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“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

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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)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5836

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, “Those are the orders. … In wartime people do all kinds of jobs” (p. 91). Duty is also clear to Donovan. He tells Bonaparte, “If they [the English] shoot our prisoners, we'll shoot theirs” (p. 21). Later, when Hawkins cannot believe the news that he and Belcher are to be killed, Donovan “begins on the usual rigmarole about duty and how unpleasant it is” (p. 24), and just before shooting Belcher he says to him, “You understand that we're only doing our duty?” (p. 27). This latter statement is similar to Balducci's claim to Daru, “I don't like it [duty] either” (p. 95), in its implication that duty is not easy, though necessary.

There are also some important resemblances between the Arab prisoner and the English prisoner Belcher. (Hawkins, the other English prisoner, stands in sharp contrast to both Belcher and the Arab.) Both the Arab and Belcher are silent men in their lack of speech and in their noiseless movements. Bonaparte says that “[i]t took us some time to get used to [Belcher], walking in and out, like a ghost, without a word” (p. 18); and the Arab is described, at one point, as moving in “a quite natural but extraordinarily silent way” (p. 103), and he frequently responds to Daru's questions and comments with silence. The Arab and Belcher are also submissive and tractable, so that their captors have no trouble in controlling or managing them. Bonaparte says that their prisoners were so little trouble that “after the first day or two we gave up all pretence of keeping a close eye on them” (p. 18). The Arab is so submissive that it works against Daru, for when he leaves the Arab alone hoping that he will escape, the Arab makes no effort to do so.

Belcher and the Arab are also alike in their stoic resignation to fate. Although given the opportunity to escape to the nomads, the Arab takes the road to prison where he will pay for his crime. Belcher makes no attempt to escape or fight on the way to his fate, nor does he argue with his captors, as Hawkins does, about the inhumaneness of his execution. Bonaparte says of Belcher that it was “as though whatever unforeseen thing he'd always been waiting for had come at last” (p. 25). Even as Hawkins lies dying and he, himself, is about to be shot, Belcher remains submissive, tractable and uncomplaining, although more talkative. When Donovan asks Belcher if he understands that the Irish soldiers are only doing their duty, Belcher says, “I think you're all good lads, if that's what you mean. I'm not complaining” (pp. 27-28). Ironically, these characteristics of the two prisoners—silence, submissiveness, tractability, and resignation—do not make it any easier for the protagonists to make their decisions or do their jobs. If anything, these characteristics seem to intensify the difficulty of both decision and job.

A final resemblance regarding characterization in the two stories has to do with background characters—the unseen Arabs who leave a chalked message for Daru in “The Guest” and the old woman who runs the boarding house in “Guests of the Nation.” The resemblance here is not in portrayal but in function. Both the unseen Arabs and the old woman are judges who make moral accusations against the protagonists. The message left by the unseen Arabs—“You handed over our brother. You will pay for this” (p. 109)—accuses Daru of deciding the Arab's fate, even though Daru thought he was leaving the decision up to his prisoner. Similarly, the old woman's response to Bonaparte and Noble when they return from executing the prisoners is one of accusation. Twice she says “I heard ye” (p. 28), in effect admonishing them that their deed cannot remain secret and thus unjudged. In essence, the unseen Arabs and the old woman serve as moral judges (although they have other, dissimilar roles as well) who point out to the protagonists the responsibility that they must bear for their moral decisions. The feelings of aloneness and insignificance that the protagonists experience after making their decisions are thus to a great extent triggered by these judges.

The tone of each of these stories can best be described as a fine balance of pathos and irony. Pathos is evoked by the fates of both prisoners and protagonists and irony by the situation that demands a choice but allows for no “right” choice. The pathos and irony are kept in balance because neither O'Connor nor Camus affixes blame; neither allows a note of scorn or moral condemnation for the protagonist or for one or the other of the contending nationalistic forces to enter the story and control the reader's response. Yet neither author suggests that the protagonist has not exercised free will in making his choice. Deprived of moral outrage or scorn, the reader is left with the pathos and irony of the situation.

A final element to be examined for similarities in the stories is the title of each. Such an examination provides a convenient way to comment on the similarities in theme. The word “guest,” which links the two titles, is far richer in its thematic implications than it first appears to be. First of all, as several critics have noted,3 the French title of Camus's story, L'Hote, has a significant ambiguity lacking in the English translation, for l'hote can mean either “guest” or “host,” depending on the context in which it is used. Since Camus's title stands free of any context other than the story, it may refer to either the schoolmaster host, Daru, or to his Arab guest. Moreover, as Showalter has remarked, the ambiguity is compounded because Daru, a Frenchman, is a guest in the Arab's land, thus reversing their roles of guest and host.4 O'Connor's title does not have these ambiguities (“Guests” seems to refer unequivocally, although ironically, to the English prisoners), but the English word “guest” is, in fact, etymologically related to “host”: at one time “host” meant both one who gives and one who receives hospitality. In both stories, then, the theme of intimate relationship between host and guest is subtly suggested by the titles: in Camus's story by the semantic ambiguity of l'hote and in both stories by the etymological relationship of “guest” and “host.”

Furthermore, “guest” and “host” are etymologically related to a number of words that come to mind in discussing the theme shared by the two stories: “hostile” and “hostility,” “hospitable” and “hospitality,” and “hostage.” All of these words, including “guest” and “host,” have the same Indo-European root, ghosti-, and all come into English via one of two Latin words, hostis (stranger, enemy) and hospes (hospitable stranger).5 The etymological development of hostis and hospes parallels the thematic development, in both stories, of the hostile relationship of enemies into a hospitable relationship of host and guest. In O'Connor's story, there is the further development of guests into hostages.6 In short, the titles of the two stories give hints, through etymology, of the complexity of the theme that the stories share.

The extensive similarities in these two stories—all the more remarkable for the differences in the styles and in the usual thematic concerns of O'Connor and Camus—raise the interesting question of whether one writer was influenced by the other. O'Connor's story appeared first, originally in 1931, in the collection Guests of the Nation. O'Connor revised it extensively for More Stories, published in 1954, which, interestingly, was just a few years before Camus published “The Guest” in Exile and the Kingdom (1957). There seems, however, to be no evidence to indicate that Camus was familiar with O'Connor's works,7 let alone any evidence that he had read “Guests of the Nation” and had based “The Guest” on it. Nor does there seem to be a work by another author that could have served as a model for Camus's and O'Connor's stories. How, then, can one account for the similarities?

It is probable that the stories are remarkably alike because O'Connor and Camus wrote out of their own personal experiences with violent struggles for independence. In speculating about the geneses of the stories, it is especially important to note about their personal experiences that both writers developed a view toward the struggles—out of step with the prevailing views—which provided them with the theme shared by “Guests of the Nation” and “The Guest.” Additionally, both writers saw the guest-host relationship within the colonial situation and used it as a structural device for dramatizing the theme.

O'Connor's involvement in the Irish struggle for independence from Britain came not in the 1919-1921 Anglo-Irish war (for which he was too young), but in the Irish Civil War, which followed in 1922-1923. He joined the Irish Republicans in their violent opposition to the Irish Free State government, whose leaders had made a treaty (unacceptable to the Republicans) with the British in 1921. O'Connor worked on the Republicans' publicity staff, writing releases and carrying dispatches. He saw very little fighting, but he was eventually captured by Free State soldiers and incarcerated, first in a small jail and then in the Gormanstown Internment Camp outside Dublin.

O'Connor joined the Republicans rather than the Free Staters because he mistook the Republicans' unwillingness to compromise with the British for idealism. And his early view of the Civil War was, as he reveals in An Only Child, romantically abstract; he viewed the fighting “through a heavy veil of literature”8 so that he was largely unaware of the brutal, inhumane acts of the war. Tomory points out that O'Connor's idealism and romanticism went untested for several months because he was not much involved in the actual fighting.9

Gradually, however, he began to lose his idealistic and romantic view of the conflict. And once he was captured and incarcerated, the idealism and romanticism were completely dispelled. While he was in jail he saw something that revealed to him the cruelty and brutality of both sides and “changed something for ever in [him].” The day before being executed, a young Republican prisoner was beaten so badly by Free State soldiers that his hands and face were like “lump[s] of dough.” The prisoner's crime—“a miserable attempt to burn a widow's house” and pour gasoline on her children—hardly constituted courageous or patriotic behavior. Later, when O'Connor heard some Republican soldiers singing a ballad about the executed Republican, extolling his bravery and patriotism, he protested that he “was sick to death of the worship of martyrdom.”10

After being transferred to the Gormanstown Internment Camp, O'Connor began “to have grave doubts about many of the political ideas [he] had held as gospel,” including the idea that the Republicans represented the only legitimate Irish government. These doubts must have been partly occasioned by the unexpected hospitable treatment that he and other Republican prisoners received at the internment camp from their Free State captors. O'Connor reports that they were provided with sufficient food and shelter and that they were allowed to govern themselves.11 As Tomory puts it, “It was apparent that the Free State government genuinely wished to end hostilities and that it was going out of its way to treat the IRA prisoners humanely.”12 O'Connor's experiences of his captors' humaneness was accompanied by the realization that “the sentimental high-mindedness” of the Republicans “went side by side with an extraordinary inhumanity.”13

It is quite clear that the germs of “Guests of the Nation” can be found in O'Connor's Civil War experiences. O'Connor has noted that while he was in the Gormanstown Internment Camp he “overheard a group of country boys talking about two English soldiers who had been held as hostages and who soon got to know the countryside better than their guards.”14 Furthermore, in his biography of O'Connor, James Matthews cites as a probable source of the story one of the war tales that was frequently related at the time of O'Connor's incarceration—a “tale about two English defectors who had been working on farms for some time before a zealous rebel leader, perhaps even O'Donovan Rossa, took them as spies and ordered their execution.”15 Most important, however, is that the basic situation of the story, in which the hostile relationship between captors and captives gives way to a more friendly, humane, and nearly guest-host relationship, comes not from anything O'Connor overheard, but from what he actually experienced in the internment camp, just as the story's theme of the conflict between humaneness and political principles or duty came to him through experience.

Camus's involvement in the French-Algerian conflict differs markedly from O'Connor's involvement in the Irish struggle for independence. Camus did not join, as O'Connor had, in the military action, either on the side of the French Algerians or on the side of the rebel Arabs. Nor did he give either side his unequivocal moral support. But he did involve himself deeply in the intellectual and political debate that accompanied the fighting. In a series of articles written over the last two decades of his life, “he attempted to see the rights and wrongs of both sides as objectively as possible.”16

Having been born a French Algerian, Camus had a “natural solidarity”17 with the French-Algerian people that never dissolved. But he also developed early in his life a sympathy for the poor Arabs, perhaps because he shared their poverty. Unlike O'Connor, who began as an idealistic Republican and came only gradually to see the rights and wrongs of both sides in the Anglo-Irish conflict, Camus was, from the beginning of his involvement in the French-Algerian dispute, “alert to Algerian realities.”18 Thus, in his writings he described Arab poverty and political oppression and criticized the French-Algerians' refusal to improve the Arabs' conditions, but he also warned of the human miseries that would come about with a violent Arab revolt and decried the acts of violence eventually committed by both sides. In “The Guest,” Camus used his perception that both sides were guilty of inhumane acts in the name of principle and duty to give shape to his protagonist's conflict between a sense of humanity and a sense of duty,19 as O'Connor had done in “Guests of the Nation.”

As for his use of the captive-captor relationship turned guest-host to dramatize the theme in “The Guest,” Camus did not come to it as O'Connor must have: through being himself a prisoner. Rather, long before he wrote “The Guest,” Camus had developed an interest in the dramatic possibilities of the guest-host relationship and had used variations of it in his literary works. For example, in The Plague (1947), Dr. Rieux acts as host to Tarrou, who, if not an adversary in the usual sense, is a threat to Rieux because he carries the deadly plague germs. A more striking example is The Misunderstanding (1944), a play set in a Paris hotel run by a mother and her daughter, who are unaware that their newly arrived guest is, in fact, their long-absent son and brother come home to surprise them with his wealth. In an ironic reversal of the enemy-turned-guest theme, they kill him for his money, only then to learn his identity. It is likely that Camus used the guest-host relationship as a way of dramatizing the colonial situation in “The Guest” because, as these examples suggest and as Showalter contends, he saw the guest-host relationship as “a constant metaphor for all human relationship.”20

The foregoing discussion of O'Connor's and Camus's personal experiences in and attitudes toward colonial conflicts accounts to a large extent, I believe, for the similarities between the two stories. But despite their remarkable resemblance to one another in setting, plot, and character, the stories remain essentially different because they belong to different fictional modes: “Guests of the Nation” is predominantly a realistic, social commentary on the inhumanity of war, whereas “The Guest” is essentially a metaphysical parable about the human condition. In reading O'Connor's story, we are caught up in the immediacy and concreteness of Bonaparte's wartime tragedy. We feel his great anguish first, and only then do we reflect upon the story's existential implications, that is, what it says about the human condition generally. Camus's story, on the other hand, more quickly transcends its time, place, and characters and puts us in mind almost immediately of universal human existence.

This major difference in the fictional modes of the two stories is largely the result of differences in the points of view used by the authors and in the relationships between foreground and background actions in the stories. O'Connor tells his story in the first person, having Bonaparte tell about his experiences in a way that gives an immediacy and vividness to the narrative that is not found in “The Guest,” which is told from the more detached, third-person point of view. O'Connor wants us to be drawn into the concrete, realistic details of the narrative, whereas Camus prefers, for purposes of his parable, to keep us remote from the characters and actions of his story. Moreover, Camus's narrator makes intrusive comments that enhance the parabolical quality of his story. For example, at one point the narrator makes a comment that takes the reader easily from Daru's specific relationship with the Arab to human relationships generally: “Men who share the same room, 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” (p. 102).

There is also a difference in how the two authors relate the foreground actions of their stories to the background actions that contributes to the difference in fictional modes. O'Connor keeps the foreground action of the guest-host relationship closely connected to the colonial war of the background, whereas Camus creates a less definite, more remote connection. O'Connor achieves the close connection simply by making guests and hosts military adversaries in the war that is in progress. In “The Guest,” the connection is not as strong for several reasons: first, the conflict has not actually broken out yet; second, Daru is not a soldier (although he says that he will defend himself if the rebels attack); and third, it is uncertain whether or not the Arab is a rebel (his behavior suggests that he is not, but the blackboard message indicates that he might be). By making a close connection between the Anglo-Irish conflict and Bonaparte's relationship with Belcher and Hawkins, O'Connor roots the social tragedy in the time and place of the story. In “The Guest” the less definite connection between the Arab revolt and Daru's relationship with the Arab allows the reader to see more easily the universal implications of the relationship, rather than keep it rooted in the specific time and place of the story.

Thus we have a case of paradox: two short stories nearly identical in plot, character, setting, tone, and theme, and yet essentially different in fictional mode. It is as if two writers were given an exercise in composing short stories out of the very same materials and yet managed to create two essentially different stories because of their essentially different artistic modes. In this case, the writers have created two masterpieces of the short story.


  1. Albert Camus, “The Guest,” in Exile and the Kingdom, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), pp. 85, 92. Additional page references to the story appear in parentheses in the text.

  2. Frank O'Connor, “Guests of the Nation,” in More Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), p. 25. Additional page references to the story appear in parentheses in the text.

  3. See John K. Simon, “Camus' Kingdom: The Native Host and the Unwanted Guest,” Studies in Short Fiction, 1 (1964), 289; also Lionel Trilling, The Experiences of Literature (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), pp. 794-95.

  4. English Showalter, Jr., “Camus' Mysterious Guests: A Note on the Value of Ambiguity,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1966-1967), 349.

  5. See OED.

  6. Belcher and Hawkins are twice referred to as “hostages.”

  7. O'Connor, on the other hand, apparently knew the works of Camus. Shevawn Lynam records in “A Sparring Partner” that she and O'Connor discussed Camus. See Michael/Frank: Studies on Frank O'Connor, ed. Maurice Sheehy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), p. 90. James Matthews suggests that O'Connor's story has led to some imitations, such as Brendan Behan's The Hostage. See Matthews, Voices: A Life of Frank O'Connor (New York: Atheneum, 1983), p. 72.

  8. Frank O'Connor, An Only Child (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p. 235.

  9. William M. Tomory, Frank O'Connor (Boston: Twayne, 1980), p. 23.

  10. O'Connor, An Only Child, pp. 242-43, 254-55.

  11. Ibid., pp. 246-51.

  12. Tomory, Frank O'Connor, p. 24.

  13. O'Connor, An Only Child, p. 255.

  14. Quoted by Matthews, Voices, p. 392, n. 9.

  15. Ibid., p. 72.

  16. Lev Braun, Witness of Decline: Albert Camus, Moralist of the Absurd (Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974), p. 224.

  17. Albert Camus, “Preface to Algerian Reports,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p. 113.

  18. Ibid., p. 111.

  19. In “Preface to Algerian Reports,” Camus rejects the notion that “one's brother must die rather than one's principles” (p. 113).

  20. Showalter, “Camus' Mysterious Guests,” p. 350.

Moishe Black (essay date spring 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7424

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 than four other titles—‘Sous la neige’, ‘Caïn’, ‘La Loi’ and especially ‘les Hauts Plateaux et le Condamné’—considered by the author before he chose ‘L'Hôte’, and since each one would have made the reader view the story from a different angle, Camus's careful selection means that what he finally chose to stress was the host-guest relationship and, it will be suggested here, hospitality, which is the formal expression of that relationship.2

Of more weight than the title, however, is the text, ten percent of which is devoted to the things Daru says, and especially the things he does, to promote the mental ease and physical well-being of the Arab and Balducci.3 These details—an invitation to go indoors where it is warm, the making up of a bed—do not advance the narrative, and seem trivial until one realizes that they are the words and actions of ritual hospitality.

The other two sources of support for the proposed reading of ‘L'Hôte’ are very different from the foregoing. They are the fact that the story has an Arab setting, and the separate but related fact of its containing a pointed reference to nomads as people who shelter others. Notions of hospitality, though common to many cultures, are especially developed in Arab nations and most of all among the nomads.

Two book-length studies of L'Exil et le royaume fail to deal with this question of Arab and especially nomad hospitality. P. Cryle (Bilan critique …) thinks Camus looks down on Arab ways, to the extent that the relations of Daru and the prisoner are ‘un affrontement symbolique de l'homme civilisé et de l'homme primitif’ (p. 135), where my remarks will tend in quite an opposite direction. Cryle sees Daru's kindnesses stemming from fraternité and solidarité, not from some Arabic mode (hospitality) for expressing these.

E. Showalter (Exiles and Strangers …) enumerates the teacher's kind acts but he, too, invokes fraternity (p. 84), as well as humanism and egalitarianism (pp. 81-82). He does link the sheltering of one's enemy to hospitality (above, n. 1), but the model is a non-Arab one and the argument falters, since, as Showalter admits, this Arab is not Daru's enemy.

(At this writing, the book of essays Albert Camus's ‘L'Exile et le royaume’: The Third Decade, announced by Les Editions Paratexte of Toronto, is not yet in print. The list of contents does not suggest any discussion of hospitality.)

More surprisingly, L. Mailhot's book Albert Camus ou l'imagination du désert does not discuss Camus and Arab culture. It is left to Mailhot's introducer R. Quilliot to make in passing a point which others have missed and which will be developed here at length: in certain writings, says Quilliot, ‘un oeil exercé peut […] découvrir à quel point les valeurs que retient Camus relèvent de la tradition islamique autant que de la tradition grecque: hospitalité et tolérance, passion et indifférence; et la Méditerranée de Camus redevient [un] entrelacs de civilisations nomades, latines et arabes’ (p. X).

‘L'Hôte’, then, is set in the Arab world. Among the peoples of that world, says Sania Hamady in her book Temperament and Character of the Arabs, ‘even the humblest person takes his role as host seriously. … One is judged largely on the basis of the manner in which he receives his guests’ (p. 77). Hamady gives examples—‘a whole ceremony of salutations’ between visitors and the one being visited (pp. 77-78), a host physically putting food in a visitor's mouth (p. 83)—amounting to a code of hospitality with much greater significance for the Arab way of life than the casual welcome of Western countries has for ours.

Camus knew the Arabs and their way of life. He did not have such knowledge automatically by virtue of being a French Algerian, even one of humble background; members of a dominant minority can live in total ignorance of the surrounding majority, a fact which Camus dramatized in Janine, the urban Algerian of ‘La Femme adultère’. On a trip to the interior, Janine really ‘sees’ the Arabs for the first time in her forty-odd years: ‘Elle leur trouvait […] un air de fierté que n'avaient pas les Arabes de sa ville’ (p. 1566). The bus driver says something in Arabic, ‘cette langue qu'elle avait entendue toute sa vie sans jamais la comprendre’ (p. 1562). Camus reproached his fellows for this ignorance about the Arab community: ‘Trop de Français, en Algérie ou ailleurs, l'imaginent par exemple comme une masse amorphe’ (Actuelles III, p. 942).

His knowledge of the Arabs was, by contrast, precise and acquired through conscious effort, particularly in his capacity as a journalist. Thus in 1939 the newspaper Alger républicain sent him to cover a famine in the Kabylia region of north-eastern Algeria, with its Arabized Berber population, and the articles he sent back are replete with facts and figures about agriculture, administration and, incidentally, small, isolated schoolhouses where masters like Daru taught Arab children. On this occasion an Arab companion, ‘me nommant les villages, m'expliquait leur vie’ (p. 928). And in 1945 we again find the reporter, now editor of Combat, spending three weeks on

une randonnée de 2 500 kilomètres sur les côtes et à l'intérieur de l'Algérie, jusqu'à la limite des territoires du Sud.

J'y ai visité aussi bien les villes que les douars les plus reculés.

(p. 941)

The Arab culture which Camus thus came to know, he considered to be a valid one and its members a distinct people. These opinions he maintained in the teeth of the French who, he felt, so far from admiring Arab culture, did not even know there was such a thing:

Sur le plan politique, je voudrais rappeler que le peuple arabe existe. […] il n'est pas cette foule anonyme et misérable, où l'Occidental ne voit rien à respecter ni à défendre. Il s'agit au contraire d'un peuple de grandes traditions et dont les vertus […] sont parmi les premières.

(p. 942)

The present study will show that one of these traditions or virtues to be admired was, in Camus's mind, hospitality, so central to Arab culture. Sania Hamady quotes an earlier authority, S. M. Zwemer, as saying: ‘Hospitality is a virtue which has extended … to the farthest outreach of the Moslem world, and in this grace the Moslems are in many respects an example to other races and religions’ (p. 80). The latter part of this judgment finds a peculiar echo in Camus: ‘Ce peuple n'est pas inférieur […] et nous avons des leçons à prendre chez lui’ (Actuelles III, p. 942).

As stated above, the fourth and final internal element suggesting that ‘L'Hôte’ can be seen as an allegory of hospitality is Daru's reference to how visitors are received by the nomads. We may understand by this word the Bedouins (see Hamady, Larousse and others). The teacher has told the Arab that one road leads to the town and the police, and he is now describing the other option: ‘A un jour de marche d'ici, tu trouveras les pâturages et les premiers nomades. Ils t'accueilleront et t'abriteront selon leur loi’.

Bedouin hospitality is Arab hospitality in its purest, most basic form, for to the Bedouin the practice of this virtue is not merely a ritual but a vital need. Philip Hitti explains why this is so, after first remarking on ‘hospitality which, with fortitude and manliness, is considered one of the supreme virtues of the race’ (p. 13 of The Arabs—A Short History, chapter on the Bedouins). ‘Realization of helplessness in the face of a stubborn and malignant nature’, explains Hitti, ‘develops a feeling for the necessity of one sacred duty: that of hospitality’ (p. 13).

Hamady agrees that this is where all the Arab observances which she is describing had their beginnings: ‘The standards of hospitality … originated with the insecurity that prevails in the desert, rendering the welcoming of a passer-by a sacred duty to the nomad. The host has to provide for his guest …’ (p. 81), while E. J. Byng, in The World of the Arabs, though saying baldly: ‘Hospitality actually is nearer the Bedouin's heart than religion’, does use the phrase ‘Hospitality is sacrosanct’ (pp. 43-44).

‘Sacrosanct’; ‘sacred duty’; ‘the host has to’. These words do not describe custom, they describe prescription. Clearly Camus knew whereof he spoke in having Daru say ‘selon leur loi’. And indeed The Encyclopaedia of Islam confirms that the system of obligations towards a guest, while not part of Islamic law, is ‘an institution of nomadic common law’ (II, 100, article ‘DAKHIL’).

If Camus's openness to Arab culture in general is considerable, his attitude to the Bedouins in particular is little short of idealization.4 Here is Janine again, the day she discovers Algeria:

Elle regardait le campement des nomades. […] Depuis toujours, sur la terre sèche, raclée jusqu'à l'os, de ce pays démesuré, quelques hommes cheminaient sans trêve, qui ne possédaient rien mais ne servaient personne, seigneurs misérables et libres d'un étrange royaume.

