Study Guide

The Fall Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Laughter

The moment when Jean-Baptiste first hears laughter coming from the darkness of the water is big turning point. It’s what knocks him off the "bad faith wagon," so to speak. Of course, it’s not hard to put two and two together and realize that a woman jumped off the bridge and into the water, and it’s only by standing on a bridge hearing sounds from the water that Jean-Baptiste is reminded of it.

It soon becomes clear that this laughter is closely tied to the idea of judgment. (Look at this line: "Now my words have […] the purpose […] of silencing the laughter, of avoiding judgment personally.") Once you think of it this way, all the references to laughter make more sense. Jean-Baptiste hears the universe laughing at him because he feels the universe judging him. He laughs at his own speeches during his period of discovery because he’s judging himself to be a hypocrite. He still hears laughter "occasionally" while practicing the role of judge-penitent because he hasn’t completely escaped from judgment. If you want to convince yourself that laughter = judgment, go ahead and look through your text for some other instances of laughter.

The interesting question, then, is why laughter? Shouldn’t he hear screaming from the water? Or perhaps words like "Coward! Hypocrite!" hurled from the mouth of an accusatory judge. Again, this problem is nothing a few lines from the text can’t cure. First of all, "Slavery is preferable with a smile. […] I have always wanted to be served with a smile. If the maid looked sad, she poisoned my days." And secondly, "The laughter continued to drift my way, without my random efforts succeeding in divesting it of its benevolent, almost tender quality that hurt me." From here, there are a few different explanatory roads we can take to determine why laughter = judgment. The first is that this is Jean-Baptiste’s world, so he creates it as he sees fit. Remember that the purpose of his confession is to make you a slave to him, and at the same time to hand over his freedom to you and be free of this burden. Either way, according to him, there needs to be some smiling involved. Slavery, in his view, has to be masked with a smile – and so, perhaps, does the judgment he is trying to escape. He prefers to deal with judgment in the form of laughter, and so, in his world, judgment takes that more desirable form.

The other possibility is that this is classic absurdist stuff. There’s something nearly laughable about the permanent human condition of suffering in the world. It’s so horrible that it borders on the comic (just think Waiting for Godot and you’re good to go. While you’re at it, check out our Shmoop module for more on this awesome Beckett play). That’s why Jean-Baptiste describes the laughter as "benevolent, almost tender." That’s an absurdist’s way of describing the judgment that both imprisons and terrifies him.

The van Eyck Painting

There really is such a painting as "The Just Judges." It’s a panel, part of a larger painting called "The Ghent Altarpiece" or "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." The entire work is composed of 26 individual panels, all depicting religious (Christian) figures. It was painted in 1432 and hung around in Ghent, Belgium until it was stolen in 1934. The Bishop from whom it was taken got creepy ransom notes, but the painting was never recovered. Meanwhile this guy Arsène Goedertier, some random stock-broker, was about to die at fifty-seven and was suddenly all, "I know where the painting is!" and then keeled over. When they searched his home, no dice (though they did find copies of the ransom notes sent to the bishop after its theft). Click here to see the Altarpiece in its entirety. The panel on the lower left is "The Just Judges" – that’s the piece that was stolen.

So what’s the connection to The Fall? Let’s start with religious allegory. Check out Jean-Baptiste’s "Character Analysis," where we talk about his connection to John the Baptist. Along with his name (Jean-Baptiste), the stolen painting is one of the biggest ties between our narrator and the famed Biblical character. First of all, John the Baptist was the patron saint of Ghent, where the painting was held and from where the judges panel was stolen. Secondly, on the day John the Baptist baptized Jesus, the holy spirit descended to him in the form of a dove. Doves are hardly trivial in this novel, as you’ll later on in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." Last but not least, John the Baptist appears in this van Eyck painting – twice.

In his more prominent appearance, John the Baptist appears in the right central panel with his finger raised pointed toward the divine (God, or the Holy Ghost, depending on how you like it). Does finger pointing sound familiar to you? Check it out:

"When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters – an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah, choked with fever and alcohol, my back up against this moldy door, my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment."

John the Baptist has his finger pointed at God; Jean-Baptiste has his finger pointed at an empty and threatening sky. Conclusion: God has left the building. Besides, as Jean-Baptiste tells us, "God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence," so in a world where innocence is impossible, (i.e. Jean-Baptiste’s universe) we don’t really need him anymore. It follows, then, that Jean-Baptiste is what happens to John the Baptist when God isn’t there.

Let’s talk about the rest of the painting as a whole. For starters, why is it called "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"? In Christianity, "The Lamb of God" is another name for Jesus Christ. It’s very much tied to the idea of Christ as the picture of holy innocence. In the big van Eyck painting, The Lamb and his various iconic worshippers are the focus of the largest center panel. To the left of this center panel is "The Just Judges," the portion of the painting, which was stolen and which, in this novel, Jean-Baptiste has locked up in his cupboard. It’s clear that these "judges," who appear as men on horseback, are on their way to worship The Lamb with everyone else.

