Study Guide

The Fall Freedom and Confinement

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Freedom and Confinement

Friendship is less simple. It is long and hard to obtain, but when one has it there’s no getting rid of it; one simply has to cope with it (2.16).

Jean-Baptiste appears to be "imprisoned’ by both his isolation and his ties to others. Quite the predicament.

Just between us, slavery, preferably with a smile, is inevitable then. But we must not admit it. Isn’t it better that whoever cannot do without having slaves should call them free men? For the principle to begin with, and, secondly, not to drive them to despair. We owe them that compensation, don’t we? In that way, they will continue to smile and we shall maintain our good conscience (3.8).

This is important. Really important, especially when you get to the end of The Fall. Jean-Baptiste seems to think he is free, but we have to wonder if he’s merely given himself the illusion of freedom or if he’s actually free.

The only deep emotion I occasionally felt in these affairs was gratitude, when all was going well and I was left, not only peace, but freedom to come and go – never kinder and gayer with one woman than when I had just left another’s bed, as if I extended to all others the debt I had just contracted toward one of them (3.30).

This is odd, since Jean-Baptiste initially sought women out as an escape from the imprisonment he felt in the company of men. According to our narrator, 2omen can also be sources of confinement.

I wanted to upset the game and above all to destroy that flattering reputation, the thought of which threw me into a rage. "A man like you ..." people would say sweetly, and I would blanch. I didn’t want their esteem because it wasn’t general, and how could it be general, since I couldn’t share it? Hence it was better to cover everything, judgment and esteem, with a cloak of ridicule. I had to liberate at all cost the feeling that was stifling me. In order to reveal to all eyes what he was made of, I wanted to break open the handsome wag-figure I presented everywhere (4.25).

Jean-Baptiste is imprisoned by his own reputation because of the expectations that come with it. Like the friendships he avoids, or the personal ties he breaks, Jean-Baptiste is really just trying to avoid responsibility. Now go and look at what he has to say about "responsibility."

Alcohol and women provided me, I admit, the only solace of which I was worthy. I’ll reveal this secret to you, cher ami, don’t fear to make use of it. Then you’ll see that true debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations. In it you possess only yourself; hence it remains the favorite pastime of the great lovers of their own person (5.8).

Jean-Baptiste’s egotism has this larger purpose: freedom. We have to wonder, then, if he really loves himself, or if he’s just trying to avoid the obligations that come with loving anyone else.

But they are the same gulls that were crying, that were already calling over the Atlantic the day I realized definitively that I was not cured, that I was still cornered and that I had to make shift with it. Ended the glorious life, but ended also the frenzy and the convulsions. I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure, you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the Middle Ages. […] It was not high enough to stand up in nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take on an awkward manner and live on the diagonal; sleep was a collapse, and waking a squatting. Mon cher, there was genius – and I am weighing my words – in that so simple invention. Every day through the unchanging restriction that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously (5.13).

The Fall presents a complicated relationship between freedom, innocence, and judgment. What we have in this passage is one small piece of that: innocence and freedom go hand in hand, as do confinement and guilt. What’s so brilliant is that Jean-Baptiste has reversed cause and effect. Look at it this way: in a normal world, man is guilty, therefore he is put in prison. Makes sense. But in Jean-Baptiste’s world, Man is imprisoned, therefore he is guilty. This is absurd. Now think about it in the context of The Fall’s setting…

You see in me, très cher, an enlightened advocate of slavery. […] Without slavery, as a matter of fact, there is no definitive solution.


Freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne. Nor yet a gift, a box of dainties designed to make you lick your chops. Oh, no! It’s a chore, on the contrary, and a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting. […] Alone in a forbidding room, alone in the prisoner’s bog before the judges, and alone to decide in face of oneself or in the face of others’ judgment. At the end of all freedom is a court sentence; that’s why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you’re down with a fever, or are distressed, or love nobody (6.13).

And we add another complication to our already complex relationship of freedom-innocence-isolation-judgment. Now we learn that freedom and isolation are tied together. What Jean-Baptiste is getting at is the idea that with freedom comes a terrible burden – the burden of having to maintain your innocence and avoid imprisonment. And, in order to maintain innocence, you have to get judged. It’s a lot easier to 1) admit that you’re guilty all the time, 2) hand over your freedom (which you would only deserve if you were innocent), and 3) never face the burden of having to be judged. These two passages here form the foundation of this argument, so it’s a good idea to spend some time with them.

But on the bridges of Paris I, too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master, whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law (6.16).

See how easy The Fall seems once you grasp that freedom-innocence-judgment argument? Using the previous two passages, we can make clear sense of this one: Jean-Baptiste is afraid of freedom, because having freedom means he has to maintain it. To maintain freedom, he has to prove he is innocent, and to prove he is innocent, he has to be judged. To be judged, as he learned on the bridge, is to be laughed at – something he is not at all willing to do.

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