Go back to the Camus page for more texts and other resources.

The Exile in Man's Freedom

Camus' "The Guest" as a statement of the absurd

There seems, in life, to be no greater breaking point in a man's life than when he is exiled in his own freedom. Albert Camus' is famous for his exploration of the absurd and his endless search for freedom in a life that seems meaningless and futile. In his collection of short stories Exile and the Kingdom, Camus focused on his common theme of absurdity in the human condition, describing the lives of various people faced with critical decisions that often involved a change in their beliefs. In "The Guest", one of the short stories in Exile and the Kingdom, a school master named Daru, who is living in a small Algerian town, is given an Arab prisoner and told to deliver him to the prison. This story encompasses Camus' usual existential exploration of man's freedom of choice in the world, and the consequences of his actions. Camus develops themes of absurdity, exile and futility made manifest by placing his characters in absurd situations where they have no choice but to question themselves. Daru is the absurd victim of "The Guest", he is as much a victim through his exile in the desert, as he is through his predicament involving the Arab prisoner.

The aesthetics and the atmosphere established in Camus' style of writing are indicative of exile and futility. First he has given a sense of exile by setting characters in a deserted area, "They were toiling onward, making slow progress in the snow, among the stones, on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau", (Exile and The Kingdom, 85), "They were following the trail although it had disappeared days ago under a layer of dirty white snow", (85). The characters are exiled from civilization in a remote area few people would have reason to visit and Daru is left alone to make the decisions he pleases. It also creates a sense of intrusion, when Daru's life is suddenly interrupted by a stranger.

It is in Daru?s situation that the concentration of Camus? themes and symbols expressed in "The Guest" are found. Daru is a schoolteacher stationed in the middle of a desert plateau, whose pupils have not come in a long time ?[...]the twenty pupils, more or less[...]had stopped coming? (86). This indicates Daru's freedom , he has an occupation but no job to do and being separated from the nearby towns is thus able to do what he wishes with his free time. He is then introduced to the absurd when he is greeted by Balducci an old gendarme, who brings with him an Arab prisoner. The gendarme then informs Daru that he has been ordered to take the Arab to the prison in Tanguit, ?And you will deliver this fellow to Tanguit? (91). The character has now been presented with an absurd situation where he has been ordered to carry out a task that has no relation to him, nor does it?s completion affect him, as he sees it. Daru even refuses but is told by the gendarme that it is an order and must be carried out and is also informed that the Arab was arrested for murder. This puts Daru in a seemingly futile position and should give him an uneasy feeling now that he has a murderer in his home whom he cannot refuse to harbour for the time being.

It is necessary before further investigating "The Guest" to examine the absurd, to define it and to define it in relation to Daru's situation. In Camus' early and perhaps most complete investigation of the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus discusses the motivations for suicide and that value of life according to the absurd world. Most simply, Camus stated that the absurd is both incongruity and foolishness and a contradiction,

"'It's absurd' means 'It's impossible' but als 'It's contradictory'. If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine-guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction. [...] Likewise we shall deem a verdict absurd when we contrast it with the verdict that facts apparently dictated. [...] It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation." (The Myth of Sisyphus, 33).

The absurd, in the context of "The Guest", is apparent in both meanings of the word. It often appears, in a single instance, in it's dual meaning, an example being Daru refusing to allow Balducci to tie up the Arab. It is absurd first because it is most ridiculous and foolish for Daru to allow a murderer to be free within his house. Secondly, it is contradictory, whereby the very essence of being a prisoner is the deprivation of freedom and yet Daru has given the Arab freedom. By choosing not to tie up the Arab, Daru has freed him and has removed the essence of imprisonment, but the facts dictate that the Arab is a prisoner. Daru begins a conversation with him, as though to acknowledge his freedom, offers him tea and sets a bed. Come morning Daru still finds himself in a moral quandary as to how he is to deal with this prisoner. He had in the beginning refused to deliver him to the prison and has maintained that notion despite the gendarme?s reproach. Daru refutes the absurd in this situation and says he will not deliver the prisoner, ?I won?t hand him over? (Exile and the Kingdom, 95). Subsequently, it is in his mind that this Arab is a murderer and should be sentenced for his crime, but Daru is in revolt of his absurdity and gives to his prisoner food and water for a day?s journey, points him in the direction of the prison and leaves him ?[...]there?s the way to Tanguit. You have a two hour walk. At Tanguit you?ll find the administration and the police. They are expecting you? (107).

In those preceding scenes the story depicts the difficulty in Daru?s decision, the absurdity of his situation and his methods of revolting against his absurdity. First Daru allows the Arab to remain untied and free in the home. In this situation Daru has decided that he will no longer make the Arab a prisoner, and has revolted against absurdity in two ways. He has giving the Arab freedom of movement and freedom to choose to remain in the house as a prisoner or to leave, since Daru is unwilling to deliver him to Tanguit he hopes that the Arab will simply flee leaving Daru to carry on with his daily affairs. Additionally he has escaped his mental quandary as to whether or not it is morally correct to hold the Arab as a prisoner and deliver him to the prison. Leaving him untied gives Daru the impression that the Arab is not a prisoner and Daru is simply lodging a guest.

