparte's moral decision has led him, like Daru, to experience feelings of aloneness and insignificance in a vast universe.

The minor characters also bear remarkable similarities. Balducci, the “old Corsican” gendarme who has brought the Arab prisoner from El Ameur to Daru's schoolhouse, resembles Jeremiah Donovan, who brings to Bonaparte and Noble the orders calling for the death of the English prisoners. Both Balducci and Donovan insist on the precedence of duty over personal or human considerations, while at the same time claiming a sensitivity to such considerations. Balducci believes that orders must be carried out because of the threat of Arab rebellion. He has done his duty by bringing the Arab to Daru, and he expects Daru to do his by taking the Arab to police headquarters. When Daru balks at the task, Balducci tells him,...

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Moishe Black (essay date spring 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Black, Moishe. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’ as a Ritual Hospitality.” Nottingham French Studies (spring 1989): 39-52.

[In the following essay, Black reads Daru's behavior in “The Guest” as part of the ritual of Arabic and nomadic hospitality.]

Daru's behaviour, first towards the policeman and his Arab prisoner, then towards the Arab alone, has always made me feel that I am watching a ceremony of hospitality acted out, and I wish to explore the possibility of reading Camus's story in that way.1

Four elements in the tale might authorize such an interpretation. Firstly and most obviously, its title. Quilliot (p. 2048) refers to no fewer...

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Susan Léger (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Léger, Susan. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’: The Lessons of an Ending.” French Literature Series 17 (1990): 87-97.

[In the following essay, Léger analyzes the ending of “The Guest,” and considers several critical interpretations of that enigmatic section of the story.]

For most readers of Albert Camus's “L'Hôte,” the story seems to end not with its final words, but with the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph, which brings the narrative events to a dramatic and surprising close: “Et dans cette brume légère, Daru, le coeur serré, découvrit l'Arabe qui cheminait lentement sur la route de la prison” (1623). Daru, the French schoolteacher,...

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Nathan Cervo (essay date spring 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cervo, Nathan. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’.” The Explicator 48, no. 3 (spring 1990): 222-24.

[In the following essay, Cervo asserts that Camus utilizes elements of Roman Catholic, Marxist, and Gnostic dialectic in “The Guest.”]

In Albert Camus's short story “L'hôte” (which is generally translated as “The Guest” in English, although hôte simultaneously means host), the “old gendarme” Balducci (baal, duce: Jehovah) comes from El Ameur (a pun on Semitic el, that is, god, and Latin amor, meaning love) leading a roped, Christlike Arab up the hill to the secular-humanist teacher Daru's...

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David R. Ellison (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ellison, David R. “Summer and Exile and the Kingdom.” In Understanding Albert Camus, pp. 194-99. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Ellison contends that the ultimate lesson of “The Guest” is “that, in some circumstances, the refusal to choose is already a choice.”]

As was the case in “The Adulterous Woman” and in “The Renegade,” the fourth story of the collection “The Guest” takes place in a secluded area of Algeria, far from the cities, their order and their laws. The narrative centers on a man named Daru, a schoolmaster from France who teaches the indigenous children of this...

(The entire section is 1563 words.)

D. F. Hurley (essay date winter 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hurley, D. F. “Looking for the Arab: Reading the Readings of Camus's ‘The Guest’.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 79-93.

[In the following essay, Hurley reviews several interpretations of “The Guest” and argues that contrary to prevailing critical opinion, there is textual evidence that points to the innocence of the Arab prisoner in the story.]

Albert Camus is no longer quite the cultural hero in the Western world that he was both before and, for a time, after his death, but at least one of his stories seems to have achieved a kind of canonical permanence, if 35 years of constant anthologizing constitutes canonical permanence....

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Eberhard Griem (essay date winter 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Griem, Eberhard. “Albert Camus's ‘The Guest’: A New Look at the Prisoner.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 95-8.

[In the following essay, Griem addresses the existentialist dilemma faced by both Daru and the Arab prisoner in “The Guest.”]

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 dim-witted character. In an influential early reading, Laurence Perrine helped establish this view, claiming that “his incomprehension … is emphasized” (“Camus' ‘The Guest’” 57). His...

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Rob Roy McGregor (essay date summer 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McGregor, Rob Roy. “Camus's ‘The Silent Man’ and ‘The Guest’: Depictions of Absurd Awareness.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 307-21.

[In the following essay, McGregor argues that Camus's “The Silent Men” and “The Guest” can be regarded as “companion pieces that symbolically depict unawareness and awareness, respectively, of the distressing state of the absurd human condition as articulated in Le Mythe de Sisyphe.”]

In Le Mythe de Sisyphe,1 Camus commends the profundity of Kierkegaard's perception regarding despair: “[There is] nothing more profound than Kierkegaard's view that despair is not an act...

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Jill Beer (essay date April 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Beer, Jill. “Le regard: Face to Face in Albert Camus's ‘L'Hôte’.” French Studies 56, no. 2 (April 2002): 179-92.

[In the following essay, Beer explores the dynamics of Balducci's and Daru's relationship with the Arab prisoner in “The Guest,” maintaining that Camus is somewhat successful in “dismantling the frontiers which demarcate human relationships, blurring the boundaries between Self and Other and so creating a space where ethical encounter with alterity is possible.”]

Although Camus's short story ‘L'Hôte’ has attracted much attention, the critical gaze has rarely focused on the significance of the regard, the notion of...

(The entire section is 6927 words.)