Themes

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Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

Choices

Daru, the rural schoolmaster, is charged, against his will, to take responsibility for an Arab prisoner and transport him to the nearest town. This situation sets up the most powerful theme in the story, that of the difficulty and inevitability of moral choice. Daru would like to remain neutral...

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Choices

Daru, the rural schoolmaster, is charged, against his will, to take responsibility for an Arab prisoner and transport him to the nearest town. This situation sets up the most powerful theme in the story, that of the difficulty and inevitability of moral choice. Daru would like to remain neutral in a worsening political climate. He acknowledges his French allegiance and suggests that a declared war would make his position clear—he would fight for France. In any case, there is no declared war at the present moment. Moved by his compassion for and knowledge of the Arab villagers of the region, Daru believes that it is wrong and dishonorable to turn the prisoner over to the French authorities. At the same time, he is unwilling or unable to consider either a defense or a challenge to the system. He simply wishes to be relieved of responsibility or participation. He first tries to refuse to accept the Arab from the gendarme who brings him to the schoolhouse. Later he leaves the prisoner untied and hopes more than once that the Arab will simply escape, eliminating his dilemma. In the end, angry and frustrated, he tries to pass the choice along to the Arab by showing him two roads—one to the police headquarters, and one to ostensible freedom and safety among nomadic tribes. In the end, the Arab chooses the road to prison, and Daru is held accountable by the Arab’s compatriots. Had the prisoner escaped, Daru would have been held accountable by the French authorities. The ultimate result of Daru’s decision is misunderstanding and a profound alienation from the world.

Honor

Underneath Daru’s difficulty in deciding what to do about his conflicting responsibilities toward the Arab is his strong sense of honor. In his final exchange with Balducci, Daru makes this explicit: “All this disgusts me, beginning with your fellow here. But I won’t hand him over. Fight, yes, if I have to. But not that.” Balducci understands and concedes the point, allowing that he feels ashamed of “putting a rope on another man.” But he sees it as his unavoidable, if distasteful, duty. Later Daru declares to himself that to turn the prisoner in would be contrary to honor. These European concepts of honor are placed next to the unstated and unexplored concepts of honor in the Arab culture. Honor may have played a role in the killing of the Arab’s cousin. It is certainly not honorable to be afraid, and the notion of remorse makes no sense to the Arab, possibly because he views his action as appropriate. The fact that the people of his village protected him may indicate that his action was legitimate according to their moral code.

Absurdism

Another fundamental motif of Camus’s is the idea of the Absurd. Generally speaking, absurdism is based on the belief that the universe is irrational and meaningless and that attempts to find order or meaning will bring the individual into conflict with that absurd universe. For Camus, there is no resolution to this conflict. According to Camus’s early writings, each person is like the Greek hero Sisyphus, who must struggle stubbornly to live as if there were a purpose and sense to individual actions. Acceptance of this fundamental condition can militate against nihilism. This is in contrast to many existentialist thinkers who hold that meaning is created by each individual who has the freedom and, indeed, the responsibility to do so. In his later writings, Camus introduced the idea of revolt against inhumane and unjust conditions or systems: each person must act as an individual in opposition to a common fate or a tyrannical system by refusing to participate. The theme of Absurdism is evoked in many of the descriptions of the natural landscape in the story, which express powerfully what Camus once called the “benign indifference of the world.” Daru’s attempt to maintain an outsider status in the developing conflict and with respect to the prisoner’s crime is an example of an individual rebellion in the style of Camus.

Hospitality

Hospitality is a fundamental part of virtually all cultures. In this story the theme is invoked in the French title: “l’Hote” means both “guest” and “host” in French. Thus the word captures both sides of the hospitality relationship and the reciprocal obligations it traditionally produces. In the story, Daru treats the Arab less like a prisoner and more like a guest. The Arab calls attention to this unexpected behavior in asking why Daru eats with him. Daru’s response is somewhat evasive; he states merely that he is hungry. Some critics have suggested that the Arab’s unwillingness to escape is a response to the hospitality he has received; having accepted Daru’s gesture, he “owes” him and cannot insult him by escaping. The title is also ironic. While Daru is ostensibly the host and the prisoner the guest, as a descendent of colonial conquerors, Daru is, in effect, a guest in the prisoner’s country. There is a final reference to the well-known hospitality of the Berber nomads, who traditionally take in and protect other wanderers in their hostile desert climate.

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