Style and Technique

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Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

The style of the story is taut, concise, stripped of inessentials. One sees in this the influence of Ernest Hemingway, whom Camus admired very much. All that is there is there for a reason; accepting that truth, all the reader has to do is relate the making of the story to its meaning. The reader has already seen how the title, with its ambiguity, sets the stage for various reversals, displacements, and contradictions. From the beginning to the end of the story, for example, the two main characters shift roles unexpectedly or do, or have done to them, unexpected things. Daru is a host to the Arab but is a guest in the Arab’s homeland, making the Arab Daru’s host. Received by Daru as a prisoner, the Arab is set free, made his own host; received in hostility, he is accepted in hospitality and amity. Though he is a gracious host, Daru is treated as, at the very least, an unwelcome guest and, at the end of the story, is condemned to a solitude that is absolute.

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The description of solitude and isolation at the beginning of the story prepares the reader for the theme of alienation. Daru is alone at the top of a mountain whose ascent is steep and rocky. The difficulty in scaling the heights (reminiscent, incidentally, of the plight of Sisyphus) defines the difficulty of communication. Daru is far from society. He has no vehicle for transportation and has no significant contact with his family, colleagues, or friends. His only acquaintance (except with his very young students, who have been away for a time because of severe climatic conditions) is with the military. He has tried to put behind him, from not many years before, his war experience; thus, such association as he may have is with those with whom he has no spiritual identity. With one of them, Balducci, he has an immediate falling out. He is an exile in his own homeland.

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He and the Arab speak, literally, different languages. This fact further alienates the two men, when the political situation has already made a breach between them. If human beings cannot communicate on one level, they cannot be expected to communicate very easily on another; misunderstanding is bound to be, in such an event, profound and perpetual. Like Meursault, the central character in Camus’s L’Etranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), Daru is utterly cut off—as much from himself as from the world around him. He is a stranger. Camus is uncharacteristically clear on this point. Almost every line of his story underlines it, artistic structure conveying meanings and themes. The sterile plateau, the steep mountain, the self-imposed apartness, the impossibility of understanding, the cruel ironies—all serve as images or symbols evoking the theme of alienation.

From the evils of human nature one may find consolation in nature; nature—in the usual sense of the word, the natural world of rocks and flowers and trees—is not as unkind as human beings. The author of “The Guest” shows through a technique of contrasts that nature is, at worst, indifferent.

Themes and Meanings

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The original French title of this story, “L’Hôte,” means not only “the guest” but also “the host.” There is no English word that conveys the double meaning of the French word. Distinctions are leveled, done away with, in order to show a common humanity between Daru and the Arab; still further opposed meanings suggested by the title (amity and hospitality on one hand, enmity and hostility on the other) add to the ambiguity.

The author is deliberately ambiguous because the circumstances of Daru and his Arab guest are. There is no absolute action that can completely satisfy either character. Daru can neither accept European justice nor ignore the crime for which his guest is guilty. The Arab can neither give himself up to his own people nor go to the nomads. To do the former would be to invite severer penalties on himself; to do the latter would be to surrender his identity in a self-imposed exile.

Because he is opposed to the denial of personal freedom but also respectful of law, Daru does not release his prisoner outright; he does, however, leave to him the choice of directions. It can never be clear to the reader why the Arab prisoner elects to go in the direction of the jail. It may be that he is the victim of conditioning; it may be that, from a sense of guilt, he invites condemnation; it may be that, because his crime has cut him off from his own people, he expects European criminal justice to be less harsh and more sober. One view seems as likely as any other: the Arab merely does what Daru does—that is, surrenders to others the determination of his fate. A noble action, Camus seems to say, cannot always be counted on to bring about a favorable end.

It is ironic that Daru, who has chosen to cut himself off from society, is representative of the best sense of humanity that any society can offer. He is both Everyman and Christ figure, suffering as a citizen of the world and suffering for the world, providing sustenance and comfort and promoting tolerance and understanding. A measure of his tolerance is that he reserves ultimate judgments and generously sees more than one side of any question. His charitable reasonableness does not suffice, though, to counter the cruelties and unreasonableness in the Algerian situation.

