“The Fall” was first published in 1956, and was Camus’ last full novel. Like much of his work it is considered existentialist, though interestingly Camus did not see his writing that way at all.
The narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, tells the story of his life and his so-called fall to an unnamed chance acquaintance he meets in a pub in Amsterdam. This is meant to parallel man’s fall from grace. The narrator says he likes to live on heights, whether it be the top deck of a boat or the top of a mountain. He likes to live above everything. And yet the story takes place in Amsterdam which the narrator himself likens to Dante’s Inferno, and is described as damp, foggy, flat. This is meant to clearly show geographically the narrator’s fall from the ‘heights’ of his career in Paris to the current depths of his life in Amsterdam.
Clamence, a lawyer, often champions the underdog in his court cases, and is very good at having them acquitted. He goes out of his way to do good deeds, and be kind and courteous at every turn. Through a series of events he becomes full of self- loathing, changing his life to push away everyone around him, and eventually leaving his work and Paris. He tells his acquaintance he is a ‘judge-penitent’ and goes through his story to illustrate how he has arrived at this title.
He describes his enjoyment of his life at the time:
I enjoyed my own nature to the fullest, and we all know that therein lies happiness, although, to soothe one another mutually, we occasionally pretend to condemn such joys as selfishness.
So he presents his good deeds as, ultimately, a show merely for public acclaim. It would not be unusual for anyone to have been guilty of this, at least occasionally. It is a good feeling, to be seen to be a good person. That is why he says he likes to live on the heights, because his ‘goodness’ puts him above others.
Clamence comes to understand that his goodness is artificial, merely a show for public acclaim. He realises this after an event where he does nothing to help a suicidal woman. He slowly comes to the understanding that his good deeds are only deeds of convenience and when they can be seen. Jumping into a river in the dark to rescue a drowning woman would not be seen and would be uncomfortable, possibly even dangerous. So he doesn’t do it. But it is not until after an embarrassing public incident that he really understands. He believes that if he were really good, the embarrassment would be inconsequential to him. It is not, and therefore he is not good.
If I had been the friend of truth and intelligence I claimed to be, what would that episode have mattered to me?
He realises he has no friends on the day he thinks of killing himself to “punish them”. When he concludes that no one would feel punished, it is easy to decide that there are no friends. This leads him to conclude that no one is convincing except in their death.
Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death.
He is giving every indication of severe depression, believing himself unloved, alone, and worthless.
At the end of the book, speaking to his friend (or possibly to himself), he wants his listener to tell him about the experience he himself had of ignoring the suicidal woman. He claims to wish for a second chance to save her and thus himself, but a moment later follows up this thought with the following:
Just suppose … that we should be taken literally? We’d have to go through with it. Brr …! The water’s so cold. But let’s not worry. It’s too late now. It’ll always be too late. Fortunately!
My interpretation of this novel is somewhat different to others I have read. To begin with, Clamence is a lawyer, and a good one, so he tells us. So he’s perfectly capable of spinning a good tale to get his point across. How do we know how much of this is true? He is, in my opinion, an unreliable narrator. Secondly, he tells us that his good guy persona is merely for public show and to appease his own vanity. He actively pursues this and goes out of his way to appear good, not only to people of influence, but to anyone, any available audience. So when he has his supposed epiphany, does he change his behaviour? Sure, but not in the way you might suppose is logical. Instead he begins to create the appearance (again, the appearance) of being a bad person. He states that he deliberately says offensive things in public in order to be seen as bad. His statements indicating depression and suicidal ideation are suspect, and seem to be as much for show, to create an impression, as everything else he does. And so, he sits in judgement over the reader, over you and me, because we are all like him.
The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the burden.
He admits that goading people into confessing they, too, are wicked, makes him feel the same elevation that his previous air of morality did:
I grow taller, I breathe freely, I am on the mountain, the plain stretches before my eyes. How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits.
Essentially, nothing has changed for Mr Clamence. He is a narcissist to his core. All he has done is exchanged one expression of narcissism for another. His illusion of being perfect man, becomes another illusion of being a wicked man, with everyone like him. His final words illustrate this most clearly. He speaks to the reader as if the reader is him. He cannot conceive of a world outside himself.
This is an excellent, well-written novel. While being a short book it is certainly an intense read. I would recommend it to any lover of philosophy.