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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Albert Camus is strongly associated with the rise of absurdist philosophy, which asserts that the universe lacks inherent meaning or logic. In these terms, the natural world is not a beautiful and nurturing presence—as romanticism may indicate—but rather an indifferent and even chaotic one. The remote landscape surrounding Daru’s schoolhouse is a bleak place in which “nothing had any connection with man.” An unseasonable blizzard might immediately follow eight months of devastating drought, no matter how much the people inhabiting the land may suffer for it. However, Camus’s brand of absurdism is not necessarily nihilistic; although the universe may lack meaning, humans may still create a sense of purpose.

When people seek connections and make choices, they exercise free will and embrace life. Although the universe may be absurd, those who embrace its absurdity attain freedom from deriving joy and constructing significance out of subjective experiences. In “The Guest,” Daru is confronted with a choice. From an absurdist lens, the outcome of that choice is irrelevant; it is instead the act of grappling with a moral dilemma that forces a person into a confrontation with the world’s arbitrary nature. Rather than deciding what to do with his prisoner, Daru defers responsibility to the Arab man. At first, this seems like a way for Daru to avoid the moral—and political—ramifications of his dilemma; however, the reality is quite the opposite.

The Arab man ultimately decides to continue toward Tinguit, where the police await his arrival. Daru watches him go with a “heavy heart,” suggesting that his refusal to choose has freed Daru from neither the moral dilemma nor the emotional implications associated with the Arab man’s fate. Furthermore, upon returning to the schoolhouse, he is confronted with an even harsher reality: the Arab man’s compatriots hold Daru accountable for the man's impending imprisonment. Daru attempted to follow his sense of honor but must instead reckon with the disparity between intention and impact. While he perhaps intended—and even hoped, based on his reaction—for the Arab man to go free, his refusal to commit to a choice has led to unforeseen consequences. Daru, then, is left to bitterly face his uncertain future and understand that even his attempts to do the right thing cannot save him from the whims of an uncaring universe.

Camus wrote and published “The Guest” during the Algerian War of Independence, which began in 1954 and extended through 1962, as the local Algerian population fought for freedom from French colonial rule. Camus was born in French Algeria and retained a strong connection to his homeland throughout his life. Although his family was quite poor, their French citizenship and European background entitled them to certain privileges that the native Arab and Berber populations did not receive. Indeed, most French citizens living in Algeria supported a continuation of French colonial rule.

Camus, however, felt it necessary for the two nations to find a middle ground. He advocated for greater rights for Algerians but did not support full-scale independence, believing instead that the colonists and native Algerians could come to coexist on more equitable terms. His beliefs were mocked by the French, the Algerian colonists, and the native Algerians for being too naive. Critics and biographers have often drawn parallels between Camus’s attempts to mediate between the French and the Algerians and Daru’s similarly moderate sensibilities—both men ultimately finding themselves alienated from all sides for their efforts.

Camus’s familiarity with French Algerian culture also influences the story in other ways. Daru reflects some of the attitudes commonly held by colonists of French descent—in addition to some of the more moderate ones held...

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by Camus himself. The Arab man is often described in animalistic terms, with Daru drawing attention to his “thick lips,” “shining" and "feverish eyes,” and “animal mouth.” In many cases, French citizens living in Algeria viewed the native Arabs as a more primitive people, and schools—possibly including the fictionalized one Daru runs—were set up to help educate and civilize the locals.

The characterization of the Arab prisoner in these terms betrays some of Daru’s more French sensibilities, as well as his relatively privileged position in society as a French citizen living in the Algerian colony. These privileges are further highlighted by the fact that Daru receives frequent supply deliveries; most of the local villagers, however, rely on meager grain handouts to survive the recent drought. In addition to political disenfranchisement, these forms of socioeconomic inequality helped inspire the Algerian Revolution.