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The Guest
(L'hôte)
By Albert Camus (1913-1960)
A Study Guide
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Title Information
Background
Setting
Characters
Type of Work, Narration
Publication
Themes
Camus' Philosophy
Climax
Second Prisoner
Third Prisoner
Symbols
"Moral" Atheism
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Based on the Original French Version and on a Translation by Wallace Fowlie in French Stories - Contes Français (Bantam Books, 1960)
Quotations From the Story Translated by M.J. Cummings
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.......Two men climb a rocky slope toward a school on a high plateau in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. One is on foot, the other on horseback. In the deep October snow, their progress is slow. After observing them from outside the school, Daru, the teacher assigned to the school, returns to the building for a sweater. It is about two in the afternoon. The classroom is empty and unheated, for the twenty or so students from villages in the region remained home after the snowstorm—a three-day blizzard that followed eight months of drought. On the blackboard is a drawing of the major rivers of France for a geography lesson that awaits the return of the students after the weather changes for the better.
.......After the Second World War, the government assigned Daru—an Algerian-born Frenchman—to the school in the desolate high country even though he had requested a position in a school in a foothills town with an ideal climate. He lodges in a room adjoining the classroom, where he goes to warm himself. During the storm, he left the room only to get coal and tend his chickens. Wheat sacks crowd his quarters. Daru has been distributing the grain to his students to sustain them and their families during the hard times caused by the drought. Because the families will probably be running low now, Daru expects a father or brother of one of the children to arrive soon to take a supply back to the villages.
.......The schoolteacher goes back outside to check the progress of the two men. On the horse is a Corsican-born gendarme (constable, or police officer), Balducci, who is nearing retirement. He is an old acquaintance of Daru. Behind Balducci at the end of a rope is an Arab with his hands tied. When the climbers near the school, Balducci shouts to Daru that it took only an hour to travel the two miles from El Ameur. Daru takes his horse to a shed while the policeman and his prisoner go into the school and warm themselves in Daru’s room. The Arab cannot speak French, but Balducci and Daru both speak Arabic. After Daru heats the classroom, Balducci and the Arab settle in there while their host makes them hot mint tea. With Balducci’s approval, Daru unbinds the Arab’s hands to make it easy for him to drink the tea.
.......Balducci then announces that Daru is to take the prisoner to police headquarters at Tinguit, about twelve-and-a-half miles away. Taken aback, Daru asks the gendarme whether he is serious. After all, Daru is only a schoolteacher. But Balducci says talk of a revolt requires him to return to El Ameur to help his fellow officers deal with the emergency. The prisoner could not be kept at El Ameur, he says, because his village was astir with plans to free him. The government says it is Daru’s duty to cooperate. When Daru inquires about the Arab’s alleged crime, Balducci says he slit his cousin’s throat with a billhook (tool for pruning and cutting) in an argument over which of them owned a supply of grain. Balducci further informs Daru that the Arab is probably not a rebel. After Daru serves both men more tea, Balducci walks over to bind the Arab again, but Daru tells him not to bother.
.......As he prepares to leave, Balducci suggests that Daru keep his shotgun handy in case of an uprising. Daru assures him that he can defend himself. For good measure, Balducci gives the younger man his revolver, saying he does not need it for his trip back to El Ameur. Daru then speaks up against Balducci’s plan, saying that he will fight the rebels if necessary but will not take the Arab to Tinguit.
.......“C'est un ordre, fils" ("It’s an order, son"), Balducci says.
.......But Daru stands firm. Angry, Balducci has Daru sign a document stating that the prisoner was placed in Daru’s custody. Balducci then leaves. 
.......Daru invites the Arab into his room and prepares a meal of pancakes and omelettes. After nightfall, Daru provides a cot for the Arab and outfits it with blankets. He asks his guest why he killed his adversary. Instead of answering the question, the Arab replies that the man ran off. Then he chased him. 
.......The narrator, using French, quotes the Arab as saying, "Maintenant, qu'est-ce qu'on va me faire?" (Now what are they going to do to me?”) 
.......In the morning, they drink coffee and eat cakes. Daru then goes outside and peers across the landscape as he thinks about his prisoner. He believes that the Arab’s crime is abominable. However, the narrator says, “to hand him over was contrary to honor. Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation. And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away.” 
.......Two hours into their journey down the plateau, Daru surveys the landscape: a plain to the east and rocky land to the south. He turns to the Arab, gives him a thousand francs and a package of food, and tells him he may go east to Tinguit to turn himself in to the police or south to take refuge with nomads. Daru then begins retracing his steps back to the school. After several minutes, he turns around and notices that the Arab remains standing where he left him. Daru continues on for several more minutes, then turns around again for another look. The Arab is gone. Sometime later, when the sun is high and the snow is melting, Daru turns around a third time and sees the Arab in the distance—heading east to Tinguit, presumably to turn himself in.
.......Back at the school, Daru stands at a classroom window looking out. On the blackboard is scrawled this message: "Tu as livré notre frére. Tu paieras." ("You have turned in our brother. You will pay.")
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Meaning of the Title

.......The French title of the story, "L'hôte," can be translated as "The Guest" or "The Host."  Thus, the title can refer not only to the prisoner (the guest of the English title) but also to the schoolmaster, who "hosts" the prisoner.

