Moral Decisions and Albert Camus’ Short Story “The Guest”

 “The Guest” can be seen as an allegory of moral decision making in a hostile world. 

The setting is Algeria, a French colony in Northern Africa, just before Algeria gained independence in 1962.  The problems of a dying colonialism abound in the story.  The people of the region want self-rule, consider the French their enemy and are trying to throw off the Colonial yolk.  The French, on the other hand, are trying to keep order until such time as they can pull out without losing face. The stark physical landscape reflects the stark moral landscape that we all make decisions in. 

Daru, the main character, is a European who just doesn’t want to get involved—he doesn’t want to be seen as “for” or “against” anybody.  However, he is a Colonial teacher who teaches French Geography to Arab children.  He IS involved in the colonial enterprise, but he refuses to acknowledge it.  Daru resents the position that he has been put in, but it is, in fact, the consequence of his choices of being part of the colonialist project.  

After Balducci leaves, Daru forms a genuine human relationship with the Arab.  He gives him hospitality, and they form an uneasy relationship.  This adds a new dimension to the moral choice—now he has formed a human connection with the person he is going to have to bring to execution.  On one hand, there is a justice to executing the Arab for murder.  On the other hand, it is not a justice that Daru is really entitled to meet out.  He is a schoolteacher who never agreed to make these kinds of decisions.  There are no guidelines for him.  Daru has a perfect existential choice to make. 

There will be consequences to whichever choice he makes.  If he is perceived as helping the Arabs, he will be considered a traitor; if he is perceived as helping the French, he will become a target (Which, in fact, is what happens).  In the end, Daru attempts to have it both ways—he tries to pass on the moral consequences for the decision to the Arab—he wants to avoid the moral consequences of his actions.  This is a MORAL COP OUT.  He refuses to choose, but fails to realize that this, too, is a moral choice. 

The Arab has actually committed a murder, nobody denies this.  He has committed a crime that would merit serious punishment under any system of government.  Now he is in the power of the French.  Nobody doubts that he should be punished, only whether or not the French have the right to punish him. 

The Arab is also faced with a very profound existential choice: freedom vs death.  Daru makes the choice very clear.  The Arab chooses certain death rather than the terrifying prospect of freedom.  Camus believed that most people would rather have a comfortable death than the terrifying prospect of real freedom, because real freedom means life in a universe where there are no rules, no God, no instructions, and no inherent meaning.  Camus believed our desire for meaning is greater than the capacity of the universe to produce meaning. There is no inherent meaning in the world; we warp the non-sense of the universe into an illusion of meaning.  Most people are terrified by this universe and would rather die than face it.  The Arab is a stand in for what Eric Fromm calls “Escape from Freedom.”

While Camus believed that there are no absolute guidelines, he also thought that human beings inhabited a moral universe.  We have an ethical sense that we try to live up to—most of us want to be “good people,” though it is difficult to pin down exactly what this means.  Life constantly presents us with moral choices without giving us the right answers.  The various ways that we try to define a moral code and live by it constitute our moral being.