“The Fall” is a 1956 novel by the French writer, Albert Camus. The novel was translated into English in 1957, a year after its first publishing in France. The novel takes place in Amsterdam and Paris and is told from the perspective of a man named Jean-Baptiste who speaks to you, the reader, directly.
Jean-Baptiste is a former high-powered lawyer who left his practice when he had a great revelation that about his work and his altruism. He now seeks to find men to confess his greatest sin to get them to do the same. He has labeled himself as something called a “judge-penitent.”
In the story, Jean-Baptiste describes the night that he was present for a woman accidentally falling over the side of a bridge and letting her drown without helping. From then on, he often heard the sound of a woman’s laughter bubbling up from rivers.
The novel explores a wide variety of themes in the six chapters that consist of Jean-Baptiste’s monologues. Some of these themes include judgment, truth, existence, imprisonment, morality, God and death.
“The Fall” is told from the perspective of a narrator who opens the book by introducing himself and offering his services to the reader. The narrator tells the reader that they are in a bar called, “Mexico City” in Amsterdam’s red-light district. The narrator must assist the reader in ordering a gin from the bartender who only speaks Dutch. After the drink is procured, the narrator pulls up a chair for a chat. The narrator points out a blank space behind the bar on the wall and says that a painting used to hang there. He says that he was present for the painting’s hanging and when they took it down. The bartender, he says, has always been distrustful.
The narrator used to live in France. He says that you, the reader did, too. He also says that the Dutch are different from the French because they are not intellectuals but they are more moral. He compares living a “clean life” to being eaten by piranhas. If you try to live right, you are eventually nibbled away by the pressures of having a job and family until you are only a skeleton.
When the gin arrives, the narrator says that he used to be a lawyer but is now a “judge-penitent.” He also says his name is Jean-Baptiste Clamence. He says that he is similar to you: a man in his forties who is well-dressed. He asks you some questions about yourself, stopping short of asking your occupation because he relates that it does not matter to him. Jean-Baptiste says that he used to be rich, but he no longer has any possessions. He used to be rich and very greedy. When you get up to leave, Jean-Baptiste picks up the check. He tells you that he will be there again the following night.
Jean-Baptiste accompanies you on your walk back to your hotel. He tells you that he lives in the Jewish Quarter. Or what used to be the Jewish Quarter before Hitler decimated the city. He feels that he lives at the site of one of the “greatest crimes in history.” He remarks about his distrust of people. When he realizes that he likes a person, his internal alarm goes off telling him to distrust them.
Jean-Baptiste, however, does like Amsterdam. He feels that the people of Amsterdam have their head in the clouds even though they are walking on the ground. He points out that the concentric canals of the city resemble the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. He says that the circle that you and he are currently in represents the circle for betrayers and traitors. The inner most circle. Jean-Baptiste bids you farewell and assumes that he will see you again in Mexico City the following day. He cannot follow you any further because he never crosses a bridge at night.
The following night, you return to the Mexico City. Jean-Baptiste opens the second chapter by asking, “What is a judge-penitent?” He tells you that he used to be a lawyer in Paris with a penchant for charity cases. He was successful, and the work was fulfilling. Jean-Baptiste says that the feeling that he was doing good and “on the right side” was a huge motivator for him. It kept him working and moving forward. He says that if you take that feeling away from men, they become “dogs frothing with rage.”
He says that he never took bribes or charged the poor. Jean-Baptiste says that, despite how this story sounds, he isn’t bragging because he no longer takes credit for these things. He says that he used to go so far as to help blind people cross the street and that he used to race other people and knock them out of the way to get to the blind person. He loved when something bad would happen in the city because it meant that he could offer his aid.
But despite all this, Jean-Baptiste wanted to aim higher. Being a defense lawyer means that he is always owed something by his neighbor, but he never owes his neighbor anything. He feels that the work is ideal for him. He feels that he was modest about himself and that this made him special and different from other men.
Jean-Baptiste calls the bartender over and orders you a drink. He begs you to drink with him as he feels the need for companionship and friendship. He says that he once knew a man whose friend was in prison. The man used to sleep on the floor so that he would not have any luxuries that his friend did not. Jean-Baptiste asks “Who will sleep on the floor for us?”
He points wonders if you and he do not love enough. He points out that people only really get sentimental about others after the person dies. He feels that this is because we have no obligations to the dead and they are no inconvenient to us. He thinks that people need tragedy and describes an apartment building where the residents only dress nicely for the funeral of the concierge. He thinks that we, as humans get bored and makeup problems for ourselves. He talks about a man he knew who realized that he did not love his wife after twenty years of marriage.
He says that when he was a lawyer he never had such a problem because he wasn’t bored. He talks about one night in Paris when he was walking on a bridge over the Seine. He suddenly heard a laugh behind him and spun around to see that no one was there. He looks over the side of the bridge and realizes that the laughter sounds like it’s coming from the water. He became so unnerved that he ran home and called a friend who did not answer.
