Monday, May 21, 2012

Literary Analysis: The Guest by Albert Camus

This is a paper i wrote recently for my Foreign Literature class. It is a literary analysis of Albert Camus short story The Guest

Albert Camus uses The Guest to communicate the isolation that humans experience at heart, his idea of absurdity and a sense of moral distress. Throughout the story there is the acceptance of human responsibility while recognizing the purposelessness of life. The philosophy of Camus is unique in that it embraces the absurd. Throughout the western tradition it has been presupposed that man can make sense of the world he born into, but Camus denies this. Camus believes things should have ultimate meaning but they don’t; there are no universal values except those of Life and Freedom (Hochberg 90). He believes a person’s life should be devoted to preserving these tenants stated previously and avoiding death, which he portrays as the common end for all of humanity. His writing shows how we must try to retain our sense of worth, while recognizing the truth that value is an empty term. The Short story, The Guest, represents elements of his philosophy in the setting, and the morals of the characters.
            The environment in which the story takes place produces a feeling of isolation and solitude. The school house which Daru teaches at is on top of a plateau by itself in the cold mountains. It is quite a distance from anything else and Daru likes this; the story says” he who lives almost like a monk in his remote schoolhouse, nonetheless satisfied with the little he had and the rough life, had felt like a lord…”. The isolation of the school house helps to illustrate how every person is really isolated from everybody else, but in this they have the ability to be satisfied with their existence, according to Camus’ philosophy.
            Daru the protagonist of the story is an enigma. There are no shortages of interpretations to what he stands for:
…To some critics he is an existential hero who ‘demonstrates a way of living and of being-with-others that stands in stark contrast to the blood fury that has begun to overtake the country’…To others he is an agent of French oppression who dramatizes ‘the essential ideological underpinnings of colonialism- racism and ethnocentrism’…And still to others he is something in between, and everyman who will die ‘not for having betrayed anyone, but as Pascal says, for been born on the other side of the river’(Muhlestein 223)
            All these different views show how absurd Daru is. He is in constant conflict throughout the story. These conflicts illustrate the struggle for one’s free will. Daru resists cooperating with Balducci when he asks him to deliver the prisoner, because it is not his job, but Balducci says that it is a time of war so he must take on more responsibility to support the sate he is in. This helps to show how man can struggle to be free but there will always be a force overpowering him. In the story it is the state of France at war, in life it is the human being at war with his despair.
 Daru also advocates for man’s freedom with his interaction with the Arab he is supposed to transfer to police headquarters so he could be prosecuted for murder. When the Arab and Balducci first arrive and are about to have some tea, Daru is concerned with the Arab being bound and asks if could be untied. When Daru asks what the man has done Balducci says he killed his cousin in “a family squabble”. He further states that “they” were hiding him so it took a month to find him. The “they” that were hiding him was most likely his kin. This can show that the murder he did was justified but he was arrested not according to the Arab justice that he lives by but was accused by French colonial law. Camus writes “Balducci made the gesture of drawing a blade across his throat and the Arab, his attention attracted, watched him with a sort of anxiety. Daru felt a sudden wrath against the man, against all men with their rotten spite, their tireless hates, their blood lust.” A quick reading of this and one would assume that Daru was disgusted with that Arab, but a closer reading shows that he was talking about Balducci. It seems Daru understood the motive for the Arabs actions and realized that he is not really guilty at all just misunderstood. Since he could not speak French he could not justify himself. This is a great parable of how man is silent before the cosmos that he exists apart of, trying to be free and just but is condemned by his existence.
Daru does not want to condemn the man, so he does not bind the Arab and gives him plenty of opportunities to escape, hoping that he does. The Arab refuses to leave. Daru treats him decently and lets him sleep in his own bed. It seems that Daru is the only one that still sees that Arab as human. During the night the Arab gets up and Daru hopes that he is running away but then comes back to bed, and later Daru hears footsteps in the school house but then he concludes that he is dreaming. Daru does not want to take the responsibly of having this man killed. Daru believes that by letting the Arab make his own choice he has “settled his conscience” (Minor and Brackenridge 79)
Many readers have a more derogative interpretation of the Arab. There are many different ideas on him including him being “a primitive, brutalized, somewhat dull or even dim-witted character” (Griem 95). If the actions of the Arab are interpreted in consideration of his background then he seems to be quite the honorable man, and his action only seem absurd when looked from the perspective of Daru. First let’s look at the reason why he killed his cousin. When Daru asks him why, he says “he ran away. I ran after him.” To the western individual this seems like premeditated murder, but:
…what can we make of this reply if we try to take it seriously? Could it be that the cousin's act of running away, instead of taking full responsibility in the family squabble over a debt of grain, constitutes the complete loss of his honor, and a severe injury to the family honor as well, in his own indigenous culture? And could it be that the prisoner, in running after him (possibly because he was the first to notice, or the one with the best starting position as pursuer), and then killing him, was merely acting in accordance with his own tribal custom?(2) (Griem 95)
When it is seen from this perspective, the Arab did the right thing putting his cousin to death. We can now understand the reason he does not run away is because he refuses to be like his cousin and desert when false accusations are made toward him. The moral understand for the Arab is different than the world he is now in, and this isolates him because he does not understand what he did was wrong. When Daru asks him is he sorry for what he did he answers with a stare. “…should he feel sorry about the killing if it was the honorable thing to do? To him, under the circumstances, regret is a perfectly incongruous, meaningless kind of response.” (Griem 95). The stare that the Arab gives Daru is not a response of stupidity or ignorance; he is just trying to figure out the purpose of, what to him was, and inapplicable question. Ultimately this mind set leads to his death, because he does not understand that in the French mind, he is evil. He goes to the police headquarters expect to have a fair trial and be found not guilty. If the Arab ran away and became sheltered with the travelers then he would see himself and the coward and criminal. Griem agrees with this saying “Daru's hospitable, honorable treatment of the prisoner seems to have struck a chord in him so that his indigenous code of honor asserts itself in an automatic response, despite Daru's lack of understanding of other parts of his cultural identity.” This moral tension causes distress for Camus characters.
The Short story, The Guest, is a great way to understand Camus attempt to communicate the isolation that human experience at heart, his idea of absurdity and a sense of moral distress. These are shown through the environment of the story, the characters Daru and the Arab, and the relationship between them.

