Jean-Baptiste is the main character and narrator of The Fall. He tells you the story of how he went from being a super-successful lawyer to the sketchy guy helping you order gin in a seedy bar in Amsterdam’s red-light district.
But who is Jean-Baptiste Clamence? Well, depending on which scholar you ask, Jean-Baptiste is any one of a number of things. To start with, he’s your guide. He’s teaching you, but he’s also deceiving you. He is admittedly a play-actor, and man oh man does he play a lot of roles. Among others, Jean-Baptiste is God, a prophet, a demon, the devil, the Pope, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Adam, Dante, and Virgil. He’s a lawyer. He’s a judge. He’s a penitent. He’s a philosopher, an arguer, and an egotist. And he may or may not be insane. Lucky for you, we’ll talk about all of these. But before we dissect the man, let’s look at what the man has to say.
Jean-Baptiste’s "confession" to you outlines 1) a basic problem, 2) a set of attempted and failed solutions, 3) a grand cure-all solution that isn’t yet possible, and 4) a solution that, for the time being, he thinks is working just fine. We’re going to take you through his argument in a basic summary of the major ideas in The Fall.
So we’ll start with number one: the problem. Think back to the scene where Jean-Baptiste hears the laughter coming from the water. While congratulating himself on being virtuous and wonderful, he is suddenly reminded of the fact that he let a woman drown years ago without lifting a finger to help.
Once Jean-Baptiste recognizes that he’s a hypocrite, he’s pretty sure that the rest of the world can tell he’s duplicitous as well. So now, all of a sudden, he gets paranoid and thinks that everyone is judging him. Now that he thinks about it, everyone is judging everyone else. And, now that he thinks about it some more, everyone is guilty of something, so we’re always going to be judged and we’re always going to be condemned. Jean-Baptiste doesn’t want to be judged – he doesn’t want to be laughed at.
And now for number two, the failed solutions. Jean-Baptiste first tries love. He tries to escape from judgmental men by retreating into the world of women. Unfortunately, he treats women badly and he knows it. All that he’s doing is adding to his list of crimes, and feeling increasingly guilty. So he gives up on love and relationships and tries meaningless sex instead. "Debauchery," as he calls it, only works for him as a momentary distraction, which is why it’s not such a great solution. Next he tries alcohol: same deal. It’s a momentary distraction, not a permanent solution. Suicide, he thinks, might work – except, he won’t be able to enjoy it. So scratch that off the list. Four ideas, four failures.
Then Jean-Baptiste comes up with his grand idea, the one cure-all solution: slavery.
Jean-Baptiste’s solution ties together all the big concepts he discussed inThe Fall: innocence, freedom, and judgment. It works like this: with freedom comes a big burden, namely, having to stay free. If you’re free, it must mean that you’re innocent. (Because if you were guilty, you would be in prison.) So, if you want to stay free, you have to prove over and over that you’re still innocent. And how do you prove your innocence? By standing up in court and having someone judge you. This is problematic because being judged is the problem we’re trying to solve. If you give yourself up to slavery, you don’t have to be judged. You’re basically skipping the court process and going straight to jail. Remember, for Jean-Baptiste, punishment isn’t the problem. According to him, we can all deal with getting punished. It’s getting judged that’s the real problem. So slavery is the answer.
But Jean-Baptiste recognizes that this sort of universal slavery isn’t possible. So instead, he needs a temporary solution. To arrive at this conclusion, he has to "reverse [his] reasoning."
Now, before we talk about his solution, we have to understand what "reverse the reasoning" means. Jean-Baptiste basically sees it as ‘pulling a Copernicus.’ Copernicus was the guy who came along and told the world that the earth rotates around the sun, and not the other way around (as people had previously thought for generations before Copernicus came around). So to "reverse the reasoning" is to pull a switcheroo, and go in the other direction.
We’ve already seen Jean-Baptiste 'pull a Copernicus'; in fact, it’s become a sort of hallmark of his absurd and unique brand of logic. Remember when he talks about Luke and his gospel, which by omitting Jesus’ "Why hast thou forsaken me?" actually drew more attention to it? And how Jean-Baptiste himself omits information so that you will notice it all the more? These are great examples of ‘pulling a Copernicus.’ The reversal logic comes with the Jean-Baptiste territory.
