What Albert Camus’ ‘The Fall’ Has To Say About Modern Society

albertcamus
Albert Camus

Most readers would recognise Albert Camus from his Nobel Prize winning L’Etranger (English tite: The Stranger or The Outsider) and his contributions to the philosophies of existentialism and the Absurd. La Chute (‘The Fall’) is what I would call Camus’ chef d’œuvre. The novel’s brevity inversely represents the quality of the words printed on the page. Whilst reading it, you can feel the meticulous effort that Camus exerted in producing this wonderfully dark masterpiece.

Written in second-person, the novel is a series of broken up monologues as the narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, tells the story of his fall from ‘Eden’ (Paris) and his exile to the ‘bourgeois hell’ of Amsterdam. Clamence, a former lawyer, describing himself as an ‘intelligent man’ struggles to find meaning in his life. One of Clamence’s biggest weaknesses and the overarching theme of the novel is his fear of being judged. Laughter is the personification of judgment for Clamence. It instills fear in him as he perceives people are mocking him – it acted as a catalyst for his demise to Amsterdam. However, laughter can also allude to the theme of innocence. He describes it as: ‘natural and almost friendly; putting the world to rights.’ This theme of innocence leads to what truly haunts and saddens Clamence – his own fall from innocence:

“Yes we’ve lost the light, the mornings, the holy innocence of the man who forgives himself.”

This sentence reveals Clamence’s sadness that despite his love for himself and even being judged by others, he knows that he will never stop judging himself. That is one of the true ‘falls’ of the novel, in which you come to a point in your life where you have a realisation that you are a person with flaws, faced with your own guilt from your actions and importantly too, your inactions.

 

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Cover artwork for The Fall

Jean-Baptiste, who fears being judged, is a judge himself both verbally and professionally. He deeply understands the hypocrisy of the situation, and commented cynically on this modern society around him:

“I sometimes wonder what historians of the future will say about us. One phrase will suffice for the modern man: he fornicated and read newspapers. After this sharp definition, I dare to say, the subject will be exhausted.”

This startling clairvoyant assessment of his era, which can still be applied today, shows his distaste for the meaningless pursuits, of how his society really accomplished nothing and only judged each other, thereby certifying his nihilistic outlook on life. This first incident, an argument in traffic, in his series of ‘falls’ could have been brushed aside as being ‘trivial’ but for Clamence it shattered his glorified illusion of himself and exposed him to the vulnerability of how everyone was judging him (badly), including himself: ‘After having been struck in public without striking back, it was no longer possible to nurture this fine image of myself.’ This is representative of his fall from innocence. He grew paranoid (‘the whole universe began to laugh at me’) and in face of that he turned all his faults to his advantage, to try and compensate for them but it still would not free himself from the guilt. This led to a sort of nervous breakdown when he revealed to all his friends the duplicity of his character that he fooled them all with. This relates to the theme of power: ‘I wanted to reshuffle the cards and above all, yes, I wanted to destroy the flattering reputation, the idea of which sent me into a fury.’ Clamence was so obsessed with being judged that he showed his friends how he judged himself before they could realise it on their own. He was giving them ‘permission’ to judge him, which in turn tried to provide himself the freedom to accept his flaws without having to feel the guilt. But what he eventually realised was that freedom from judgment could never be found as you will always be confined to by your mind. Temporary freedom can be found by judging others, and so what follows is a vicious cycle:

“At the end of every freedom, there is a sentence, which is why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you have a temperature, or you are grieving, or you love nobody.”

From his dooming realisation, he exiled himself to, as referred before, the ‘bourgeois hell’ of Amsterdam. A personal punishment, due to his obsession with being superior to others (‘I have never felt comfortable except in lofty places. […] I preferred the bus to the subway, open carriages to taxis, terraces to closed-in places.’) He sent himself to a place that is below sea level reflecting his attitude of being a fallen man, he ran away to hide in the fallen depths of Amsterdam – describing each concentric circle in the design of the city resembling the hell of Dante’s Inferno. Thus, we have his cycle of duplicity as he found solace in Mexico City (the bar), as the real Mexico City is 8,000 ft above sea level, a place where he could play God by passing judgment on others whilst giving his ‘confession’ amidst the hell of Amsterdam.