Historical Background

.......In ancient times, the inhabitants of what is now Algeria were called Berbers. They established a kingdom, Numidia, in the third and second centuries, B.C., under the aegis of Rome. In the seventh century, A.D., Muslim Arabs invaded the country and conquered the Berbers, who accepted Arab rule and Islam. By the early 1500s, Spaniards had gained control of key port cities and required the natives to pay tribute (money or valuables). After the natives asked Turkey for help, the Turks drove out the Spaniards and allowed the country to rule itself under Turkish supervision. In the 1830s, France gained control of the country and colonized it. On October 31, 1954, the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front) launched a revolution against the French occupiers. The revolution ended in 1962 with a ceasefire followed by a referendum in which Algerians voted to become an independent nation. Half a million people lost their lives in the war. 

Setting

.......The story is set in October of a year in the early 1950s on a desolate plateau in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria after a blizzard. At that time, native Algerians—both Arabs and Berbers—were agitating for independence. 

Characters

Daru: Frenchman born in Algeria. He teaches at a school on a plateau high in Algeria's Atlas Mountains. As a citizen of France, he is expected to cooperate with the colonial authorities in Algeria. But as an Algerian-born resident of the North African country, he feels honor-bound not to turn in the Arab villager accused of murder. This predicament isolates him as much as the barren landscape where he lives. Daru reflects the sentiments of the author, who loved both France and Algeria and abhorred the conflict that arose between them.
The Arab: Algerian villager accused of murdering his cousin. 
Balducci: Gendarme who takes the Arab from El Ameur to the school where Daru teaches. He assumes that the Arab is guilty of the alleged murder. 

Type of Work and Narration

.......“The Guest” is a short story centering on a decision that becomes a turning point in the life of an Algerian-born Frenchman. Camus uses omniscient third-person point of view to reveal the thoughts of the main character, Daru, and limited third-person point of view to conceal the thoughts of the other two characters. 

Publication Year

.......“The Guest" was one of six short stories published in a 1957 collection, L’exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom). 

Themes

Self-Determination

.......Until the arrival of Balducci and the Arab, Daru bowed to the will of the French government. First, he accepted a teaching job on a lonely plateau in the Atlas Mountains even though he wanted a post in a foothills village with an ideal climate. Then, as a schoolmaster, he served as an agent of the French government, teaching native children about France even though their families generally opposed foreign rule. The blackboard drawing of the rivers of France illustrates this point. But after authorities in El Ameur order him to escort an Arab prisoner to the police station in Tinguit, Daru refuses to cooperate. His decision to defy officialdom arises from an awakened awareness in himself of an independent spirit, alluded to when Balducci tells him, "Tu as toujours été un peu fêlé" ("You have always been a little crazy"). To be a man—to be fully human—Daru must begin to control his own destiny according to the dictates of his conscience. The arbitrary mandates of Balducci and his superiors no longer hold sway. Daru's life has meaning only if he rebels against authority and does what he believes is morally acceptable to him. He begins his new life of self-determination by treating the Arab humanely and allowing him also to choose his own destiny. 

Isolation and Loneliness

.......Life imposes isolation and loneliness on Daru via the following:

1. His position in society as a citizen of France and resident of Algeria. Siding with either country in a time of upheaval would single him out for retaliation. Thus, he exists in a limbo of ....alienation.
2. His decision to ignore the French order to turn in the Arab prisoner at the police station in Tinguit. His action invites the wrath of the French. At the same time, his agreement to take ....custody of the prisoner risks retaliation from the villagers who support the prisoner. The penultimate sentence of the story sums up Daru's predicament: Daru regardait le ciel, le 
....plateau et, au-delà, les terres invisibles qui s'étendaient jusqu'à la mer. (Daru observed the sky, the plateau and, beyond, the invisible landscape stretching to the sea.)
3. His desolate surroundings. He teaches at a school on a plateau high in the Atlas Mountains. He has no next-door neighbors. There are no taverns, theaters, or markets nearby.
Injustice of Colonialism

.......Between 1500 and 1900, European powers subdued and occupied other nations to exploit them economically, politically, and strategically. Portugal, Britain, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and France were among the countries that gained control of parts or all of other nations in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Native populations eventually rose up against their occupiers—sometimes peacefully, as in the Gandhi-led uprising in India against the British—but usually violently, as in the Algerian rebellion against the French. "The Guest" is in part an indictment of the French occupation of Algeria. Even Balducci, a willing cat's-paw of the government, acknowledges that he has mistreated the natives: "Mettre une corde à un homme, malgré les années, on ne s'y habitue pas et même, oui, on a honte" ("Putting a rope around a man's neck, in spite of years of doing it, well, I can't get used to it. Yes, I am even ashamed.") 

