Are we ever really alone? There comes a point in your life when you realize that people are dependent on you, or vice verse. Children are dependent on their parents; parents, in turn, are dependent on social commitments, for they have responsibilities to those whom they provide for. Even if you don’t have children, you seek out connections with other people, whether those are through common interest or romance. We want to feel connected to other people, and for good reason. You’ll see this in a cafe, where people meet to socialize — in an office, where people are working together to see a task through — in a school, where children are learning about the world they live in — even in the “Lonely Hearts” column of a newspaper, where men and women of all ages seek out partners with subtly written adverts about themselves. What I am doing right now, writing this critique, alone and to myself in the basement of my home, is a way for me to feel connected to others, such as yourselves, even if I don’t know you.
David Copper, a professor of philosophy at the University of Durham, tells us that “a perennial concern of philosophy has been to confront an alienation of man from the world which science, language or metaphysical speculation may threaten…. Either man is just one more kind of thing in nature, or nature is itself a constituent of his consciousness” (Cooper 25). To think about my desire to be surrounded or noticed by other human beings leaves me to think that it is inherent in my sense of self to do so. After all, do I not learn a sense of who I am through others? But, not everyone longs for this sense of connection. There are those who desire to be distant, alone, introvert. “The Guest” by Albert Camus, originally published in his collection of short stories Exile and the Kingdom in 1957, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is clearly a story where the protagonist, Daru, is at odds with humanity. He desires solitude, and that is what this story delivers, even at the expense of the moral consequences involved.
Largely inspired by the Algerian War during the 1950s, Camus writes about his protagonist’s struggles to accept what he is ordered to do in what would appear to be sympathies toward an Arab prisoner. Whether those sympathies are drawn from his devotion toward helping others in need — the protagonist is after all a schoolmaster — or if they are more politically motivated, something that would not fall short of Camus’s talent, this remains unclear. But, what we learn from the story is the protagonist’s desire to alleviate himself from this burdensome task. No doubt, an analysis on the effects of isolation can be drawn from this story, even if Camus never intended for such a reading.
The story begins with Balducci, an Army officer, bringing an Arab prisoner to Daru, the main protagonist who runs charity for impoverished people from a schoolhouse in the middle of the desert upon a plateau. It is clear from early on that he wants to be alone at the schoolhouse, for his demeanor toward this officer and his charge are in the least bit welcoming. He is astonished even when Balducci explains that the reason he is there is to pass the responsibility for the prisoner over to him, to take him to Tinguit, a nearby town, where both of them are expected at police headquarters. This doesn’t settle well with Daru, so much so that he revolts against Balducci by refusing to hand this captive over to the authorities, even against the orders set upon him.
To Daru, this Arab prisoner placed in his charge disrupts the solace he has had upon this plateau in the desert. Cooper summarizes the early nineteenth-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by telling us how alienation remains a fundamental feature of man’s consciousness. That by separating himself, and thus opposing his very nature, he can remove himself from his natural life and become recluse in the new environment he finds himself in. He quotes Hegel: “Its subsequent history is that of further ‘withdrawal out of its happy natural life, into the night of self-consciousness’; followed by the long attempt to ‘reconstruct… the reality… from which it has been separated'” (qtd. in Cooper 26). The Arab, suddenly in Daru’s presence, seems to represent “the night of self-consciousness” that Hegel discusses, for his company on this evening seems to upset the way Daru has chosen to live his life. By living remotely in the desert, atop a plateau no less, Daru feels uneasy now when social obligations require him to watch an Arab prisoner, a person whose name we never even learn.
In the middle of the night, Daru was still not asleep. He had gone to bed after undressing completely; he generally slept naked. But when he suddenly realized that he had nothing on, he hesitated. He felt vulnerable and the temptation came to him to put his clothes back on (Camus 253).
In this first instance, he is made conscientious of his nakedness, a thought that never occurred to him in his isolation and a further indicator of how removed he is from society. Could his hesitation be a sense of shame that he feels in the presence of another human being? The Arab’s presence even rekindles thoughts of his life before he became secluded in the schoolhouse in the desert.
In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him. But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances. Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue (Camus 254).
But the schoolmaster is not able to sleep, unlike the Arab who finds solace in company. After all, there are subtle hints in the narration that reveal Daru’s nonchalant demeanor toward the prisoner. He doesn’t fulfill the role of a jailor in the same sense as Balducci from earlier in the story; rather, he is annoyed by the Arab and seeks to distance himself from the prisoner by remaining defiant against the orders issued to him. The Arab knows his sense of purpose, even if that is to live in confinement as a prisoner. Daru, however, is at odds with his new-found responsibilities, for he doesn’t recognize his obligations in the same way. He motivates himself only in ways to be rid of his commitment to this prisoner.
His final decision in the story is what releases him of his association to the prisoner, allowing him to return to the life he had before. His thoughts are clear on his motivations for this decision, too, when it is made known:
That man’s stupid crime revolted him, but 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 (Camus 255).
Instead of delivering him personally to the “administration and the police”, to save his face from the statements he made to Balducci earlier in the story, he releases him — gives him food and money even — to turn himself in to the authorities for his crime. Confused by this at first, the Arab reluctantly goes off into the distance and eventually disappears, the reader not knowing if his journey will be a liberating one. Daru, however, is glad to be rid of the responsibility forced onto him and returns back to the school. We find traces for his reluctance to leave made known to us earlier in the story: “This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men — who didn’t help matters either. But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled” (Camus 248). There are many reasons for his staying behind: his sense of honor keeps him from going to town to deliver his prisoner; his home being the only place where he feels at ease and himself; and his reluctance to give up his solitude. As Cooper points out about the Existentialist, the only way to really exercise a true sense of freedom is to break away from the “‘Public’, the ‘herd’ or the ‘they'”, which will undeniably cause confrontation when he finds himself in contact with society again (33). I think this is true of Camus’s protagonist, a character for whom we find taking extreme measures to remain in isolation, to remain distant and removed from society. They are extreme in that his decision, his sense of honor even, goes against the moral reasons for the prisoner being in his custody to begin with. This man committed a crime — he murdered his cousin — so to release him the way Daru does conflicts with society’s laws, but this is nothing he concerns himself with. He takes these measures for the sake of remaining in his solitude. In essence, he is a hermit, alone on his plateau. He chooses to remain alienated and distant from everyone else, regardless of the consequences he may face for having done so. The last line of the story ends with the very word that we can imagine is on his mind the whole time: alone.
It remains a relative question then as to whether a person can really be alone. There may be a desire to distant one’s self from family or friends, much like Daru has done by taking up residence at the schoolhouse in the desert. Society, though, will always be there and will always keep tabs on its constituents, much like the officer Balducci does, when he comes bearing orders for Daru. This implies that Daru was thought about at some earlier point when the Arab prisoner was apprehended. While Daru may have been alone in his schoolhouse, someone in town was thinking about him. Why else would the officer take the prisoner up to him in the first place? If nothing else, it serves as a good backdrop for a narrative, which Camus has made into an enjoyable story. As to the question of whether someone can ever truly be alone, at least in my mind, it remains to be seen.
Camus, Albert. “The Guest” from Exile and the Kingdom (1957). eFictions. eds. Joseph Trimmer, C. Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 247-256. Print.
Cooper, David A. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999. Print.