The Guest Themes
The three main themes in “The Guest” are choices, honor, and absurdism.
- Choices: Daru is faced with a difficult choice when he is charged with taking responsibility for an Arab prisoner and transporting him to the nearest town.
- Honor: Underneath Daru’s difficulty in deciding what to do about the prisoner is his strong sense of honor.
- Absurdism: The idea of the Absurd is fundamental to the story and is based on the belief that the universe is irrational and meaningless.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
A sense of isolation pervades “The Guest.” The protagonist, Daru, is first introduced as the sole inhabitant of a remote schoolhouse set atop a rocky plateau. The landscape is vast and largely barren, especially in light of the recent drought, which left many of the already-impoverished inhabitants of the surrounding villages struggling for food. However, rather than feeling disconnected or alienated by his surroundings, Daru seems to draw comfort from the vast and untamable landscape. Although life on the plateau is coarse and unforgiving, Daru regards “the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man” as home, comfortable with his place in an uncaring universe.
However, the end of the story forces Daru to deal with a different form of alienation: by refusing to choose how to treat the Arab man, he has alienated himself from everything and everyone around him—even his sense of morality. He has insulted Balducci, made an enemy of the local Arab population, and found himself utterly “alone” within the “vast landscape he had loved so much.” Even though Daru seemingly succeeded in avoiding the devastating choice placed in front of him, he must face the consequences of his inaction, resulting in a newfound—and deeply unsettling—distance between himself and the rest of the world.
Choices and Consequences
At the center of “The Guest” lies a choice: will Daru turn the Arab prisoner over to the police, or will he allow him to escape? Daru is disgusted by the murder the man has committed, but he also feels severely uncomfortable with the idea of escorting the prisoner to the police station in Tinguit. He even tells Balducci that he “won’t hand him over.” However, Daru is not a revolutionary at heart and does not seem to consider the possibility of helping the Arab man return home. He spends much of his time after Balducci leaves the prisoner with him hoping that the man will escape and take the decision out of Daru's hands. Daru wishes to remain neutral, but when Balducci forcibly casts him as a prison guard, he must choose between his sense of honor and his loyalty to the French colonial government.
Ultimately, Daru avoids making any choice at all. However, this solution proves equally damaging, alienating him from both sides of the emerging conflict between the French and the native Arab population. Though Daru acts according to his moral code, he fails to recognize that—regardless of who makes it—a choice must be made regarding the prisoner’s fate. Although he allows the Arab prisoner to make his own choice, Daru has also already claimed responsibility for the man by signing the paperwork Balducci gave him. He spares himself the emotional burden of making the final decision, but true neutrality is impossible; both the French government and the Arab locals may still hold him accountable for the outcome.
In a way, the Arab man also seems to struggle with the notion of choice. Rather than trying to escape at any point, he passively allows Balducci and Daru to lead him around and rejects every opportunity to escape. Daru’s questions about the murder for which he is supposedly responsible seem to confuse and disturb the man, who cannot provide a motive beyond the fact that the victim “ran away.” He greets Daru’s apparent abandonment with a sense of “panic” fearful at the prospect of determining his fate. The man ultimately chooses to take the path toward Tinguit, though whether this is out of a sense of guilt, confusion, or passivity remains unclear.
Morality and Honor
Each character in “The Guest” illustrates a different version of...
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honor and moral obligation. Balducci represents adherence to duty, viewing himself as an instrument of justice. He scolds Daru for “being a fool” and tells the school teacher he does not enjoy transporting prisoners either. Balducci explains: “You don't get used to putting a rope on a man even after years of it, and you're even ashamed - yes, ashamed. But you can't let them have their way." In Balducci’s view, the Arab man has committed a crime, and, by the laws of the French colonial government, he must be punished. Furthermore, Balducci has an additional moral buffer: he acts exclusively under orders. As such, his sense of morality can be sidelined so long as he is serving as an instrument of the justice system.
By contrast, the Arab man seems to represent an alternative notion of honor. His people shielded him from the colonial police for a month, indicating that—at least among the local population—his actions may have been either misconstrued or in some way justified. Alternatively, his people may have protected him out of the belief that the Arab community should be allowed to administer justice internally and independently from French authorities. The fact that the man ultimately chooses to go to Tinguit indicates that, on some level, he may either desire punishment or be seeking atonement for his crimes.
Daru, meanwhile, struggles with his moral code. He is disgusted by the murder the Arab man committed but is also unwilling to turn him over to the police. Daru’s moral dilemma paralyzes him, rendering him anxious and, ultimately, indecisive. However, by failing to make a decision, Daru is left to reckon with the outcome of another person’s choice, effectively sacrificing his own free will to the whims of an absurd and uncaring universe.