Last Updated on February 10, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.
This line encapsulates Daru’s feelings about the remote plateau on which he lives. Although the climate and relative solitude of his plateau-top schoolhouse can be difficult, Daru also finds beauty within his surroundings. The natural world may be indifferent to human life, but Daru has found a sense of peace and belonging within a harsh and uncaring landscape. This foreshadows and punctuates the tragedy of the story’s ending, as Daru is forced to realize that he is now utterly alone and forsaken—now an exile everywhere, even in the space he once considered home.
In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him. But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances. Men who share the same rooms, 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.
Sleep puts people in a vulnerable position, and by opening his home up to the Arab man, Daru is struck by a sense of unwelcome camaraderie. Although he feels burdened by his task and is disgusted by the very notion of murder, Daru cannot help but empathize with the other man—even as he is simultaneously repulsed by him and the crime he committed. Ultimately, humans are social creatures, and forming interpersonal connections is one of the ways people create meaning in an otherwise absurd universe. Whereas Balducci can treat the Arab man as a sort of duty, Daru views him as a fellow human being—complete with all of the complexities humanity entails.
That man's stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor. Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation. And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away.
Daru’s refusal to choose how to handle the Arab man is also a rejection of responsibility. While Daru justifies his inaction with notions of honor and morality, he also ultimately blames the entire situation on outside forces, viewing himself as a passive victim of other people’s choices. The Arab man chose to murder someone, and Balducci chose to send the prisoner to Daru for transport. In his mind, none of these choices were his, so the final verdict regarding the Arab man’s fate also should not be his to make.
And in that slight haze Daru with heavy heart made out the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison.
Though Daru left the choice in the prisoner’s hands, he remains invested enough in the outcome to watch and see which path the prisoner takes. In a sense, this is Daru’s admission that true neutrality was never possible. The fact that he has a “heavy heart” as he watches the man walk towards Tinguit suggests that Daru wanted the man to go free, but was uncomfortable with being the one to let him go. On a practical level, setting the man free likely would have gotten him in trouble with the French government and compromised his otherwise comfortable lifestyle—especially with the possibility of war brewing. On a moral level, the man was—at least as far as Daru was aware—a murderer, creating tension between Daru’s notions of justice and honor.
In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.
The final line of the story conveys Daru’s complete devastation at the chalkboard note left by the Arab man’s compatriots. Daru attempted to abide by his moral code by letting the Arab man choose his fate but has still been interpreted negatively by the man’s compatriots—in addition to his earlier falling out with Balducci and, by extension, the French government. This suggests that refusing to make choices still entails consequences and that efforts to remain neutral can lead to profound isolation.