Albert Camus’ The Fall is the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a man who transitioned from a successful lawyer in Paris to a “judge-penitent” in Amsterdam. The two major themes that recur throughout The Fall are freedom and guilt, two concepts ultimately connected. As he so characteristically puts it: “at the end of all freedom is a court sentence” (p. 83). According to Camus, freedom is too much of a burden for man to carry, and the protagonist’s life serves as an example of this. In the end, the only solution is to admit one’s guilt, to admit all of humanity’s guilt, and live as a judge-penitent.
As Clamence explains to the reader, there was a time in his life that he had everything; at least, everything that a typical modern man would wish. He was a good lawyer and a well-respected citizen, famous for his courtesy. He was not rich, but he had enough money. He was at his peak physically and intellectually, and always had the charm needed to play the women’s game. In short, he would succeed in anything he would set his mind on. As he admits later, however, he lived his life as if it was an act; as if he was an actor and a spectator of his own life.
Clamence seemed to enjoy his freedom and he would exercise his liberalities every step of the way. In his profession, for example, he would choose to represent widows and orphans, the seemingly innocent who had been wronged. He would walk around in town, lurking for a chance to help a blind man cross the street; or he would give up his seat to anyone who needed it on the bus. He did a number of things that would appear as generous to others; yet, he would feel oppressed, had he been in any way obliged to do them. On one hand, he would feed upon the exercise of freedom, and, on the other, on the gratitude he received from others.
There were two events, however, that would prove to be life changing: the woman who drowned, and the incident of the laughter that haunted him. One night when he was walking home, he came across a woman standing on the bridge and looking down the river. He may have suspected that something was wrong, but he kept walking. A few steps down the road, he heard the sound of a body falling into the river, followed by loud cries for help. His suspicion had become a certainty, but instead of acting upon it, he simply froze. He thought about it for a moment, and weighed his options. Again, he decided to keep walking pretending it never happened (p. 44). It is the fall of this woman that would slowly, but surely, cause his own fall. The other event took place two or three years later, when he was standing at the Pont des Arts. It was the first time he heard a laughter coming from nowhere, and it is this laughter that would eventually haunt him (p. 25).
It had taken him a while to realize the impact that the woman’s death had on him. It had crept slowly into his thoughts, until the day of the laughter. The laughter functioned as the wake-up call; this was the day that he would engage in the art of remembering, and not the art of forgetting he had mastered. He was forced to realize that he had been living his life in vanity, completely devoid of emotion. He realized that even the public image he had created was an illusion; there were, indeed, those who owed him gratitude, but there many people who also hated him for being successful and for flashing around his success in arrogance. The most important problem that he faced, however, was that he had become the judge of his self.
All those years, he had worked so hard to avoid his guilt, but he reached a point that he could escape neither his guilt nor his judgment. Guilt had been there all the way: from the fact that he chose to defend widows and orphans in order to feel that his conscience was clear; his “instinctive contempt for judges” (p. 12); to the fact that he wanted to feel “above” other people -that is why he never liked the subway, for instance– (p. 16). All in all, he had built his life and his psychological make-up so as to ensure that he could avoid being judged. Realization was distressing for Clamence, and the only solutions he could come up with were debauchery and the little-ease. At first, he moved away from people and took refuge among women. As he admits, this was a period in his life that he “felt the need of love” (p. 60). This process, though, would soon become incredibly boring to him and the women involved, and this is when he substituted it with debauchery. He describes debauchery as an emotionless state; a state where one has stopped hoping for anything (p. 62). One simply lives in the present without caring about what has happened in the past, or what will happen in the future. That is what Clamence did: he would spend his time drinking himself to immortality, and exercising the freedom of pursuing one woman after the other (p. 64). In the end, however, both love and debauchery would fall short of addressing the issue of freedom.
The ultimate solution to the problem of freedom that the protagonist found was to become a judge-penitent. As such, the judge-penitent must deny himself of his freedom and become an enlightened follower of slavery; one must accept in principle that all people are guilty. If the human race accepts its guilt, then people will become equal and live in a real democracy, and this “collective slavery” will make up for the inevitable of the human condition (p. 84).