La Chute- a brief explanation

The novel, “La Chute” presents the reader with a dialogue between two Frenchmen, taking place mainly in a seedy bar in Amsterdam.  We hear only the words of the dominant character and the responses of the listener are implied but not written in the book. The narrator of the book is a lawyer, who now uses the pseudonym of John Baptist Clamence.  Formerly he had had a very successful barrister’s practice in Paris, specialising in defending the underprivileged from the verdicts of the judges for whom he felt the distaste of a committed liberal. He had been a popular man, a cultured man, living a full social life and enjoying great success with the ladies.  A rounded man, he was an active sportsman and was confident and happy until one incident changed his life.

Alone on a bridge in Paris, on an early November morning, he became aware that a young woman had thrown herself into the water to take her life.  Indecisive, he did nothing to save her and did not report what he believed had happened.  It was only two or three years later, at a period when he was tired, ill and beset with problems that the full force of guilt began to hit him. On occasions he would hear mysterious mocking laughter. He rapidly lost his self respect; he became overwhelmed with guilt about every aspect of his life and his character. Unable to go on, he ran away and finally ended up in the most disreputable district of Amsterdam.  Here, sick and alone, he developed a technique to free himself from his own guilt. His habit was to capture the attention of a fellow victim of society. He then told his life story in introspective detail, confessing all his faults.  However, Jean Baptiste was being devious.  While playing the penitent, he, the man who hated judges, sought to place himself in the judge’s seat.  Cunningly, he intended to get his victim to confess his own sins, while he, enjoying his superior position, could pass judgement, at the same time passing his own guilt onto the other person.


The significance of the character and role of Jean-Baptiste Clamence

In his preface, Camus asks his readers to decide whether the man who is talking in his book is an individual case or a man representative of his times. Camus answered the question himself in an interview that he gave to “Le Monde” on the 31st August 1956.  He said that the character of Clamence is that of a little prophet, such as there were so many to be found at the time.  They have nothing at all to tell about the future and cannot find anything better to do than to accuse other people, while accusing themselves.

The target of Camus’ satire was made more specific in a private conversation which Professor Thody had with the author in 1956. Camus explained to him that, through the character of Clamence, he was satirizing some members of the Communist Party, who, while remaining atheists, retained the mindset of their former religious faith and allowed its approaches to shape their political activism.  He mentioned the concepts of social guilt and original sin, observing that Communists attempted to persuade middle-class Frenchmen to join their cause, by insisting that, otherwise, they shared the guilt of a bourgeois society. He also referred to contemporary thinkers who assumed that any opinions which differed from those they sought to impose on their readers were inspired by some original sin.

Christian moralists have been misled to praise the awareness of universal social guilt in the book.  In fact, Camus is showing that the blanket imposition of a sense of sin destroys the fabric of society, by enslaving the people.  The thesis of this book is that a major problem in the modern world is our failure to come to terms rationally with our shortcomings and to learn to live with the criticism which must be faced, as a result of human fallibility.  Through the character of Jean-Baptiste, Camus reveals the mechanisms operative in contemporary societies that make rational, healthy accommodations impossible, thus adding infinitely to the sum of human misery.

Jean Baptiste finally apologises for the machinations which have become the sum total of his existence. He begs the Frenchman to be indulgent with him - like the beggar on the terrace - he is not a bad man he has simply lost the light.
The light we have lost is the light of blessed innocence, which allows a person to forgive himself or herself.
Page 80 - Oui, nous avons perdu la lumière, les matins, la sainte innocence de celui qui se pardonne à lui-même.