(p. 1570)

And in a manuscript version of the last passage quoted from ‘L'Hôte’, these desirable qualities of the Bedouins are specifically linked to their hospitality:

‘[…] Tu trouveras à un jour de marche d'ici les premiers pâturages et les nomades. Ils t'accueilleront. Ils sont pauvres et misérables, mais ils donnent tout à l'hôte’. […]

‘—Ce sont des rois?

‘Oui, dit Pierre [Daru], ce sont des rois’.

(p. 2048)

Thus, to seek in ‘L'Hôte’ for a ritualized drama of hospitality is a reasonable line of inquiry. The steps and components in the ritual can be described as follows:

—When guests arrive, they are greeted. ‘“Salut”, dit Daru, quand ils débouchèrent sur le terre-plein’.

—Guests coming from afar to someone's home are invited to come in. ‘“Entrez vous réchauffer”’.

—That they may do so without delay, they are relieved of the complications which attend an arrival. ‘Daru prit la bride, conduisit la bête vers l'appentis, et revint vers les deux hommes qui l'attendaient maintenant dans l'école’.

—The guests, being in, are taken to the best place in the home, however humble that may be. ‘Il les fit pénétrer dans sa chambre’.

—The host ensures that his guests are made comfortable. ‘“Je vais chauffer la salle de classe, dit-il. Nous y serons plus à l'aise”’. When the three men have moved to the classroom, ‘Daru apporta une chaise’. Confronting the fact that one guest has his hands bound, he suggests: ‘“On peut le délier, peut-être”’. Which is done. (Untying the Arab's hands has several connotations; here, we are discussing physical comfort.)

—The host offers his guests drink. ‘“Je vais vous faire du thé à la menthe”’.

—The host addresses his guests with formal courtesy. When the classroom has been warmed, ‘“Passez á côte”, dit l'instituteur’. (In contrast, Balducci relays this to the Arab as ‘“Viens, toi”’.)

—The host invites the guest to his table and seats him. Balducci has left. ‘“Viens”, dit Daru. L'Arabe se leva et le suivit. Dans la chambre, l'instituteur lui montra une chaise près de la table, sous la fenêtre. L'Arabe prit place’.

—The host invites his guest to partake of food. ‘“Mange”, dit-il’.

—The guest who has come from afar is offered a bed. ‘“C'est ton lit”’.

—The host is at all times the servant of his guests. Daru takes the horse to the shed himself, he does not say to Balducci You can put the horse in the shed. He does not say Here's some tea; help yourselves. ‘Il tendit le verre de thé au prisonnier’; later, ‘il resservit du thé à Balducci, hésita, puis servit à nouveau l'Arabe’. When Daru suggests the Arab's hands be freed, the policeman starts to get up and attend to it, but already Daru ‘s'était agenouillé près de l'Arabe’ to get at the knots; the host has knelt before his guest to give him ease.

This emphasis on the host as servant is sustained. Daru seats the Arab and then in the other's presence takes the role of the menial who prepares supper. When it is ready, ‘il donna de la lumière et servit l'Arabe’. In going to fetch a bed, he does not ask the other man to come along and carry it, or to help set it up, but himself ‘ramena un lit de camp de l'appentis [et] l'étendit’; nor does he dump the blankets nearby, but himself ‘[les] disposa sur le lit de camp’.

—Finally, a guest must not come to harm in his host's dwelling or at his host's hands. Even were there no other factors, Camus sets up a situation in which the teacher, having fed and lodged the Arab, could not conceivably then turn him over to the police.5

Daru is scrupulous in his observance of the ritual. And the ritual fails of its effect!

—When a guest leaves, the host sees him off.

‘Je vais t'accompagner, dit Daru.

—Non, dit Balducci. Ce n'est pas la peine d'être poli. Tu m'as fait un affront’.

Daru tries again.

—A host provides food for a departing guest. Daru ‘fit un paquet avec des biscottes, des dattes et du sucre. […] “Prends”, dit-il’. The host also provides for the guest's continuing safety. ‘Ça, c'est la piste [vers] les premiers nomades. Ils t'accueilleront et t'abriteront’. But the Arab takes ‘la route de la prison’, presumably not the road Daru wanted him to take.

Daru's isolation from both the other men, and from the two opposing camps the other men are being forced to represent, is expressed as a failure of ritual hospitality to achieve its purpose.

To enhance appreciation of the hospitable rite just outlined, let us identify the various artistic, cultural and ethical impulses by which this rite is motivated.


‘L'Hôte’ is a story, and stories have their logic which must not be overlooked in the search for symbols and influences. The Arab is staying the night, so he is given supper and a place to sleep. Next day he will have a long trek, so he is supplied with dates and rusks.

(Not required by the narrative is the act of freeing the Arab's hands. They are tied in front of him, and one can raise a cup to one's lips in that situation.)


It is not necessary to have a special world view in order to relieve an old man of the need to stable his horse or in order to bring hot tea as quickly as possible for two cold, tired travellers. These are spontaneous reactions.


This shapes Daru's hospitality from first to last.

Setting aside the remark Balducci shouts out from some distance away, Daru's ‘Salut’ conforms to the rule among Arabs that ‘the single person must greet a group, … the young man the old’ (Hamady, p. 78). Balducci is ‘le vieux gendarme’.

Much of the Arab code of hospitality could be described as How to receive unexpected travellers. Hamady, though she does discuss expected visitors in an urban setting, is full of precepts worded thus: ‘On arrival from afar, the guest is offered food’ (p. 82, my italics). To understand that for Arab hospitality this situation is the norm and not the exception, is largely to demystify the title ‘L'Hôte’. Two unexpected wayfarers, one a stranger, turn up, Daru automatically issues the invitation ‘Entrez vous réchauffer’, and all the rest follows: it is ‘Je vais vous faire du thé’, ‘ni lui ni son hôte’, and so on. In a Western country it is at least debatable whether a rural policeman and his unknown prisoner, landing without warning on let us say an isolated farmhouse, however well they were treated, would be thought of by the occupants or referred to later as guests. To an Arab, hence in large measure to Camus and the personage Daru, he who comes is a guest by definition. The Encyclopaedia of Islam even refers to a single Arabic word encompassing both ideas: DAKHIL has ‘two particular derived meanings, (1) guest, to whom protection should be assured, and (2) stranger, passing traveller, person of another race’ (II, 100).6

For Daru to take the two comers into his living-quarters is only common sense, since that place is already heated, but that place is also his best, which corresponds to an Arab way: ‘The sitting room is reserved to serve and entertain visitors. [It] is usually the best room in the house’ (Hamady, pp. 79-80). Daru has only the one, all-purpose room for his own use, but such as it is, this room, with its view of the plateau and foothills, is his castle, where he ‘s'était senti un seigneur’, so the words ‘les fit pénétrer dans sa chambre’ (showed them into his room) may be seen as describing a conscious formality of welcome, all the more token since Daru must know that there is not enough space for three and that they will shortly adjourn to the schoolroom.

(No exclusive claim of Arabs to any one manifestation of hospitality is intended; families in France and other countries will often have a room rarely used because set aside for occasions such as formal visits. The object is to show not how Arabic in flavour ‘L'Hôte’ is—though it is, very—but how like a ceremonial of hospitality it is.)

A clearly articulated requirement for an Arab receiving visitors is that ‘the host looks after the comfort of his guest’ (Hamady, p. 78). Thus the author takes space in his narrative to have Daru heat a second room where he and his visitors will be ‘plus à l'aise’, untie a rope chafing the Arab's hands and spread blankets on his guest's bed.

If the requirements of Arab hospitality are made explicit, so is their performance; it is correct behaviour among Arabs to draw attention to the fact that one is being hospitable. This can be achieved by unnecessary verbal utterance such as ‘“Je vais chauffer la salle de classe. […] Nous y serons plus à l'aise”’; ‘“je vais vous faire du thé à la menthe”’; or by such superfluous physical actions as fetching a chair which no one needs.

Closely related to signalizing one's actions is the use of courteous phrases and gestures, evoked earlier. Hamady's presentation of hospitality opens with: ‘Courtesy and decorum are ingrained in the public conduct of the Arab’ (p. 75). Against the background of Hamady's statement we note that ‘Salut’ is Daru's first word to the two arrivals and ‘Entrez’ his next; that when the schoolroom is warm he moves them to it with a ceremonious ‘“Passez à côté”’; that he formally seats the Arab for supper: ‘L'Instituteur lui montra une chaise […] L'Arabe prit place’; and that later he invites him to partake: ‘“Mange”, dit-il’.

Most striking, however, is Daru's asking the Arab ‘“Tu as faim?”’ This inquiry, put to a man who has lately trudged an hour through snow keeping up with a mounted escort, and who is something of a famine victim to begin with, is simply inane, unless seen as a formula of hospitality in which the host ritually ascertains the guest's wishes before preparing him a meal.7

Of the several passages in ‘L'Hôte’ which involve the hospitable offering of food—serving tea, and serving it again; making supper, and serving it; preparing a package of food for the Arab, and giving it—two in particular reflect Arab usages:

a) ‘No matter how short the visit, the guest is never allowed to leave before he is offered some food or drink’ (Hamady, p. 82); so even though Balducci's duties do not permit him to linger at the school, he must be plied with mint tea before he goes.

b) Hamady (p. 82, citing a work by R. Lebkircher and others) explains that ‘often the host will not eat with his guests but will stand by to see that each is amply supplied’; and at supper Daru does exactly that, declining to eat till after his guest has eaten:

Il donna de la lumière et servit l'Arabe: ‘Mange’, dit-il. L'autre prit un morceau de galette, le porta vivement à sa bouche et s'arrêta.

‘Et toi? dit-il.

—Après toi. Je mangerai aussi’.

That such behaviour was intended by Camus as the part of a host, is made even clearer by a manuscript variant: ‘Après toi. Tu es mon hôte’ (p. 2051). Furthermore, the Arab considers this as eating together: ‘—Pourquoi tu manges avec moi?’

Finally, as to Balducci's refusal to let Daru see him off, while it is very human to reject friendly attentions when one is angry, we may note in Hamady that failure to respond to certain hospitable courtesies is, among Arabs, ‘interpreted as a strong indication of enmity or resentment’ (p. 78). Balducci has just accused Daru of letting down the side: ‘Si tu veux nous lâcher, à ton aise’; and enmity is a not inappropriate word here.


Camus had, for ritual behaviour, a feel which Arab custom does not entirely explain. (The function of this behaviour is discussed in item 8, below.)

Rite can be expressed in physical actions, as with the woman of L'Envers et l'endroit who, visiting her own tomb every Sunday at the same hour, ‘entrait dans le petit caveau, refermait soigneusement la porte, et s'agenouillait sur le prie-Dieu’ (p. 47).

Ritual physical gesture is very present in what Daru does for the comfort of Balducci and the Arab, especially in the passages devoted to his preparing supper and his making up an extra bed. Here is the former of the two:

Daru installa deux couverts. Il prit de la farine et de l'huile, pétrit dans un plat une galette et alluma le petit fourneau à butagaz. Pendant que la galette cuisait, il sortit pour ramener de l'appentis du fromage, des oeufs, des dattes et du lait condensé. Quand la galette fut cuite, il la mit à refroidir sur le rebord de la fenêtre, fit chauffer du lait condensé étendu d'eau et, pour finir, battit les oeufs en omelette.

In a piece of writing which the author is known to have changed and cut, how otherwise explain the retention of this relatively long passage which stalls the narrative, than by inferring that for the author Daru's actions have a significance of their own, as with the ritual gestures accompanying the preparation of tea in Japan?8

(A person performing ritual actions wants them to be perfect, and Daru pauses to remove the revolver from his pocket because it is hampering ‘ses mouvements’.)

It is a natural step from ritual and gesture to role-playing: the participants in a ceremony have their assigned roles. In the ceremony of marriage to the physical world, described in Noces, Camus tells how he felt after each lovemaking near Tipasa:

Il y a un sentiment que connaissent les acteurs lorsqu'ils ont conscience d'avoir rempli leur rôle, […] d'avoir fait coïncider leurs gestes et ceux du personnage idéal qu'ils incarnent. […] C'était précisément cela que je ressentais: j'avais bien joué mon rôle. J'avais fait mon métier d'homme.

(p. 60)

At several points in Camus's writings this notion of role-playing is applied specifically to hospitality and to the ritual behaviour to be expected of a host. Curiously, in each case the host is a reluctant one, offering hospitality only because it goes with the role.

The first example is from real life. In a Prague restaurant the author is obliged to sit with a girl whom the waiter has summoned to translate. The author finds the girl repellent, but ‘j'offre un demi parce que je sais mes usages’ (L'Envers et l'endroit, p. 32).

Ceremony, hospitality and rôle-playing are linked, too, in ‘La Pierre qui pousse’, when D'Arrast, taken at his own request to see a poor person's hut, is offered a drink. The householder, like Daru, is having this intruder thrust upon him by authority. Despite his reluctance, and his poverty, the householder accepts his role: the drink is served in a glass, on a tray (p. 1671). Later the drink is referred to by the author-narrator as ‘l'offrande de bienvenue’ (p. 1671), and later still the girl who had served it to d'Arrast is called ‘la fille de son hôte’ (p. 1677).

The most explicit discussion of ‘playing host’, however, is in Le Malentendu. With respect to hospitality this work and ‘L'Hôte’ are like inverted mirror images; they could easily exchange titles.9 In one case, hosts who ought to rejoice in the arrival of their guest want to be paid for having him, and set out to kill him; in the other a host who owes the comer nothing, freely makes him welcome, and sets out to save his life.

Much of Act I Scene v of Le Malentendu is taken up by Marthe's angry defining and restricting of the roles of innkeeper-host and customer-guest. ‘Le prix de pension’, for instance, ‘ne peut pas comprendre l'obligation pour l'hôtelier de répondre aux questions’ (p. 135). In another scene, when she points out that some people would refuse to stay in a place with no running water, it is her brother's turn to say: ‘Vous êtes singulière. […] Ce n'est pas le rôle de l'hôtelier de mettre en valeur les défectuosités de son installation’ (p. 147, my italics).

Camus's fascination with hospitality and rôle-playing culminates in ‘L'Hôte’, where Daru's conscientious and to some extent ritualized performance of that which a host may be expected to do, is a desperate response to a terribly difficult situation.


As distinct from Arab custom which is an extension of them, nomadic hospitality laws centre around the obligation to give protection against enemies to anyone who has approached your tent and requested such protection. Immediate comfort, yes: the nomadic host, receiving the weary wayfarer, must ‘help to restore his strength’ (Hamady, p. 81); ‘Entrez vous réchauffer’, says Daru, and he quickly brings hot tea. Sustenance and a bed, indeed yes: ‘Hospitality is highly regarded by the desert Arabs, and a stranger travelling in the desert is offered lodging and the best food available’ (Encyclopaedia of Islam, III, 1017, article IDJÄRA). But first of all, protection.

This law is reflected in two major components of Camus's story. The first is Daru's refusal to hand the Arab over to the authorities. In a Western country, the narrator's explanation of such a decision might be: He felt compassion for the Arab, or He was hostile to the social system and felt guilty towards the Arab, but not: ‘le livrer était contraire à l'honneur’. To invoke honour in this context is entirely nomadic. ‘To refuse a guest [hospitality] or to harm him after accepting him as a guest, is an offense … against the established mores and honour’, says P. Hitti in speaking of the Bedouin (p. 13). ‘It was a point of honour to protect the djär [the traveller one had agreed to shelter] as effectively as one protected one's own kin’, reports the Encyclopaedia of Islam (III, 1017, IDJÄRA).10

The second item follows from the first: Daru tries to ensure that the hospitable protection which he can provide only briefly will be prolonged by others, and he chooses people renowned precisely for that: the nomads, he assures the Arab, ‘t'abriteront’.

The one thing Daru does not say, though all authorities on Arab culture point it out, is that poverty has forced the Bedouins to put a customary time limit on their hospitality: three days as to food, with a further three days of protection. One's mind boggles at the thought of a disgruntled Arab trudging into the Tinguit police station a week later, calling down curses on schoolmasters who neglect to mention important details.


Camus's lifelong fascination with the symbols of human justice needs no demonstration here. One has but to think of Les Justes, Caligula, L'Étranger, Réflexions sur la guillotine, with their parade of judges, trials, prisons, sentencings and instruments of legal death. ‘L'Hôte’, with its vocabulary of gendarme, prisonnier, corde, revolver, juge (‘C'est toi le juge?’), police, prison, fits entirely into this stream of Camus's thought. The general attitude seems to be that all the trappings of formal justice, even when applied to ‘real’ criminals such as Meursault or the Arab, are hopelessly wide of the mark. In place of ‘la Force et la Violence’ (L'Eté, p. 841), in place of prisons and executions, Camus offers, against all the evidence, ‘sa foi tranquille en l'homme’ (p. 844). It follows that you do not kill or imprison men if, like Daru, you have a choice. To this deep faith must be added a no less visceral reaction against any affront to human dignity.

It is perfectly possible to see some of Daru's ‘hospitable’ actions as reflecting these attitudes. ‘Mettre une corde à un homme, […] on a honte’, says Balducci. ‘Mais on ne peut pas les laisser faire’. Daru's reasoning stops at ‘on a honte’; when one man puts ropes around another, both are degraded, so he unties the Arab's hands. He is furious at the Arab for his crime, furious ‘contre tous les hommes et leur sale méchanceté’, but where human justice says—Judge the Arab, jail him, put him to death, Daru implicitly replies—No, human life and freedom are overriding; and he refuses to escort the Arab to the police.

Nevertheless, if the moral concern in these two instances is with dignity, freedom and life, the mode for expressing that concern is hospitality: the context for the rope being untied is the serving of a hot drink to travellers; Daru's civil disobedience, his refusal to hand over the prisoner, is articulated as: ‘Le livrer était contraire à l'honneur’; it has already been shown that honour in this case can only refer to hospitality and the obligation to protect a guest.


The surprise expressed by the guest in asking ‘—“Pourquoi tu manges avec moi?”’ is ample reminder that waiting hand and foot on an Arab and seating him at their supper-table was not a typical behaviour among colons. When Daru replies ‘—“J'ai faim”’, as though the thrust of the question had been ‘Pourquoi tu manges?’ and not ‘Pourquoi […] avec moi?’, it is tempting to say that Camus was an egalitarian, for the word brings with it a ready-made vocabulary. Camus's attitude to others goes deeper than that, however, and amounts to a refusal to differentiate, on irrelevant grounds such as race, not merely between other person A (Arab) and other person B (conveniently Balducci), but between either of those and his own self, as though others were an extension of himself.

So it is that not only does Daru think of the murder simply as ‘le crime imbécile de cet homme’ (my italics); not only is Daru's reception of the Arab no different from his reception of his fellow-European Balducci (Daru is on tu terms with the policeman, yet all his hospitable utterances, as long as he has two guests, are addressed to both: ‘Entrez vous réchauffer’, ‘Passez à côté’, ‘Je vais vous faire du thé’); but also when Balducci has left, Daru treats the Arab as he treats himself: the same supper, eaten at the same table, the Arab served first because he happens to be a guest, a comparable bed in the same room.

An adequate word for all this is not égalité, nor even Camus's own word, used in the story, fraternité, but something more akin to identité: ‘Caractère de deux êtres […] qui ne constituent qu'un seul et même être’ (Gr. Dict. Encycl. Larousse). Camus several times renews John Donne's theme of the oneness of mankind (‘No man is an island …’), as when he writes in ‘Démocratie et dictature universelles’: ‘Nous savons aujourd'hui qu'il n'y a plus d'îles et que les frontières sont vaines, […] que l'injure faite à un étudiant de Prague frappait en même temps l'ouvrier de Clichy. […] Il n'est plus une seule souffrance, isolée, une seule torture en ce monde qui ne se répercute dans notre vie’ (Actuelles I, p. 341). In this view the true ‘ambiguity’ of the title ‘L'Hôte’ is not that it might mean now the guest and now the host, but that host and guest are ‘one flesh’.11


‘Aux yeux de Camus, ce qui fait la valeur de l'homme, c'est précisément qu'il affirme, en face de l'univers naturel, un ordre humain […] qui seul rend la vie tolérable’ (Brée and Markow-Totévy, p. 121, introduction to ‘L'Hôte’). To a harsh world, where nature was ‘cruel à vivre’ and men ‘n'arrangeaient rien’ (made things no better), a man, Daru, brings what humanity and meaning he can. His mechanism for doing so is hospitality, which replaces chaos with form and ritual, and for harshness substitutes warmth: this particular ritual involves ministering to others.

Such a mode of thinking also carries with it a limit on hospitality: a person choosing to overlay a pattern on the world must leave others free to make—or not make—similar choices. Daru has had enough of desert history, in which ‘seul le plus fort imposait […] ses lois’ (ms. variant of ‘L'Hôte’, p. 2052); hence, when the Arab asks Daru to come with him and Balducci, to face the authorities,12 even though this request comes from a guest, Daru firmly rejects it in favour of making the Arab go freely to prison or freely choose escape, and confining his hospitality to putting escape within reach. The Arab is arguably unequipped for such a choice, but Daru persists.

Existential thought very possibly shapes the story's ending as well. Critics have advanced a great many social and psychological explanations for the Arab not choosing the road to freedom, but the real reason is probably that it did not suit the author's purpose. In a universe absurd at best, actively hostile at worst, a man may impose his hospitality with its pattern and its humaneness all he likes, the absurdity and the hostility will get the upper hand. Daru knows this, realises that ‘peut-être le silence seul lui répondrait’ (same ms. variant), but at any rate he will have tried.

All eight of these influences, and no doubt others too, weave in and out to form a particular blend of hospitality which is Camus's own. There is no suggestion intended in this study that if ‘L'Hôte’ is ‘about’ hospitality then it cannot be ‘about’ Arab culture or human justice or something else. It is an extraordinary tribute to Camus's art that several major interpretations of the story are mutually sustaining rather than mutually exclusive. The purpose here has been merely to see whether, encouraged by the title, the non-narrative portions of the text, and the allusions to Arabs and Nomads who are famed for their treatment of guests, one might achieve a valid additional understanding of ‘L'Hôte’ by looking at it as a ceremony of hospitality.

Students, asked why the Arab chooses the road to prison, invariably include among their suggestions this: Daru has been good to the Arab and now the Arab wants to repay the kindness. He knows his benefactor will be in trouble with the authorities if he, the Arab, escapes.13 And indeed there is in Arab tradition a reciprocal responsibility of guests: ‘“The house in which you eat, don't pray for its destruction”, … it is one's duty to return the liberality in some way or other’ (Hamady, p. 83).

My view is that the extent to which the Arab accepts Daru's hospitality, hence the extent of the Arab's role as guest other than passive recipient, is a vague concern that his host should eat too (‘“Et toi?”’), a general grasp of the fact that this man (Daru) is well disposed towards him and a consequent appeal for Daru to come with him and help him face the authorities. The Arab is not able or willing to handle the choice Daru has confronted him with; there is a reasonable doubt whether he even understands it. Daru's hospitality is not adequate to overcome the dumb stupidity of a world where ignorant men kill their cousin over a debt of grain ‘because’ the cousin ran away, much less the calculated viciousness of people who deliberately misinterpret for political ends what someone else has done. (‘“Tu as livré notre frère”’.)

If the Arab is a passive guest, it is logically possible to say that Daru is at fault, carrying out his hospitable ritual (including not turning in the prisoner) without communicating to the recipient what he is doing, or in what spirit, more concerned with making his own behaviour conform to an ideal than with the Arab as a person. True hospitality, one could argue, requires two active participants.

Yet if the Arab did understand, and did choose freedom, would the ending be that different? Daru would still have the French authorities to answer to, Arab activists could still ‘misunderstand’ and claim their brother had escaped from the evil Frenchman, Daru would still be isolated from both camps, and the ritual hospitality-play would still turn to tragedy.


  1. The nearest I have found to previous treatments of this subject are a paragraph in Perrine: ‘… Daru treats his hostage … as a guest’ (p. 52), enumerating the teacher's host-like actions; and a discussion in Showalter (pp. 73-74) of the literary topos: Host shelters enemy ‘in accordance with the laws of hospitality’ as reflected in ‘L'Hôte’. Relevant individual remarks, by these two and others, will be noted.

  2. Brée remarks that in general each of Camus's titles has ‘a concealed relationship to the theme’ of that particular work (p. 45). Those writing specifically about ‘L'Hôte’ acknowledge their awareness of its title merely by a) using it themselves: ‘Daru and his Arab guest’ (Grobe, p. 357); ‘The Native Host and an Unwanted Guest’ (Simon, p. 289) or b) pointing out that hôte has two meanings (almost everyone) and, in a few cases, guessing at the significance of this: in Camus's ethical world ‘tout semble ambigu’ (Baker et al., p. 181) or, there are two protagonists and ‘Daru n'est pas seul centre de l'intérêt’ (Cryle, p. 124).

