Study Guide for Albert Camus's The Fall

Albert Camus
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Delivered by a sophisticated, outgoing, yet often suspicious narrator, Albert Camus’s The Fall employs a format that is rather uncommon in world literature. Like novels such as Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Sartre’s Nausea, and Camus’s own The Stranger, The Fall is set up as a confession by a complicated main character—in this case, an exiled French lawyer named Jean-Baptiste Clamence. But The Fall—unlike these famous first-person writings—is actually a second-person novel.

Clamence directs his confession at a single, well-defined listener, a “you” character who accompanies him (without ever speaking) for the duration of the novel. In the opening pages of The Fall, Clamence makes this listener’s acquaintance in a seedy Amsterdam bar known as Mexico City, which entertains “sailors of all nationalities” (4).

Summary

In the course of this initial meeting, Clamence playfully notes the similarities between him and his new companion: “You are my age in a way, with the sophisticated eye of a man in his forties who has seen everything, in a way; you are well dressed in a way, that is as people are in our country; and your hands are smooth. Hence a bourgeois, in a way! But a cultured bourgeois!” (8-9). However, there is much about Clamence’s identity that remains uncertain. He describes himself as “a judge-penitent,” yet doesn’t provide an immediate explanation of this uncommon role.

And he omits key facts from his descriptions of the past: “A few years ago I was a lawyer in Paris and, indeed, a rather well-known lawyer. Of course, I didn’t tell you my real name” (17). As a lawyer, Clamence had defended poor clients with difficult cases, including criminals. His social life had been full of satisfactions—respect from his colleagues, affairs with many women—and his public behavior had been scrupulously courteous and polite.

As Clamence sums up this earlier period: “Life, its creatures and its gifts, offered themselves to me, and I accepted such marks of homage with a kindly pride” (23). Eventually, this state of security began to break down, and Clamence traces his increasingly dark state of mind to a few specific life events. While in Paris, Clamence had an argument with “a spare little man wearing spectacles” and riding a motorcycle (51). This altercation with the motorcyclist alerted Clamence to the violent side of his own nature, while another experience—an encounter with a “slim young woman dressed in black” who committed suicide by throwing herself off a bridge—filled Clamence with a sense of “irresistible weakness (69-70).

During an excursion to the Zuider Zee, Clamence describes the more advanced stages of his “fall.” At first, he began to feel intense turmoil and pangs of disgust with life, although “for some time, my life continued outwardly as if nothing had changed” (89). He then took turned to “alcohol and women” for comfort—yet only found temporary solace (103). Clamence expands upon his philosophy of life in the final chapter, which takes place in his own lodgings. Clamence recounts his disturbing experiences as a World War II prisoner of war, lists his objections to commonplace notions of law and freedom, and reveals the depth of his involvement in the Amsterdam underworld.

(It turns out that Clamence keeps a famous stolen painting—The Just Judges by Jan van Eyck—in his apartment.) Clamence has resolved to accept life—and to accept his own fallen, immensely flawed nature—but has also resolved to share his troubling insights with anyone who will listen. In the final pages of The Fall, he reveals that his new profession of “judge-penitent” involves “indulging in public confession as often as possible” in order to acknowledge, judge, and do penance for his failings (139).

Background and Contexts

Camus’s Philosophy of Action: One of Camus’s greatest philosophical concerns is the possibility that life is meaningless—and the need (in spite of this possibility) for action and self-assertion. As Camus wrote in his tract The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), philosophical discourse “was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived.

It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully.” Camus then goes on to declare that “one of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt. It is constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity.” Even though the Myth of Sisyphus is a classic of French Existentialist philosophy and a central text for understanding Camus, The Fall (which, after all, appeared in 1956) should not merely be taken mas a fictional re-working of The Myth of Sisyphus. Clamence does revolt against his life as a Paris lawyer; however, he retreats from society and tries to find specific “meanings” in his actions in a manner that Camus might not have endorsed.

Camus’s Background in Drama: According to literary critic Christine Margerrison, Clamence is a “self-proclaimed actor” and The Fall itself is Camus’s “greatest dramatic monologue.” At several points in his career, Camus worked simultaneously as a playwright and a novelist. (His plays Caligula and The Misunderstanding appeared in the mid 1940s—the same period that saw the publication of Camus’s novels The Stranger and The Plague. And in the 1950s, Camus both wrote The Fall and worked on theater adaptations of novels by Dostoevsky and William Faulkner.) However, Camus was not the only mid-century author who applied his talents to both theater and the novel. Camus’s Existentialist colleague Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, is famous for his novel Nausea and for his plays The Flies and No Exit. Another of the greats of 20th century experimental literature—Irish author Samuel Beckett—created novels that read a little like “dramatic monologues” (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) as well as oddly-structured, character-driven plays (Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape).