For Camus, however, the act of confrontation with absurdity, with the meaninglessness and the contradictoriness of experiences in life, is the duty of the heroic type; it is perpetual, as is the struggle of Sisyphus, the mythological figure who passes eternity pushing a huge rock up a mountain only to have it fall again once he has arrived at the top with it. The confrontation is undertaken by the conscious hero with the understanding that there can be for him no divine hope to sustain him in his struggle. He knows that he is inevitably bound for extinction, but he brings a dignity, a grandness, to his task that sustains him and that lends to his existence the only meaningfulness it can have. Daru is no conscious hero, certainly, but he is representative of the noble person who confronts existence and, usually, ends by having to suffer, and sometimes die, for it.

Historical Context

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The Algerian War

The encounter depicted in ‘‘The Guest’’ takes place in ‘‘mid-October,’’ on the eve of the outbreak of the Algerian War. The revolt, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), began on October 31, 1954, and lasted until July 1962, when Algeria achieved independence. There had been scattered uprisings and nationalist movements in Algeria since the first French colonial presence in Africa in 1830. But the nationalist movement had gained considerable strength after World War II. By the time the story takes place, the revolt was imminent, so when Balducci talks of war, he is describing a realistic fear. Likewise, the positions of “us” and “them” refer not just to cultural differences, but to the now clear battle line between settlers of European origin and the Arab rebels and sympathizers. While the events and characters in the story are fictional, Camus drew on his early experience as a court and police reporter for some of the details and context of the story. The devastating effects of the drought, the crushing poverty of the villagers, the monotony of the schoolteacher’s life, and the collision between Arab culture and the European justice system were all phenomena he had witnessed at close hand.

Many people describe the Algerian War as “France’s Vietnam,” and certainly it was as politically controversial and divisive for the French as the Vietnam War was for many people in the United States. As one of France’s most distinguished writers, a man who had been active in the French Resistance, and a native Algerian, Camus was looked to for moral and political guidance. He was vehemently criticized by both the left and the right political factions in France and denounced by both officials of the French government and the nationalist leaders for his refusal to take either side in the conflict. Camus believed strongly in the need for democratic reforms and greater rights for the Arab population, but he could not support a break with France and held dearly to the notion of a unified country in which both European and Arab Algerians could hold full citizenship. In connection with the war, his only clear statements sought to protect civilian lives on both sides and supported efforts to achieve a ceasefire. While the story is by no means a direct reflection of Camus’s views about the Algerian situation, the character of Daru captures Camus’s discomfort with the idea of having to choose sides in a violent conflict and his profound humanism and sympathy for any suffering human being.

Colonialism

The Algerian War was the outcome of many years’ resistance to French colonial rule. There were similar, if less violent, conflicts in French Tunisia and Morocco as well. And the pattern was repeated for other European powers. In the years following World War II there was a mass movement in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia to decolonize territories that had been ruled by European countries since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dozens of these former colonies sought democratic reforms and national independence. Because colonial rule had extended over several centuries, both Arabs, like the prisoner, and many European Algerians, like Daru, were natives of the country. (Balducci is a more recent immigrant from Corsica, a French territory in the Mediterranean.) Camus makes ironic reference to the colonial situation in the opening paragraphs of the story where “the four rivers of France” are drawn on the chalkboard. This geographic knowledge would have been of little use to rural Algerian students and is symbolic of a well-developed system of colonial education that endeavored to disseminate European culture and traditions throughout the colonial possessions.

Literary Style

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“The Guest” tells of an encounter between a French Algerian schoolteacher and an Arab prisoner on the eve of the Algerian uprisings. The story emphasizes many of Camus’s most characteristic themes: individual alienation, freedom, the value of human life, responsibility, the difficulty of moral choice, and the ambiguity of actions. It gains additional layers of meaning through its incisive portrait of colonial life and the psyches of colonizer and colonized alike.

Point of View

The narrative style in “The Guest” is a classic example of the use of free indirect discourse—essentially an interior monologue told in the third person rather than the first. In contrast to the objective and external viewpoint of the traditional third-person narrator, or the clearly subjective viewpoint of a first-person narrative, this technique places the character between the author and the reader, diminishing authorial independence and authority. At the same time, the thoughts and feelings of the character may be selectively expressed to serve the purpose of the narrative. In Camus’s story, much of the background information about the setting and about Daru is provided through his extended reflections.