    E. Sterling shows how to read ‘L'Hôte’ in the light of one of the titles that were discarded: ‘A Story of Cain: Another look at L'Hôte’; but only B. F. Bart bluntly states that the subject of the story is implied in the title that was kept: ‘the tale … deals with the relationship of host and guest’; and as Bart is simply introducing the text, he does not pursue his idea (p. 51).

  3. Deciding which groups of words describe hospitable actions involves subjective judgment, but the attempt was made and the figure arrived at was 55 out of 545 lines of text.

  4. A well-established progression. All three of the authorities on Arab culture cited in this article, Hamady, Hitti, Byng, consider the Bedouin as the ultimate Arab: free, proud, hospitable.

  5. Cf. Perrine: to accord the Arab human dignity requires ‘that the Arab shall be treated as a “guest” while under Daru's roof. … A guest, even an unwanted guest, exercises a rationally unjustifiable claim on one's loyalties’ (p. 53).

  6. Mailhot sees Janine of ‘La Femme Adultère’ and d'Arrast of ‘La Pierre qui pousse’ as being, at the outset, guests in the sense of passive outsiders. ‘Ils sont dépaysés, exilés, transplantés au Sahara ou au Brésil, “hôtes” reçus qui deviendront actifs, disponibles’ (p. 350).

  7. At least Daru has plenty of food to offer. For an example of someone who has not, but who still follows Arab precept that the poorest host must give his best to the visitor, there is a parallel passage in ‘Les Muets’: Yvars, a worker with not much in his lunchbag because the men are on strike, shares his sandwich with fellow-worker Saïd who has even less (p. 1605).

  8. Showalter (p. 80 and p. 82) refers to the ritual in ‘L'Hôte’, but not related to hospitality.

  9. Cf. Brisville's reference to ‘L'Hôte’ as the ‘histoire d'un malentendu’ (p. 75), and Sterling's remark that the title ‘L'Hôte’ creates ‘referential continuity with Le Malentendu’ (p. 525, n. 4).

  10. In a broader context, Camus had written that ‘l'honneur et ses souffrances, a longtemps été une vertu traditionnelle du monde arabe’ (‘Les Sources du terrorisme’, p. 1867). His wording suggests that, as in Daru's case, honour has occasionally to be paid for. For a differing view of honour, see Sterling, p. 527.

  11. Cf. Grobe: ‘Daru and his guest are to a significant extent spiritual doubles’ (p. 357).

  12. ‘Nous’, in the Arab's ‘Viens avec nous’, means ‘me [the Arab] and Balducci’, who the Arab thinks will be coming back to retrieve him. There have been other readings (on this, see Perrine, pp. 57-58).

  13. For a presentation of the Arab's decision as an altruistic one, see Womack and Heck.

    My own list of possible reasons, for what the Arab does, includes: the author's existential thought, hence artistic need, discussed; incomprehension at some deep level; fear of the unknown (a sedentary Arab would find the Nomads alien); colonial dependency (the authorities will take care of it, of me); unwillingness to be a hunted man thereafter; and especially Arab fatalism (‘a dominant belief in the influence of predestination and fatalism. [An Arab does not know he can] contribute towards shaping his destiny’ (Hamady, p. 185).) Arab culture and existentialism are a total mismatch.

    For surveys of the Arab's ‘reasons’, see Cryle, pp. 129-131, and Showalter, pp. 76-79.

Works Cited

1. Works by Camus: in all cases, the two-volume Pléiade edition (Gallimard Calmann Lévy) was used:

‘L'Hôte’ (including the manuscript variants and a note by R. Quilliot), ‘La Femme adultère’, ‘La Pierre qui pousse’ and ‘Les Muets’, all from L'Exil et le royaume; and Le Malentendu, are in vol. I, Théâtre-Récits-Nouvelles, 1962. Page numbers for ‘L'Hôte’ have been omitted as too distracting.

Actuelles I, Actuelles III, L'Envers et l'endroit, Noces, L'Eté and Les Sources du terrorisme are all in vol. II, Essais, 1965.

2. Works about Camus—books:

Brisville, Jean-Claude, Camus, Paris: Gallimard, 1959 (‘La Bibliothèque idéale’).

Cryle, Peter, Bilan critique: ‘L'Exil et le royaume’ d'Albert Camus, essai d'analyse, Paris: Lettres Modernes, Minard, 1973.

Mailhot, Laurent, Albert Camus ou l'imagination du désert, Montréal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1973, and its introduction by R. Quilliot.

Showalter Jr., English, Exiles and Strangers, a Reading of Camus's ‘Exile and the Kingdom’, Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1984.

3. Works about Camus—articles, introductions to texts of Camus:

Baker, Lucia F. et al., introduction to ‘L'Hôte’, in Lectures littéraires, 2ème édition, New York: Random, 1985.

Bart, Benjamin F., introduction to ‘L'Hôte’, in Albert Camus, L'Exil et le royaume, nouvelles, New York: Scribner's, 1965.

Brée, Germaine, Albert Camus, ‘Columbia Essays on Modern Writers’ no. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Brée, Germaine, and Georges Markow-Totevy, introduction to ‘L'Hôte’ in Contes et Nouvelles 1950-1970, revised edition, New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1970.

Grobe, Edwin P., ‘The Psychological Structure of Camus's L'Hôte’, French Review, vol. 40, no. 3, December 1966, pp. 357-367.

Perrine, Laurence, ‘Camus's The Guest, a Subtle and Difficult Story’, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1963, pp. 52-58.

Simon, John K. ‘Camus's Kingdom: the Native Host and an Unwanted Guest’, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 1, no. 4, Summer 1964, pp. 289-291.

Sterling, Elwyn F., ‘A Story of Cain: Another Look at L'Hôte’, French review, vol. 54, no. 4, March 1981, pp. 524-529.

Womack, William R. and Francis S. Heck, ‘A Note on Camus's The Guest’, The International Fiction Review, vol. 2, no. 2, July 1975, pp. 163-165.

4. Studies of the Arabs and Nomads—books, encyclopaedia:

Byng, Edward J., The World of the Arabs, Boston: Little, Brown, 1944.

Hamady, Sania, Temperament and Character of the Arabs, New York: Twayne, 1960.

Hitti, Philip K., The Arabs, a Short History, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1943.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition, ed. B. Lewis and others, Leiden: E.J. Brill and London: Luzac & Co., vols. II, 1965 and III, 1971.

Susan Léger (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4476

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, turns back to see that the Arab prisoner, to whom he has shown the road to freedom, has chosen instead to go on in another direction. The reader has expected, even hoped with Daru, that the Arab would head south to take refuge with the nomads in the desert. With the discovery that the prisoner is heading for the prison, the reader is baffled. Until now, the story had centered on Daru's dilemma about what to do with his strange guest. At this point, the reader is made to focus instead on the Arab's enigmatic choice.

The concluding paragraph of “L'Hôte” takes us back to the schoolhouse on the hill. The teacher is standing alone, gazing out of the window of his classroom. Behind him on the blackboard is an inscription which reads: “Tu as livré notre frère. Tu paieras” (1623).

Most commentaries on this last paragraph treat it as a sort of addendum to the story, as an epilogue rather than its real ending. The fact that Daru may die for something he has not done is taken by some critics as an ironic twist to an already ambiguous situation. Others maintain that the introduction of the Arab's “brothers” so late in the story produces inconsistencies in the story line. Why does Daru become a target now, when he was willing to liberate the Arab anytime during the previous twenty-four hours? Still others find the ending ideologically unacceptable. Maurice Roelens, for one, objects that after the Arab's remarkable action readers are obliged to look once again at the Frenchman: “le drame du colon vient au premier plan, le regard se fixe sur une dernière image complaisante, celle du Français d'Algérie …” (16).

The Arab's decision to go to prison is, on the face of it, so incomprehensible that we should not be surprised that readers resist, even resent, the return to the classroom at the close of the story. We should not be surprised either if so many critics have made it their main task to account for the Arab's behavior. The story provides so few clues, however, and contains so many ambiguities, that there has been little agreement about the Arab's motives. After a summary of the principal explanations, English Showalter concludes, fairly I think, that “none is entirely without flaws, and none can be demonstrated false. Camus surely intended it that way” (78).

Camus presents us with a riddle for which no solution seems forthcoming. Far from providing any further insights into either Daru's or the Arab's previous actions, the final paragraph only deepens the mystery. Showalter insists that a valid reading of the story must “focus on the error” (79), as he calls it, that Daru has made in judging his guest. Focussing on this so-called “error in judgment” would require further conjecture about the Arab's character and frame of mind, obliging us to return ultimately to the Arab's decision. Once again we would exclude from our reading the final paragraph and the illuminations it brings to the narrative as a whole.

We are left with two troubling questions: 1) why does Camus leave us with the riddle of the Arab? and, 2) why does the end of the narrative, rather than offer a solution, compound this riddle by the addition of a cruel irony? These two questions lead to a third that is even more perplexing: Why, in spite of these obstacles to understanding, does the story make for such pleasurable reading?

Some preliminary reflections on endings in general are in order here. In his Dictionary of Narratology, Gerald Prince gives this definition for the “end” of a narrative: “the final incident in a plot or action. … The end functions as the (partial) condition, the magnetizing force, the organizing principle of narrative” (26). In the abstract, the notion of ending seems unproblematic enough, but in practice, real endings often pose problems for readers. Porter Abbott begins a recent essay on textual categories with this refreshing reminder:

Because it is made up, a story ends where it ends. … When students come up after class to ask if Lady Brett Ashley or Jake Barnes is going to commit suicide, we ask them to unask the question. … in Hemingway's story, as in any story, the last event is the last one the author chooses to give us.


The reader's task, of course, is not to disregard the ending or to go beyond it and invent a new one, but to ask: why this ending, to this particular story?

Genette would have us consider the end of any story its most important narrative unit. In his view, the ending is not where we stop, but rather, where we are to begin, inasmuch as the final sequence in any narrative determines and explains, retrospectively, the function of all the preceding elements of the story. If for the reader the events of La Princesse de Clèves, to use Genette's example, lead to Mme de Clèves's refusal to marry Nemours, the opposite is true for the author and, in a sense, for the reader who wants to make sense of the story. Since the refusal follows from earlier narrative events, we would do better to begin by asking what function these events serve in the story rather than what they mean. That is to say, we should look at the events in a story not, as some may be inclined to do, by accounting for the second by the first, the third by the second, and so forth. We should, rather, want to explain the first in terms of the second, the second in terms of the third, and so on. For it is a simple, operative fact that the final event or unité du récit “est celle qui commande toutes les autres, et que rien ne commande: lieu essentiel de l'arbitraire …” (94). It is the ending that gives meaning to all the events which came before, and it follows that if the end of a story changes, its meaning changes. Roger Quilliot, commenting on the addition of the last paragraph to the second version of “L'Hôte,” underscores the importance of this revision: “on peut donc dire, sans abus de language, que la signification de la nouvelle a partiellement changé du manuscrit à l'édition définitive” (2049).

My question about Camus's story is this: how is our understanding of it changed when we view its conclusion not as the end of the story but the beginning of the retrospective sequence of narrative elements that make it up? If the last paragraph is the point to which the text leads us, then all the earlier events in the story contribute to the preparation for this final scene. It is not the Arab's decision that generates or causes the writing on the blackboard; it is the writing on the blackboard that presupposes the Arab's decision to go to prison. Without the Arab's return to prison, the final scene could not occur. Had the Arab taken the road to freedom, there would have been no final paragraph, or, for that matter, perhaps no story at all.

In Genette's analysis, the motivation for any event in a story serves to “cover up” that event's function in the narrative: “le d'où cela vient-il? sert à faire oublier le à quoi cela sert-il?” (90). The range of motivations that readers have alleged for the Arab's choice of prison amply proves how effective this kind of cover-up can be with respect to the story's structure. The Arab's turn toward prison must be comprehensible, while causing heartbreak for Daru and surprise for the reader. It must be motivated in the story so that it effectively conceals its own usefulness in preparing the final paragraph. In order for the Arab's choice to perform its function in the narrative the reasons for this choice must be ambiguous, but clearly so.

At the beginning of the final paragraph, readers must be able to accept both the Arab's act and their own inability to comprehend it. In order for the story to work, in other words, readers must proceed to the conclusion with no certainties, while feeling at the same time that nothing is missing from the story. As in a good mystery, all the pieces of the puzzle are provided, in the final paragraph they are all assembled and we are given a clear-cut answer: neither Daru, nor the reader, understands what happened. The story does not provide any answers, but it does not leave any dangling questions either. We know that we do not know why the Arab went off to prison. This acceptance of our lack of knowledge about the reasons is essential, I believe, to the way Camus's “L'Hôte” makes its point.

Instead of speculating about why the Arab has done what he has, we might do better to take stock of what we do know with certainty when we arrive at the story's final paragraph. In addressing this question, I would like to focus on the second sentence of the final paragraph. If Daru is looking out the window without seeing anything, it is because: “Derrière lui, sur le tableau noir, entre les méandres des fleuves français s'étalait, tracée à la craie par une main malhabile, l'inscription qu'il venait de lire: Tu as livré notre frère. Tu paieras.”

“Derrière lui”: the sentence begins by reminding us that Daru is no longer looking at what the narrator is about to show us.1 This is one of the few points in the story where the narrator's view does not coincide with Daru's. We are, in fact, emerging here from one of the few narrative gaps in the story. We have not walked with Daru back to the schoolhouse, nor do we read the writing on the blackboard simultaneously with him. We are obliged to imagine what Daru's reaction must have been to the chalked message, but we do not read it at the same time, or from the same place, or with the same reaction. At this critical point at the close of the story, our viewpoint is effectively detached from Daru's. His back is turned to us. For him, the story is over.

Before we read the inscription, however, or even know exactly what it is we are going to see, we are given two further indications as to the precise point where we must focus our attention: “sur le tableau noir, entre les méandres des fleuves francais.” These two prepositional phrases take us back to the geography lesson at the very beginning of the story. A river map of France is the first thing we see in the schoolhouse. As Daru walks across the classroom in search of a sweater, the narrator describes what is on the blackboard: “[Il] traversa la salle de classe vide et glacée. Sur le tableau noir les quatre fleuves de France, dessinés avec quatre craies de couleurs différentes, coulaient vers leur estuaire depuis trois jours” (1611). We will have every reason to recall this blackboard drawing when it is mentioned again in the final paragraph, as the context in which the death threat is inscribed, since it is the only colorful spot in otherwise bleak surroundings, a fact that is marked stylistically by the repetition of the number “four” (“quatre fleuves … quatre craies”). In addition to providing us with information about the school curriculum and the length of the snowstorm, the map with its meandering French rivers acts as a framing device both for the words we will read on the blackboard at the end and for the story as a whole. Appearing after the geographical description which identifies this unnamed region for us as a place other than France, the map and its four colors contrasts with the cold, inhospitable landscape surrounding Daru's dwelling. At the end, it will serve to designate the space through which the landscape's hostility penetrates the schoolhouse. The outline of France offers the Arab's “brothers” a meaningful space in which to affirm their existence and proclaim their values.

These unnamed writers in this nameless place never appear in the story at all. They exist only as a hand, and as a clumsy hand at that. The inscription on the blackboard is “tracée à la craie par une main malhabile.” The words on the blackboard are generally seen as a defacement of the map of France by these supposed revolutionaries. Showalter, for example, writes that “… there is a certain symbolic justice in the desecration of the map …” (81). But this seems an inappropriate description. The words on the blackboard are traced on the board. They are written, simply, “par une main malhabile;” not a hand bent on destruction, but a clumsy, untrained hand. The verb “tracer” is a synonym of “to write” in French, and means to write with care. The exact term is all the more noteworthy since it has appeared only once before, at a pivotal point in the story. Balducci, the gendarme, insists that Daru follow the rules and accept responsibility for the Arab prisoner by signing the official receipt. In the passage following this request, a gesture that might ordinarily merit little or no attention is described in extraordinary detail. The reader is clearly being asked to sit up and notice something significant:

Daru ouvrit son tiroir, tira une petite bouteille carrée d'encre violette, le porte-plume de bois rouge avec la plume sergent-major qui lui servait à tracer les modèles d'écriture et il signa.


The precision brought to the act of signing highlights it and reminds us of the care with which the teacher prepares his lessons, whether they be in French geography or in penmanship. In both cases, he produces models for his students. Daru's signature at this crucial point in the narrative initiates what we might call a model story. By signing, Daru signals his recognition both of Balducci as a representative of French law and order and of the Arab as a criminal. Also, he assumes for himself a place in the system. In other words, with his signature, the schoolteacher authorizes a narrative in which he refuses to believe but in which he will have, nevertheless, a key role. He writes himself into the story; he “signs up,” as it were, for participation in the events which follow.

There are, then, two hands in the story that write with care, one skilled, the other untutored, and both hands write words which function within the narrative as possible death sentences.

The words on the blackboard say that Daru has been judged guilty by the Arab's “brothers” and that, if they have their way, he will pay with his life. Daru's signature spells out another death sentence, in a narrative of which we see only glimpses and that exists only in the mind of the Arab. Because he does not understand French, the Arab constructs a narrative of his own by the way in which he interprets the tone of voice and gestures of the two Europeans who hold him prisoner. As Balducci tells Daru what he knows about the Arab's crime, the Arab is watching and listening. Balducci, passing his hand over his throat like a blade, illustrates his account with a gesture that imitates the one used in the murder: “l'Arabe, son attention attirée, le regardait avec une sorte d'inquiétude” (1615). Failing to understand that Balducci's gesture is part of an event belonging to the past, the Arab sees in it the prediction of a future event, in which he himself will be the victim. In the same way, when Daru signs Balducci's papers, the Arab takes this action, as well, as having serious consequences for himself. Shortly after their meal together, the Arab asks Daru a question which can only have been generated by his observation of the signature: “C'est toi le juge?” (1618). In the Arab's perspective, the two gestures, Balducci's throat-cutting and Daru's signature, combine to form a private narrative in which he as subject has been found guilty and sentenced. Marie-Laure Ryan calls this kind of story-within-a-story an “embedded narrative,” that is, a mental representation resulting from “the knowledge, wishes, intents and obligations” (“Structure” 108) of one of the characters. It is not only the reader who “reconstrues the fabula on the basis of what the narrator tells him”; characters as well “build their own versions from what they witness directly” (“Tellability” 323).

As “L'Hôte” unfolds, the reader is confronted with three distinct perceptions of the narrative events.2 Each character perceives differently the roles played by himself and the two others, and on this basis forms his own mental representation. Balducci's is the simplest: he perceives himself as representing his country, treats Daru as his son, and sees only an enemy in the Arab. Since Daru sees the gendarme as his friend, he cannot discount entirely Balducci's version of events. Although he refuses the law enforcement role that Balducci wishes to pass on to him, Daru assumes, almost in spite of himself, the role of the judge the Arab takes him for. To the Arab's question: “C'est toi le juge?” Daru responds with a definite “non.” He nevertheless goes on to ask his guest the two questions that determine a murderer's fate in a European system of justice: “Pourquoi tu l'as tué? … Tu regrettes?” (1619). While Daru's viewpoint may correspond more closely to a European reader's perceptions and expectations, the glimpses we catch of the Arab's story make us aware of its complexity. Although it is sometimes based on inaccurate or misunderstood information, it retains a certain validity for us, and helps shape the fabula that we as readers are reconstruing on our own. The rising tension in the story is a result of the conflicts we perceive between these various embedded narratives.

Had the Arab chosen freedom when Daru left him in the desert, this tension would never have been resolved. Had Daru actually taken him to prison, as the Arab's brothers claim, this tension would have simply collapsed, the writing on the blackboard would have been truthful (and useless in the narrative), and Daru's final exile would be meaningless. There would be, in short, no story, or, in Gregory Bateson's words, no “little knot … of the species of connectedness we call relevance” (qtd. in Chambers 20). The “connectedness” that constitutes this story is produced by the reader, in the flash of anger we perceive and feel in reading the words on the blackboard.

The words threatening Daru's life at the end of the story are often referred to as a “message,” whereas the narrator describes them as an “inscription.” The difference between these two designations is considerable. The function of a message, whether written, oral, or gesticular, is to communicate information independently of its formal modality. An inscription, on the contrary, as the root meaning of the word specifies, proclaims its written form.

These words traced in chalk on the river map of France, which are a threat for Daru, have a more complex significance for the reader. The first sentence in the inscription constitutes an uninformed version of the events related in the preceding paragraph. Because, as an interpretation of these events, the inscription is completely erroneous, it is, for the reader, even more alarming than the threat it conveys; its most frightening aspect lies in the fact that it contradicts what the reader knows with absolute certainty about Daru's motives and actions. For the reader, who has watched Daru first refuse responsibility for the prisoner, then agonize over a decision he feels will affect his “honor” as a human being, the accusation, “Tu as livré notre frère,” is horrendous. We may be in the dark about the reasons why the Arab chose prison, we many even quarrel with the ways in which Daru offered him the choice, but we can have no doubt at all that the Arab's action was voluntary and deliberate to the extent that it was based on full information concerning the alternatives that each of the roads offered him.

Brian Fitch has argued that the inscription on the blackboard should be read as a mise en abyme of the story (4), a recapitulation in miniature and a condensed rehearsal of its main narrative lines. This mirror-narrative, emerging at the end of the surface narrative is, however, a somewhat distorted “retelling” of the story. The first sentence in the inscription (“Tu as livré notre frère”) comments on what came before; the second (“Tu paieras”) projects a sequel beyond the narrative space. The present of the story is contained only in the temporal gap between the two sentences in the inscription, a temporal gap which the reader is invited to bridge.3

In order to connect the gaps in any narrative, the reader recalls and invests with significance certain narrative units of the text itself and brings into play, in addition, familiarity with other texts. The reader relies, that is, on what Lucien Dällenbach has described as two types of knowledge: “a memory of the text” and “a memory of texts” (197). The final fabula we as readers will reconstrue will be informed not only by the segments of “L'Hôte” that we remember and bring back to this narrative space, but by our memory of other earlier guests in literature.

The connectedness between Camus's story and the literary topos of hospitality is articulated in two precise ways. Daru espouses a higher law than the one he has been asked to enforce: “le crime imbécile de cet homme le révoltait, mais le livrer était contraire à l'honneur” (1621). This judgment is reinforced from a complementary angle when Daru tells the Arab that if he takes to the desert he will be protected by the nomads: “Ils t'accueilleront et t'abriteront, selon leur loi” (1623). Daru's code of honor, like the law of the nomads, reflects the long tradition of hospitality exemplified in the Old Testament, Greek literature, and modern folklore. According to this ancient paradigm, a stranger or a disguised kinsman arrives unexpectedly as an apparent or potential enemy (for example, the leper in the legend of Julien L'Hospitalier). The host, in order to fulfill his sacred obligations—provide food, shelter, protection—chooses to cross an established boundary. Julien eats with the leper; Daru offers the Arab a meal and shares it with him, beyond any need or expectation. The Arab is astonished; he asks: “Pourquoi tu manges avec moi?” (1618). And finally, the host performs an extraordinary gesture of hospitality, which takes the shape of a transgression that will transform him and his life entirely. Julien shares his bed with the leper; Daru gives the Arab murderer his freedom, thereby exiling himself definitively from the European community.4

When we read the inscription on the blackboard, we reject the first half, for we know that Daru has honored the code of hospitality to the end. But for this same reason, we accept the second half. Daru will pay, but his eventual death is presented to us not so much as an injustice as a signal of his imminent transformation. At the end of the legend of Julien L'Hospitalier, Julien is taken to heaven. As Daru discovers absolute solitude, he finds what Camus called the “kingdom” opening before him. The final sentence of the story takes him beyond his geographical boundaries: “Daru regardait le ciel, le plateau et, audelà, les terres invisibles qui s'étendaient jusqu'à la mer. Dans ce vaste pays qu'il avait tant aimé, il était seul” (1623).5


  1. I make a distinction throughout my analysis between narrator (the one who tells the story) and main character (the one who sees and acts). Critics sometimes consider Daru the narrator of the story (see Greenlee, for example). Recent work in narrative studies allows us to describe the narrative process more precisely. Barny, who analyzes the story in terms of narrative point of view, distinguishes between the “focalisateur” (Daru), and the “focalisateur anonyme, responsable du découpage, de la mise en images dans son ensemble. Ainsi Daru ne se voit pas en train de regarder, il y a une autre instance qui le regarde” (817).

  2. One of the ways we might represent schematically these differing perspectives:

    CHARACTERS Balducci's Daru's Arab's
    Balducci France friend power
    Daru son teacher judge
    enemy Man outsider
  3. My reading of this story owes a great deal to Ross Chambers's insightful discussion of the concept of mise en abyme in Story and Situation.

  4. Storey brings to light interesting elements of the guest topos by comparing Camus's story to Frank O'Conner's “Guests of the Nation.”

