The Fall (novel)

The Fall (novel)

infobox Book |
name = The Fall
title_orig = "La Chute"
translator = Justin O'Brien

image_caption = Vintage International's 1991 reissue of Justin O'Brien's translation of "The Fall".
author = Albert Camus
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = France
language = French; English
series =
genre = Existentialist, Absurdist
publisher = Vintage Books (Random House)
release_date = 1956
english_release_date = 1957
media_type = Print
pages = 147 pp.
isbn = ISBN 0-394-70223-9 (Paperback)
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Fall" ( _fr. La Chute) is a philosophical novel written by Albert Camus. First published in 1956, it is his last complete work of fiction. Set in Amsterdam, "The Fall" consists of a series of monologues by the self-proclaimed "judge-penitent" Jean-Baptiste Clamence, as he reflects upon his life to a stranger. In what amounts to a confession, Clamence tells of his success as a wealthy Parisian defence lawyer who was highly respected by his colleagues; his crisis, and his ultimate "fall" from grace, was meant to invoke, in secular terms, The Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.

"The Fall" explores themes of innocence and guilt, freedom, and the meaninglessness of human existence. Clamence can be seen to follow in the tradition of both Friedrich Nietzsche's "Zarathustra" and Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Underground Man". Like these works, the main force of Camus' novel lies in its use of narrative technique which, as Clamence reflects upon the way he has lived his life, challenges the reader to examine the way he has lived his own. Camus' primary aim is to draw the reader to the conclusion that life is entirely absurd — and then teach them to come to terms with it. In a eulogy to Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre described the novel as "perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood" of Camus' books (Aronson 5).


Clamence often speaks of his love for high, open places — everything from mountain peaks to the top decks of boats. "I have never felt comfortable," he explains, "except in lofty surroundings. Even in the details of daily life, I need to feel "above" (Camus 288). The location of Amsterdam, as a city below sea-level, therefore assumes particular significance in relation to the narrator. Amsterdam, moreover, is generally described in "The Fall" as a cold, wet place where a thick blanket of fog constantly hangs over the crowded, neon-light-lined streets. But aside from this eerie atmosphere (which could be established almost anywhere else) the city was also chosen by Camus for a more peculiar reason. In the opening pages Clamence casually remarks,

The "last circle of hell" is the site of Amsterdam's red-light district and the location of a bar named "Mexico City", which Clamence frequents night after night and where the bulk of his narrative gradually unfolds. ("Mexico City" actually existed in Amsterdam [In the novel, Clamence mentions "sailors' bars in the Zeedijk". In the 1950s an actual bar called "Mexico City" was located much near the Zeedijk, at Warmoesstraat 91. Camus visited the area in October 1954, when a Dutch acquaintance took him on a tour of "hidden" locations in Amsterdam. [*&BN_AU=A.%20Camus&REC=a2cb1e1d1424-9023414799] ] .) The setting thus serves to illustrate, literally and metaphorically, Clamence's fall from the heights of high-class Paris society to the dark, dreary, Dantesque underworld of Amsterdam, where tortured souls wander aimlessly among each other. Indeed, critics have explored at length the parallels between Clamence's fall and Dante's descent through Hell in the "Inferno" (see Galpin, King).

It is also significant, particularly as Camus develops his philosophical ideas, that the story develops against the backdrop of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Clamence tells us that he lives only a short distance from "Mexico City", in what was — formerly — the Jewish Quarter, "until our Hitlerian brethren spaced it out a bit. ... I am living on the site of one of the greatest crimes in history" (Camus 281). Among other things, "The Fall" is an attempt to explain how humankind could be capable of such evils.


Life in Paris

The novel opens with Clamence sitting in the bar, "Mexico City", casually talking to a stranger — that is, the reader — about the proper way to order a drink; for here, despite the cosmopolitan nature of Amsterdam, the bartender refuses to respond to anything other than Dutch. Thus, Clamence serves as interpreter and he and the stranger, having discovered that they are fellow compatriots who, moreover, both hail from Paris, begin discussing more substantive matters.

Clamence tells us that he used to lead an essentially perfect life in Paris as a highly successful and well-respected defence lawyer. The vast majority of his work centred around "widow and orphan" cases, that is, the poor and disenfranchised who otherwise would be unable to provide themselves with a proper defence before the law. He also relates anecdotes about how he always enjoyed giving friendly directions to strangers on the streets, yielding to others his seat on the bus, giving alms to the poor, and, above all, helping the blind to cross the street. In short, Clamence conceived of himself as living purely for the sake of others and "achieving more than the vulgar ambitious man and rising to that "supreme summit" where virtue is its own reward" (Camus 288 [emphasis added] ).