What The Fall teaches us is that we are never going to be free from judgment. In the age of mass media, with the personal lives of others printed on the covers of newspapers and magazines we do feel a sense of justification to form opinions. Where Camus surmised the modern man as having ‘fornicated and read newspapers’, we could probably say the same for ourselves but replacing ‘newspapers’ for ‘Twitter’. But whilst we are carefully controlling our own profiles on social media, with the knowledge that other people are going to be looking at them, we can never escape the fact that we are always going to judge ourselves.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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29 Comments

  1. The Fall was my first introduction to Albert Camus and it struck me. At the beginning I was not that sure what this book was supposed to make me feel or think but did it make me think! It was disturbingly compelling!

    • Jacqueline Wallace

      L’Etranger was a book I studied a few years ago and since then I have been fascinated with his work and his philosophies. When I read The Fall, I was so engrossed by it and it was definitely something that left me thinking so I had to go back and read it all over again!

  2. Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

    Nuptials from Camus is not very famous but it is one of my favourite books, I would definitely recommend it. In this collection of essays/poetry, Camus remembers Algeria, his country of birth, and writes about it in such a sensitive and beautiful style. The brightness of the colours, the vivid images, the musicality of words, and this mix of feeling, between admiration and nostalgia, makes this piece a splendid declaration of love to his country.

  3. Marcus Buchanan
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    Not sure if you will agree but this can be one of the books that Oscar Wilde’s quote would apply to: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

  4. I like the narrative device Camus use with the protagonist telling his story directly to this audience, basically conversing with us the readers. It kind of reminds me of the funny Christopher Walken sketch from Saturday Night Live when he is trying to woo the woman in his apartment.

  5. Fascinating! I have yet to read much of Camus but that does sound particularly relevant to contemporary audiences, which is fascinating when you think about just how well it fits today as well as in Camus’s time.

  6. I don’t buy into his general philosophy. I find it inherently flawed. There is no part in his world view for mystical and epiphianic experience. Regardless, very intriguing article.

  7. It is essential to realize Clamence represents the consequences of certain aspects of our minds taken to extremes and that he and us are distinct individuals. We must be.
    Thanks for the read.

  8. Sean Hodges

    This was an absolutely fascinating article, I have to say. Thus far, I’ve not been aware of Camus’ work – which is a real shame, by the sounds of it! – but what you describe here sounds like an absolutely vital read, especially to someone who already has a bit of a “thing” for darker, more cynical prose.

  9. Wanda Poole
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    Great post. I liked reading The Fall, although my favourite of Camus’ is still the Plague.

  10. Enjoyed this as I have just finished re-reading “The Plague.” I remember it from high school and part of my presentation to my peers about the novel included using stuffed animals and dolls randomly being knocked of the desk as I progressed signifying the growing plague. I am now going to re-read the “Fall.”

  11. Camus’ La Chute holds interest due to its’ universal theme; man’s fall from grace. It may be flawed to attribute this philosophy to the protagonist than instead of to all of mankind. Does the author believe the overall theme to be one of “fear of judgment” or “falling”? Destroying a flattering image is a search for personal truth. I’m not sure it’s Nihilism maybe Existentialism? Does “Fall” really teach that we’re never free from judgment? Or that we need to escape judgment any way we can to find pure truth?

  12. Jon Lisi

    Great article and you do well by showing how it relates today. It stands the test of time because it’s about the fears of being human–and being judged is certainly one of them.

  13. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    This may be shallow, I’m not sure, but the big thing I got from this article is how dynamic that edition of the Fall’s cover was. Wow. I always find myself saying that graphic design has gone downhill post-’80s, and book covers are probably the biggest culprit. My favorite cover: the first edition of the Tropic of Cancer.

  14. This article provided a well needed reminder of the absurdism growing in society. As mass media and big data consume our lives, a conflict arises between going with the flow of this technological civilization or rather, finding meaning in this world through the truth.

  15. I like the way you read the novel in terms of (self) judgment, and how we are judged by others. In modern times, we are more exposed to others due to the fact of the social media (Twitter, facebook, instagram, etc)and the speed of news in internet.So, we are more desolated than before, we are more lonely than “The stranger”, and we are more predisposed to “the fall” than before, do not you think so?