Works Consulted:
Griem, Eberhard. "Albert Camus's "The Guest": A New Look at the Prisoner." Studies in Short Fiction 30.1 (1993): 95. Print.
Hochberg, Herbert. "Albert Camus and The Ethic Of Absurdity." The University of Chicago Press 75.2 (1965): 87-102. Print.
Lim, Shirley, and Norman A. Spencer. One World of Literature. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.
Minor, Anne, and Barbara Brackenridge. "The Short Stories of Albert Camus." Yale French Studies 25 (1960): 75-80. Print.
Muhlestein, Daniel K. "A Teacher and His Student: Subversion and Containment in Camus's "The Guest"" Studies in Short Fiction 36 (1999): 223-34. Print.
Roberts, Peter. "Teaching, Learning and Ethical Dilemmas: Lessons from Albert Camus." Cambridge Journal of Education 38.4 (2008): 529-42. Print.


  1. "In the story it is the state of France at war, in life it is the human being at war with his despair."
    Pasted from

    A hopeful response would be: as peace among nations is best achieved through understanding so is peace among the human being's self and his despair best achieved through means of understanding his condition.
    I watched an online video from the JTCC library catalogue and learned how Camus came from a poor background and he was from Algeria, so I can understand how his view is less positive of the world, because the world did not give him much. Maybe I can relate more to Sartre who came from a more well off upper middle class background. I just got Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" from the library and already seems too be a difficult book to understand just by reading the introduction.

    I think your critique was well done and thought provoking.
    Thanks for posting this,

    John Bean

  2. Dear Brad -

    I am an English teacher who is somewhat appalled at your lack of proper writing, grammar, and use of citation. I do hope that you are a first-year "philosophy" major, so that you have time to correct your skills in the next three years. I teach "The Guest" in twelfth grade along with Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus." Instead of using someone else's criticism ( unless that was the assignment was to find criticism and use it), spend some time reading the short story and formulating your own opinion from the text. You might be surprised then to find that your own THINKING matches those who have published. M. Calderwood

  3. irony: "I am an English teacher who is somewhat appalled at your lack of proper writing, grammar" contrasted with "unless that was the assignment was to find"

    dearest posh one how lovely your écoliers anglais must be to have you

  4. Interesting article... keep-up the good work...May I share a blog about an Interview with Albert Camus (imaginary) in