The Guest begins with Daru, the schoolmaster, watching two men approach on the plateau below him. One man rides a horse and the other follows on foot. He stands in front of the schoolhouse, his home, and calculates that it will take thirty minutes for them to reach the point where he stands on the hillside. He can see the horse's breath, can't hear any sound, and he surmises that one of the men knows the way. A thin layer of snow has covered the trail.
Daru crosses the empty classroom and notes the blackboard, which has a drawing of the four rivers of France on it. After an eight-month draught October brought a sudden snowfall, so Daru's pupils, all of whom live on the plateau, are unable to attend classes. As a result, Daru keeps the classroom cold, only heating the small adjacent room that serves as his living quarters.
After warming up in his room, Daru returns to the window. He can no longer see the approaching men, and he assumes they have begun to ascend the plateau. The remarks to himself that the weather is much better now than it had been the three previous days, during the blizzard. For those days, Daru had only left the schoolhouse to feed the chickens or go to the shed. Luckily, the supply truck from Tadjid, which is the nearest village to the north, had come two days before the blizzard.
We learn from the narrator that Daru could have survived a siege, as there are bags of wheat strewn about the room. These were brought by the administrative authorities; Daru gives the rations of flour to the children each day. Now that the pupils are not attending classes, Daru thinks, theyir families will miss the food. He expects some of the pupils' older brothers or fathers to show up for a ration of grain. Before the blizzard, the draught had been hard on everyone living on the plateau; now the worst is over, and wheat arrives from France. During the draught, the natives of the region had wandered the plateau like ghosts, and thousands of sheep had died. Unfortunately, men died once and a while too.
During the draught, Daru had felt like a lord in his crude living arrangements. Although he lives a quite spartan life, he was surrounded by utter poverty. Now, the snow is a reminder of the cruelty of this region, even in the absence of men. Yet Daru was born here, and he feels exiled anywhere else.
Daru goes out to the terrace at the front of the school house; the two men are halfway up the slope. He recognizes the man on the horse as Balducci, an old gendarme he has known for a long time. Balducci leads an Arab by a rope. His hands are tied and his head lowered. Balducci greets Daru, but the schoolmaster is lost in his 'contemplation' of the Arab. The two advance slowly so that the Arab will not be hurt.
Balducci yells a remark about how long the journey took from El Ameur. Daru again does not respond, but merely continues to watch them climb, specifically the Arab, still has not raised his head. He finally greets them on the terrace, and invites them into the schoolhouse. Daru leads the horse to the shed, and then returns to the two men, are now inside. They all occupy Daru's living quarter and Daru decides to heat the classroom, where they will be more comfortable.
After untying the rope that connects him to the Arab, Balducci sits on the sofa. The Arab crouches near the stove. He looks toward the window, and Daru notices his thick lips. Daru thinks that the Arab has a restless and rebellious look when they make eye contact. Balducci mentions that he's looking forward to his retirement. He speaks to the Arab in Arabic, who follows him into the classroom with his hands still tied.
Daru brings mint tea and unties the Arab. The Arab drinks the tea feverishly, and Daru asks Balducci where the two travelers are headed. Balducci says that he must return to El Ameur, and that Daru has been ordered to deliver the Arab to Tinguit, where he is expected at police headquarters. This surprises Daru. Balducci sympathizes, but says that Daru's task is an order and that during war people must be prepared to face many types of jobs. Daru says that he will wait for a declaration of war, and Balducci nods, but points out that the orders still exist. He is concerned about a revolution. He tells Daru that he likes him, and explains that he is needed back at El Ameur because they only have a dozen men to patrol the territory. He has been ordered to bring the prisoner to Daru, and then return without delay.
Balducci tells Daru that the Arab killed his own cousin over a family squabble. Daru asks if the Arab is against them, but Balducci does not think so. Daru serves more tea. Balducci prepares to leave, but when he approaches the Arab to bind him, Daru waves him away. Balducci warns Daru that he should be armed in the case of an uprising, but Daru proclaims that he has no fear.
Balducci leaves Daru a gun, but as he's leaving Daru tells him that he will not hand over the Arab. The gendarme calls him a fool. He agrees that it is unfortunate, but insists that it is their duty. Balducci decides not to tell anyone about Daru's disobedience, but asks him to sign a paper. The gendarme feels insulted by Daru's disobedience. He looks at the Arab, and then says goodbye to Daru, calling him 'son.' The schoolmaster watches him leave, and then retreats to his room, leaving the Arab alone.