However, late one night when crossing the Pont Royal on his way home from his "mistress," Clamence comes across a woman dressed in black leaning over the edge of the bridge. He hesitates for a moment, thinking the sight strange at such an hour and given the barrenness of the streets, but continues on his way nevertheless. He had only walked a short distance when he heard the distinct sound of a body hitting the water. Clamence stops walking, knowing exactly what has happened, but does nothing — in fact, he doesn't even turn around. The sound of screaming was

Despite Clamence's view of himself as a selfless advocate for the weak and unfortunate, he simply ignores the incident and continues on his way. He later elaborates that his failure to do anything was most probably because doing so would have required him to put his own personal safety in jeopardy.

Several years after the apparent suicide of the woman off the Pont Royal — and an evidently successful effort to purge the entire event from his memory — Clamence is on his way home one autumn evening after a particularly pleasing day of work. He pauses on the empty Pont des Arts and reflects:

Clamence turns around to discover that the laughter, of course, was not directed at him, but probably originated from a far-off conversation between friends — such is the rational course of his thought. Nevertheless, he tells us that "I could still hear it distinctly behind me, coming from nowhere unless from the water." The laughter is thus alarming because it immediately reminds him of his obvious failure to do anything whatsoever about the woman who had presumably drowned years before. The unlucky coincidence for Clamence here is that he is reminded of this precisely at the moment when he is congratulating himself for being such a selfless individual. Furthermore, the laughter is described as a "good, hearty, almost friendly laugh," whereas, mere moments later, he describes himself as possessing a "good, hearty laugh" (Camus 297). This implies that the laughter originated within himself, adding another dimension to the inner meaning of the scene. That evening on the Pont des Arts represents, for Clamence, the collision of his true self with his inflated self-image, and the final realization of his own hypocrisy becomes painfully obvious.

A third and final incident initiates Clamence's downward spiral. One day while waiting at a stoplight, Clamence finds that he is trapped behind a motorcycle which has stalled ahead of him and is unable to proceed once the light changes to green as a result. Other cars behind him start honking their horns, and Clamence politely asks the man several times if he would please move his motorcycle off the road so that others can drive around him; however, with each repetition of the request, the motorcyclist becomes increasingly agitated and threatens Clamence with physical violence.

Angry, Clamence exits his vehicle in order to confront the man when someone else intervenes and "informed me that I was the scum of the earth and that he would not allow me to strike a man who had a motor-cycle ["sic"] between his legs and hence was at a disadvantage" (Camus 303-4). Clamence turns to respond to his interlocutor when suddenly the motorcyclist punches him in the side of the head and then speeds off. Without retaliating against his interlocutor, Clamence, utterly humiliated, merely returns to his car and drives away. Later, he runs through his mind "a hundred times" what he thinks he should have done — namely strike his interlocutor, then chase after the motorcyclist and run him off the road. The feeling of resentment gnaws away at him, and Clamence explains that

Clamence thus arrives at the conclusion that his whole life has in fact been lived in search of honor, recognition, and power over others. Having realized this, he can no longer live the way he once did.


However, Clamence initially attempts to resist the sense that he has lived hypocritically and selfishly. He argues with himself over his prior acts of kindness, but quickly discovers that this is an argument he cannot win. He reflects, for example, that whenever he had helped a blind man across the street — something he especially enjoyed doing — he would doff his hat to the man. Since the blind man obviously cannot see this acknowledgement, Clamence asks, "To whom was it addressed? To the public. After playing my part, I would take my bow" (Camus 301). As a result, he comes to see himself as duplicitous and hypocritical.

The realization that his whole life has been lived in hypocrisy and denial precipitates an emotional and intellectual crisis for Clamence which, moreover, he is unable to avoid having now discovered it; the sound of laughter that first struck him on the Pont des Arts slowly begins to permeate his entire existence. In fact, Clamence even begins laughing at himself as he defends matters of justice and fairness in court. Unable to ignore it, Clamence attempts to silence the laughter by throwing off his hypocrisy and ruining the reputation he acquired therefrom.

Clamence thus proceeds to "destroy that flattering reputation" (Camus 326) primarily by making public comments that he knows will be received as objectionable: telling beggars that they are "embarrassing people," declaring his regret at not being able to hold serfs and beat them at his whim, and announcing the publication of a "manifesto exposing the oppression that the oppressed inflict on decent people." In fact, Clamence even goes so far as to consider

However, to Clamence's frustration and dismay, his efforts in this regard are ineffective, generally because many of the people around him refuse to take him seriously; they find it inconceivable that a man of his reputation could ever say such things and not be joking. Clamence eventually realizes that his attempts at self-derision can only fail, and the laughter continues to gnaw at him. This is because his actions are just as dishonest: "In order to forestall the laughter, I dreamed of hurling myself into the general derision. In fact, it was still a question of dodging judgment. I wanted to put the laughers on my side, or at least to put myself on their side" (Camus 325).

