Albert Camus

The Fall

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The Fall Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Fall by Albert Camus.

Albert Camus, a French-Algerian novelist, journalist, and playwright, wrote his philosophical novel, The Fall (La Chute) in 1956. In the book, a sophisticated, glib, former Parisian lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence confides the story of his life to a stranger he meets in a seedy bar. Clamence addresses his confession, in the form of a series of dramatic monologues, to this character, “you,” who listens, without speaking, for the entire novel.

Camus’s philosophical views contributed to the rise of absurdism; this school of thought informs The Fall. Absurdism posits that humanity’s efforts to find meaning in existence are futile because no such meaning exists, or if it does, humans can’t figure it out. Camus offers that the only viable response to this tragic quandary is to continue living in the face of the absurd, embracing individual responsibility. In this philosophical context, Camus explores themes of guilt, innocence, and judgment in The Fall.

The novel opens in the red-light district of Amsterdam in a bar called Mexico City. Clamence, a regular, assists a stranger in ordering a drink and joins him for conversation. The stranger is similar to Clamence: male, in his forties, cultured, and bourgeoisie. Clamence calls himself a “judge-penitent,” which he promises to elaborate on later. Casually mentioning that he did not tell the stranger his real name, he goes on to describe his enviable history in Paris as a respected lawyer. In Paris, Clamence would take the cases of widows and orphans and “noble murderers,” enjoying the “satisfaction of being right.” He exulted in helping blind people cross the street and giving alms. Clamence confesses, “I needed to feel above.” He would judge the judges and force the defendants to express gratitude, looking on himself “as something of a superman.” At the same time, his pleasurable life and self-love left him unsatiated and unsatisfied.

One autumn evening, a strange event changes Clamence’s life. As he pauses on a bridge over the river Seine, feeling powerful after a successful day, a laugh suddenly bursts out behind him. Clamence turns, but there is no one there, nor any boat or barge on the river. The laughter sounds again, moving downstream. The laugh is “good, hearty, almost friendly” but it shakes him. Going home, Clamence smiles at himself in his bathroom mirror, but it seems now that his smile is double.

Clamence forgets about the laugh, but once in a while seems to hear it within him. He has trouble recovering his good spirits as if he is forgetting how to live. He tells the stranger that one can’t get along without dominating or being served: power settles everything. Clamence realizes that until that night, everything simply rolled off him, he would forget everything but himself: “I, I, I is the refrain of my whole life.” He recalls two memories that trouble him, shaking his self-image. In the first, Clamence gets out of his car to confront a man whose motorbike has stalled at a traffic light. Another man hits Clamence, calling him a “silly ass.” Clamence does not react, realizing he badly wants revenge and dominance. Another memory involves his relationship with women. He admits he had great success with the ladies, winning the game of seduction. One lover, however, talked out of bed, and he reunited with her just to “mortify” her before dumping her again. When he remembers this story, he says he began to laugh, but the laugh was like the one he had heard on the Seine.

Clamence relates another pivotal memory. He is walking home late one November night, two or three years before the laughter incident. He crosses a bridge over the Seine. There, leaning over a railing staring at the water is a woman in black. Continuing across the bridge, Clamence hears the loud sound of a body hitting the water. He stops but does not turn around. He hears a repeated cry, moving downstream until there is silence. He wants to run, but he stands motionless, listening. He tells himself, “Too late, too far…” Clamence informs his listener that he doesn’t know what happened to the woman: he did not read the papers for days following the encounter.

On a trip to the island of Marken with his new companion, Clamence describes how the laughter affected him, making him realize his hypocrisy and doubt how wonderful he was. Clamence asserts that self-doubt makes one vulnerable to judgment, which leads to feelings of guilt. Clamence starts to distrust his friends and coworkers, believing they are judging and laughing at him, looking at him with a “hidden smile.” He realizes he has enemies and awakens to all the past mockeries and judgments that were directed at him. The laughter makes him recognize that he is playing a role; all his apparent modesty, humility, generosity, and virtue are simply ways to increase his power.

Clamence describes how he acted out against people, trying to “break open the handsome wax-figure I presented,” and stop the laughter. He loses himself in debauchery, which he enjoyed because it created no obligations and conferred immortality. He tries drinking. Clamence admits that nothing cured him; he knows that the cry he heard on the Seine that night had never ceased. He has to accept his guilt.

In the final chapter, Clamence finally explains what a judge-penitent is. He judges himself in order to justify judging others. He can condemn everyone he meets, ignoring their good intentions, tallying up their crimes, if he recognizes and judges his own transgressions. To humiliate himself, he confesses to others, allowing them to judge him, as he, in turn, judges the stranger. He breaks “his clients” down, thereby elevating himself.

Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957 for “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”