And now for his solution. Remember, the problem is that he doesn’t want to be judged. He told us in the beginning of The Fall that all men judge one another, and that they do so to avoid being judged themselves. Now he ‘pulls a Copernicus’: he judges himself in order to judge you. That’s his solution – and that’s why he’s bothering to go through this "confession" at all. (As you’ll see later on, judging himself and judging you are actually the same thing.) That’s what it means to be a judge-penitent: he confesses his own sins (he is penitent), while condemning you for yours (he is the judge).
Now Jean-Baptiste is no longer a hypocrite. He’s still duplicitous, it’s just that now he admits to it. He acts exactly the same way as he did before, but now he’s honest about it. So now he doesn’t have to avoid judgment, because he’s stripped judgment of its meaning. If you say to the judge, "Yep, I’m guilty," then getting judged as "guilty" doesn’t really matter any more. He’s solved the problem.
That’s the simple version. The "solution" is actually a little bit more complicated than that. In confessing his sins, Jean-Baptiste has not only avoided judgment; he’s also proven himself innocent. We know, we just said he was admitting his guilt in order to avoid judgment. This is true if his confession is genuine. But his "confession" is just as much an accusation of YOU as it is about his own sins.
Go back to Chapter Four and look at the passage where Jean-Baptiste tells his law students that, if they want to defend a murderer, they should talk about their own sins. The idea is that, if we are all guilty, we can’t really condemn the murderer for being guilty. Jean-Baptiste has made "guilty" and "innocent" into relative terms. He says to you that, to prove your innocence, "it is not enough to accuse yourself. […] One must accuse oneself in a certain way" (our italics) (4.27). What is this certain way? You’re looking at it. Accuse yourself by simultaneously accusing others. Be a judge-penitent. Jean-Baptiste becomes innocent because he has made you guilty. This seems absurd because it is.
Now that we’ve nailed down Jean-Baptiste’s basic argument, let’s look at the roles Jean-Baptiste’s character takes on from Biblical, mythological, and literary history.
Jean-Baptiste fills some pretty big shoes, God's among them. The fact that he plays so many roles is significant in and of itself; check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this. But for now, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the more significant parts our narrator plays.
Think of it this way: in the world of The Fall, Jean-Baptiste is an omnipotent God. He creates the world around you by describing it. He even creates you, by telling you how old you are, what you look like, and what you do for a living. Because his entire confession is a judgment, he’s judging you as though he’s God. In fact, that’s one of the reasons he does it. He find it "intoxicating to feel like God the Father and […] sit enthroned among [the] bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven" (6.24).
Yes, that’s right – it’s all about power. Remember, Jean-Baptiste has established that we no longer need a real God. The only point to such a figure would be to guarantee innocence, and there is no more innocence in his world (because, remember, everyone is guilty of something, even Jesus Christ). Since we don’t have a God to tell us what to do, we need someone else to take his spot. And Jean-Baptiste has "arrived," as he says, in order to "announce the law."
Part of the reason Jean-Baptiste wants to be God is that it means he can live forever. "Yes, I was bursting with a longing to be immortal," he says. "I was too much in love with myself not to want the precious object of my love never to disappear" (5.7).
Which brings us to Jean-Baptiste’s interesting weird death wish – interesting because the man wants to be immortal. He tells you at the end of his narrative that he hopes you are a policeman, so that he will be executed for harboring the stolen van Eyck painting. How is it possible that a man who wants to be immortal also wants to die? Let’s check it out: "I would be decapitated […] and I’d have no more fear of death. […] You would hold up my still warm head […] and again I could dominate – an exemplar" (6.28). Ah, OK – it’s not that he wants to be immortal. It’s that he fears death.
However, as Jean-Baptiste argued earlier, martyrdom is always fruitless, since no one ever understands why you gave yourself over to death. This might have something to do with his desperate plea: "Drink up with me, I need your understanding" (2.15).
As his name suggests, Jean-Baptiste could be a twist on John the Baptist, the Biblical figure who recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and baptized him in the River Jordan. There are many John-the-Baptist-related implications for The Fall, and several have to do with the stolen van Eyck painting, which you can read all about in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."
If he is John the Baptist, this is bad news. First of all, the man is haunted by water. He can’t even cross a bridge at night. As you know, baptism has to do with water. He’s a John the Baptist that can’t baptize anyone. This raises an interesting question: how is he supposed to cleanse others of sin when he can’t get past his own transgressions? Look at his description of his role as a judge-penitent: "With me there is no giving of absolution or blessing. […] I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty" (6.12).