"The Guest" as a Statement of Camus' Philosophy

.......As an atheist, Camus believed that the world was absurd and meaningless, as he argued in his 1942 essay, "Le mythe de sisyphe" ("The Myth of Sisyphus"). However, he later altered his opinion, asserting that a human being can give meaning to his life through self-determination, especially when exercised in humane causes. What a person must do is to make his own free and independent decisions outside the bounds of the herd mentality; he must become a rebel. According to Camus, a rebel is a person who opposes injustice and oppression while treating the downtrodden with compassion. In "The Guest," Daru acts out Camus' views, deciding to defy authorities at El Ameur and to treat the Arab with dignity and respect. After rejecting the colonial government's dictums, he allows the Arab to decide his own fate. Camus' world is thus a world of free choices, of decisions that define a person. It is also a world of alienation, for the decisions that define a person isolate him from the masses that abide by the status quo. 
.......The idea that free and independent choices can make a person's life meaningful in a meaningless world is an expression of existentialism, a philosophical movement. 

Climax

.......The climax occurs when Daru decides to release his prisoner. This decision becomes his personal declaration of independence from the authority of the state. It also provides the Arab an opportunity to choose his own fate. 

The Second Prisoner

.......After the Arab prisoner arrives, Daru realizes that he too is a prisoner—of the French authorities who gave him his job, of the barren environment where the French placed him, and of his own willingness to accept his lot without protest. This realization causes Daru to take the first step toward freeing himself: He refuses to carry out the order to escort the Arab to Tinguit and turn him in there to the French police. 

The Third Prisoner

The old gendarme Balducci is a prisoner of lockstep obedience to French authority. When he receives an order, he believes it is his duty to execute it without questioning it. He expects Daru to do the same. 

Symbols

The following appear to be significant symbols in the story:

Blackboard drawing of the rivers of France, symbolizing French colonialism. The drawing suggests that learning about the rivers of France is more important to the children of Algeria than learning about the geography of the their own country. 
Untying the prisoner's hands, symbolizing a step Daru takes toward freeing himself from bondage to the ideas of others. When he unbinds the prisoner, Daru begins the process of his philosophical revolt against French authorities.
Desolate mountain plateau, symbolizing Daru's isolation as an Algerian-born Frenchman caught between belligerent factions. The vast barren landscape (l'immense étendue du haut plateau désert) may also represent the emotional emptiness resulting from the author's rejection of belief in God.

The Problem With "Moral" Atheism: an Opinion

.......Camus, an atheist, was said to be a humble man who fought for what he and his supporters deemed noble causes, postulating a secular morality that required him to oppose oppression and injustice. However, his ideology had no adequate explanation for how a moral system can exist without an ultimate arbiter (supreme being). Denial of the existence of such an arbiter enables a person—or a group of persons, including a government—to claim the power of deciding what is right or wrong. Thus, if an atheistic dictator authorizes ethnic cleansing, slavery, or oppressive colonialism, he can enforce his policies as morally right—simply because he says they are right. Or if an atheistic citizen decides to embezzle money, slander his neighbor, or sexually abuse a child, he can justify his actions to himself on grounds that no absolute moral code exists that prohibits these actions. His only concern is to prevent discovery of his actions by others who subscribe to an absolute moral code. Some societies that ignore or deny the existence of an immutable, overriding moral code have invested citizens with the power to determine morality via the ballot box or via elected representatives. Thus, decisions on moral and ethical issues such as human cloning, abortion, and the use of torture by the military depend on the whims of the electorate and their politically motivated representatives. 
.......In the world of Camus, a person can attempt to give meaning and nobility to his life through decisive, even rebellious, action to counteract immoral activity. But without an ultimate arbiter, there is no morality or immorality. One ends up confronting the witches' paradox in Shakespeare's Macbeth: "fair is foul, and foul is fair."


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Study Questions and Essay Topics

1....To what extent did Albert Camus base "The Guest" on his own experiences?
2....Write an essay that compares and contrasts the mind-set of Balducci with the mind-set of Daru. 
3....The Arab had an opportunity to escape Daru's custody during the night. In your opinion, why did the Arab remain? 
4....The narrator identifies the gendarme as Balducci and the schoolmaster as Daru but refers to the prisoner only as an Arab. Is the narrator suggesting that foreign control of a country robs the natives of their identity?
5....The last paragraph of the story says the following message has been written on the blackboard: "Tu as livré notre frére. Tu paieras." ("You have turned in our brother. You will pay.") The narrator does not reveal the author of the message. In your opinion, who wrote it?
6....In an informative essay, discuss the effects of colonialism on Algeria.
7....In an informative essay, discuss the effects of colonialism on an African nation other than Algeria.
8....In an essay, discuss the conditions under which you believe the people of a country have a right or even a duty to rebel against its government.
9....Short of violent rebellion, what can citizens of a democracy such as the United States do to counteract government action that they deem immoral?
10..The Arab is described as wearing a jellaba (also spelled djellaba or djellabah), a hooded robe with long sleeves, and a chèche, a cotton cloth wound around the head and neck for protection against blowing sand. Write an essay describing the dress of a typical male or female Muslim Arab. Include illustrations.
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