Amsterdam, Travel, and Exile: Although Amsterdam is one of Europe’s centers of art and culture, the city takes on a rather sinister character in The Fall.

Camus scholar David R. Ellison has found several references to disturbing episodes in Amsterdam’s history: first, The Fall reminds us that “the commerce linking Holland to the Indies included trade not just in spices, foodstuffs, and aromatic wood, but also in slaves; and second, the novel takes place after “the years of World War II in which the Jewish population of the city (and of the Netherlands as a whole) was subject to persecution, deportation, and ultimate death in Nazi prison camps.” Amsterdam has a dark history, and exile to Amsterdam allows Clamence to face his own unpleasant past. Camus declared in his essay “The Love of Life” that “what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner décor in us. We can’t cheat any more—hide ourselves away behind the hours in the office or at the plant.” By going into living abroad and breaking his earlier, soothing routines, Clamence is forced to contemplate his deeds and face his fears.

Key Topics

Violence and Imagination: Although there is not much open conflict or violent action directly displayed in The Fall, Clamence’s memories, imaginings, and turns of imagery add violence and viciousness to the novel. After an unpleasant scene during a traffic jam, for instance, Clamence imagines pursuing a rude motorcyclist, “overtaking him, jamming his machine against the curb, taking him aside, and giving him the licking he had fully deserved. With a few variations, I ran off this little film a hundred times in my imagination. But it was too late, and for several days I chewed a bitter resentment” (54). Violent and disturbing fantasies help Clamence to communicate his dissatisfaction with the life he leads. Late in the novel, he compares his feelings of hopeless and perpetual guilt to a special kind of torture: “I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure, you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the Middle Ages. In general, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up in nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take an awkward manner and live on the diagonal” (109).

Clamence’s Approach to Religion: Clamence does not define himself as a religious man. However, references to God and Christianity play a major part in Clamence’s manner of speaking—and help Clamence to explain his changes in attitude and outlook. During his years of virtue and altruism, Clamence took Christian kindliness to grotesque proportions: “A very Christian friend of mine admitted that one’s initial feeling on seeing a beggar approach one’s house is unpleasant. Well, with me it was worse: I used to exult” (21). Eventually, Clamence finds yet another use for religion that is admittedly awkward and inappropriate. During his fall, the lawyer made references “to God in my speeches before the court”—a tactic that “awakened mistrust in my clients” (107). But Clamence also uses the Bible to explain his insights about human guilt and suffering. For him, Sin is part of the human condition, and even Christ on the cross is a figure of guilt: “He knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others—even though he didn’t know which ones” (112).

Clamence’s Unreliability: At several points in The Fall, Clamence acknowledges that his words, actions, and apparent identity are of questionable validity. Camus’s narrator is a very good at playing different, even dishonest roles. Describing his experiences with women, Clamence notes that “I played the game. I knew they didn’t like one to reveal one’s purpose too quickly. First, there had to be conversation, fond attentions, as they say. I wasn’t worried about speeches, being a lawyer, nor about glances, having been an amateur actor during my military service. I often changed parts, but it was always the same play” (60). And later in the novel, he asks a series of rhetorical questions—“Don’t lies eventually lead to the truth? And don’t all my stories, true or false, tend toward the same conclusion?”—before concluding that “authors of confessions write especially to avoid confessing, to tell nothing of what they know” (119-120). It would be wrong to assume that Clamence has given his listener nothing but lies and fabrications. Yet it is possible that he is freely mixing lies and truth to create a convincing “act”—that he strategically using a persona to obscure particular facts and feelings.

A Few Discussion Questions

1) Do you think that Camus and Clamence have similar political, philosophical, and religious beliefs? Are there any major differences—and if so, why do you think Camus decided to create a character whose views are so at odds with his own?

2) In some important passages in The Fall, Clamence introduces violent images and intentionally shocking opinions. Why do you think Clamence is dwelling on such disconcerting topics? How is his willingness to make his listener uneasy tied to his role as a “judge-penitent?”

3) Exactly how reliable is Clamence, in your opinion? Does he ever seem to exaggerate, to obscure the truth, or to introduce obvious falsehoods? Find a few passages where Clamence seems especially elusive or unreliable, and keep in mind that Clamence may become significantly more (or significantly less) reliable from passage to passage.

4) Re-imagine The Fall told from a different perspective. Would Camus’s novel be more effective as a first-person account by Clamence, without a listener? As a straightforward, third-person description of Clamence’s life? Or is The Fall supremely effective in its present form?

Note on Citations:

All page numbers refer to Justin O'Brien's translation of The Fall (Vintage International, 1991).