  5. Camus's notion of “kingdom” has received much commentary. For a recent discussion, see Zepp.

Works Cited

Abbott, H. Porter. “Autobiography, Autography, Fiction: Groundwork for a Taxonomy of Textual Categories.” New Literary History 19 (1988): 597-615.

Barny, Roger. “Une lecture de L'Hôte d'Albert Camus.” Hommages à Jacques Petit. Ed. Michel Malicet. Centre de recherches Jacques Petit 41. Vol. 2. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1985. 813-833. 2 vols.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. New York: Dutton, 1979.

Camus, Albert. “L'Hôte.” L'Exil et le royaume. Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles. Ed. Roger Quilliot. Paris: La Pléiade-Gallimard, 1962. Rpt. 1985. 1609-1623.

Chambers, Ross. Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction. Theory and History of Literature 12. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Dällenbach, Lucien. “Reading as Suture (Problems of Reception of the Fragmentary Text: Balzac and Claude Simon).” Style 18 (1984): 196-206.

Fitch, Brian T. The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus' Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1982.

Genette, Gérard. “Vraisemblance et motivation.” Figures II. Paris: Seuil, 1969. 71-99.

Greenlee, James W. “Camus' ‘Guest’: The Inadmissible Complicity.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 2 (Spring 1978): 127-39.

Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.

Quilliot, Roger. Présentation. Camus 2048-49.

Roelens, Maurice. “Un Texte, son histoire, et l'histoire: L'Hôte d'Albert Camus.” Revue des Sciences Humaines 165 (1977): 5-22.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Embedded Narratives and the Structure of Plans.” Text 6 (1986): 107-142.

———. “Embedded Narratives and Tellability.” Style 20 (1986): 319-40.

Showalter, English. Exiles and Strangers: A Reading of Camus's Exile and the Kingdom. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984.

Storey, Michael L. “The Guests of Frank O'Conner and Albert Camus.” Comparative Literature Studies 23 (Fall 1986): 250-62.

Zepp, Evelyn H. “Exile in the Kingdom: Where is the King?” Albert Camus' L'Exil et le royaume: The Third Decade. Ed. Anthony Rizzuto. Toronto: Paratexte, 1988. 127-41.

Nathan Cervo (essay date spring 1990)

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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 “schoolhouse.” The Arab, it turns out, has killed his “cousin” with a “sheephook.” In keeping with Camus's prevailing dialectic, involving Roman Catholicism, Marxism, and Gnosticism, the Arab may be viewed as a kind of Bonus Pastor (Good Shepherd) who has killed a wolf (the “cousin,” Satan qua Christ's “elder brother” in Miltonic and Joycean projections from Gnosticism) threatening his sheep. This is part of the story's subtext. Balducci entrusts the Arab to Daru, whom the “old gendarme” constantly addresses as “son.”

Daru, however, is indifferent to the psychic need of the guilty to be punished. He shows brotherly kindness to the wary Arab, by way of a mock-seder, and gives him every chance to escape. During the night, the Arab becomes the host; he has free run of Daru's habitation and has obviously been joined by other Arabs friendly to him. They later describe him as their “brother” in the chalked message that Daru finds scrawled on his blackboard when he returns to the “schoolhouse” after he has taken the Arab to a “limestone formation,” to the east of which lie “a few trees” and Tinguit, where the police station is, and to the south of which are chaotic landscape and nomads. Daru has given the Arab money and food and tempted him, as Satan had Christ (the “limestone formation” being Camus's analogue for the biblical mountainside, the site of Christ's temptation), to avoid justice in favor of saving his skin.

Daru has been alone in his schoolhouse for some time, for the Arab children he has been teaching come to him not to learn (he has nothing to teach them that means anything to them) but to receive allotments of “wheat,” and the wheat supply has been held up. He stands at the window and experiences associational fantasies that pass, with him, for ego-flattering insights, intuitions, and velleities. He “reads” the landscape as a Protestant might read the Bible. Behind him, on the blackboard, are the “rivers of France.” That is what he calls his chalk marks, but calling them “rivers” does not make them rivers. Camus brackets his story with this ironic symbol of the “rivers of France.” Opposed to the existential vapidity of Camus's system of semiotics are “the few trees” to which the Arab proceeds—trees that evoke the three crosses on Golgotha, as well as the freshening “water” of grace, viewed as a vital necessity in this desert landscape. For there to be trees there must be water. The “limestone formation” picks up on the chalk motif of the “rivers of France” and points to the vital reality of the “few trees” in the “east.”

It seems to me that here, as elsewhere, Camus is coming down in exploratory fashion on the side of the humane deepness (rather than mere “depth”) of Christian charity. All else is a dry-as-dust parody of it, a colocynth, an “apple of Sodom” (so to speak), the smack of which is gracelessness. Thus Daru may ape a priest, but his version of the Eucharist remains “fried paste.” One of Camus's Christian themes is that “Man does not live by bread alone.” Another is to be found in the Beatitude, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall be satisfied.” Camus's triumphant, albeit sorely tempted, Arab will be satisfied; Daru will not.

In Camus's dialectics, Marxism functions on two levels: the level of sheer ontic materialism, and the level of a disguised Gnosticism, with the revisionist catchword “Eternal Humanity” couching the aeonic anthropos (Greek man—not sexually male but the perfect or archetypal human being). It is Daru's Gnostic habit of apocalyptical perception that causes things spuriously to be what it wills them to be. For the Arab schoolchildren, that friable parody of charity is mortally sterile. It is a display of drily iridescent chalk pretending to assert not only real things but the principle of differentiation among them.

As secular humanist, Daru is a Marxist. He says yes to the Marxist social agenda, and Camus signals that yes with the Russian word for yes; that is, with da. Camus also signals that Daru's “way” is inchoate, the “way” that leads to the chaotic landscape and (in the story's putative context) antinomianism of the nomads. It ends in “air,” in moral nothingness. That is why Camus lops off the final e of the French word rue (street; Latin strata via, paved road), itself suggestive of the “wheel” (Latin rota) that called forth the “route” of the paved road or street. This truncation shows that Daru's “way” leads to one hell of a pothole, which is played off against the backdrop of Jesus' admonition that the “way” is strait/straight/strict and his example that the Cross is the “schoolhouse” par excellence.

David R. Ellison (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

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 mountainous region the rudiments of the French language and culture. Although no specific dates are given, it is evident that the story takes place during the early stages of the Algerian conflict, when the native population had begun to organize itself against the repression of colonialist rule. In living far from the coastline and from the centers of French influence, Daru is an isolated representative of a civilization whose norms and values are now subject to scrutiny and criticism.

As the story begins, we see Daru in his small dwelling (a simple building that serves as schoolhouse, as storage-place and as Daru's home) awaiting two unknown visitors who are gradually climbing the steep slope toward him. Before they arrive, and before Daru can grasp the significance of their unannounced stay with him, he meditates on his situation in this inhospitable landscape:

In contrast to this misery, he who lived almost as a monk in this lost school, content with the little he possessed and with this harsh life, had felt himself to be a lord [un seigneur], with his whitewashed walls, his narrow couch, his bookshelves of pine, his well, and his weekly supply of water and food. Then, suddenly, snow, without warning, without the interval of rain. Such was the country, cruel for living, even without men, who, however, did not make things better. But Daru had been born here. In any other place, he felt exiled.

(ER [L'exil et le royaume] 85)

In this passage, Camus emphasizes three points: first, Daru's love of his natural environment despite its harshness; second, his privileged status (in relative terms) as a person who can rely on regular supplies and who enjoys shelter and warmth; and third, his dislike of those men whose actions in some way might interfere with his sense of tranquillity. At this early stage in the narrative, Daru feels that he is the “lord” of a barren but beautiful place. Quite transparently, Camus sets forth the enabling opposition of the collection as a whole in the implicit contrast between exile (exil) and kingdom (royaume) that structures the passage. Of greatest consequence to the story in its development is the fragility of Daru's “kingdom,” which appears more threatened by the destructive potential of human beings than by the cruelty of nature.

Indeed, in the following section of the narrative, we learn that the two men advancing up the slope are Balducci, an old French policeman responsible for civil order in this large but sparsely populated area, and an unnamed Arab, his prisoner. The Arab has killed his own cousin, and must be delivered over to the authorities in a town called Tinguit, some distance from Daru's dwelling-place. Balducci, who has other pressing responsibilities, asks Daru to do him the favor of delivering the Arab on his behalf. Since both Balducci and Daru are members of the French colonial community and both are not only subject to its laws but representatives of its values, the policeman's request has some logic and legitimacy. Daru objects that the guarding of prisoners is not his “job.” Balducci exclaims in reply: “What do you mean? In wartime, one does all jobs”—to which Daru says: “Well, I will wait for the declaration of war” (ER 88).

At the center of the story is the problem of Daru's moral choice. A man has killed another man and justice must be served. Daru, however, does not want to be part of the process of justice; he is not a member of the police, and furthermore, he rejects the world of hate and violence: “A sudden anger came over Daru against this man, against all men and their sordid evil, their untiring hate, their craving for blood” (ER 89). Daru refuses to deliver the prisoner, but Balducci leaves the Arab with him; on the following day, Daru will have to make his definitive decision. It would seem that a choice imposes itself on the protagonist. Either he delivers the Arab, in which case he becomes a part of the process that extends from crime to final judgment; or he refuses, frees the Arab, and becomes persona non grata within the French social order. The matter is further complicated by the precise status of the undeclared war that is beginning to take place. Neither Balducci nor Daru knows whether the Arab prisoner is “for” or “against” them—i.e., whether he has joined rebel forces or is unengaged in the conflict (ER Ibid.)

Between the time of Balducci's departure and the next morning, Daru spends time with the Arab. Camus takes pains to describe Daru as a good host—as a person who welcomes someone he does not know (and who is purportedly a criminal) into his home with sympathy and warmth. In fact, in his hospitable actions toward the Arab, Daru demonstrates a way of living and of being-with-others that stands in stark contrast to the blood fury that has begun to overtake the country, dividing it into Arab rebels on the one hand, and French agents of repression on the other. As we read this section of the story and as Daru gains our sympathy as a character, we should keep in mind the double meaning of the narrative's title: l'hôte in French means either “the guest” or “the host.” Clearly, Camus is focusing at least as much on the act of hosting as he is on the status of guest (which, incidentally is not only that of the Arab, a guest in Daru's home, but also that of Daru, a “guest” in Algeria).

Although he thinks he hears footsteps around the schoolhouse during the night, Daru finds no signs of intruders upon awaking. He leads the Arab toward the mountains, and, when they have reached a crossroads, points first toward the east (the location of Tinguit, the French administration and police) then toward the west (the plains inhabited by nomads who would be willing to shelter the Arab). Rather than deliver or free his “prisoner,” Daru leaves the choice up to the Arab. As he departs toward his home, Daru notices that his solitary guest has begun to descend toward Tinguit, and toward French justice. At the very end of the story, upon returning to the school, Daru finds that the chalkboard on which he had drawn a geography lesson (significantly, the four major rivers of France—one of the first facts a French child learns about his country) now exhibits a foreign writing, a message no doubt left by the unseen intruders of the previous night: “You delivered our brother. You will pay” (ER 101). In the final sentence of the tale, we read, concerning Daru: “In this vast country that he had loved so much, he was alone” (Ibid.).

Viewed as a whole, the narrative moves from one form of solitude to another. In the beginning, Daru was alone but thought of himself as a lord of his environment. Because of the intervention of men (their jealousies, their hate, their blood lust) he now finds himself alone, but in definitive exile. The rocky expanse he once viewed as his kingdom has now become his prison; he is now vulnerable, subject to the wrath of the Arab's “brothers.” On one level, there is great injustice in the message on the chalkboard. Daru, the solicitous host, did not, in fact, deliver the Arab to the authorities. In some ways, he may have treated him in a more “brotherly” fashion than the Arab's own violent family. On a deeper level, however, the reader cannot overlook the fact that Daru refused to make a moral choice. By leaving the choice to the prisoner, Daru did not act; he set himself apart from his fellow humans and presumed to pursue his existence in isolation from them and in isolation from the escalating political conflict in the country. Daru refused to heed the message of John Donne's much-quoted line: “No man is an island.” By living as if he were alone and not engaged in the messy complexities of Algerian reality, he separated himself, despite his good intentions, from those human beings who most needed his support. The ultimate lesson of this story of high moral drama is that, in some circumstances, the refusal to choose is already a choice. Daru may not wish to be part of a judicial process or part of a social/political conflict, but his non-action, in the eyes of others, is action. To Balducci he is a traitor and to the “brothers” of the Arab he is the enemy. The welcoming host turns out to be merely a guest, now an unwelcome one, in a land that has interpreted his love of solitude as a failure to grasp the constraints and asperities of human solidarity.

D. F. Hurley (essay date winter 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7329

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. “The Guest,” Camus's story of a French-Algerian schoolmaster's unwilling involvement in the transportation of an Arab accused of killing, perhaps deserves special scrutiny now, 30 years after the French-Algerian tragedy played itself out, because the Western powers—this time led by the United States—have again attempted to impose themselves on a large part of the Islamic and Arab worlds.

If there is one continuous thread in the commentaries on Camus's story it is the constant, virtually unexamined, assumption that the Arab prisoner has committed a foul murder and is on the outer boundaries of the human, whether he is vicious or mad or deeply stupid. This near unanimity seems unjustified by reference to the definitive published text, but simply declaring—and attempting to demonstrate—the possibility of the prisoner's innocence is not the aim of this essay, is not possible, in fact, outside of an imaginary judicial proceeding. It is possible, however, to demonstrate that there are textual reasons for at least questioning the “evidence” of the man's guilt. Far more importantly, the typically harsh (or, often, condescending) interpretations of the prisoner are best understood by noticing three recurrent and interrelated patterns. The first of these involves the perils of being too well informed: several interpreters are apparently reacting to materials that can be found in Camus's early ideas and jottings on this story but not in the definitive published version. The second pattern involves the startling frequency of what Freud called “compulsive repetition”1 on the part of critics; they often repeat—unconsciously and in variously disguised or transformed fashions—the reactions and judgments of Daru, the schoolmaster, and Balducci, the gendarme, as if those reactions and judgments were adequate to interpret the range of meanings of the prisoner. Third, and most important, is the pervasive expression of what is almost certainly unconscious racism and ethnocentrism both in the two colons in the story and in many of the interpretations of the story. Traces of powerful Western colonial prejudice against, contempt for, and fear of the Arab male affect the characters in the story, its interpreters, and our culture as a whole.2 The only defense we—and the Arabs—have against this bias is an attempt to make it less unconscious and, one hopes, less “natural” and acceptable, particularly in the academic and reputedly harmless practices of literary interpretation.

Over the past 30 years many interpreters have focused at least part of their attention on the Arab prisoner as he is presented in Justin O'Brien's ubiquitous translation. Most of these essays try to explain why the Arab chooses to trudge off to Tinguit (and possible—or even probable—execution) when he is “freed” by Daru, the schoolmaster. While these interpretations differ widely in their inferences about the man's unknown (and unknowable) thoughts and motives, they are virtually unanimous in the language they use to label him. They call him—almost always in their first references to him—by these terms: “that primitive man,” who recognizes “neither liberty nor justice” (Cryl 121, 135), “a murderer” (Perrine, “Camus' ‘The Guest’” 53; Sterling 524): “the murderer” (McDermott 11; Sterling 529); “a stupid murderer” (Perrine, “Daru” 11); “an Arab murderer” (Simon 289); “a murderer and an Arab” (Perrine, “Daru” 11); “the Arab murderer” (Trilling 167); “an assassin” (Showalter, “Note” 348; Cryl 132); “a rebel terrorist” (Showalter, “Note” 348); and “Cain” (Sterling 525). His alleged deed is referred to in these ways: “his crime” (Sterling 527; Grobe 363); “‘his stupid crime’” (Perrine, “Camus' ‘The Guest’” 55, repeating Daru's words); “a barbarous act” (Sterling 528); “murder” (Sterling 527; Grobe 363); “senseless murder of his cousin” (Grobe 362); and a “meurte de fatalité” (Sterling 526). Neither O'Brien's translation nor Camus's original uses the word “murderer,” although there are other verbal patterns worthy of attention.3 This juridical certainty about the prisoner's guilt is supplied by the critics; the prisoner might not have received a fair trial under the colonial system before being declared guilty, but he would at least have had a trial.

These critics share the attitudes that Camus himself apparently had when he first gave thought to what became “The Guest,” and when he wrote two or more versions of parts of the story during the time he spent on it, off and on, until Algeria itself exploded.4 In these early, unpublished, forms of the story, Camus seems to have harbored little doubt about the evil nature of his imagined Arab and his deeds. Camus's earliest title for the piece that eventually became “The Guest” (“L Hôte”) was “Les Hautes Plateaux et le condamné,” but another, more revealing, title was “Caïn” (Camus, Théâtre 2040). (In his early ideas for the story Camus apparently even intended the prisoner himself to be the most compelling source of facts about his crimes.) In one version that was actually written but not published, Balducci informs Daru—in awful detail—that the prisoner has killed not only his cousin but also the cousin's young son. Balducci tries to make the crimes understandable, though, by saying that they have no political significance but are merely matters of “common law” (Camus, Théâtre 2043; my translation). “You know,” continues the gendarme, “It's common among them. Family business” (2043). In a second version of the same section of dialogue, Balducci attempts to domesticate the man's crimes in a more universalizing fashion when he says: “You know, it's like among us. Family business. And then the drought, the heat, that makes one cracked” (2043). Daru, however, wants to know about the son of the cousin, and what Balducci tells him is far more vivid and repellent than anything the published version of the story contains. Balducci says:

The son fled. That must have excited him [the prisoner]. He ran after him, caught him again, and threw him to the ground. And then, oh well, you know, like out of habit, a knee in his back, his head pulled back by the hair, and kreezk! like a sheep. They have that technique!


Daru then asks about the son's age, and Balducci replies, “Thirteen. A child, or nearly” (2043). (“Un enfant” might even be translated as “a baby.”)5 Daru recalls that many of his pupils are that age and he feels great anger about “this stupid cruelty with the child” (2043). When Daru later questions the prisoner about what happened, he does not ask about the cousin but about the child. “Why did you kill the child?,” he asks in a voice whose “spitefulness” surprises Daru himself (2043). The prisoner reacts with complete incomprehension: “The child?” Daru has to say, “Yes, the son,” before the man understands, and then his response is: “He was a man. He was thirteen” (2044). Daru can only ask, in near fury, one assumes, “What had he done to you?” The man's answer is: “It was his father. He owed me grain.” Daru pursues the matter one last time: “And why the son?” The prisoner's final answers seem to point to a range of explanations from tribal logic to automatism and divine intervention: “It's the same family. And then he tried to save himself. I was afraid. God willed it” (2044).

If one considers these materials drawn from preliminary versions of the story that Camus himself did not use, then the critics' almost casual assumption of the prisoner's guilt makes some sense. But Camus did not publish these materials, and the prisoner he does present is far from that early version. In fact, careful examination of the published text casts some serious court-worthy doubts on the degree of the prisoner's guilt—no matter the reactions of Balducci and Daru.

The very best evidence in the published text, perhaps, is in the reactions of the man's village. The assistance of his village after the killing seems significant for two reasons. One, they ran great risks for their entire village by hiding him during a whole month that the colonial authorities were looking for him. Their behavior would have appeared to be a kind of collusion in a murder, at least from the point of view of the colonial authorities. Two, if the village had regarded his action as deserving punishment, they could easily have inflicted it themselves, even killed him, without the authorities' ever finding out. Surely a month was long enough for the village to judge the matter and act on their judgment. Even more persuasive, perhaps, is Balducci's report that the prisoner had to be moved quickly and far away because “they [his village] were beginning to stir; they wanted to take him back.”6 At least two writers assume that his village wanted him back in order to visit some horrific Arab justice on him.7 If that were the case, however, what were those villagers doing for the month when they had him in their hands and could have disposed of him as they wished? And if the prisoner were in the least afraid of his own people, why would he sneak out in the night, as he does, to relieve himself (and perhaps even to confer with the brothers)?8 Why would he have no apparent fear on the following morning when Daru, having heard what he thought was a suspicious noise, searches around the buildings? The prisoner merely watches him “without seeming to understand” (136). It is important to note, also, that ordinarily “the members of the same clan do not seek blood vengeance on one another” (Bourdieu 83). It was not unheard of for homicides that were within the clan and occurred under extenuating circumstances to be subject to conciliation, the payments of fines and the like (Christelow 67). Such could be a sensible reading of the behavior of the man's village.9 It seems plain that it is unconvincing in the extreme to point to the desires and activities of the prisoner's village to condemn the man. Their behavior points far more readily in an opposite direction. Daru and Balducci, however, are not so easily dealt with.

Balducci, the Corsican gendarme whose own name provides an ironic text for commentators on colonial domination, is the only source of “facts” about the Arab prisoner's deeds in the definitive published version of this famous story. Balducci is a not-ungentle man who rides his horse slowly to prevent unnecessary harm to the man whose hands he has bound tightly and to whom he has affixed a lead rope. Balducci claims a shamed sensitivity about handling prisoners: “You don't get used to putting a rope on a man even after years of it, and you're ashamed—yes, ashamed,” (132) he tells Daru with a switch in person—from first to second—that seems a characteristic colloquialism and a partial evasion of responsibility. (“You” also substitutes for both “I” and “we” in Balducci's speech habits.) The old man says he longs for retirement as a way of escaping this tiring and degrading life, but he still moves, automatically, it seems, to retie the prisoner's hands when it is time for Balducci to return to his post. Ethnocentrism and/or racism are essential components in the justificatory system of colonialism, and although Balducci refers to his prisoner as “a man” (132), he clearly distinguishes between “us” and “them.” As Balducci concludes his apologia for tying the hands of another, he says, “But you can't let them have their way” (132). Whatever sympathy he may feel for this individual Arab is swept away in the tide of “us” against “them.” Balducci's interest in this prisoner is limited, then, to his own circumscribed role in the matter and by his overriding awareness of the way things must “naturally” work in “our” interest.

When Daru asks Balducci why the prisoner has killed his cousin, Balducci expresses his lack of both knowledge and certainty in three short sentences: “A family squabble,10I think, One owed the other grain, it seems, It's not at all clear” (131; emphasis added). Balducci's obvious ignorance is of great importance. The only thing he even claims to be sure of is the manner of the killing: “In short, he killed his cousin with a billhook. You know, like a sheep, kreezk!” (131). Balducci mimics the action while supplying sound effects. Daru, Balducci, and nearly all of the commentators appear to be reacting strongly to this vivid demonstration. Daru, for instance, feels a “sudden wrath against man, against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust” (131) immediately after this demonstration by Balducci. An aversion to stabbing or slashing one's adversary at close range with hand-held weapons is, no doubt, one of the signs of higher, more civilized, races and nations that prefer dealing death from great distances with machines that roll or fly. The bloody and intimate quality of the reported deed, as reenacted by Balducci, may be, in some measure, what prompts so many commentators to see the prisoner as only marginally human and his deed as “senseless” and “stupid.” It is clear, however, that Balducci's testimony is, as the lawyers might say, highly inflammatory and neither firsthand nor in any other way corroborated.

Daru, especially since this story is told in the third-person limited-omniscient point of view, offers more difficulties—and opportunities—than does Balducci. An examination of Daru involves comment both on the recurrence of compulsive repetition in the published interpretations of the story and on the racism and ethnocentrism that express themselves through the character.11 With Daru's eyesight and “vision” in large measure producing the world of this story, it is important to notice that he is a clear example of what is referred to as the “specular” dimension of ideology.12 Specifically, in Daru's case, the essential ideological underpinnings of colonialism—racism and ethnocentrism—are ways he has of seeing, ways so ingrained in him that he is unaware of them, even believing himself to be above all that. But he is a French colonial civil servant who provides French wheat and a French education to the children of this Algerian high desert. He may be, in his “innocence,” the most pernicious of colonial influences: he is one who brings food for the bodies and minds of the colonized in order to subdue them by “lifting” them up to their oppressor's level, which presumes, of course, that on their own they occupy an inferior level.13

When Daru looks around him, especially when he looks at the Arab prisoner, he “sees” in a complicatedly racist and ethnocentric fashion, and he does it so unself-consciously that these structural prejudices are repeated by interpreters of this story as if they were irrefutable facts. Laurence Perrine, for example, uses impersonal passive voice constructions that appear to convert Daru's perceptions and prejudices into empirical facts: “the Arab is pictured as passive, uncomprehending, a little stupid”; “his passivity is stressed from the beginning of the story”; “his incomprehension is also emphasized (“Camus' ‘The Guest’” 57; emphasis added). Over and over again, from his first close-up view of the man to his last close-up view of him, Daru has his eyes drawn most by the other man's mouth, specifically his lips, which strike Daru as being “huge lips, fat, smooth, almost Negroid” (130). When Daru, having rested briefly in a room away from his new prisoner, returns to the classroom, he finds the man lying down next to the stove, and to Daru, when the man is in that position, “his thick lips were particularly noticeable, giving him a pouting look” (133). When the man eats the food Daru has prepared for him, Daru notices the man's “thick lips” (133). When Daru, having fed the man and prepared a bed for him, finally has no more to do and feels that “he [has] to look at this man” (133), he tries to see that face disfigured into a mask of mad rage that might explain his killing his own cousin. But Daru is unable to get the man's face to accept this disfigurement: Daru can only see “the dark yet shining eyes and the animal mouth” (133; emphasis added). When Daru eventually demands of the man whether he is sorry for having killed his cousin, the prisoner seems merely to stare at Daru, “openmouthed” (134).