Confused by his absurdity and unable to cope to with the situation and his apathy, Daru suddenly recalls during the night when the Arab had snuck out, the revolver in his desk drawer given to him by Balducci. Daru has not quite decided to kill the Arab and put an end to the cause of his absurdity, but the possibility does cross his mind ?Daru did not stir; it had just occurred to him that the revolver was still in the drawer of his desk. It was better to act at once? (103). It is possible that in this occurrence Camus wishes to express the interference of morals with our decisions in the face solving of the absurd, as Daru simply turns over and goes back to sleep once the Arab has re-entered the house ?Daru turned his back on him and fell asleep? (103). Daru was desperate to avoid his responsibility of making the decision to turn in the prisoner. He has already shown, by leaving the prisoner untied, that he is willing to take excessive measures in avoiding this responsibility, but still, Daru is unable to go against morality and does not kill the Arab. Killing the Arab would have left Daru without the need to make the decision but the moral and legal consequences were greater than the need to lose his burden.

Morning comes and Daru awakes the prisoner and brings him outside the house. He offers to him a package of dates, bread and sugar, and a thousand francs, and indicates the direction of the prison. Daru now departs from the Arab leaving him alone and he only turns back once to see that the Arab has gone. By doing this Daru has, in his reasoning, escaped the absurd situation that has burdened him. He has stuck to original plan and not delivered the prisoner, abandoning the absurdity created by the fact that it is not a schoolmaster's job to deliver prisoners. He has satisfied his moral quandary, as to the morality of freeing the Arab or turning him in to be held accountable for his crimes, by leaving the Arab alone with supplies to return home and by giving him directions to the prison and hoping he turns himself in. Expressed in simpler terms Daru has simply passed the decision onto the Arab and relieved himself of the burden as opposed to genuinely confronting the problem.

"The Guest", does not allow Daru to be free in the end and keeps him in his absurd prison when he returns home ?Behind him on the blackboard, among the winding French rivers, sprawled the clumsily chalked-up words he had just read: ?You handed over our brother. You will pay for this? (109). There are a few approaches to the absurdity of this message on the chalk board. There is the obvious absurdity of a message being written on the blackboard while Daru was gone for a few minutes and no one lives in close proximity then there are two others. There is a possibility that Daru himself is

Arab which brings a new perspective to the story. Should Daru be Arab, though little evidence in the short story this, his inability to deliver the prisoner or to kill him would be a result of his reluctance to turn-over one of his own. It creates an absurdity in this case because Daru, still somewhat uneasy with his decision, ?Daru, with heavy heart, made out the Arab walking slowly on the road to prison? (109), feels that he has chosen correctly by allowing the Arab to decide for himself. Daru, should he not be Arab, is thrown into the absurd again by this same reasoning that he had chosen rightly in releasing the Arab to decide his own fate and yet finds such a message on the chalkboard.

"The Guest", a story of absurdity, futility and an example decisions that we are too often faced with in life. Camus effectively uses the atmosphere of the desert and an isolated location in it to present futility. His ingenuity in representing the absurd, difficult decisions, and the great freedom mankind is given, is shown in the testing situations he surrounds his characters in. He gives Daru a job that should not have been his to do, he gives him a murderer who cooperates with Daru and seems to wait for Daru to tell him what to do (thus bestowing on Daru complete freedom of the situation as well as the responsibility of deciding everything), then he has Daru return home to find a reprimand for his action.

In many cases the pursuit of the absurd seems to be absurd in itself; whereby man recognizes that a certain event or situation is absurd and yet man pursues it with great passion. "From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all" (The Myth of Sisyphus, 27). Man's only escape from it is by his revolt against the pursuit of and his acceptance of, the absurd.

"And carrying on that absurd logic to it's conclusion, I must admit that that struggle implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest). Everything that destroys, conjures away, or exercises these requirements (and, to begin with, consent which overthrows divorce) ruins the absurd and devaluates the attitude that may then be proposed. The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to." (35). Daru in attempt to avoid the absurdity of his condition, refused to agree with it and in doing so he created contradictions, the nature of absurdity, by creating an illusion of having shed his burden when the facts dictate he had only passed it on to the Arab.


Camus gives not only his views on absurdity and futility but gives the thought that man, being bestowed with such a great deal of freedom and must question himself in all of his actions. It is doubtless that man will encounter the absurd again and again in life and it is not in his best interest to step blindly in its direction.



















Works Cited

Camus, Albert. "The Guest." Exile and the Kingdom. New York: First Vintage International Edition, 1991.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1975.

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us