Ultimately, Clamence responds to his emotional-intellectual crisis by withdrawing from the world on precisely those terms. He closes his law practice, avoids his former colleagues in particular and people in general, and throws himself completely into uncompromising debauchery; while humankind may be grossly hypocritical in the areas from which he has withdrawn, "no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures" (Camus 311).

Life in Amsterdam

The last of Clamence's monologues takes place in his apartment in the (former) Jewish Quarter, and recounts more specifically the events which shaped his current outlook; in this regard his experiences during the Second World War are crucial. With the outbreak of war and the fall of France, Clamence considers joining the French Resistance, but decides that doing so would ultimately be futile. He explains,

Instead, Clamence decides to flee Paris for London, and takes an indirect route there, moving through North Africa; however, he meets a friend while in Africa and decides to stay and find work, eventually settling in Tunis. But after the Allies land in Africa, Clamence is arrested by the Germans and thrown into a concentration camp — "chiefly [as] a security measure," he assures himself (Camus 343).

While interned, Clamence meets a comrade, introduced to the reader only as "Du Guesclin", who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, was captured by "the Catholic general", and now found himself in the hands of the Germans in Africa. These experiences subsequently caused the man to lose his faith in the Catholic Church (and perhaps in God as well); as a form of protest Duguesclin announces the need for a new Pope — one who will "agree to keep alive, in himself and in others, the community of our sufferings" — to be chosen from among the prisoners in the camp. As the man with "the most failings," Clamence jokingly volunteers himself, but finds that the other prisoners agree with his appointment. As a result of being selected to lead a group of prisoners as "Pope," Clamence is afforded certain powers over them, such as how to distribute food and water and deciding who will do what kind of work. "Let's just say that I closed the circle," he confesses, "the day I drank the water of a dying comrade. No, no, it wasn't Duguesclin; he was already dead, I believe, for he stinted himself too much" (Camus 343-4).

Clamence then relates the story of how a famous fifteenth-century painting, a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece known as "The Just Judges", came into his possession. One evening a regular patron of "Mexico City" entered the bar with the priceless painting and sold it for a bottle of jenever to the bartender who, for a time, displayed the piece prominently on the wall of his bar. (Both the man who sold the painting and the now-vacant place on the wall where it hung are cryptically pointed out at the beginning of the novel.) However, Clamence eventually informs the bartender that the painting is in fact stolen, that police from several countries are searching for it, and offers to keep it for him; the bartender immediately agrees to the proposal. Clamence attempts to justify his possession of the stolen painting in a number of ways, primarily "because those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb, because there is no lamb or innocence any longer, and because the clever rascal who stole the panel was an instrument of the unknown justice that one ought not to thwart" (Camus 346).

Finally, Clamence employs the imagery of the Ghent Altarpiece and "The Just Judges" to explain his self-identification as a "judge-penitent". This essentially espouses a doctrine of relinquished freedom as a method of enduring the suffering imposed on us by virtue of living in a world without objective truth and one that is therefore ultimately meaningless. With the death of God, one must also accept by extension the idea of universal guilt and the impossibility of innocence. Clamence's argument posits, somewhat paradoxically, that freedom from suffering is attained only through submission to something greater than oneself. Clamence, through his confession, sits in permanent judgment of himself and others, spending his time persuading those around him of their own unconditional guilt. The novel ends on a sinister note, with Clamence declaring that he no longer feels regret at having failed to save the woman who plunged from the Pont des Arts to her death.


* Camus, Albert. (2004). "The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays". Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN 1-4000-4255-0

Secondary sources
* Aronson, Ronald (2004). "Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It". University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226027961.
* Galpin, Alfred (1958). "Dante in Amsterdam". "Symposium" 12: 65-72.
* King, Adele (1962). "Structure and Meaning in La Chute". "PMLA" 77 (5): 660-667.

Further reading

* Barretto, Vicente (1970). "Camus: vida e obra". [s.L.] : José Álvaro, 1970.
* Royce, Barbara C. (1966). "La Chute and Saint Genet: The Question of Guilt". "The French Review" 39 (5): 709-716.
* Viggiani, Carl A. (1960). "Camus and the Fall from Innocence". "Yale French Studies" 25: 65-71.
* Wheeler, Burton M. (1982). "Beyond Despair: Camus' 'The Fall' and Van Eyck's 'Adoration of the Lamb'". "Contemporary Literature" 23 (3): 343–364.

External links

*The [,%20Albert%20-%20The%20Fall.pdf full text of the novel] , translated into English by Justin O'Brien
*fr icon [ Audio book (mp3)] of the first monologue of "The Fall" ("La Chute")
* [ Camus, The Fall, and the Question of Faith] , a short essay on Camus' use of religious imagery

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