Daru also pays some attention to the man's eyes, which Daru variously perceives as “dark and full of fever” (130), “feverish” (130), and “dark yet shining” (133). If eyes are either windows or lamps, the prisoner's appear to Daru to have only the light of disease (“fever” being, apparently, a metaphor for passion, madness, or mere bestiality). Daru “naturally” (that is, not naturally at all, but culturally and without much individual reflection) associates the man's heavy-lipped mouth, his facial expressions, and his behavior as being all of a piece: this uncomprehending individual is, in Daru's eyes, more beast than man. What Daru believes he is looking at resembles nothing so much as the mythical figure Edward W. Said claims Western Orientalists have invented:

An Arab Oriental is that impossible creature whose libidinal energy drives him to paroxysms of over-stimulation—and yet he is a puppet in the eyes of the [Western] world, staring vacantly out at a modern landscape he can neither understand nor cope with.


Upon reflection, of course, Daru tells himself that he does not distinguish between this man's bloody deed and desires and those of the rest of the human race, excepting only Daru himself, perhaps. But it is this man in his presence whom Daru regards as the gathered essence of all that is bloody, violent, stupid, and disgusting about humans. When he awakens the prisoner the morning after his delivery, the man is at first consciousness so terrified of Daru, the alien one, that his fear startles Daru himself into stepping back a moment and reassuring the man, “Don't be afraid. It's me” (134), as if his essential goodness should put the man at ease. The man does become calm, but Daru decides that “his expression [is] vacant and listless” (134). Thus, many critics see it as merely the extension of a clearly established pattern when the prisoner, given the liberty to go to prison in Tinguit or south to the nomads and freedom (or northwest to Utah, for that matter), walks slowly and “stupidly” off to prison. One critic, Moishe Black appears to be making a series of just such claims in this sentence:

Daru's hospitality is not adequate to overcome the dumb stupidity of a world where ignorant men kill their cousin over a debt of grain “because” the cousin ran away, much less the calculated viciousness of people who deliberately misinterpret for political ends what someone else has done.


But the Arab prisoner need not be regarded as stupid or weak. He seems to understand that Balducci, although he is not sadistic, has no interest in the prisoner's future and would hang him himself, if ordered to do so. In the conversation between the two men that most disturbs Daru, the prisoner asks if the gendarme will be coming back the next day. Daru, in what is plainly an untruth, says that he does not know. The Arab prisoner himself apparently takes Daru's answer to be an evasion indicating that the gendarme will be coming back, for he asks Daru, “Are you coming with us?” (134), and later even says, “Come with us” (134). (It is at least possible that the prisoner is so impressed by Daru's hospitality to him that he is inviting Daru to join the prisoner and his brother, but Daru's reactions give no hint that he understood the reference in that fashion.) The man seems to have understood two important facts. If Daru is neither judge nor gendarme, then his kindness may offer the prisoner some chance of safety against the armed might of the colonial police and the alien demands of the colonial judicial system. Ironically, if Daru were to decide to carry out the order transmitted to him by Balducci, then he himself would be the gendarme who would return the next day. If not, he would seem—both to the prisoner and to the French authorities—to have chosen the prisoner's “us.”

A more important matter in establishing that the prisoner need not be taken to be an idiot or a beast is locating the contexts of the times from which this story arose (the traces of which it can never be fully rid of, nor should it be rid of them), and the ancient culture—badly distorted by more than a century of colonial domination—from which this prisoner comes and outside of which he may make little sense to western Europeans except as an idiot or a beast. When Daru asks him suddenly, “Why did you kill him?” (134), there is no antecedent, except in the prisoner's memory, for the pronoun, but the prisoner clearly knows which person the “him” refers to. The man looks away—in reaction to Daru's angry tone, if nothing else—and then says, “He ran away. I ran after him” (134). This answer, which is so often taken to make no sense—no ethical sense, at least—apparently justifies the critical commonplace that the killing was “senseless” and “stupid.” Daru himself resents the man because of his “stupid crime” (135) and because he “had dared to kill and not managed to get away” (135-36). And yet it has not occurred to Daru—or most critics—that the man's deed may not have been senseless.

The prisoner's cousin may have owed him grain. (It is also possible that the debt ran in the other direction; Balducci says only, “One owed the other grain, it seems.”) It is not clear whether the debt was occasioned by an exchange of goods half-completed, by labor given but not repaid, by the withholding of French-supplied grain rations, or even by theft. The grain could not have been a trifling matter, however, regardless of the amount involved. In a lengthy drought in which “sheep had died then by the thousands and even some men” (129), whole villages were on the edge of starvation, so close, in fact, that even three days of delay in receiving their supplemental grain supplies from Daru's backroom and the fields of France could mean disaster, as Daru well knows.14 When Daru ask the man why he killed “him,” the answer is the starkly simple “He ran away. I ran after him” (134). And when Daru asks, finally, “Are you sorry?” (134)—the key question for Daru and virtually all commentators on this story in attempting to establish a rational, human connection with the prisoner—the man seems to Daru merely to be staring at him “openmouthed” (134), and it seems maddeningly clear to Daru that the prisoner “[does] not understand” (134) the question at all. Thus opens the gulf between the two that so many interpreters have entered as well.

Clearly, to Daru and to nearly all of the commentators on this story, the Arab's inability either to comprehend the question or to feel—or at least to express—some guilt, regret, or remorse about killing his cousin makes him seem a savage or a senseless beast. Even some of the attempts to diminish the heinousness of his crime seem couched in the Western world's often condescending way of understanding “Third-World types.” According to John K. Simon, the prisoner is so diminished by French rule that he is “fully dependent” on his masters to make decisions and judgments for him, and is able to “follow only the negative dictates of inertia and passivity” (290). Edwin P. Grobe “explains” the prisoner's subhuman incapacity for remorse as the result of his “humiliation [at] being promenaded like a captive beast” (361). Grobe says the prisoner's “reason was [so] numbed by intense physiological discomfort … [and] the nagging hunger induced by eight months of famine” that he killed in a dispute over “a scanty grain supply available to several members of his family” (363). Grobe explains the killing in this fashion:

Startled into the murder act by the sudden movement on the part of his cousin as the latter ran from him in their altercation, the Arab was victimized by the onset of a fortuitous mechanical frenzy, which was as much a surprise to himself as to his victim. If he feels no remorse for his crime, it is because its inexplicable spontaneity has destroyed all active sense of a personal, willed participation.


In addition to creating considerable narrative detail not available in the published story, this critic removes the prisoner's supposed guilt, but at the price of annihilating him. His alleged action is reduced to an involuntary predatory twitch triggered by the flight of the prey. English Showalter, Jr., states an extension of such a view bluntly: “The Arab is not a puzzle we are meant to solve but rather a blank, eternally, irrevocably meaningless” (85). What such critics have done is to repeat, unconsciously, Daru's incomprehension into an ethical—almost a metaphysical—certainty about the prisoner: he is not rational, not ethical—not “us.” But it is not necessary to adopt this reductive notion.

The prisoner need not be viewed as senseless or without any possibility of explanation or defense. If his cousin had deprived him (and several—perhaps many—of his relatives) of grain that was life itself to them, such an act would not be a matter for small claims court. Under the circumstances of the times, the cousin could be regarded as having attempted something akin to the mass murder of his own flesh. And as if that were not serious enough, he seems to have compounded his offense by running away. Where could he be running to? Which other of the scattered villages on that plateau—all on the verge of starvation—would take him in? Could he not have been seen by his cousin—and subsequently, by the other “brothers” in the village—as attempting to get away with his crime by running from the very village in which both the crime and the man had their fullest meaning? Would the cousin not, in some way, lose his identity and value even as a member of the family and clan by the act of running away?

It is possible, then, to understand the prisoner's actions and motives very differently from the ways that seem so “natural” and “right” to Daru, Balducci, and so many of the other interpreters in this story. The prisoner may be explaining why he killed his cousin when he says, simply, “He ran away. I ran after him.” And when Daru asks him, “Are you sorry?,” the question itself makes no sense, seems mad, to the man as it would to his brothers in the village who first hid him and are now anxious to take him back. The prisoner may have done a necessary deed. He may have slain a “brother,” but not without just cause. This “brother” had not only attempted to murder his kin but had also turned himself into an “it,” a stranger of no positive value by fleeing the village of “us,” the extended family of the clan. What the prisoner may have done need not be thought of as unintelligible. The reactions of the prisoner's village—in their attempts to prevent his capture by the colonial authorities, in their apparent desire to take him back once he was captured, and in their final promise, scrawled across the blackboard with the rivers of France on it, that they would take revenge on Daru for betraying “our brother” (137)—all this combined could easily make sense of the story from the unseen, unspoken side of the prisoner. The village's loyalty to him would then be matched by his loyalty to them. He cannot return to them without the virtual certainty that the whole village will be made to suffer by the French colonial authorities because of him. He cannot run to the nomads far to the south without exposing his village to that same French wrath. The nomads are, in addition, not of his family, clan, or even tribe, in all likelihood. They owe him nothing. As he may understand the matter, it would be mad and evil for them to take from their own family's mouths to feed him, a stranger. Whatever romantic debt one cares to see the prisoner paying in regard to Daru,15 the man's choosing to go to Tinguit to the French authorities could be seen as his paying a necessary debt to his own village. It would then be Daru and his behavior that make little sense to his prisoner. Daru may consider himself to be separate from the colonial barbarisms of his people, but he is not, nor could a single choice make him so.

In drawing this piece to a conclusion—that is actually an extended opening—it is important to underline the fact that all arguments about the meaning of fictional characters and events are marked as much by ultimate futility as by combative delight. Whatever the imaginary Daru and his imaginary prisoner “really” are and mean has much more to do with current readers and lasting tensions among nations, races, and ethnic and religious groups than with Camus's intentions or definable textual “truths.” Interpretations and evaluations make stories into sites where debates over values and power take place. In a time when the Western world is again perhaps too sure of both its victories and its values, a cautionary tale about “interested” readings seems in order.


  1. One clear and useful explanation of “compulsive repetition” as a common occurrence in literary interpretation forms part of Christopher Norris's “Poststructuralist Shakespeare” (58-65). Because even a mildly ambiguous story creates a strong desire for coherence, “one can never be satisfied [as an interpreter] except by certain self-defeating acts of textual repression” (62). My essay is as likely to be “guilty” of repressing the elements in the story that do not fit my reading as any of the essays I quote critically, but attempting to expose habits of reading based on unwitting prejudices of a racial ethnic kind still seems worth the while.

  2. Edward W. Said's Orientalism is still the most massive and persuasive work on matters of this kind.

  3. Quiet signs of what is almost certainly unconscious racism and/or ethnocentrism can perhaps be found in the text's pattern of references to the prisoner. The alleged murderer is referred to once as un Arabe, once as cet Arabe, and 43 times simply as l'Arabe. Justin O'Brien's translation somehow adds four more “Arab” references to Camus's count for a total of 49 in the translation. The character is also referred to about a dozen times as le prisonnier, also a time or two as Daru's adversaire, his hôte (“guest,” but with the ironic possibility of “host,” as well), with a scattering of other nouns, including le camarade, ton gars, and ce zèbre (translated by O'Brien as “this fellow,” “your fellow,” and “this guy,” respectively, with the last being, perhaps, a silent “improvement” over the animal denotation of the French word). Daru is referred to, not surprisingly, as “Daru” more than 60 times and as l'instituteur, the “schoolmaster,” about as often as the other man is referred to as the “prisoner.” Balducci is referred to once as le vieux Corse, the “old Corsican,” a few times as le gendarme, but generally as “Balducci.” The effect, intended or not, of the constant repetition of “the Arab” seems likely to resemble the effect of calling Othello almost always “the Moor.” This singular and generic labeling both contracts the individual's identity to a racial (or ethnic) matter and also, because he is made to stand for all the “others,” makes him oddly plural—suggesting, almost certainly unwittingly, that he is synonymous perhaps with all of the exotic, fear-evoking, contemptible “otherness” of these benighted strangers in their own land. (For all of Camus's well known devotion to fair and enlightened treatment for Arabs in Algeria, Camus never learned to read or write Arabic, and could speak and understand only basic “street” Arabic—see, for example, Lottman, Thody, or Tarrow. The worst one can say of this admirable man, however, is that his pleas for moderation and balance—especially during the Algerian rebellion—make him now appear guilty of using euphemisms for continued colonial oppression but only because his desire for an Algeria that would be both French and fair was swept aside by violent facts.)

    Another interesting language pattern exists in Camus's use of the intimate tu in both Daru's remarks to the prisoner and in the prisoner's remarks to Daru. The almost unavoidable impression is that Daru is dispensing with the distance or formality that might be expressed by the framing of grammatical person and number and that the Arab responds in kind, perhaps even inviting Daru to become part of a lasting “us,” a collection of “I's” and “thou's.” The irony here is that although the French language makes this distinction between the intimate second person singular and the polite plural (which can also be singular in meaning), Arabic does not. References to gender, number, social rank, and the rest can be indicated in Arabic, but not in the fashion that Camus employs. Even here, the conversation that supposedly takes place in Arabic, because the prisoner speaks no French—“No, not a word” (131), as Balducci says when Daru asks—is modeled on French, not Arabic. By making no attempt to mimic or re-present the linguistic difference, Camus seems to have erased the difference by treating the French model as the “natural” way. It is especially interesting because, at least in his youth, Camus expressed a decided preference for being addressed as vous rather than tu, even by friends of long standing, even with Simone Hié, his first wife. (See Lottman 74 for this odd fact. For assistance with Arabic grammar I wish to thank Dr. Maksoud Feghali.)

  4. Roger Quilliot reports that Camus began working on the story in about 1952 and finished it in 1954, much affected by the growing tension and then exploding violence in Algeria (in Camus, Théâtre 2040). It should have been—and was—harder for Camus to continue to live in what Conor Cruise O'Brien calls Camus's “hallucination,” his belief in the mythical land of a unified “French Algeria” (11), but for all his vaunted honesty and courage, Camus was “all too often,” as David Sprintzer says, “reduced … to benign paternalism in the service of Western colonialism” (279-80). The bloody events of the 1954 uprising in Algeria apparently prompted Camus to alter his portrait of the prisoner. According to Roger Quilliot, Camus did not wish to provide one camp or the other with inflammatory material. I believe that Camus modified his presentation of the Arab prisoner to the point that the character, in effect, escaped Camus's first intentions.

  5. Etymologically, “enfant” refers to one who is unable to speak. Camus described Algerian Arabs treated unjustly by colons as having “no other choice now but silence or violence” (Essais 1873), and an Arab speaker's muteness was determined by his oppressors' unwillingness to hear him. Ironically—or perhaps not ironically—the prisoner's last word to Daru is “Listen” (140), and Daru's last words to the prisoner are: “No, be quiet. Now I'm leaving you” (140).

  6. The only available antecedent in the text for “they” is “his village,” which occurs three paragraphs earlier but with only a single exchange between Daru and Balducci intervening. The pronoun is also an example of what Conor Cruise O'Brien calls “the colonial ‘they’: the pronoun which needs no antecedent” (23).

  7. Edwin P. Grobe writes that the “brothers” tried to hide the prisoner both because “racial integrity” demanded it and because “they possess already within their own society adequate procedures of justice and retribution. Indeed, the measure of justice which Arabs impose upon their brethren is frequently of a bloody violence that shocks the European sensibility” (362). The possibility that the prisoner's “crime” may have been an act of justice does not occur to Grobe, nor does the irony of elevating “European sensibility” above Arab savagery in the context of French Algeria. Grobe adds, in an unwittingly perfect expression of colonial paternalism, “it is to protect the Arab from such a violence that Balducci has brought his prisoner all the way to Daru …” (362). In a similar vein, James W. Greenlee writes: “The reader needs no special familiarity with the brutality of Arab law to see that the prisoner's fear is not of European justice. He expects his European host, native to the region, to understand his fear of punishment at the hands of those who would avenge his victim” (132). Greenlee's opacity does not compare even with the clear-sightedness of Camus's own confession, in a 1957 interview: “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother [living in Algiers] before justice” (Camus, Essais 1881-82; also noted in O'Brien 92).

  8. In an interesting essay, Constance Rooke argues that the various signs hinting at the presence of the prisoner's “brothers” near the schoolhouse exist only in Daru's imagination and that it is Daru who has scribbled the condemnation of himself on the blackboard at the story's end.

  9. Conor Cruise O'Brien noted 20 years ago that Camus was on exceedingly shaky grounds as a realistic writer in The Stranger in having a French colon named Meursault arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for killing a nameless Arab who had drawn a knife at the time of the killing and had used the knife earlier on Meursault's friend (23-26). There may be a similar thicket of unlikelihood in this short story about an Arab arrested for killing another Arab. In a remote village populated by Arabs only, who would have told the colonial authorities? Why would those authorities go to so much trouble to find him and then transfer him to yet another place (une commune mixte) dominated by Arabs not of his family or clan? Balducci says he doesn't think this man is “against us,” although, as he tells Daru, “You can never be sure” (131). Perhaps for colonial authorities even rumored acts of violence are always the subtext of “peaceful” colonialism. The two Arabs—the one whom Meursault killed and the one in the story who is said to have killed his cousin—have one thing in common: Camus gave neither a name.

  10. Justin O'Brien translates “des affaires de famille” (Camus, Théâtre 1613) as “a family squabble” (131), which both trivializes the matter a bit and also apparently gives rise to the common—but textually unjustified—notion that the supposed killing was preceded by a “dispute” (Grobe 363; Perrine, “Camus' ‘The Guest’” 52) or an “altercation” (Grobe 363) between the prisoner and his cousin immediately before the killing. It is at least as possible to infer instead that the cousin stole the grain, ran away, and was then pursued by the prisoner. Again all that Balducci reports with any certainty is that the cousin was killed in an unattractive fashion, and all that the prisoner says is “He ran. I ran after him” (134).

  11. According to Lev Braun, “The spreading of French culture in overseas territories was regarded by Sartre and his friends as an imperialistic enterprise. Camus, in all simplicity, regarded it as sharing a common heritage. French culture, in his view, was humanistic before being French” (219). Such is the necessary repression or disguising of ethnocentric beliefs when they occur in the conscious thinking of a man who would be just and yet benefits from the oppression of other racial and/or ethnic groups.

  12. See James H. Kavanagh's treatment of these terms in “Ideology” (306-20) and “Shakespeare in Ideology” (144-65).

  13. In earlier versions of the story, the schoolmaster (called “Pierre”) had changed professions and come to this remote place primarily to leave behind the evil he (and other colonials) had done or had allowed to be done earlier in his life. In the published version of the story, Daru seems a man who has not—and would not—defile himself with what he judged to be evil behavior, his own or anyone else's. Camus both transformed his original Arab monster and cleansed the colon as he rewrote this story (Camus, Théâtre 2040-44).

  14. Pierre Bourdieu's The Algerians (1958, in French) and Germaine Tillion's Algeria: The Realities (1958) offered evidence of the harm French colonial policies had caused to the lands and cultures of the region, and their books provided this evidence at roughly the time Camus was struggling still to hold on to his dream of “French Algeria” and hoping for some middle ground that would, in effect, maintain French colonialism but lessen the sufferings of the Arabs. There is little doubt that French policies regarding Arab lands and their pastoral and agricultural aims and practices had disastrous effects on most “native” Algerians (Bourdieu 57-73). The shipping of emergency grain was erratic; even when it was delivered, official regulations called for “natives” to receive five-sixths of a colon's ration, but common practice made those shares as little as one-half to two-thirds of a full share (Quilliot “Sea” 224-25). Camus was well aware of some of this suffering and wrote about it effectively in sections of what are now called Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes).

  15. See Showalter (“Note” 349) and McDermott (12) for this argument.

Works Cited

Black, Moishe. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’ as a Ritual of Hospitality.” Nottingham French Studies 28.1 (1989): 39-52.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Algerians. Trans. Alan C. M. Ross. Boston: Beacon, 1962. Trans. of Sociologie de l'Algérie. Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 1958; rev. 1961.

Braun, Lev. Witness of Decline: Albert Camus: Moralist of the Absurd. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1974.

Camus, Albert. Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles. Ed. by Roger Quilliot. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard), 1961.

———. Essais. Ed. Roger Quilliot. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard), 1961.

———. “The Guest.” Fiction. Trans. Justin O'Brien. Ed. Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings. New York: Harcourt, 1989. 128-37.

———. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Knopf, 1961.

Christelow, Allan. Muslim Law Courts and the French Colonial State in Algeria. Princeton: Princeton UP. 1985.

Cryle, Peter. bilan critique: L'Exil et le Royaume d'Albert Camus essai d'analyse. Paris: Minard, 1973.

Drakakis, John, ed. Alternative Shakespeares. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Greenlee, James W. “Camus' ‘Guest’: The Inadmissable Complicity.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 2 (1977-78): 127-39.

Grobe, Edwin P. “The Psychological Structure of Camus's ‘L'Hôte.’” The French Review 11 (1966): 357-67.

Kavanagh, James H. “Ideology.” Critical Terms in Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 306-20.

———. “Shakespeare in Ideology.” Drakakis 144-65.

Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

McDermott, John V. “Camus' Daru: Just How Humane?” Notes on Contemporary Literature 15.2 (1985): 11-12.

Norris, Christopher. “Post-structuralist Shakespeare: Text and Ideology.” Drakakis 47-66.

O'Brien, Conor Cruise. Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. New York: Viking, 1970.

Perrine, Laurence. “Camus' ‘The Guest’: A Subtle and Difficult Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1963): 52-58.

———. “Daru: Camus' Humane Host.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 14.5 (1984): 11-12.

Quilliot, Roger. The Sea and Prisons. Trans. Emmett Parker. University: U of Alabama P, 1970.

Rooke, Constance. “Camus' ‘The Guest’: The Message on the Blackboard.” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (1967): 78-81.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Showalter, English, Jr. “Camus' Mysterious Guests: A Note on the Value of Ambiguity.” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (1967): 348-50.

———. Exiles and Strangers: A Reading of Camus' Exile and the Kingdom. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984.

Simon, John K. “Camus' Kingdom: The Native Host and an Unwanted Guest.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1964): 289-91.

Sprintzer, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988.

Sterling, Elwyn F. “A Story of Cain: Another Look at ‘L'Hôte.’” The French Review 54 (1981): 524-29.

Tarrow, Susan. Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus. University: U of Alabama P, 1985.

Thody, Philip. Albert Camus: A Study of His Work. New York: Macmillan, 1957; Grove, 1959.

Tillion, Germaine. Algeria: The Realities. Trans. Ronald Matthews. New York: Knopf, 1958.

Trilling, Lionel. “‘The Guest’: Albert Camus 1913-60.” Prefaces to the Experience of Literature. 1967; rpt. New York: Harcourt 1979. 166-69.

Eberhard Griem (essay date winter 1993)

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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 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” (24). Nor does John K. Simon's reply to the original article in SSF 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” (290). 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” [528]), 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 sauvé. J'ai couru derrière lui’” (526). 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’)” (112).1

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” (Camus 190). 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” (190). 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?” (193), 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?2

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.3 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” (Schacht 197). 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” (193) 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.


  1. Interpretations that differ from this mainstream view of the prisoner, while not invalidating what I am about to advance, can be found in the respective studies by Grobe and Showalter. Other sources that I have checked and found not relevant to my purposes include Cervo, Ellison, and McDermott.

  2. My tentative interpretation was confirmed by three informants, who concurred that in Arabic societies it would be highly dishonorable, and very likely to provoke drastic responses, for a person to run away from a conflict of the kind in question, instead of facing his responsibility. I gratefully acknowledge the kindness of Mr. Aref Hamad (a student at CU Denver, from Jordan), Dr. Frederick M. Denny (Prof. of Religious Studies, CU Boulder), and Dr. Nada Turk (Dept. of French and Italian, CU Boulder, from Lebanon).

  3. Cf., e.g., Christelow 10.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. “The Guest.” Trans. Justin O'Brien. Perrine and Arp 187-96.

Cervo, Nathan. “Camus' ‘L'Hôte.’” Explicator 48 (1990): 222-24.

Christelow, Allan. Muslim Law Courts and the French Colonial State in Algeria. Princeton UP, 1985.

Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Festa-McCormick, Diana. “Existential Exile and Glimpses of the Kingdom.” Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Ed. Bettina L. Knapp. Boston: Hall, 1988. 110-14.

Grobe, Edwin P. “The Psychological Structure of Camus's ‘L'Hôte.’” French Review 40 (1966): 357-62.

McDermott, John V. “Camus' Daru: Just How Humane?” Notes on Contemporary Literature 15.3 (1985): 11-12.

Perrine, Laurence. “Camus' ‘The Guest’: A Subtle and Difficult Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1963-64): 52-58.

———and Thomas R. Arp. Story and Structure and Instructor's Manual. 7th ed. New York: Harcourt, 1988.

Schacht, Joseph. An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

Showalter, English, Jr. “Camus' Mysterious Guests: A Note on the Value of Ambiguity.” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (1966-67): 348-50.

Simon, John K. “Camus' Kingdom, the Native Host and an Unwanted Guest.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1963-64): 289-91.

Sterling, Elwyn F. “A Story of Cain: Another Look at ‘L'Hôte.’” French Review 54 (1981): 524-29.

Rob Roy McGregor (essay date summer 1997)

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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 but a state: the very state of sin. For sin is what separates from God. The absurd is the metaphysical state of the conscious man. … Perhaps this notion will become clear if I hazard this outrageous remark: the absurd is sin without God” (127-28).2

Both Kierkegaard's and Camus's emphasis here, of course, is that despair is not an act but a state of being in the same way sin is not an act but a state of being. The state of despair, along with its consequent anguish, results from separation. For Kierkegaard, it results from separation from God; for Camus, from separation from the universe, the condition that characterizes the exile of absurd solitude.3 In short, for Camus, the state of despair, like the state of sin, is the human condition.

The intent of this essay is to show that “The Silent Men” (“Les Muets”) and “The Guest” (“L'Hôte”) are 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. Although critics recognize that “The Silent Men” and “The Guest” are replete with symbolism associated with the absurd, they restrict their valid and insightful interpretations to the current yet undying problems symptomatic of occidental, i.e., nonabsurd, existential culture. They do not, consequently, treat these stories as symbolic depictions of aspects of the philosophy of absurdity.

In “The Silent Men,”4 Yvars's failure to recognize and respond to the evidences of the absurd that touch his life within the personal context of home, work, and meaning/meaninglessness, finds a philosophical echo in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, much as an allegory echoes or parallels its source. By the age of 40, Yvars has ceased to enjoy looking at the sea during his morning bicycle ride to work. His dejection stems predominantly from youthful memories of virile swims in the sea and happy walks on the beach, of the vibrant sun, the girls, and the vigor of the body (“Muets” 1597-98), memories of a time before his acute awareness of approaching old age. Experiencing the small pleasures of life, he has, in contrast with the absurd man, a sense of harmony (“d'accord”) with existence in general—his terrace, a clean shirt, a glass of anisette, a pleasant evening, his wife and son, work, conversation with friends, awareness of past youth and advancing age—but does not know whether he is happy or wants to cry (1598).

Yvars is living the routine of “Rising, tramway, four hours at the office or plant, meal, tramway, four hours of work, meal, sleep …” (Mythe 106).5 His listlessness and purposelessness are compounded by the dehumanization brought on by the failure of the workers' strike. He is, like his comrades, humiliated by the take-it-or-leave-it attitude and behavior of his superior, by his inability to control his own destiny. As if it were not enough for Yvars and the other mutes to endure the indignity, humiliation, and powerlessness imposed by one's fellow beings and by institutions, Camus introduces illness, an implicit reminder, along with advancing age, of the inevitable and ultimate indignity and humiliation visited upon humankind: death, which is, for Camus, “the ultimate abuse” “[that] exalts injustice” (Mythe 168).6

Despite the gratuitous suffering and possible death of Lassalle's daughter and Yvars's empathy for the father, and despite the rapid accumulation of evidence of human powerlessness when confronted by one's superiors, by institutions, aging, suffering and death, Yvars's feeling of “malheur” (brooding “unhappiness”) never crystallizes into a conceptual awareness (“Muets” 1607), and evasion never advances beyond the realizable and daily wish to be home with wife and son (1606), the existential ontological “monde familier” (“familiar world”) of Le Mythe de Sisyphe (101). At the end of “The Silent Men,” Yvars is intent upon blaming Lassalle for some vague reason: “Ah, c'est de sa faute!” (“Ah, it's his fault!” [1608]). Is the blame for the general collapse of interpersonal relationships? For his own daughter's illness, a kind of retribution for his treatment of the workers? For establishing a personal barrier that prevented Yvars from expressing concern for Lassalle's daughter? Or is the placing of blame a self-serving exculpation for his failure to call out in sympathy to Lassalle? For the purpose of the story, the reason is simultaneously immaterial and functional. When Yvars places blame on someone or something for any situation or condition related to human existence, he shows that he remains within the traditional escapist mentality of his Western culture, an existential mentality inclusive of all theistic and atheistic philosophies, which are much disparaged by Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (122). By placing blame, he derails the conclusion to be drawn from evaluating his (human) condition of unhappiness, helplessness, interpersonal isolation, aging, and eventual death, all of which are consciously and progressively in evidence in his experiences of the day. In other words, Yvars is not preoccupied with the significance of his personal despair and dehumanization among and by his fellow men, nor is he preoccupied with the sense of broken community (solidarity) and the resultant distress of the human condition. Although surrounded by evidences of the absurd, he does not arrive at a profound sense of the meaningless of his life. At the end, his wishing to be young again with his wife and departing for the other side of the sea (“Muets” 1608) do not constitute the requisite “awareness” (“conscience”) of the absurd. Camus brings his protagonist to the brink of awareness and discovery, but leaves him experiencing only an impulse to get away from it all, an impulse that will pass with the night. For Yvars, the moment never comes when “the ‘why’ looms up and everything has its beginning in this despondency tinged with astonishment” (Mythe 107).7 He never enters into that “mood … in which the chain of daily motions is broken” (106).8 He never experiences “the despondency [that] is at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but [that] simultaneously initiates the movement of awareness.”9 Despondency does not awaken him, as it does the absurd man, and provoke “the definitive awakening”;10 his lot is “the unconscious return to the chain” (107).11 Consequently, Yvars does not attain to “despair” (distress, affliction, despondency),12 the absurd equivalent of “the very state of sin[,] … the metaphysical state of the conscious man” (128).13

At this point, it is not incongruous to suggest that Camus intended Yvars to be a personification of a nontragic Sisyphus: “If this myth is tragic, it's because its hero is aware. Where would the effect of his pain be, if at each step the hope of succeeding sustained him? Today's worker works every day of his life at the same tasks, and this destiny is not less meaningless. But it is tragic only during those rare moments when he becomes aware” (196).14 In “The Silent Men,” Camus draws attention to Yvars's repetitive, joyless, nontragic days, nontragic because he still finds relief (sufficiency = escape) in his work: “One has one's work. That's enough” (“Muets” 1600).15 By contrast, Sisyphus, consciously engaged, receives satisfaction, sufficiency (= absurd happiness), from his ritual of defiance: “The struggle itself toward the summits is enough to fill a human heart” (Mythe 198).16 Yvars, then, is in a Sisyphean situation without being aware of the fact.

On the other hand, in “The Guest,” the story that forms the second panel of this diptych, the protagonist, while pursuing a self-affirming goal—hence the apparent imbalance in the treatment—does discover the necessary awareness. Commentaries on “The Guest” deal primarily with the political, social and personal aspects of the characters and never interpret the theme of the story as a symbolic depiction of the absurd.17 For Daru, solitude, either moral or physical, poses no inconvenience or distress. His existence is solitary only in the sense of remoteness or limited isolation from more inhabited areas. The snow has only interrupted his commerce with others (“L'Hôte” 1612), and, after the snow melts, his life will return to normal. It is only at the end of the story that solitude, profound, distressing moral solitude, enters Daru's experience. The point of the story, then, is absurd solitude—the absurd experience par excellence—and Camus's primary objective in developing Daru's character is the creation of that attitude.

In order to trace the creation of absurd solitude in Daru, we shall note the change in his character from the time he originally arrives at the schoolhouse until he sees the Arab moving toward Tinguit and imprisonment. Living a removed—to avoid saying “solitary”—existence in the midst of that poverty and hardship in the plateau country, Daru nonetheless feels like a “seigneur” (“lord”; 1612), a word that translates his sense of belonging and full control: his personal self-confidence, his being in control of both his life and the situation, in which he lives, and his confidence in understanding (occidental) human relations and values. That word, along with a near synonym (“roi” [“king”]), conveys the same force in Le Premier Homme (The First Man).18 That Daru, as a “seigneur,” is and has long been a nonconformist and of independent judgment is suggested in Balducci's remark following Daru's declaration of confidence in protecting himself when necessary in the event of war with the Arabs: “That's what I used to say. You have always been a little crazy” (1616),19 and emphasized by Daru's refusal to fulfill his legal responsibility of turning the prisoner over to the authorities. His sense of belonging and control is such that he fears no repercussions—a point to be remembered when Daru learns the Arab's decision at the end—from his contravening, hence superseding, custom and law, repercussions that jeopardize his solidarity with the colonialists and his friend.

Daru feels like a “seigneur”—that is until the lengthy drought, the sudden snow, the forbidding landscape and living conditions reveal humanity's nonrole in the physical universe: “Thus the land was cruel to live on, even without people, who nonetheless made nothing better” (1612-13).20 The point is made again: “When all the snow had melted, the sun would rule again and once more scorch the fields of rock. Again for days the unchanging sky would unleash its harsh light upon the solitary expanse, where nothing hinted of man” (1615).21 And yet again: “Cities would take root there, flourish, then disappear; people would pass that way, love one another or be at each other's throat, then die. In this desert, no one, neither he nor his guest, was anything” (1617).22 In the same vein in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus affirms the corporeal world's rejection of human beings when he notes “with what intensity nature, a landscape can deny us” (107).23 The friendless, impersonal landscape and his intercourse with people have not yet profoundly altered his perspective. He still feels at home in this land: “And yet, outside this desert, neither one nor the other, Daru knew, could have really lived” (“L'Hôte” 1617).24

The morning after the Arab's arrival, Daru's feeling of mastery and control undergoes yet another assault when he reviews to what extent his freedom of thought and action is further eroded by pressures embedded in his psyche: a need for camaraderie and national identity (“he felt strangely empty and vulnerable”)25 because of his brusque behavior toward Balducci and appearing not to want to share with him the same identity and commitment (“to be in the same boat” [1621]);26 a deep respect for human beings and an ordered society (implied in his revulsion at the Arab's “crime imbécile” (“imbecilic crime”) and in his anger “toward all men and their repugnant malice, their relentless hatreds, their lust for blood” (1615);27 and a code of honor, which is frustrated by the legal requirement to hand the Arab over to the state. Just the thought of breaching his code of honor “would make him crazy with humiliation” (1621).28Le Mythe de Sisyphe provides an understanding of the depth of the suffering produced by humiliation. Throughout the essay Camus defines the term broadly as a state produced by those forces in life and society that deprive the individual of human dignity (freedom of thought and action) by inducing him to submit to illusion: “le divin” (“the divine”) or “les droits de l'irrationnel” (“the rights of the irrational”), which constitute “the tradition of what one may call humiliated thought” (114).29 Daru, “crazy with humiliation,” nonetheless resolutely resists abandoning his illusion about himself, belonging and control, which is challenged and curtailed by pressures beyond his control, pressures that remind him of his powerlessness over his own life and that consequently diminish his and, by implication, society's image of humanity.

As seen in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, the change from illusion to disillusion characterizes the journey to consciousness of the absurd, the human condition. In that work, Camus lays the foundation for the centrality of freedom in his thinking. The much-discussed philosophical notion of whether “l'homme est libre” (“man is free”) interests him not at all (Mythe 139), for he can experience only his own freedom (139). He decries all philosophies that evade absurd freedom (122) and accept instead an illusional and delusional (Christian and atheistic existential) freedom.

The role of disillusionment with people's relationship with other people and with the physical world in the transformation of Daru's thought is amply evident. But a more crucial awareness will shatter his ultimate illusion, demonstrate his complete humiliation, and effect his cognizance of absurd solitude, namely, the awareness of his personal and absolute inability to comprehend the refusal to pursue at all costs freedom of thought and action, the sine qua non of human superiority over “l'irrationnel” (“the irrational”). With the crushing of that illusion comes Daru's profound awareness of uselessness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness in the presence of all things human, material, and idealistic—the opposite of what is signified by the term “seigneur.”

The reader now understands that at this point Daru's craving for freedom of thought and action within the received tradition, the thwarting of which infuriates and maddens him, dominates his personality and explains both his adamant refusal to deliver the Arab to prison and the intensity of his determination to learn whether the Arab chooses and seizes freedom, the only remaining test of Daru's conviction that his life possesses even marginal predominance over “l'irrationnel,” a conviction that, if demonstrably verified, will arrest his intellectual and emotional descent, “this incalculable descent before the image of what we are” (Mythe 108),30 into despair.

The backdrop of “The Guest” is the Arab struggle for political freedom from the French colonialists, a concern that does not materially influence Daru's thoughts or actions. By significant contrast, the gendarme Balducci understands that personal freedom is the motivating factor in Daru's refusal to shackle and deliver the Arab to the authorities: “I don't like that either. Putting a rope on a man, in spite of the years, you don't get used to it and, yes, you're even ashamed of it” (“L'Hôte” 1616).31 In his interchange with the Arab, then, Daru's underlying, unspoken conviction is that if a person, even one as instinctive, as natural as the Arab, is given the choice between freedom and imprisonment and possible execution, that person will choose freedom. Daru is so certain of his conviction that he goes so far as to provide for his departing guest a two-day supply of food and a thousand (1954) francs for the longer walk to freedom. In addition, Daru, perhaps fearing a reason that may invalidate his conviction, vehemently refuses to hear the panicked Arab's objection, whatever it may have been. From this point, his deep-rooted conviction relentlessly governs his behavior.

Upon arriving at his destination, Daru explains to the Arab the significance of the two directions, first toward Tinguit, to prison, then unceremoniously toward the south to freedom among the nomads. Daru's abruptness exposes his growing impatience with the Arab's persistent failure to understand what is happening throughout their encounter, a failure that raises his apprehension about whether the Arab will seize freedom. His apprehension notwithstanding, his conviction regarding the preferability of freedom is such that he leaves the Arab standing at the crossroads. But apprehension urges him to look back. Finally, in exasperation he makes a signal to the Arab to set out. He proceeds toward the schoolhouse, but his certainty wavers: “Daru felt his throat knot up” (“L'Hôte” 1623).32 He goes back to confirm his conviction. Not able to see the Arab on the prominence and not knowing the direction he took, Daru's growing anxiety33 impels him, “déjà loin” (“already far way”), to return and struggle up the prominence. There, winded and dripping with perspiration following an effort resembling desperation, he discovers what he feared:34 the Arab slowly following the road to prison (1623).35

Camus need not tell the reader the extent of Daru's disillusionment and subsequent despair, feelings that doubtlessly account for his heavy heart during the return to the schoolhouse. With the obliteration of his illusion, he experiences, in the words of Le Mythe de Sisyphe, “this unfathomable feeling which deprives the mind of the sleep [illusion] necessary for life” (101).36 He can no longer explain his “familiar world,”

even with bad reasons; in a universe suddenly deprived of illusions and of enlightenment, man feels himself a stranger. This exile is without recourse since it is deprived of the memories of a lost homeland [illusion] or the hope of a promised land [illusion]. This divorce between a man and his life, an actor and his stage setting, is precisely the feeling of absurdity.


Upon awakening to the loss of all his illusions, Daru has been brought to the initial moment of absurd awareness as Camus presents it: “At the end of the awakening, there comes, with time, the consequence: suicide or reestablishment [= philosophical suicide]” (Mythe 107).38 Daru must still appropriate the implications of his experience (“with time”), but the foundation for escape via death has been laid. Consequently, since he is already critically altered psychologically and emotionally, the words on the blackboard convey no effective threat, and the text indicates no fear on his part. On the other hand, the introduction of the thought of death, the reminder of ultimate futility and meaninglessness, seems only to confirm and compound his disillusionment. People cannot, perhaps will never—as “The Silent Men” also illustrates—be able to live in harmony: they cannot communicate as individuals or groups on the most basic of levels about the simplest of matters; they cannot understand even the purest of motives of others; they cannot find confidence in a knowledge of the deepest psychological and emotional needs (for human comfort and human solidarity in “The Silent Men”; for freedom, belonging, and human solidarity in “The Guest”). In this vast country that Daru loves so much, there is no one who can understand or help, no one or nothing to compensate for human inability to know truth, no one to console or hear a cry of despair, not even God. Indeed, thus deprived of his illusions about humanity and belonging, self, truth and meaning, he realizes unequivocally that in this vast land he loves so much he is alone (“il était seul”; “L'Hôte” 1623), profoundly alone and without recourse (“sans appel”; Mythe 137)39 in a hostile universe, the experience—as stated above—par excellence of the absurd.

Up to the point of absurd awareness, Daru matches Camus's observation relative to Western/existential humanity: “To the extent that he imagined a purpose for his life, he conformed to the demands of a goal to attain and became a slave of his freedom” (Mythe 141).40 Thrust upon the protagonist is this moment of absurd awareness, “this singular mood in which the chain of daily motions is broken, in which the heart seeks in vain the link which reunites it” (106):41 “The return to awareness, the escape from daily sleep [i.e., from illusion and unawareness of the absurd] represent the first steps of absurd freedom” (142).42 But, unlike Yvars, Daru enters that moment “after the absurd, [when] everything is shaken” (140),43 “[when] the backdrops [illusions] collapse” (106),44 and reaches that moment when “despondency [in French a near synonym of despair] … initiates the awakening of awareness [and] provokes … the definitive awakening” (107).45 He penetrates the absurd, as Yvars may never do. Yet to discover the “liberté profonde” (“profound freedom”) of the absurd (141), this neophyte, this nascent Sisyphus, is now susceptible of growing in lucidity46 by learning the great lesson of absurd understanding, of that “understanding … [that] illuminates this desert and dominates it” (167).47 Again unlike Yvars, he has now experienced Clamence's “sadness of the common condition and the despair of being unable to escape it” (La Chute, Camus, Théâtre 1549),48 “despair[,] … the very state of sin[,] … the metaphysical state of the conscious man” (Mythe 128).49

Commentators on “The Guest” frequently mention the meaning of the ambiguous title, pointing out that it may be translated as “the guest” or “the host” and may refer either to Daru or the Arab. However, by considering “The Guest” as a depiction of the birth of absurd awareness, we find that Camus, casting Daru in both roles, provides a less apparent significance to the meaning of the title. Daru, moving from feeling like a “seigneur,” as much in control of his domain as a host, to an awareness of deprivation of control and belonging, finds himself utterly and profoundly alone, an exile, and—as all exiles wherever they may be—a guest, the guest of “this vast land which he had loved so much” (“L'Hôte” 1623),50 a guest precisely on the order of the absurd man, who, “in a universe suddenly deprived of illusions feels himself to be a foreigner” (Mythe 101).51

In addition, the symbolic value of the story increases with the realization that Camus, by a masterstroke, leads the protagonist of this historically realistic human encounter with the physical world, humanity and the traditional occidental world view, from the “esclavage” (“slavery”) of existentialist philosophies to the discovery of the absurd, the same personal discovery that Camus narrates in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. In other words, Camus brings together in this single story “the three characters of the [absurd] drama”: “the irrational [“this vast land” that denies man], human nostalgia [the desire to understand and belong] and the absurd [absolute meaninglessness] that springs from their encounter” (118).52

Finally, Camus, by juxtaposing “The Silent Men” and “The Guest,” illustrates two facets of the absurd experience in the order of their occurrence. The first story places humanity—figured in Yvars—in his original metaphysical state of existence (philosophical/social dependence), from which he does not fall into the “sin” (“péché”) of absurdity. The second places humanity—figured in Daru—in the same state, from which he does fall. Yvars does not intellectually and emotionally abandon his dependence upon a system—the original state of his existence; Daru does, albeit unwillingly, and can now, like post-Edenic Adam, grow into the fullness of his humanity as he exercises his “disponibilité” (“availability”; Mythe 165), his independence, his freedom of thought and action. It is for that reason that Daru, in his role as nascent tragic-Sisyphus, occupies the privileged position.


Together, the protagonists of “The Silent Men” and “The Guest” represent metaphorically two phases of humanity's contact with absurdity, the human condition, as expressed by Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. By adding the protagonists of “La Femme adultère” (“The Adulterous Woman”) and “Le Renégat” (“The Renegade”) as representative of subsequent phases, we find a progression. A man endures his daily birth-to-death struggle without realizing the profound implications of his personal and social isolation (“The Silent Men”); he awakens to the depth of that isolation and finds absurd solitude and concomitant despair (“The Guest”); the experience is so intolerably painful (“angoisse” [“anguish”]) that he revolts against the absurd condition and escapes into some form of hope or illusion about life (Janine's union with the night and the renegade's return to “la cité de miséricorde” [“the city of mercy”]). But escape, this consent to illusion (Mythe 180) and response to the existentialists' cry of despair (Mythe 128), is the prerogative of the weak and is rejected (“la poignée de sel” [“the fistful of salt”] in the renegade's mouth). (Camus makes this point categorically when calling “les lucides” “virils” [“the lucid” “virile”] and rejecting “une force qui se sépare de la clairvoyance [la lucidité, la conscience]”: [“a force that breaks with clear-sightedness (lucidity, awareness)”; Mythe 168].)

A third phase of the philosophy of the absurd is seen in “Jonas ou l'Artiste au travail” (“Jonas or the Artist at Work”), in which Jonas, in his loft, achieves his goal of finding contentment with the human lot: the human creature is alone in the vastness of the absurd universe (“solitaire”), but shares that lot in common with all others (“solidaire”), and with that realization he discovers happiness in his love of family and in his oneness with humankind; the joyous message of his heart frees him from the escapist tradition of Western society and from the existential and brings him into life, into existence. In Jonas, as in d'Arrast, the absurd individual is happy, thus surpassing Sisyphus, whom Camus says we must imagine happy (Mythe 198).

At this point, it becomes clear that Camus arranged the six stories of L'Exil et le royaume to form three diptychs that depict three different aspects of the philosophy of the absurd, beginning in medias res, with “The Adulterous Woman” and “The Renegade,” which feature individuals who experience the absurd, but reject it. In the central panel are “The Silent Men” and “The Guest,” flanked on the right by stories featuring individuals who accept it and find their joy when entering into absurd solidarity with others: Jonas and d'Arrast, who, at the end of “La Pierre qui pousse” (“The Growing Stone”), “filled with a tumultuous happiness, … greets his own strength joyously, … [and] greets once more his life which begins again” (“[rempli] d'un bonheur tumultueux, … salue[e] joyeusement sa propre force, … [et] salu[e], une fois de plus, la vie qui recommenc[e]”; 1686).53


The ambiguity—the polysemic quality—that characterizes L'Exil et le royaume arises from what Camus calls “pieces of evidence, (“évidences”), i.e., “changing mirrors of phenomena, of eternal relationships” (“les miroirs changeants des phénomènes, des relations éternelles”; Mythe 109-10). Those “pieces of evidence” emanate from “this indecipherable universe” (“cet univers indéchiffrable”; Mythe 113) that, for the purpose of “literary creation” (“la création romanesque”), “can offer the same ambiguity as certain philosophies” (“peut offrir la même ambiguité que certaines philosophies”; Mythe 180). Intentionally and philosophically ambiguous, Camus nevertheless consciously metaphorizes the stories of the collection in such a way as to trace the progression of the absurd experience, beginning in medias res. Since “Jonas or the Artist at Work” and “The Growing Stone” represent further steps in the progression toward answering the burning question Camus asks in Le Mythe de Sisyphe: Can people be like Sisyphus, “[who], powerless and rebellious, knows the full extent of his wretched condition” (“[qui], impuissant et révolté, connaît toute l'étendue de sa misérable condition”; Mythe 196), and still “live without appeal” (“vivre sans appel”; Mythe 117, 143, 179)?, then the ambiguity of the collection's title stands apparent: L'Exil e(s)t le royaume (Exile and [is] the Kingdom.).


  1. Translations provided throughout this text are mine.

  2. “Rien de plus profond … que la vue de Kierkegaard selon quoi le désespoir n'est pas un fait mais un état: l'état même du péché. Car le péché c'est ce qui éloigne de Dieu. L'absurde est l'état métaphysique de l'homme conscient. … Peut-être cette notion s'éclaircira-t-elle si je hasarde cette énormité: l'absurde, c'est le péché sans Dieu.”

  3. According to Camus, Kierkegaard understood the depth of the spiritual distress of the absurd. He not only discovered the absurd, but, at least for a while, he also lived it (116). Reverting, however, to his Christian moorings, he took what Camus calls “un saut” (“a leap”), “[c]e saut [qui] est une dérobade” (“this leap which is an escape”) from absurd despair (124-26).

