Existential Elements in “The Guest”

by Melissa Lachance

 

Albert Camus was closely linked to existentialism in the 1940’s, while he spent the war years in Paris; the Bressen_Camus.jpgFrench Resistance brought him into the circle of Jean-Paul Sartre, which was one of the leaders in existentialism.  This movement is based on the analysis of human existence and the individuals defining everything in their lives.  ‘’Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite living in an irrational universe.’’ Camus emphasized the meaninglessness of existence and he believed that no choice is necessarily the right choice. In the following analysis, we will notice the existentialist ideas         (www.tameri.com/csw/exist)

represented in his best known and most popular short story, ‘’The Guest’’.

 

            Camus’ story the ‘’The Guest’’, is about choices.  Daru, the schoolmaster, is an isolated man, who lives in a schoolhouse on a high plateau and he remains alone because his students no longer attend class.  He lives in the schoolhouse away from civilization which shows that he is isolated geographically and emotionally.  One day, Balducci the officer, arrives with a prisoner and he forces Daru to take responsibility for him.  The prisoner must be brought to the police headquarters in Tinguit.  Daru is surprised by the orders and tells Balducci that this task should not be done by a school teacher.  He does not want to be involved with the political conflict, which is why the setting of the isolated schoolhouse is so symbolic.  The setting of the story is important since it is during the Algerian war and Balducci tells the schoolteacher that he must follow the orders even if it is not his job, because during war times, everybody must participate.  Since they are expecting a civil war in Algeria, the police officers must not be away during this time.  Daru is disgusted by the demands and tells him that he will not obey the orders given to him.  By refusing to follow the orders, Daru is making choices that most people would not usually take.  People tend to obey authority and do what they are told.  He acts in good faith, because he is doing what he believes is right. 

           

During the first night, Daru has difficulty sleeping since he is beside the prisoner.  The Arab goes out in the middle of the night and Daru is afraid that he might escape.  The prisoner actually comes back to the house, which demonstrates his choice of following what he has been told.  When Daru sees this, he realizes that the contact with the Arab prisoner is a turning point for him because it makes him understand a lot about himself.  Instead of treating the Arab like a prisoner, Daru decides to be the host and treats the prisoner like a guest by taking care of him and offering food and shelter.  Camus, through Daru, questions the issue of whether justice and freedom, as well as solitude and solidarity will ever be compatible in our society.

 

            In this story, Daru examines man’s moral responsibilities and believes it is wrong to turn the prisoner over to the authorities, yet he realizes that going against the orders might also cause him troubles.  So, he avoids making a decision by leaving the prisoner the responsibility for choosing his own way; to turn himself in or to take the path of freedom.  One way or another Daru will be held responsible either by the French authorities or the Arabs.  No matter what he chooses, there will always be difficulties and acting in good fate will never save you, like existentialists believe.  At the end of the story, the message written on the blackboard ‘’You handed over our brother.  You will pay for this.’’ (p. 192) demonstrates that he is still in trouble; no matter what he chose and that in the end he is still alone.

 

            The prisoner is free to choose his own fate: prison or freedom.  The Arab could have chosen freedom over imprisonment, but he turned himself in instead of escaping to the south, which shows his decision to be sentenced for what he has done to his cousin. 

 

The story is also about individuals, loneliness, freedom, responsibility, and most importantly, the difficulty of making moral choices.  At the end of the story, we realize that Camus does not offer solutions; he leaves the reader questioning about questions and answers.  The reader reflects on Daru’s moral conflict with Arabs and what it will cost him in the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      (http://abyss.hubbe.net/gfx/covers/bks/lg/cod07-lg.jpg)

To me, this painting represents the existentialist quote ``Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite living in an irrational universe.`` We can see two men looking down on the universe and making decisions.

 

WORKS CITED

 

Enotes, Britannica-encyclopedia, 2007

http://www.enotes.com/britannica-encyclopedia/camus-albert;  http://www.enotes.com/guest

 

Existential Primer, 03 sept., 2007 www.tameri.com/csw/exist,

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Existentialism, 2004 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/

Sartre, J-P., 1992. Being and Nothingness. Tr. Hazel Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.