Setting

The rich descriptions of the Algerian landscape are weighted with symbolic importance. To begin with, the schoolhouse is located in the desert on a high plateau—an intermediate area that belongs to neither the plains nor the mountains. It is described as being partway up a steep rise. The physical location of Daru’s school and his home comes to symbolize the moral space that Daru wants to find between the French and the Arabs, the “us” and the “them.” The unpredictable weather helps to further mark the time and place of the story as unusual. The action of the story takes place between two states of weather. Under normal conditions, the landscape is hot, dry, and harsh. Daru describes it as an “expanse where nothing had any connection with man.” The violent storm changes that landscape; it is “cruel” in its suddenness, but it has the effect of softening the landscape. The storm has passed, but the effects of the snow linger. The landscape that Daru knows so well is transformed. There is more light, but it is “dirty,” and the snow on the ground moistens it and muffles footsteps that normally sound sharp on the hard soil. Throughout the walk toward Tinguit, Daru notices the landscape shifting back as the snow melts and puddles gradually dry up; by the end of their walk to where Daru leaves the Arab, once again “the ground rang under their feet.” When Daru has returned to the schoolhouse, the harsh sun bathes the entire plateau in clear light.

Foreshadowing

Like the storm that disrupted the normal routines of classes and grain distribution, the arrival of the prisoner breaks the placid rhythm of Daru’s life. It is Balducci who makes this explicit, promising Daru that once he has delivered the prisoner to Tinguit, “all will be over. You’ll come back to your pupils and your comfortable life.” This claim is ironic, since the experience of meeting the prisoner and the moral choices it forces on him will transform Daru’s relationships with Balducci, his fellow European; the Arabs he lives among; and even the place to which he is so attached. Balducci leaves angrily, questioning Daru’s loyalty; the Arabs hold him responsible for handing over the prisoner; and Daru’s connection to the landscape has been ruptured. In the closing line of the story, he uses the past tense, describing the view from his window as the “vast landscape he had loved so much” but from which he is now alienated.

Another instance of ironic foreshadowing draws attention to the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship between the schoolmaster and the prisoner. In response to Daru’s kindness and hospitality, the Arab has requested strongly and repeatedly that Daru accompany him to Tinguit. When they are ready to leave the schoolhouse, Daru orders the prisoner out ahead of him, but the Arab does not move. Daru shows an implicit understanding of the prisoner’s reluctance, not repeating the order but assuring him, “I’m coming.” This scene is echoed in the final parting. This time the Arab is visibly distressed, and once again he does not move. Daru looks back once, then again to find that the prisoner has not moved. It is only after Daru has definitively left him, waving good-bye, that the Arab makes his choice.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: Revolt against French rule in Algeria begins in 1954 and is led by the Front de Liberation (FLN).

1990s: After the FLN separates from the government in the late 1980s, Algerian voters approve a multiparty political system. The first multiparty elections are held in 1991. In 1992, government authorities cancel a general election in which radical Muslims were gaining a strong lead. In 1996, a referendum approves reforms which prevent the use of Islam as a political platform. In 1997, more than 1,000 civilians are killed by Muslim rebels. A ceasefire is declared in October. In November, Algeria implements an international civil and political rights treaty.

1950s: With FLN terrorist activity on the rise, the French Parliament votes Premier Bourges-Mannoury special powers in 1956 to suppress the group. Charles de Gaulle is voted premier in 1957 as the Algerian crisis threatens civil war.

1990s: Algerian President Chadli Benejedid resigns in January of 1991 after Islamic fundamentalists triumph in national elections. Former FLN rebel Mohammed Boudiaf returns from twenty-seven years of exile and is sworn in as president. He is assassinated in June of 1991.

1950s: Muslims comprise approximately eighty-eight percent of the population of French Algeria.

1990s: About nintey-nine percent of Algeria’s population is Muslim.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Greim, Eberhard. “Albert Camus’s ‘The Guest’: A New Look at the Prisoner.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 95–8.

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.

Noyer-Weidner, Alfred. “Albert Camus in His Short Story Phase.” In Essays on Camus’s “Exile and the Kingdom,” translated by Ernest Allen, ed. Judith Suther. University of Mississippi: Romance Monographs, Inc., 1980, pp. 45–87.

Perrine, Laurence. “Camus’s ‘The Guest’: A Subtle and Difficult Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 11, No. 1 (Fall 1963): 52–8.

Tarrow, Susan. In her Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus, pp. 173–93. Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Further Reading

Howe, Irving. “Between Fact and Fable” Review in The New Republic, March 31, 1958, pp. 17–18. Early, mostly favorable review that discusses the tension between Camus as a man of ideas and a creative artist.

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. An analysis of why many critics have been quick to accept or further the negative portrayal of the Arab. Examines the use of early (unpublished) drafts of the story and biases on the part of critics.

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