  16. It’s been several years since I read THE FALL, but your article reminded me why I loved it. It’s interesting to consider THE FALL in conjunction with THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS – both point towards a broader notion of freedom as it exists in the face of the burden: that it is only in willful involvement (not refusal) that one’s life takes on substance. Great article!

  17. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
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    Really enjoyed this post, Jacqueline. I’ve just finished reading the book, and I really like the way you linked Camus’s thoughts in with the modern day at the end. Thinking about judgement in an age of social media, and constant and instant judgement is really interesting. I think there’s an increasing amount of work done on this, but as you say, Camus is already there, on the money. Great post.

    My latest post: Review: The Fall by Albert Camus

  18. “…we can never escape the fact that we are always going to judge ourselves.” Was with you entirely up until this closing statement. I never judge myself.

  19. Camus was concerned, as most readers of Nietzsche were, with the advent of nihilism and decadence in western culture. ‘The Fall’ was written only four years before his untimely death and the year before he got the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1957. Last year’s recipient was Alice Munro (?!). Suffice to say Camus was as right about a Fall as Nietzsche was about our decadent future.
    Camus also had a very low opinion of “the cinema.”

  20. Erik Kahn
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    It seems to me that Camus is writing, at least in part, about his split with Sartre and the intellectual left over his shift away from supporting anti-colonialism in Algeria. Given that the book was published two years into the war, which clearly tore at Camus and caused a real crisis of conscience that moved him to a more moderate position than his circle of friends, I see a lot that ties the protagonist to Camus himself. For example, the scene with the lawyer feeling the actual pain of abuse fighting with the guy on the motorcycle, understanding that good intentions can be dashed by real world conflict, connects to his experience losing friends killed by the Muslims during the early stages of the war, calling into question the absolutist approach of the intellectual left that endorsed the expulsion of the French from Algeria (where Camus was born and raised).

    My two cents anyway.

  21. Tyrone Takami
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    I just finished this book yesterday and I found it one of those good, really nourishing reads. I guess it’s because I am definitely one of those “Camus was for life” types. I know the book drew a picture of modern life as basically a crab pot full of people pulling each other down through judgement. It also completely nixed the idea of altruism as being a redeeming act because, as much as we would like not to admit, there is the very real possibility that one does their act in the hopes of being lauded by the community. Sure it’s kind of smarmy when you think about it, but also, it’s still being judged.

    I loved the line where he said we should forgive the pope. It was a refreshing take on a topic that is usually too feel good for literary circles and that we expect to be broadcast on the “O” network, which kind of blunts it’s existential value, because it makes a market for it and blunts it’s truly existential scope. In a world where we’re always judging, being judged, the one solid defense is for one to humbly, awkwardly, soberly, forgive oneself, the more private and quiet, the better. It’s interesting to think about. This book was such a rewarding read.

  22. Anonymous
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    The book is not written in the second person. It is written in the first person (“I”) but the narrator explicitly addresses someone, perhaps the reader…

    • Anonymous
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      The second-person narrative is a narrative mode in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by second-person personal pronouns and other kinds of addressing forms, for example the English second-person pronoun “you.”

  23. Michael
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    Another strong undercurrent running through this book is his wife Francine’s two suicide attempts in the year preceding the writing of this book. Camus clearly felt responsible ( many suspect the cause was his affairs with other women, most notably the actress Maria Casares). Add this to his depression following his rift w Sartre and many in Parisian intellectual circles following the publication of The Rebel and one gets a sense of the real world context in which this book was written.

  24. Maan Toor
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    Lovely read Jaqueline. Thanks for using some nice literary words that expressed exact feelings of novel.

  25. I thought this novel was a great polemic against sanctimony, as well as an accurate deconstruction of human nature. But one troubling theme Camus develops is that all human actions are egoistic, that there is no such thing as a selfless act. Underlying even our best deeds is the desire to feel superior to, and literally be above, others, which is why Clarence’s aside about the shielding power of wealth resonated with me. The Trump-phenomenon just about proves that the wealthy are free from judgement for outlandish behavior.

    I was also curious whether you think the altercation at the traffic light was the first of a series of ‘falls’, or The Fall?

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