  4. In the criticism, the themes of solitude, isolation and silence (powerlessness) are overwhelmingly set over against solidarity, the panacea for human social and political woes. Such is implicit in Sandy Petrey's words: “Between the opening and closing sentences, … Yvars experiences the anguish of isolated silence during a time when common human feelings urgently demand solidarity and speech” (192). Peter Cryle, commenting on the objective nature of solidarity in Exile and the Kingdom, finds that the workers' solidarity “depends on their common opposition to an external element” (“dépend de l'opposition commune à un élément extérieur”) and is, consequently, “political” (“politique” [214]), “more real” (“plus réelle”) than in the other stories of the collection (220). Communality of purpose—“the great humanist project,” as Ray Davison puts it—“is broken on the ontological separation of beings and the impossibility of mitsein,” wherein “Camus finds himself ‘over a collective barrel’” (195) (“[L]e grand projet humaniste se brise sur la séparation ontologique des êtres et l'impossibilité du mitsein,” wherein “Camus se trouve ‘over a collective barrell’” [195]), by which he understands, interpreting with Sartre in mind, that Camus and all others are in the same existential, not absurd, ontological situation. In view of the fact that many critics have flatly denied any symbolic value to this realistic writing and that there is a general deafness to the symbolic resonances in the story, English Showalter calls attention to a host of them (54; passim). In his study, he demonstrates, as have Petrey, Cryle and Alfred Noyer-Weidner, that Camus is consistent in using common symbols in all of the stories of Exile and the Kingdom, symbols that indeed resonate with imagery Camus associates with the absurd (54). Showalter makes these insightful and telling remarks about the protagonist of “The Silent Men”: “Yvars has probably the most limited self-awareness and his confrontation with the external world seems to hold the least promise of change” (55-56); and again: “[H]e lives in a universe full of symbolic objects and events, yet his own account of them barely hints at these implicit significances” (69), and concludes—in contradistinction to this essay—that the humanity of Yvars's encounters with the absurd “pierces through [his] pathetic simplicity” (70).

  5. “Lever, tramway, quatre heures de bureau ou d'usine, repas, tramway, quatre heures de travail, repas, sommeil. …”

  6. “le suprême abus” “[qui] exalte l'injustice”

  7. “le ‘pourquoi’ s'élève et tout commence dans cette lassitude [‘Ennui, découragement; abattement moral’] teintée d'étonnement.” The definition of “lassitude” is from Dictionnaire Hachette de la langue française (1980). Le Petit Robert (1963) gives “État d'abattement mêlé d'ennui, de dégoût, de découragement.” Similarly Le Petit Larousse (1991): “Dégoût, ennui, découragement.”

  8. “état d'âme où la chaîne des gestes quotidiens est rompue.”

  9. “La lassitude [qui] est à la fin des actes d'une vie machinale, mais [qui] inaugure en même temps le mouvement de la conscience.”

  10. “l'éveil définitif”

  11. “le retour inconscient dans la chaîne”

  12. “le désespoir” (“détresse, affliction, abattement profond”). The definition is from Le Petit Larousse (1991).

  13. “l'état même du péché … l'état métaphysique de l'homme conscient”

  14. “Si ce mythe est tragique, c'est que son héros est conscient. Où serait en effet sa peine, si à chaque pas l'espoir de réussir le soutenait? L'ouvrier d'aujourd'hui travaille, tous les jours de sa vie, aux mêmes tâches et ce destin n'est pas moins absurde. Mais il n'est tragique qu'aux rares moments où il devient conscient.”

  15. “On travaille. Ça suffit.”

  16. “La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d'homme.”

  17. David R. Ellison (194-99). Philip Thody (97-99). Susan Tarrow (181-84), for whom Daru's being alone in “this vast country had loved so much” is not the moral solitude that characterizes the exile of the absurd, but a situation from which he will escape by going in the direction of the sea, “the direction in which [he] will now have to travel, into his exile” (183). Susan Léger, focusing upon Daru after he reads the words on the blackboard (89), interprets the story as being dependent upon those words and the events leading to them. Peter Cryle, in his multifaceted treatment of “The Guest,” makes no connection between the symbolism in the story and the philosophy of the absurd articulated in The Myth of Sisyphus.

  18. In Le Premier Homme, Camus says of the youth cavorting at the seashore, “Ils régnaient sur la vie et sur la mer, et ce que le monde peut donner de plus fastueux, ils le recevaient et en usaient sans mesure, comme des seigneurs assurés de leurs richesses irremplaçables” (“They were rulers over their lives and the sea, and the most sumptuous thing which the world can give they received and used without restraint, as lords assured of their irreplaceable wealth”; 54). On another occasion, the protagonist, Jacques, in complete command of the soccer ball, deftly avoiding judge and adversary, “se sentait le roi de la cour et de la vie” (“felt he was the king of the field and of life”; 206; emphasis added).

  19. “C'est ce que je disais. Tu as toujours été un peu fêlé.”

  20. “Le pays était ainsi, cruel à vivre, même sans les hommes, qui pourtant n'arrangeaient rien.”

  21. “Quand toute la neige serait fondue, le soleil régnerait de nouveau et brûlerait une fois de plus les champs de pierre. Pendant des jours, encore, le ciel inaltérable déverserait sa lumière sèche sur l'étendue solitaire où rien ne rappelait l'homme.”

  22. “Les villes y naissaient, brillaient, puis disparaissaient; les hommes y passaient, s'aimaient ou se mordaient à la gorge, puis mouraient. Dans ce désert, personne, ni lui ni son hôte n'étaient rien.”

  23. “avec quelle intensité la nature, un paysage peut nous nier”

  24. “Et pourtant, hors de ce désert, ni l'un ni l'autre, Daru le savait, n'auraient pu vivre vraiment.”

  25. “il se sentait étrangement vide et vulnérable”

  26. “être dans le même sac”

  27. “contre tous les hommes et leur sale méchanceté, leurs haines inlassables, leur folie du sang”

  28. “le rendait fou d'humiliation”

  29. “[l]a tradition de ce qu'on peut appeler la pensée humiliée”

  30. “cette incalculable chute devant l'image de ce que nous sommes”

  31. “Moi non plus, je n'aime pas ça. Mettre une corde à un homme, malgré les années on ne s'y habitue pas et même, oui, on a honte.”

  32. “Daru sentit sa gorge se nouer.”

  33. “d'abord un peu incertain, puis avec décision” (“at first a bit uncertain, then with decision”; 1623)

  34. “le coeur serré” (“heavy-hearted”)

  35. It may seem egregious to suggest that the Arab represents occidentals who are content with bondage to the cultural status quo, but who reject intellectual and spiritual freedom when all they have to do is reach out and take it. On the other hand, consider that the Arab's reasons for refusing freedom are not made clear. No matter how cogent, they would not be convincing from Daru's perspective. Since for Camus there exists no defensible rationale for refusing absurd freedom, but since there are many who, like the other Arabs in the story, revolt violently to achieve personal, political and religious freedom, the Arab's refusal of freedom clearly symbolizes humanity's deeper, incomprehensible refusal to accept the clear advantage of absurd freedom over the deceptive freedom afforded by illusion. In the Arab, Camus perhaps gives flesh to all who, unfathomably and irrationally fabricate “illusions, all those screens [that] hide the absurd” (“[des] illusions, tous ces écrans [qui] cachent l'absurde”; Mythe 169), preferring to remain “prisoners” (“prisionnier[s]”) and “slaves” (“esclave[s]”; Mythe 140, 141), just as in Daru he depicts—in contrast with Yvars—the emotional journey into absurd awareness.

  36. “cet incalculable sentiment qui prive l'esprit du sommeil [illusion] nécessaire à sa vie”

  37. “monde familier,” “même avec de mauvaises raisons”; “dans un univers soudain privé d'illusions et de lumières, l'homme se sent un étranger. Cet exil est sans recours puisqu'il est privé des souvenirs d'une patrie perdue [illusion] ou de l'espoir d'une terre promise [illusion]. Ce divorce entre l'homme et sa vie, l'acteur et son décor, c'est proprement le sentiment de l'absurdité.”

  38. “Au bout de l'éveil vient, avec le temps, la conséquence: suicide ou rétablissement [= suicide philosophique]”

  39. Cf. this legal terminology with “sans recours” (“without recourse”) in endnote 36, by which Camus means that there is no appeal, no escape from absurd exile, that human condition that results from the individual's realization that in the irrational universe his life is absurd, i.e., meaningless (Mythe 101).

  40. “Dans la mesure où il imaginait un but à sa vie, il se conformait aux exigences d'un but à atteindre et devenait esclave de sa liberté.”

  41. “ce singulier état d'âme … où la chaîne des gestes quotidiens est rompue, où le coeur cherche en vain le maillon qui la renoue.”

  42. “Le retour à la conscience, l'évasion hors du sommeil quotidien [i.e., from illusion and unawareness of the absurd] figurent les premières démarches de la liberté absurde.”

  43. “[a]près l'absurde, [où] tout se trouve ébranlé”

  44. “[où] les décors [illusions] s'écroulent”

  45. “[l]a lassitude [a near synonym of ‘désespoir’] … inaugure le mouvement de la conscience [et] provoque … l'éveil définitif.”

  46. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe, the terms “conscience” (“awareness”) and “lucidité” (“lucidity”) may, as context allows, be read interchangeably. In the present essay, the emphasis is upon Daru's initial experience of the absurd, his “sentiment de l'absurdité” (“feeling of absurdity”; 101). However, it is evident that Camus considers “lucidité,” hence “conscience,” as constantly maturing: “Pour que soit possible une oeuvre absurde, il faut que la pensée sous sa forme la plus lucide y soit mêlée (“So that an absurd work may be possible, thought in its most lucid form must be blended with it”; 1765; emphasis added).

  47. “l'intelligence [qui] éclaire ce désert et le domine. Elle connaît ses servitudes et les illustre.”

  48. “tristesse de la condition commune, et le désespoir de ne pouvoir y échapper.”

  49. “le désespoir[,] l'état même du péché[,] … l'état métaphysique de l'homme conscient”

  50. “ce vaste pays qu'il avait tant aimé”

  51. “dans un univers soudain privé d'illusions, … se sent un étranger”

  52. “les trois personnages du drame [l'absurde]”: “l'irrationnel [‘ce vaste pays’ which denies man], la nostalgie humaine [the desire to understand and belong] et l'absurde [absolute meaninglessness] qui surgit de leur tête-à-tête.”

  53. See my articles listed in Works Cited.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. Essais. Eds. R. Quilliot et L. Faucon. Paris: Gallimard et Calmann-Lévy, 1965.

———. “L'Hôte.” Camus, Théâtre 1611-23.

———. “Les Muets.” Camus, Théâtre 1597-1608.

———. Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Camus, Essais 98-211.

———. Le Premier Homme. Cahier Albert Camus 7. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

———. Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles. Ed. R. Quilliot. Paris: Gallimard et Calmann-Lévy, 1962.

Cryle, Peter. Bilan critique: L'Exil et le royaume d'Albert Camus, essai d'analyse. Paris: Lettres Modernes, Minard, 1973.

Davison, Ray. “L'éloquence philosophique des Muets.” Walker 189-96.

Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Hardee, A. Maynor and Freeman G. Henry, eds. Narratology and Narrative. Foreign Language Series XVII. Columbia: Dept. of Foreign Languages, U of South Carolina, 1990.

Knapp, Bettina L. Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Boston: Hall, 1988.

Léger, Susan. “Camus's ‘L'Hôte’: The Lessons of an Ending.” Hardee and Henry 87-97.

McGregor, Rob Roy. “Camus's ‘Le Renégat’: An Allegory of the Existentialist Pilgrimage.” The French Review 67 (1993): 742-51.

———. “Camus's ‘Femme adultère’: A Metaphor of the Fall from the Absurd.” The French Review 67 (1994): 478-85.

———. “Camus's ‘Jonas ou L'Artiste au travail’: A Statement of the Absurd Human Condition.” South Atlantic Review 60.4 (November 1995): 53-68.

Noyer-Weidner, Alfred. “Albert Camus in his Short Story Phase.” Trans. Ernest Allen. Suther 45-87.

Petrey, Sandy. “Speech, Society and Nature in Camus's ‘Les Muets.’” Romance Notes 22 (1981): 161-66.

Rizzuto, Anthony, ed. Albert Camus' L'Exil et le royaume The Third Decade. Toronto: Éditions Paratexte, 1988.

Showalter, English. Exiles and Strangers: A Reading of Camus's Exile and the Kingdom. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1984.

Suther, Judith D., ed. Essays on Camus's Exile and the Kingdom. Romance Monographs 41. University, Mississippi: Romance Monographs, 1980.

Tarrow, Susan. Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus. University: U of Alabama P, 1985.

Thody, Philip. Albert Camus. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Walker, David H., ed. Albert Camus: Les Extrêmes et l'équilibre. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

Jill Beer (essay date April 2002)

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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 seeing and being seen, which appears to pattern the narrative, to direct and dictate the multiple encounters which take place through the course of this relatively short text.1 Much has been made of the narrative's postcolonial currents, the status of the Arab, the story's significance poised as it is on the eve of Algeria's war for independence.2 Other critics have sought to make sense of the ambiguity Camus offers his readers, the teaser, the twist in the tale.3 Yet I would suggest that the currents of Camus's creation run deeper still. To read ‘L'Hôte’ is to be drawn into the rapids of human encounter, to grapple with the notion of our subjectivity, to engage with the Other.4 While critical readings of ‘L'Hôte’ have outlined the altruism of Camus's protagonist Daru in his encounter with the Arab, it is clear that critics have not yet fully addressed the issues of alterity which lie at the heart of this short story and arguably the collection as a whole. In his discussion of Camus's treatment of otherness in L'Exil et le royaume, Jean Sarrochi writes: ‘“L'Hôte” […] serait excellemment la nouvelle de l'humanisme de l'autre homme: l'autre (Arabe, meurtrier) accueilli, servi; rapport nu, abstraction, au sens de Lévinas, du visage; et nulle récompense offerte, au contraire; la performance éthique en toute vérité’.5 Although Sarrochi highlights the significance of the Other in Camus's creative work, he stops short of examining the implications of alterity for human relations. Elizabeth Hart probes further in her essay ‘Face à face: l'éthique lévinasienne dans “l'Hôte”’ where, describing Daru and the Arab as ‘figures éthiques par excellence’,6 she asserts that this short story offers the truest example of human interaction in the collection. However, while offering valuable insights into the ethical dimension of Camus's story, in positing Balducci and Daru as ethically opposed, Hart's reading of ‘L'Hôte’ underplays the profoundly ambivalent response that Daru as central protagonist displays towards the Arab as Other. It is this duality that I would like to explore further by engaging with the contrastive theories of alterity outlined by Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Paul Sartre.

It is undeniable that in the course of Camus's short story there unfolds an ethical encounter with the Other which embodies Levinas's notion of the face. For Levinas, alterity is intangible, elusive, distant, and in encounter with the Other we desire this very intangibility that he/she expresses. This expression of otherness is visage; the free, unfettered, effusion of strangeness where form and content merge in the warmth of hospitality: ‘Le visage est une présence vivante, il est expression. La vie de l'expression consiste à défaire la forme où l'étant, s'exposant comme thème, se dissimule par là même’.7 Indeed, Levinas's notion of the face envisages and describes a purely ethical attitude which respects and welcomes the Other as altogether Other. In welcoming the Other as visage, I welcome the challenge to look at the world, myself and my possessions differently.8 It is a vision of social justice which, born out of a sense of ethical responsibility, engenders a deep concern for the needs of others, a concern which Daru undoubtedly displays. Yet, close examination of the function of the gaze in ‘L'Hôte’ reveals darker impulses of self-assertion which would seem to disrupt the critical consensus which depicts Daru as a wholly ethical figure. Profoundly reminiscent at times of Sartre's economy of Subject and Object,9 the relationships established between characters offer sequences of interplay where, far from altruistic, the urges expressed are positively altericidal.10 In contrast to Levinas's pacific view of human relations, Sartre regarded human interaction as fundamentally conflictual. For Sartre, the existence of others poses a perpetual threat to the liberty of the Self. When the Other looks at me I become one of innumerable objects in his/her world, the world by which the Other defines him/herself as Subject. I become dispossessed, fallen and alienated in my being:

Je suis, par delà toute connaissance que je puis avoir, ce moi qu'un autre connaît. Et ce moi que je suis, je le suis dans un monde qu'autrui m'a aliéné, car le regard d'autrui embrasse mon être corrélativement les murs, la porte, la serrure; toutes ces choses-ustensiles, au milieu desquelles je suis, tournent vers l'autre une face qui m'échappe par principe.11

Yet, just as the Other disempowers me, I can apprehend the Other through my gaze and modify him/her through objectivation, thus recovering my subjectivity and possession of the world. Le regard therefore functions as a means of securing my liberty, power and possibilities in the face of the Other. In the light of these two distinct approaches to otherness, I would like to offer a reading of ‘L'Hôte’ which explores the interplay and epiphany of selves that take place and so allow the turmoil of encounter, the dual, conflictual nature of human response towards alterity inherent in Camus's creative work to emerge.

Primarily, throughout Camus's collection of short stories, and in particular ‘L'Hôte’, the third-person narrator figure can be seen to play a crucial role in the sequencing of proximity and distance, approach and retreat, centring and decentring that underpins the characters' interaction. Indeed, the presence of the eye/I of the omniscient narrator, whose dominant perspective is asserted in the opening lines, proves particularly significant: ‘L'instituteur regardait les deux hommes monter vers lui. […] Ils n'avaient pas encore entamé le raidillon abrupt qui menait à l'école’ (p. 81).12 Daru, unnamed at present, is positioned as an object within the narrator's field of perception, an optic which encompasses both him and the two men who simultaneously enter his field of perception. The aerial nature of the view we are offered of the men moving towards the school suggests that the narrative privileges the wide-angle perspective of an all-seeing narrator, rather than Daru's limited viewpoint. This is evident in the description of the visitors as they approach ‘le raidillon abrupt qui menait à l'école, bâtie au flanc d'une colline’ (p. 81). The view given encompasses both the steepness of the path and the school from which Daru is surveying the scene. What is more, the bird's-eye view of the men ‘progressant lentement dans la neige, entre les pierres, sur l'immense étendue du haut plateau désert’ (p. 81) suggests an extensiveness of vision which envelops the whole scene, spatially and temporally. However, suddenly our focus zooms in. We are offered another perspective, a detailed, close-up view of the scene: ‘De temps en temps, le cheval bronchait visiblement’ (p. 81). Yet this shift is only to be displaced by the ambiguous presence created by the impersonal on: ‘On ne l'entendait pas encore, mais on voyait le jet de vapeur qui sortait alors de ses naseaux’ (p. 81). Who is seeing? Who is listening? Whose sensory world are we participants in? The centrality of perspective seems to become dispersed and disrupted; narrator and protagonist no longer occupy the distinct spaces of Self and Other. Rather, their worlds fuse. This becomes strikingly clear towards the end of the opening paragraph. Daru remains l'instituteur within the omniscient narrator's gaze, yet the reader is drawn into Daru's mind as he calculates ‘qu'ils ne seraient pas sur la colline avant une demi-heure’ (p. 81). More importantly, we then enter a shared sensory space with the impersonal assertion ‘il faisait froid’ (p. 81), at which Daru promptly goes to put on his sweater. It therefore becomes clear that within the opening paragraph there is a perpetual shifting of focus, a constant turning of the narrative kaleidoscope, which disrupts the centrality of perspective that is traditionally the privilege of the third-person narrator.

Édouard Morot-Sir illuminates this shift in perspective when he comments: ‘What is the nature of the distance realized between hero and author by the effect of the third person? I feel that that distance is almost paradoxical, almost abolished. It is as if Camus were no longer using the third person with a pure objective intentionality but with an intersubjective one’.13 Morot-Sir goes on to describe Camus's creativity here as ‘fighting the distancing effect’.14 What is the distancing effect to which he is referring? Sartre's notion of the subjective world which is challenged spatially and temporally by the presence of the Other offers us an insight into what might lie behind the ambiguity of perspective, the disruption of narratorial subjectivity that Camus seems to seek throughout ‘L'Hôte’. Sartre writes:

Autrui, c'est d'abord la fuite permanente des choses vers un terme que je saisis à la fois comme objet à une certaine distance de moi, et qui m'échappe en tant qu'il déplie autour de lui ses propres distances. […] Tout est en place, tout existe toujours pour moi, mais tout est parcouru par une fuite invisible et figée vers un objet nouveau. L'apparition d'autrui dans le monde correspond donc à un glissement figé de tout l'univers, à une décentration du monde qui mine par en dessous la centralisation que j'opère dans le même temps.15

In this sense, it is clear that through the perpetual shifting of focus, the opacity of the narrator's face and the intermittent dominance of the authorial gaze, Camus sets out to decentralize and disrupt the notion of a totalized Subject and engages in a search for non-violent ways of encountering and responding to the Other. The extent to which he achieves this through the interplay between characters is yet to be seen, but I support Morot-Sir in his assertion that ‘contrary to Sartre's judgement, one must consider Camus as an instinctive phenomenologist who looked for a lived language of intersubjectivity, when Sartre remained prisoner of his “transcendental Ego”’.16 The notion of looking is highly significant. Through the perpetual movement of his narrative stance, Camus can be seen to be in search of a means of ethical response. However, ‘looking for’ by definition implies ‘not having yet found’. This process of exploration, endeavour and searching is very evident in the conflicting impulses that run through the text.

Before exploring the dynamics of Balducci's and Daru's relationship with the Arab, I would like to glance momentarily at the nature of the Arab's otherness. The factors which define the Arab's status as Other are twofold. Ethnically he belongs to a colonized indigenous group which is on the verge of revolt against the colonial administration. Secondly, in murdering his cousin he violates prevailing moral and social codes. Both of these factors define and shape the Arab's status in relation to Balducci and Daru, representatives as they are of the French colonial system in their respective positions as law-enforcer and educator. As a member of the indigenous population the Arab is automatically defined as belonging to a community that is separate and distinct in its culture, language and mores from the pieds noirs. Daru's first impression on encountering the Arab is described in terms of cultural difference: ‘Daru ne répondit pas, tout entier occupé à regarder l'Arabe vêtu d'une djellaba autrefois bleue, les pieds dans des sandales, mais couverts de chaussettes en grosse laine grège, la tête coiffée d'un chèche étroit et court’ (p. 84). As a murderer he is to be imprisoned and excluded from human society having acted according to values which are unassimilable to a value system that regards human life as precious. Daru's frustration at his inability to understand the Arab's motivation for killing his cousin clearly exemplifies this. The more he probes, the more riddlesome the Arab's reasoning becomes: ‘—Pourquoi tu l'as tué? dit-il d'une voix dont l'hostilité le surprit. […]—Tu regrettes? L'Arabe le regarda, bouche ouverte. Visiblement, il ne comprenait pas. L'irritation gagnait Daru’ (p. 93). What is more, these two factors which define the alterity of the Arab are inseparable. Intensely political, his arrest is opposed by members of his village community who resent the imposition and interference of the French legal system in their kinship affairs and who would clearly like the freedom to deal with the Arab according to their own judicial procedures: ‘Son village s'agitait, ils voulaient le reprendre’ (p. 86). Indeed, Balducci later alludes to the revolutionary ferment that is brewing and both he and Daru are all too conscious of the threat of retaliation which resurfaces time and again throughout the narrative: ‘Ça bouge, paraît-il. On parle de révolte prochaine. Nous somme mobilisés, dans un sens’ (p. 86). Although the response of the authorities is seemingly justifiable given that the Arab has committed murder, in the surrounding climate of civil unrest and racial tension his arrest becomes inextricable from issues of national independence and colonial oppression. The Arab's racial identity and legal status thus fuse and define his difference in relation to Daru and Balducci. Indeed, it is not insignificant that the Arab is narratively defined by both his legal and his ethnic status. Given no proper name, he is referred to throughout as either ‘l'Arabe’ or ‘le prisonnier’ (p. 91). It therefore becomes clear that the Arab's otherness is an expression of all that is difficult for Daru and Balducci to make sense of or assimilate, both racially and legally. Their divergent responses to him offer an insight into the problem of alterity and the compulsion of human desire for dominance and self-assertion.