Now that you’ve got the pieces, you can start to analyze what’s going on in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste has argued that there is no such thing in the world as innocence. Even Jesus Christ, he says, was guilty. If this is true, it doesn’t really make sense to be worshipping The Lamb of God, a.k.a. the symbol of holy innocence. Under this logic, the painting becomes anachronistic and useless.

Now consider the panel itself. "The Just Judges" brings up an important idea. Two, actually: justice and, well, judgment. Consider the following: before he locked it up in his cupboard, "The Just Judges" hung on the wall behind the bar in Mexico City. Were the judges judging, while they hung there? In a way, Jean-Baptiste is taking their place by removing them from the bar and sitting and judging there himself. As far as he’s concerned, the entire purpose of his existence is to avoid judgment. It may be a childish solution, but locking up judges in a cupboard is certainly one way to stop them from judging.

We’ll leave you one question to wrestle with yourself. First, go and read the only two paragraphs in The Fall which directly address the stolen painting (6.9 and 6.10). These passages both answer and raise a lot of questions. Jean-Baptiste gives six reasons for his harboring the stolen painting. Now at #6, which really caught our eye: "Finally, because this way everything is in harmony. Justice being definitively separated from innocence – the latter on the cross and the former in the cupboard – I have the way clear to work according to my convictions." The question, then, is this: Why does Jean-Baptiste need to separate justice from innocence in order for his judge-penitent solution to hold water?

Heights, Depths, and Mexico City

You can read in "What’s Up With the Title?" about the various "falls" represented in the novel, and you can read a bit about Amsterdam’s sub-sea-level status in our discussion of the setting. But the idea of heights and depths warrants further discussion, mostly because Jean-Baptiste just won’t stop talking about it. Jean-Baptiste is all about feeling above. He says that he has "never felt comfortable except in lofty places," because he needs to "feel above." Jean-Baptiste wants to feel superior, like God judging all the mortals beneath him, so he wants to place himself physically above others. We argue in "Setting" that by placing himself in Amsterdam, below sea-level, Jean-Baptiste is punishing himself.

But consider the bar in which he spends his time: Mexico City. The real Mexico City in Mexico is almost 8,000 feet above sea level. So while everyone in Amsterdam is below, Jean-Baptiste has still succeeded in placing himself above. When you add into the mix the fact that he’s judging while he sits at the bar, you’ve got a well-nurtured God complex. And this passage makes a lot more sense:

How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits. I sit enthroned among my bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven and I watch ascending toward me, as they issue from the fogs and the water, the multitude of the Last Judgment. They rise slowly; I already see the first of them arriving. On his bewildered face, half hidden by his hand, I read the melancholy of the common condition and the despair of not being able to escape it. And as for me, I pity without absolving, I understand without forgiving, and above all, I feel at last that I am being adored!

The Dutch heaven = Mexico City. Also, think about the word "adored" in the context of the title of the van Eyck painting - another Allegory you can read about in our module.

The Passage of Narrative Time

You’ve probably noticed that time is different in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste tells you his life story, but he doesn’t do it chronologically. Either he’s like that guy who can’t tell a joke right, or Camus has done this on purpose. Our money’s on the second interpretation.

Just to be clear, let’s list in chronological order the events that occur in Jean-Baptiste’s confession. 1) Jean-Baptiste occurs the wrath of the motorist and the musketeer watching. Around the same time, a woman jumps off a bridge and he fails to save her. Jean-Baptiste promptly forgets both of these incidents. 2) Years later, Jean-Baptiste hears laughter coming from the water below the same bridge. 3) Only then does he remember the motorist incident and woman he failed to save. 4) These recollections, among many others, constitute a period of "discovery" in which Jean-Baptiste "falls from grace," leaves Paris, and moves to Amsterdam. 5) He ends up sitting at Mexico City with you, acting the part of the judge-penitent.

Now that we’re clear, we can ask why Camus has chosen to disrupt time this way. Why do we hear about the laughter coming from the water before we hear about the woman jumping off the bridge? One explanation is that we get to experience these events the same way Jean-Baptiste did. At the time he heard the laughter, he had already forgotten the woman who died. For him, it felt as odd as it does to us. In other words, we experience a "period of discovery" just like Jean-Baptiste. (Have you seen Memento? It’s sort of the same deal. The movie goes backwards so that we feel the same confusion and uncertainty that the hero does.)

Another possibility is that the disruption of time represents a disruption of cause and effect. This goes back to our much-discussed idea of ‘pulling a Copernicus,’ of "reversing the reasoning" as Jean-Baptiste says. Things are backwards. Nothing makes sense. It’s all very absurd. This makes sense given Camus’s philosophical leanings, and the modernist style in which The Fall is written.

The Doves

Jean-Baptiste mentions doves four times in the course of The Fall. Now, normally, talking about doves isn’t grounds for accusations of lunacy, but in this particular case, we have to doubt the man’s sanity. Why? Because he’s convinced that "the sky of Holland is filled with millions of doves, invisible because of their altitude, which flap their wings, rise or fall in unison, filling the heavenly space with dense multitudes of grayish feathers carried hither and thither by the wind."

