“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.”
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.
“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.