Jean-Baptiste compares Amsterdam to Dante’s vision of hell portrayed in his epic poem Inferno. In Inferno, Dante travels through hell guided by Virgil, the Roman poet. If Amsterdam is your hell, then Jean-Baptiste is your Virgil. The man even says of Amsterdam, "I didn’t bring you to this island for quaintness. […] I am one of the few people […] who can show you what really matters here" (4.1). If Jean-Baptiste is your Virgil, then that makes you Dante, and you are getting an intricately guided tour through hell.
So what does Jean-Baptiste have to say about hell? "Hell must […] streets filled with shop signs and no way of explaining oneself. One is classified once and for all" (3.8). This isn’t a far-cry from Dante’s depiction of the underworld, where every man is labeled by his sins and punished accordingly. (If you had committed adultery, for example, then you were an adulterer, that was your label, and you were stuck with the other adulterers.)
It’s interesting that Jean-Baptiste is so against labeling. That’s what he does, after all. That’s his role as judge-penitent, to "tot up" everyone’s sins and say to them, "It comes to so much. You are an evildoer, a satyr, a congenital liar, a homosexual, an artist, etc." (6.12). If a land peopled with trade-signs is hell, then Jean-Baptiste indeed lives in hell – but it is a hell of his own making.
While Jean-Baptiste guides you through his hell, he also resides over it as master and commander. This, of course, makes him a stand-in for Lucifer. The connection between our protagonist and Lucifer makes even more sense when you read Shmoop’s "What’s Up With the Title?" since both Jean-Baptiste and Lucifer suffered from a "fall."
By the end of the novel, we have to wonder if this Jean-Baptiste is clinically insane. In the last chapter of The Fall he’s in and out of bed, he’s ranting to you about God and on tangents about doves that fill the sky. Speaking of these doves, we definitely get some earlier hints that Jean-Baptiste is less than lucid, you know, like that line where he says he’s "lost [his] lucidity" (4.3).
But it’s also possible that his madness is all part of the plan – that he’s faking it just to mess with you, his audience. We get the notion from Jean-Baptiste’s statement that we shouldn’t "take [his] emotional outbursts or [his] ravings too seriously," because "they are controlled" (6.28).
Enough about roles. Let’s talk about the structure of The Fall: Jean-Baptiste’s confession and profession as a judge-penitent. First of all, why does Jean-Baptiste delay so long in explaining what a judge-penitent is? Well, because his entire confession is his explanation. It seems as though he’s been putting the answer off. In fact, he’s telling you everything you need to know throughout the course of the novel. The surprise ending – where you find out that you are his client (and are being judged) – puts a whole new spin on The Fall, as does his claim that his crimes are really yours.
What is going on here? One possibility is that Jean-Baptiste is manipulating you, as he claims. He could tell you were a lawyer, so he chose "lawyer" as his former profession. He could tell you were from Paris, so he pretended he was from Paris.
If this is true, though, we have to ask ourselves: who is Jean-Baptiste? Then remember that that’s not even his real name, so you have to ask, who is this random guy buying you gin? He may be no one at all. Remember when he said that "when one has no character one has to apply a method" (1.10)? Maybe that’s what he’s doing here. He has no character and no substance, which his why he is defined only by his method, that of the confession. The profession of the judge-penitent.
Let’s look at another possibility, and one that gives this mystery man far less credit: he’s full of it. He’s the lawyer in question, he’s from Paris, he let a woman drown, but he’s so ashamed of himself that the only way he can confess is by pretending his sins belong to someone else. Sort of like the "I have a friend with a problem…" approach, except that the "friend" is you. Here’s another radical theory for you: Jean-Baptiste is just talking to himself. That certainly explains why the fictional "you" character has everything in common with him. And it raises some seriously interesting implications about the nature of his confession, which is designed to gain power over the listener. (How do you subjugate yourself? How do you hand your personal freedom over to…yourself? How do you judge and condemn yourself?)
Before you go, look at what Jean-Baptiste has to say on the nature of confessing: "I have ceased to like anything but confessions, and authors of confessions write especially to avoid confessing, to tell nothing of what they know. When they claim to get to the painful admissions, you have to watch out, for they are about to dress the corpse. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about" (6.2).