For Balducci, the Arab represents the alien-Other who needs to be controlled, dehumanized, assimilated into the legal and cultural confines of his world. Although law enforcement is clearly vital to any society, the attitude Balducci displays towards the Arab, his pejorative tone and his alignment with the colonial regime, suggest that to a degree Balducci can be seen to embody the West's intellectual obsession with the Other as something to assimilate into the Same, to suppress, dispossess.17 Furthermore, the scant, confused details he offers Daru concerning the murder betray a lack of interest in understanding the Arab's motivation for killing his cousin and suggest a willingness to dehumanize him rather than attempt to encounter him as another human being despite the crime he has committed. Instead, the Arab's actions are justification enough for the appalling treatment Balducci dishes out to him as he trails him through the snow on a leash. Indeed, the (literal) position Balducci assumes in (non-)relation to the Other is dramatized the moment they enter the schoolroom. Daru brings a chair through for Balducci to sit on, only to find that he ‘trônait déjà sur la première table d'élève’ while ‘l'Arabe s'était accroupi contre l'estrade du maître’ (p. 85). It becomes clear that Balducci's is a world of dictates and commands, of self-assertion through a system of law that legitimizes the Self to the disadvantage of the Other. In this respect, Hart writes: ‘Balducci n'a pas de rapport personnel avec l'Arabe comme individu, il agit selon la loi coloniale selon laquelle les meurtriers doivent être jugés à Tinguit’.18 Indeed, it is into this law that Balducci also seeks to assimilate Daru, asserting his legal obligation to escort the Arab to Tinguit the following morning: ‘“On l'attend à la commune mixte.” Balducci regardait Daru avec un petit sourire d'amitié’ (pp. 85-86).19 Camus's description of the smile as ‘petit’ diminishes and undermines Balducci's friendship, exposing a gaze absent of any real desire for encounter or connection with anything outside himself. It is this self-containment, this perpetual assertion of the ego that angers Daru and consolidates his refusal to follow Balducci's orders. However, this is not to assume that Daru represents all that Balducci fails to offer in terms of ethical movement towards others. Contrary to Hart's view that Daru and Balducci respectively embody two distinctive philosophical approaches to alterity, a view which posits Daru as the exemplar of ethical attitudes, it is very clear that the darker and more egotistical urges of Balducci's ethos still pattern, and at times govern, Daru's response to the Arab as Other.20

Indeed, in response to both Hart's and Sarrochi's reading of Daru and the Arab as purely ethical figures, I would like to show how what takes place between them constitutes a process of encounter, a struggle, an interplay and interchange, a perpetual movement where ethical impulses surface successively, only to be submerged by more egoistic urges. Mediated by the gaze, the very notions of Self and Other, of being and nothingness are challenged. Initially, Daru is transfixed by the figure of otherness that enters his self-contained, almost misanthropic world. He is described as being ‘tout entier occupé à regarder l'Arabe’ (p. 84). Once the Arab has entered the schoolhouse, Daru again becomes absorbed in examining his facial features. The Arab exists as a phenomenon within Daru's perceptive field and his gaze objectifies him as such: ‘Daru ne vit d'abord que ses énormes lèvres, pleines, lisses, presques négroïdes’ (pp. 84-85). Yet, intermingled, there is another dimension to the encounter. Daru discovers in the ‘visage’ (p. 85) of the Arab something distinctly non-physical, something of the Arab's self: ‘tout le visage avait un air à la fois inquiet et rebelle qui frappa Daru quand l'Arabe, tournant son visage vers lui, le regarda droit dans les yeux’ (p. 85). This moment where their eyes meet is curiously ambivalent. The penetration of the Arab's gaze carries undertones of hostility and resistance, yet it is difficult to ignore the ethical resonance that the word ‘visage’ carries in Levinasian terms. Indeed, what follows between Daru and the Arab is very significant. Daru serves his visitors tea. Kneeling down beside the Arab and untying his wrists so that he can drink, Daru seems to initiate a silent unknotting of selves: ‘Daru, posant le verre sur le sol, s'était agenouillé près de l'Arabe. Celui-ci, sans rien dire, le regardait faire de ses yeux fiévreux’ (p. 85). For Daru, the arduous struggle, firstly to acknowledge the need to respond ethically to the Other and then to initiate that response, has begun.

In fact, the difficulty of Daru's struggle becomes very evident. Once Balducci leaves them, Daru's fervour of altruism disperses in the intensity of the Arab's gaze: ‘Daru revint vers le prisonnier qui n'avait pas bougé, mais ne le quittait pas des yeux’ (p. 90). Finding himself the object of scrutiny, his instinct is to retreat to safety. He escapes to his bedroom, where lying on the bed he stares vacantly at the sky, relieved to look without his gaze being returned. It is highly significant that, having initially refused and then reluctantly consented to Balducci's offer of his revolver, Daru, on his way into the bedroom, suddenly backtracks, takes the revolver from the drawer to which he had confined it and stuffs it into his pocket. Previously reluctant to entertain the thought of violence even as self-defence, Daru now re-establishes the possibility of aggression as a means to preserve his own possibilities and dominance in the presence of the Other.21 Profoundly ambivalent, Daru's attitude towards the use of violence vacillates between a natural compulsion to defend himself and his reluctance to endanger the life and liberty of others. It is this ethical dilemma which prompts Daru's withdrawal to a space where he can be alone. As Daru's mind drifts, he becomes acutely conscious of the silence around him. His hope is that the Arab has fled so that the decision of how to act will no longer nag at his conscience: ‘Il s'étonna de cette joie franche qui lui venait à la seule pensée que l'Arabe avait pu fuir et qu'il allait se retrouver seul sans avoir rien à décider’ (p. 91). At face value, this aversion to being challenged by otherness, the desire to maintain the sameness and solitary totality of his subjective world, seems reminiscent of Sartre's assertion that ‘[sa] chute originelle c'est l'existence de l'autre’.22 Yet implicit to Daru's aversion is an acknowledgement that mere encounter with the Other entails an ethical responsibility which in turn presents him with a choice. Therefore, already at the heart of Daru's encounter with the Arab is a painful and disturbing recognition of his need to respond, to leave the security and familiarity of his world in order to approach the Other in all his/her alterity.

Daru's acknowledgement of this choice is signalled by his invitation ‘“Viens”’ (p. 91) which again disrupts the already solidifying positions of Subject and Object.23 It is a motion not of assimilation, but of drawing together which challenges the attitudes of conflict and confrontation which the Sartrean mode promotes and propagates. Daru's is also a call to generosity; once mobilized he sets about to make them both a meal. What follows is a sequence of hospitality and, although the Arab watches the whole process, there is no bestowal of the gaze on Daru's part, no attempt to diffuse or disrupt the Arab's attentiveness. Instead, the motions of Self in response to the Other take place: ‘Daru installa deux couverts. Il prit de la farine et de l'huile, pétrit dans un plat une galette et alluma le petit fourneau’ (p. 91). It is a silent-speak, a quiet beckoning to solidarity, a turning of self outwards, towards exteriority, that we witness. In this sense, the passage resounds with Levinas's notion of being face à face, not physically, but essentially.24 Although Moishe Black in his article on the rituals of hospitality in ‘L'Hôte’ fails in many ways to recognize the darker impulses present in Camus's narrative, he nevertheless poignantly observes in reference to Daru's hospitality towards the Arab that ‘an adequate word for all this is not égalité, nor even Camus's own word, used in the story, fraternité, but something more akin to identité’.25 It is indeed a process of identification that unfolds, of both Self and of the Other as Other. This resurgence of ethical generosity towards the Arab-Other is underlined by Daru when he inadvertently knocks the revolver in his pocket while preparing the meal: ‘Dans un de ses mouvements, il heurta le revolver enfoncé dans sa poche droite. Il posa le bol, passa dans la salle de classe et mit le revolver dans le tiroir de son bureau’ (pp. 91-92). This brief moment represents the collision of approaches taking place, the dual impulses that drive and restrain Daru as he attempts to find ‘une perspective où notre regard ne changera pas l'objet de notre regard’,26 despite the circumstance in which he finds him self.

Until now, the Arab has remained relatively self-contained, watchful, distrustful even. Yet it seems that Daru's hospitality, his radically different approach towards the Arab in his lack of self-assertion and his non-aggression, draws the Arab out of his silence and closure, and encourages some response. This comes in the form of a series of short questions which seek to ascertain why Daru is behaving in the way that he is, in essence, what constitutes Daru's relationship to him as Other: ‘Le repas fini, l'Arabe regardait l'instituteur.—C'est toi le juge?—Non, je te garde jusqu'à demain.—Pourquoi tu manges avec moi?—J'ai faim. L'autre se tut’ (p. 92). Daru is deliberately evasive, choosing to sidestep the issues of legality and racial discord underlying the Arab's question, ‘Pourquoi tu manges avec moi?’ (p. 92, italics mine). Rather than explain why he, a white, law-abiding colonist, is choosing to share a meal with an Arab and a murderer, he simply states that he is eating because he is hungry.27 This evasiveness highlights Daru's refusal to alienate the Other. Indeed, Daru affirms his hospitality towards the Arab in his move to set up a bed for him. Yet, his actions are overridden by a competing desire, the desire to gaze at the Arab: ‘Il fallait regarder cet homme. Il le regardait donc, essayant d'imaginer ce visage emporté de fureur. Il n'y parvenait pas. Il voyait seulement le regard à la fois sombre et brillant, et la bouche animale’ (p. 92). It is this dual impulse, whose gaze both delights in and dehumanizes its object that undermines a purely ethical reading of Daru and destabilizes him as an illustration of ‘l'interaction pure’.28 Moments arise when he feels compelled to objectify the Arab, to control, to assert himself. Yet when he does, his gaze rests on something that he cannot comprehend or contain. The Arab's otherness, the undecipherability of alterity, is thus encapsulated in the description of the Arab's gaze as ‘sombre et brillant’ (p. 92). The juxtapositioning of these two terms derobes them of significance and punctures the totality of their meaning by their proximity. The gaze as power and dominance, the economy of Subject and Object of which it is the mediator, ceases to be operative; we witness its partial collapse, but only partial. Beyond the intangible otherness of the Arab, Daru still sees his ‘bouche animale’ (p. 92).

It is with these competing tensions, the inner conflict of dual impulses which emerge and re-emerge to counteract each other, that Daru moves into the most challenging phase of his encounter with the Arab. The darkness and stillness of night, its nakedness, instills in Daru a profound sense of vulnerability: ‘Il se sentait vulnérable, la tentation lui vint de se rehabiller’ (p. 93). The Arab's identity shifts in Daru's psyche, he becomes the ‘adversaire’ (p. 94) and ‘l'autre’ (p. 95). Indeed, despite earlier hospitable moves towards the Arab, Daru once more retreats to the safety of his bed to watch the Arab's still, motionless body. As before, from this vantage point he can gaze upon the Arab as Object, his gaze never being diverted or diffused. In the bright light the Arab's eyes are closed and he cannot return Daru's gaze: ‘De son lit, il pouvait l'observer, étendu sur le dos, toujours immobile et les yeux fermés sous la lumière violente’ (p. 94). Daru takes up a position reminiscent of the balcony vantage point occupied by other Camusian characters, which allows them to secure their position as Subject and gaze down upon autrui without their gaze being returned.29 Yet, the potential of the Arab to gaze back disturbs Daru. In the dark he manages to distinguish the outline of his shape, ‘mais ses yeux semblaient ouverts’ (p. 94). Daru engages in a period of intense watchfulness when his very self seems threatened by the sleeping figure in his room. Indeed, it is the Arab's presence in his world that understandably unnerves Daru, the proximity of someone so different from himself, someone who has dared to take another's life: ‘Dans la chambre où, depuis un an, il dormait seul, cette présence le gênait. Mais elle le gênait aussi parce qu'elle lui imposait une sorte de fraternité qu'il refusait dans les circonstances présentes’ (p. 94). Far removed from the Sartrean notion of negation and refusal of the Other's potential to objectify me,30 Daru's refusal is a refusal of nakedness, the openness and exposure that the situation imposes on them both. Yet implicit in Daru's refusal is the recognition that encounter with the Other entails a call to se dénuder, to turn towards the Other, to turn oneself inside out. This silent revelation of selves is the essence of ‘visage’. Levinas writes: ‘La présence du visage—l'infini de l'Autre—est dénuement’.31

We can therefore discern within the folds of the narrative a sequence of ethical impulses which increasingly surface as the dominant movement of Daru towards the Arab. However, one moment seems to test Daru more than any other, and that is the Arab's night sortie. It signifies a pivotal moment in his attempts to resolve the ethical challenge posed by the Arab as a figure of otherness. As we have seen, with the call to nakedness in the stillness and darkness of night, Daru experiences a resurgence of egotistical urges. In his vulnerability, old suspicions are awakened, self-preservation calls, hostility and aggression resurface. The Arab becomes once again the ‘prisonnier’ (p. 94) which in turn defines Daru as non-prisonnier, a law-abiding member of the dominant culture in society. As Daru lies awake, watchful, he suddenly senses the Arab move: ‘Au deuxième mouvement du prisonnier, il se raidit, en alerte’ (p. 94). For the second time since Balducci left them, Daru's mind turns to the revolver as an instrument of self-defence against the Other whose status has again become that of alien, aggressor, stranger: ‘Daru ne bougea pas: il venait de penser que le revolver était resté dans le tiroir de son bureau. Il valait mieux agir tout de suite’ (p. 95). Daru immediately concludes: ‘“Il fuit, pensait-il seulement. Bon débarras!”’ (p. 95). The word seulement is loaded with significance. Daru could only think that the Arab had fled. His attitude towards the Arab as Other, alien and hostile to his Self, governs his behaviour and thought despite all other sensory awareness. The strange sound of falling water that comes to Daru through the silence is absurdly incomprehensible: ‘Un faible bruit d'eau lui parvint alors dont il ne comprit ce qu'il était qu'au moment où l'Arabe s'encastra de nouveau dans la porte, la referma avec soin, et vint se recoucher sans un bruit’ (p. 95). Despite Daru's experience, his notion of the Arab as hostile is disrupted only when the Arab visually reappears in the doorway. Ironically, the Arab's presence, once a source of tension and anxiety, now becomes one of relief and reassurance: ‘Alors Daru lui tourna le dos et s'endormit’ (p. 95). Daru's assertions of Self undermined, their ‘relationship’ left intact, sleep is possible and the darker, egotistical, urges that threatened their encounter become distilled in the somnolence and stillness of the night.

Yet are they really in a ‘relationship’? What is it that survives unharmed from this moment of anxiety? The notion of relationship is a particularly problematic term for Levinas, since any dimension of understanding, opposition or difference suggests that both Self and Other can be contained within a totality and evaluated accordingly.32 In fact, it is the desire to encounter the Other as Other, to preserve the alterity of the Other, that Camus gestures towards in writing ‘L'Hôte’. Levinas states: ‘C'est ma responsabilité en face d'un visage me regardant comme absolument étranger […] qui constitue le fait originel de la fraternité’.33 It is evident therefore that what is retained by the Arab's return is the possibility of some form of relationship. The moment of encounter that Levinas describes above is dramatized by Camus when, in the morning, ‘quand Daru le secoua, [l'Arabe] eut un sursaut terrible, regardant Daru sans le reconnaître avec des yeux fous et une expression si apeurée que l'instituteur fit un pas en arrière’ (p. 95). Daru's response is the essence of the Levinasian face, it is a presentation of his Self unmasked and undefined: ‘“N'aie pas peur. C'est moi. Il faut manger”’ (pp. 95-96). The anxiety of the night before dissolves in Daru's ethical movement towards the Arab which prepares the ground for the crucial choice that is to come.

The decisive moment arrives. Will Daru carry out his colonial duty, and arguably his moral obligation given that the Arab has committed murder, and hand the Arab over to the French authorities? Can he, should he, respond differently? It is a climactic point in the narrative since some form of resolution of the ‘deux comportements différents envers l'autre’34 seems necessary: ‘Le crime imbécile de cet homme le révoltait […]. Et il maudissait à la fois les siens qui lui envoyaient cet Arabe’ (p. 96). Significantly, Daru's choice is mediated by and syntactically dependent upon the gaze: ‘Daru le regarda, puis: “Viens”, dit-il’ (pp. 96-97, italics mine). His response therefore appears to be catalysed by the gaze. It is an instrument with a new potential, an altruistic medium, a means of connection and approach rather than of alienation and control. Daru's ethical stance is confirmed by his words ‘“Je viens”’ (p. 97), and we see his generosity in action as he gathers provisions and money together for the Arab's journey: ‘Daru lui tendit un paquet: “Prends, dit-il. Ce sont des dattes, du pain, du sucre. Tu peux tenir deux jours. Voilà mille francs aussi”’ (p. 98). It is this moment of victory in ethical terms, where the economy of Subject and Object is momentarily disrupted and deserted for the ethics of Self and Other as absolutely Other, that Sarrochi heralds ‘la performance éthique en toute vérité’.35 Yet, to conclude that Daru's encounter with the Arab is ultimately successful in ethical terms is to ignore the darker, less charitable, urges which resurface throughout the closing stages of Camus's tale. Indeed, it is unsurprising to discern in the final passage of ‘L'Hôte’ the same ambivalence which has marked Daru's attitude towards the Arab throughout. It is ‘sans douceur’ (p. 98) that Daru points the Arab in the direction of freedom, and when the Arab appeals to Daru to listen, perhaps in an attempt to explain, to express himself, Daru is decidedly uninterested: ‘L'Arabe s'était retourné maintenant vers Daru et une sorte de panique se levait sur son visage: “Écoute”, dit-il. Daru secoua la tête: “Non, tais-toi. Maintenant, je te laisse”’ (p. 98). Therefore, despite the optimism with which critics have responded to the ending of ‘L'Hôte’, the limits of Daru's altruism are clearly defined and he again seems caught between two competing desires: ‘Il lui tourna le dos, fit deux grands pas dans la direction de l'école, regarda d'un air indécis l'Arabe immobile et repartit’ (p. 98). Falteringly, Daru moves away from the Arab and leaves him to walk the road to confinement rather than freedom.

The Arab's choice to take the road which leads to imprisonment has baffled critics and provoked much hermeneutic discussion.36 The opacity of Camus's narrative in these closing pages reduces all attempts to explain the apparent collapse of this fragile friendship to pure speculation. Authorial explanation, insight or commentary concerning the Arab's actions or Daru's response are absent. Indeed, Camus's closure is implicitly ambivalent and raises profound questions about the nature of human encounter. Are we ultimately confined to solitude? Is it possible for individuals to transcend the confines of cultural and judicial systems which define and often violate alterity? Despite the importance given to human ‘response-ability37 in the face of the Other in ‘L'Hôte’, the ultimate inadequacy of Daru's ethical resolve, the Arab's final choice to walk towards imprisonment and the foreboding inscription Daru finds scrawled across the blackboard on his return, ‘“Tu as livré notre frère. Tu paieras”’ (p. 99), betray a sense of the futility of seeking ethical relations and thereby undermines an over-optimistic reading of the text. Regardless of Daru's hospitality, he is condemned and victimized by a hostile group of people for whom he will forever be the alien-Other. Can the encounter therefore which takes place between Daru and the Arab really be described as a success? Or is it merely a fleeting moment, unsustainable within a climate of cultural and social conflict? Ultimately, it is impossible for the reader to understand the choice the Arab makes or why Camus would choose to choreograph such an ending. In its opacity, the text both offers us a clear reflection of our inability to understand or penetrate the mind of the Other and points to the unresolvability of Daru's, and arguably our own, dual position in the face of alterity.

Close study of Camus's portrayal of human relations in ‘L'Hôte’ clearly reveals a complex sequence of ambivalent desires towards the Other. Contrary to critical assertions and despite the ethical generosity Daru shows towards the Arab, Camus's protagonist can neither be described as fundamentally solipsistic, nor profoundly ethical in his encounter with otherness. Indeed, Camus's text throbs with conflicting impulses which simultaneously and successively seek to suppress then approach, respect then violate, exclude then welcome the Other. For Camus, encounter with the Other constitutes neither a call to arms nor to openness: it is a silent struggle, a perpetual and persistent choice to respond, to be challenged, to be changed. While acknowledging the fear, vulnerability and violence constantly at play in human interaction, Camus's ‘L'Hôte’ succeeds, momentarily at least, 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.


  1. Edwin P. Grobe, ‘The Psychological Structure of Camus's “L'Hôte”’, The French Review, 40 (1966), 357-67 (pp. 364-6). Although the ‘existentialist psychoanalysis of the Other’ is rejected in favour of a reading of the gaze as a discussion of communication and the inadequacy of language, Grobe does slip into a Sartrean discourse in his reference to the opposition of Self and Other as Subject and Object: ‘They only gaze uncomprehendingly at each other as objects’.

  2. Maurice Roelens, ‘Un texte, son “histoire” et l'histoire: “L'Hôte” d'Albert Camus’, Revue des sciences humaines, 165 (1977), 5-22. See also Michel Grimaud, ‘Humanism and the “White Man's Burden”: Camus, Daru, Meursault and the Arabs’, in Camus's ‘L'Étranger’: Fifty Years On, ed. by Adele King (Basingstoke—London, Macmillan, 1992), pp. 170-82.

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

  4. The notions of Self and Other to which I refer are used specifically in Levinas's sense. See Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini: essai sur l'extériorité (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1971; first edition 1961).

  5. ‘L'autre et les autres’ in Albert Camus' ‘L'Exil et le royaume’: The Third Decade, ed. by Anthony Rizzuto (Toronto, Éditions Paratexte, 1988), pp. 95-104 (p. 103-04).

  6. ‘Face à face: l'éthique lévinasienne dans “L'Hôte”’ in Les Trois Guerres d'Albert Camus, ed. by Lionel Dubois (Poitiers, Éditions du Pont-Neuf, 1995), pp. 172-77 (p. 177).

  7. Levinas, p. 61.

  8. Levinas, p. 74: ‘Reconnaître autrui, c'est donc l'atteindre à travers le monde des choses possédées, mais, simultanément, instaurer, par le don, la communauté et l'universalité’.

  9. Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Être et le néant: essai d'ontologie phénoménologique (Paris, Gallimard, 1943).

  10. Colin Davis, ‘Altericide: Camus, Encounters, Reading’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, 33 (1997), 129-41.

  11. Sartre, p. 300.

  12. All references to the text are taken from Albert Camus, L'Exil et le royaume (Paris, Gallimard, 1957).

  13. ‘Humor and Exile’ in Albert Camus' ‘L'Exil et le royaume’: The Third Decade, ed. by Anthony Rizzuto (Toronto, Éditions Paratexte, 1988), pp. 53-70 (p. 64).

  14. Morot-Sir, p. 64.

  15. Sartre, pp. 294-95.

  16. Morot-Sir, p. 69 (italics mine).

  17. Levinas, pp. 5-16.

  18. Hart, pp. 173-74.

  19. Note that Hart also comments that ‘le discours de Balducci montre la réduction métaphysique de Daru au même’, p. 174.

  20. Despite the false distinction Hart makes between Balducci and Daru as unethical and ethical examples of human behaviour, she pertinently comments: ‘Les relations qui lient les trois personnages de l'intrigue nous montrent les tensions, tentations et résultats de deux comportements différents envers l'autre’, p. 172.

  21. Sartre, p. 302: ‘Je saisis le regard de l'autre au sein même de mon acte, comme solidification et aliénation de mes propres possibilités. Ces possibilités, en effet, que je suis et qui sont la condition de ma transcendance, par la peur, par l'attente anxieuse ou prudente, je sens qu'elles se donnent ailleurs à un autre comme devant être transcendées à leur tour par ses propres possibilités’.

  22. Sartre, p. 302.

  23. The moments succeeding Daru's realization that the Arab is still there see Daru again staring at the Arab as object thus solidifying the positions of Subject and Object: ‘Dans cette position, on voyait surtout ses lèvres épaisses qui lui donnaient un air boudeur’ (p. 91).

  24. Levinas, pp. 78-80.

  25. Moishe Black, ‘Camus's “L'Hôte” as a Ritual of Hospitality’, Nottingham French Studies, 28 (1989), 39-52 (p. 49).

  26. Hart, p. 172.

  27. Black, pp. 48-49.

  28. Hart, p. 176.

  29. See L'Étranger (Paris, Gallimard, 1942), pp. 37-39. See also L'Envers et l'endroit (Paris, Gallimard, 1958), p. 63 and La Chute (Paris, Gallimard, 1956), pp. 29-30.

  30. Sartre, pp. 322-23.

  31. Levinas, p. 234.

  32. Levinas, pp. 78-79: ‘Nous réservons à la relation entre l'être ici-bas et l'être transcendant qui n'aboutit à aucune communauté de concept ni à aucune totalité—relation sans relation—le terme de religion’.

  33. Levinas, p. 235.

  34. Hart, p. 177.

  35. Sarrochi, p. 104.

  36. See Grimaud on the Arab's voluntary return to prison being an authorial attempt to raise the status of the Arab to the same ethical heights as Daru through an act of self-sacrifice. See also Black and Léger for commentaries on the ambivalence of the ending.

  37. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York—London, Routledge, 1992), p. 203.

Additional coverage of Camus's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: African Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 36; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 131; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 9, 11, 14, 32, 63, 69, 124; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 72; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 2; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 13; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Guide to French Literature, 1789 to the Present; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 6, 16; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 9; Twayne's World Authors; and World Literature Criticism.


Essays and Criticism