Camus's political, moral, and philosophical beliefs were still developing when he wrote The Guest, but the story nevertheless embodies Camus's view of the human condition. Camus agreed with Kierkegaard that despair is not an act, but a human state. He saw this state of despair resulting from isolation from the rest of the world. The Guest charts Daru's journey into a state of moral despair against the backdrop of his solitude.
Daru state of isolation is obvious from the start as he watches two strangers approach. He views them dispassionately from his distance atop the plateau, unable even to recognize his friend. Daru has been alone for days; yet he is not necessarily lonely. He is even grateful for his situation compared with the poverty and hunger of the natives of the plateau. His state of isolation is thus a state of self-sufficiency. Daru seems capable of carrying on indefinitely, as long as his basic needs of shelter, food and warmth are met. Indeed, the story examines each of these needs -- the bags of grain in the classroom, the warmth of Daru's small lodgings or his need for a sweater while watching the two men.
While Daru waits for the two men to reach the schoolhouse, his thoughts reveal the characteristics of the region. The inhospitable terrain that dominates the plateau represents Camus's notion of the absurd, where the universe is completely silent and indifferent towards humanity. The land is not giving or forgiving; it is simply cruel: "This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men..." Camus regularly suggests this natural harshness, as when the two men are forced to navigate the hill without the guide of a path. Nature's ice and snow makes an already difficult trek all the more treacherous. Nature also behaves very irrationally. After an eight-month draught, nature finally supplies water in the absurd form of snow. By itself, these weather conditions are simply a fact of nature, but combined with human need, the extremity represents Camus's idea of the absurd. He says, "The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world." He creates a representation of the absurd by joining extreme physical conditions with basic human survival needs. "The absurd is not in man or in the world, but in their presence together... it is the only bond uniting them." One of many examples of humans struggling to survive in the harsh natural conditions is Daru's recollection of the starving people wandering the plateau during the draught. The plateau will not help them.
When Daru returns to the classroom the narrator describes the four rivers of France that are drawn on the blackboard. This is the introduction of the political and cultural currents that are one of the main foundations of the story. Written at the onset of the Algerian uprising against the French, the tension between the Arab culture and the ruling French creates much distress in the story. Those the European Algerians and the Arabs share the same harsh climate, the political and cultural tension between them prevents any feelings of camaraderie.
Daru's schoolhouse, where he also lives, has windows that look towards the south. This view to the south is where he first spots the two men, but once he has found warmer clothes he can no longer see them from the window. At the end of the story he looks to the south hoping to see the Arab traveling in that direction and these windows foreshadow the hope to see such a sight in the south. For now, the south represents the Arab territories. Europe lies to the north, over the sea, and the contains indiginous settlements. The Arab is carried out of his cultural mileau -- away from his family and his local customs -- and forced to submit to a European justice system.
When the visitors arrive, Daru immediately scrutinizes the Arab for clues as to his crime. He notices everything from the Arab's clothes to his demeanor, yet he can never truly "know" the Arab with certainty. The Arab's motivations, his past actions, his guilt or innocence are all indeterminate. Daru will never have enough knowledge about the Arab to pass judgment on him. Needless to say, the reader is also allowed only partial knowledge of the Arab. We thus experiece Daru's ensuing moral quandary along with him.
The theme of freedom is an integral part of Camus's 'absurdist' philosophy. Within the state of the absurd, Camus sees an individual's freedom to choose as something that gives value to life. Through freedom of action an individual can find meaning in an otherwise meaningless and indifferent world. The interaction between Balducci and Daru stresses the importance of freedom. Their interaction makes up a majority of the dialogue in the story, and revolves primarily around the orders that Balducci delivers. Daru maintains his freedom to make his own decision, and Balducci honors Daru's choice. However, their understanding follows from their political affiliation; the Arab's freedom is a much thornier issue. Daru seems predisposed to grant the Arab freedom from the beginning, as illustrated when he unbinds the Arab's hands and gives him tea.
Another function of their dialogue is to flesh-out the political backdrop of the story. Balducci speaks of a revolution, which clearly references the Algerian uprising. The Algerian War displaced millions of people against their will, and so discussion of this rebellion certainly implicates Camus's ideas on freedom. They are also connected to the Daru's sense of belonging within this remote region.
Throughout, Camus uses free indirect style to enhance ambiguity and uncertainty in the narrative. The narrator's descriptions mingle with Daru's thoughts, at times appearing inseparable. This ambiguity keeps the reader from certain knowledge. Thus the problem of partial knowledge that pervades the story influences even Camu's writing style.