And that’s only the first mention. The doves come up again later in Chapter Four, once briefly in Chapter Six, and most importantly at the end of the novel, when it begins snowing and Jean-Baptiste decides that the snow flakes are the doves, coming down to earth at last.

Before we discuss that might mean, let’s turn, as usual in this novel, to the Bible. In Christianity, the dove is the symbol of the holy spirit. It represents the divine grace of God, innocence, and purity. But remember that Jean-Baptiste defines grace as "irresponsibility." He doesn’t believe in God’s forgiveness. He doesn’t believe in divine intervention. He doesn’t think God is around anymore. After all, he is his own God, sitting enthroned in the "Dutch heaven" (that would be Mexico City) and judging all the pimps and thieves "below" him. As such, doves should have no place in his world.

Which is probably why the doves are restricted to the sky. They "would like to come down," he explains, "but there is […] never a head on which to light." In other words, there is no space for God here in Amsterdam. With that established, we can attack that juicy paragraph at the end of the novel where Jean-Baptiste thinks the falling snow is the doves coming to earth: "See the huge flakes drifting against the windowpanes. It must be the doves, surely. They finally make up their minds to come down, the little dears. […] Let’s hope they are bringing good news. Everyone will be saved, eh?"

That sure sounds hopeful. For a man so thoroughly convinced that God is dead, in a manner of speaking, it’s certainly odd for him to be talking about the holy spirit intervening to save mankind. Now read the next line from that passage: "You don’t believe it? Nor do I. But still I must go out."

Jean-Baptiste is trapped in a particularly awful scenario here. He can’t bring himself to have faith, to really believe that salvation is possible for mankind, but he also can’t bring himself to abandon hope entirely. In one sense, he "knows" that redemption isn’t coming, but in another sense, he desperately wishes it could. If you want to argue that Jean-Baptiste’s judge-penitent solution is false, this is probably a good place to start.


Now and again, Jean-Baptiste speaks of "the fundamental duplicity of man." This is an interesting word, duplicity. (Remember that we’re dealing with a translation here, but both the O’Brien and the Buss translation use the same word in English.) Duplicity means deceitfulness, but it also means double-ness. When you look at it that way, "duplicity" seems to crop up all over the place in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste is deceitful in the sense that he’s tricking you. He may be a liar, he’s certainly deceptive, and he’s admittedly "a play-actor." (And he does indeed play a lot of parts – just read his "Character Analysis" for the details. Each role is interesting in itself, but the fact that he has multiple roles at all is worth talking about. It means he is pretending, shifting, changing, and in all probability, lying to you.)

Jean-Baptiste is also "double," in the sense that he is not what he seems. He claims to be both a judge and a penitent, both every man and no man at all, both himself and you. He even calls himself "a double-faced Janus." When Jean-Baptiste speaks of duplicity, he’s referring not only to deceit and double-ness, but also to his own hypocrisy – arguably a marriage of the two. He says, "Modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress. I used to wage war by peaceful means." See the duplicity here?

Now that’s all good for Jean-Baptiste, but what does that have to do with the rest of men? What makes the duplicity fundamental, and what makes it common to all mankind? Remember that Jean-Baptiste’s confession is supposed to be yours, and that he’s painting a picture, as the epigraph would have us believe "of the vices of [a] whole generation." Jean-Baptiste may be hypocritical, double, and deceitful, but we all share the duplicity we condemn in his character. We all lie to ourselves, pretend our motives are pure, put on masks and play roles while we call it living. Or at least, that’s one interpretation of The Fall.


Think about all the ways water factors into The Fall. The woman whom Jean-Baptiste fails to save dies by drowning. Jean-Baptiste has chosen to live in Amsterdam, a foggy city of canals, and a "soggy hell," a "negative landscape." The place is full of bridges over water that he’s too afraid to cross at night. The laughter Jean-Baptiste hears comes from the water. He prefers to live on islands, surrounded by water. He delivers one of his monologues to you while on a boat. He is on an ocean liner when he sees a black speck in the water and realizes he can never escape his shame. Speaking of that ocean liner, check out this passage:

Then I realized, calmly as you resign yourself to an idea the truth of which you have long known, that that cry which had sounded over the Seine behind me years before had never ceased, carried by the river to the waters of the Channel, to travel throughout the world, across the limitless expanse of the ocean, and that it had waited for me there until the day I had encountered it. I realized likewise that it would continue to await me on seas and rivers, everywhere, in short, where lies the bitter water of my baptism.

Baptism! Remember, Jean-Baptiste is a skewed parallel to John the Baptist. But instead of using water to cleanse someone of sin, Jean-Baptiste’s sins lie in water. (Maybe that’s why the water is so bitter.) Now look at the next line: "Here, too, by the way, aren’t we on the water? On this flat, monotonous, interminable water whose limits are indistinguishable from those of the land?" Jean-Baptiste can never escape water, just as he can never escape from his crimes (the dead woman in particular, but his hypocrisy in general). By coming to Amsterdam, then, the city of canals, fog, bridges, and rain, Jean-Baptiste has "reversed the reasoning" yet again. Rather than run from his guilt, he has run towards it. He has manufactured an escape that requires Copernican logic.

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