Themes and Meanings
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.
‘‘The Guest’’ tells of an encounter between a French Algerian schoolteacher and an Arab prisoner on the eve of the Algerian uprising. 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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,487 words.)