by Albert Camus
Analysis: Narrator Point of View
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
First Person (Central Narrator)
(A technical note before we start: though The Fall does create a "you" character, it’s still considered a first-person narrative.)
Point of view is fascinating in The Fall. As a narrator, Jean-Baptiste is elusive, ironic, manipulative, and woefully unreliable. The fact that he makes you, the reader, into a character in his tale is one of the greatest literary magic tricks we’ve ever witnessed, topped only by his twist ending where Jean-Baptiste is you, you are he, and together you’re every man.
Jean-Baptiste gives a series of hints that he just can’t be trusted. Early on in Chapter Three, he describes himself as "a double face, a charming Janus, […] a play-actor." He won’t tell you his real name, and later he even wonders if he has dreamt this entire narrative. In Chapter Six, the lesson hits home: "I know what you’re thinking: it’s very hard to disentangle the true from the false in what I’m saying. I admit you are right"(6.1). He then declares, "Don’t lies eventually lead to the truth? […] What does it matter whether they are true or false?" We should apply to all of Jean-Baptiste’s "confession", the slogan he envisioned on his personal trade-sign: "Don’t rely on it."
And now for the important question, uttered by many a reader sometime around Chapter Five: "Why are you doing this to me?!" Actually, let’s read some Kierkegaard and return to the question.
Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who lived and wrote during the first half of the 1800s. Although "existentialism" didn’t strictly exist yet, he is often called "The Father of Existentialism," since his ideas were a springboard for later thinkers like Sartre and Camus. Kierkegaard is interested in what he called "indirect communication." He believes that the most important kind of truth couldn’t just be told to you straight-up – it has to be communicated in a slightly tricky way. This is nothing new. Just think about the way the Bible uses parables to explain important concepts, or how Zen Buddhists rely on koans (those riddles like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?).
There’s a good chance that’s what Jean-Baptiste is doing here. Check out the passage where he talks about Luke, the gospel-writer who "censored out" Jesus’ cry on the cross: "Mind you, if Luke had suppressed nothing, the matter would hardly have been noticed; in any case, it would not have assumed such importance. Thus the censor shouts aloud what he proscribes" (5.17). The idea comes up a second time when Jean-Baptiste tells you: "I am skipping […] over these details which have a certain significance. Well, […] I am skipping over them so that you will notice them the better" (6.5). This is "indirect communication" at its finest. You actually need to disguise the truth a bit, so that your reader can grasp it, tackle it, get messy with it, and interpret it for himself. Or, as Jean-Baptiste says, "Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object" (6.2).
Now, think about Jean-Baptiste’s conclusion, that his confession is "a portrait which is the image of all and of no one." Doesn’t this make sense now? It could even be that Camus, not just Jean-Baptiste, is dealing in indirect communication. He couldn’t just write an essay condemning you and all of humanity of being hypocritical, duplicitous, and egotistical. He had to write a novel about a fictional guy who embodies these vices. He indirectly accuses us, and the accusation is that much more powerful because of its method.