Jean-Baptiste suddenly heard the laugh again outside his window. He looks outside and sees a group of teenagers bidding each other good night. Jean-Baptiste has a drink of water, and when he looks in the mirror, he realizes that he is smiling. He says that he felt like his smile was “double.” In the present time, Jean-Baptiste suddenly stops telling the story and bids you good night, telling you that he will see you tomorrow. He says that he has to see to the man in the corner who is an art thief and a killer. The man is one of Jean-Baptiste’s clients.
In the next chapter, Jean-Baptiste opens by thanking you for your curiosity. He agrees to continue his story from the night before. After he had heard the laugh, he thought about it for a few days but quickly forget about it. But he stopped walking near the water and would get nervous when he had to cross a bridge. He also started to develop some health problems and depression. Even now he feels ill and suggests that you two go for a walk. You agree.
On the walk, Jean-Baptiste talks about his love for islands and stops to remark about a house that used to be owned by a slave dealer. He says that men need slavery because they need to command and that this is why they have wives. He says that he always wants his servants to serve him with a smile because otherwise, he might think that he is not in the right. He compares himself to Janus, the god with two faces and explains this by telling another story.
Back in Paris, he used to tip his hat to the blind after helping them cross the street. But, he wonders, why did he do this if they could not see? This was for the people watching, he realized. Despite his claim of being modest, he was “bursting with vanity.” He says that his altruism was not real and that he only did it for his self-esteem. All of these self-realizations came to him after the night that he heard the laugh from the water. After he had heard the laughter, strange memories began flooding back to him. For instance, an incident where he was on the other side of road rage from a motorcyclist. Jean-Baptiste imagined beating up the motorcyclist, and he realized later that what he was dreaming of was being a complete man who is revered for his character as well as his profession.
Being humiliated in public by the motorcyclist (who also hit him) takes away this dream. This made him realize that his desire was to take over the world and not just to help people. Every intelligent man wants to take over the world, he claims. This realization made his job difficult as he realized that he was only capable of defending people who had not harmed him in any way with their crimes.
Jean-Baptiste begins talking about his love life. He was always popular with women although he did not involve a lot of emotion in the relationships. In response, women appreciated him even more because they felt that they could change him. He enjoyed controlling these women and making them promise that they would never love another man beside him and then break things off with them. But he says that his speeches to these women were not as full of lies as his speeches in court. He thinks this makes him better in his personal life than his professional one.
Jean-Baptiste says that before, the only way he could be happy was to believe that everyone in the world lived to serve him. When he thinks of this now, he feels an odd sensation that he thinks is a shame. He invites you to walk with him to his home. On the way there, he tells you of a night when he was returning to his house in Paris after leaving his mistress. On the bridge of the Seine, he saw a woman leaning over the water. He passed her and then heard her hit the water behind him. He stopped but didn’t go to her aid. He never tells anyone about this before you.
When you arrive at his house, he bids you goodnight and makes you promise to meet up tomorrow. Before leaving, you ask him what happened to the woman that fell into the river. He says that he does not know because he avoided the papers for a few days after the accident.
In the next chapter, Jean-Baptiste tells you that he is the only person that can show you “what matters” in Amsterdam. He talks about the sky of Holland is full of open doors that people can look down from, and when you ask what he means by this, he confesses that he is not as lucid as he used to be. He says that he has “no friends, only accomplices.” He mentions that he decided to play a trick on his friends recently only to realize that he did not have any. In the trick, he was supposed to kill himself. But the point of the trick would be to look at his friend’s faces afterward, and he would not be able to do that.
He says that this might be for the best. If one could see their funeral, they would see the indifference on their friend’s faces as no one cares about you after you die. He says that he couldn’t kill himself because he loves himself too much, even after discovering all of these horrible secrets about themselves. He talks about judgment and how much he wants to avoid it. Judgment creates guilt that he does not want. But through his new self-doubt, he made himself vulnerable to judgment. He says that the day of the laughter on the bridge made him suddenly lucid and aware. He never noticed other people’s dislike until this. He thinks that every man believes that he, himself is innocent and that is why we are so keen to judge others.
He references Dante again and, specifically his idea of “neutral angels.” He assumes that this is humanity’s job. To stand on the sidelines and wait for judgment. After he had heard the laughter, Jean-Baptiste realized that he wasn’t modest or humble and that he only used those fake emotions to procure what he wanted from society. He never took anything seriously and would just “pretend” to be normal.
Soon after having this realization, he began to have panicking thoughts about death. He began worrying that he would run out of time before he could do anything important with his life and without having confessed his sins. He wants to confess to another person. After this, he began trying to destroy his reputation. But whatever he did, people assumed that he was joking and laughed at him.
In the next chapter, you and Jean-Baptiste are on a boat together, sailing around Amsterdam. Jean-Baptiste picks up his story where he left off. After he had left the society of men, he spent most of his time with women. He began smothering his fears in debauchery. He says that patronizing prostitutes and gambling made him feel immortal. He continued this until he began having liver problems from drinking too much.
One day shortly after this, he is out in the water and thinks that he sees the form of the woman in black whom he let drown floating under the water. After calling for help, he realizes that it is only stray jetsam. He says that the cry that the woman issued before dying never stops and follows him along the water. That day he decided to live with his guilt even though it felt like a prison. The boat reaches land again, and you and Jean-Baptiste disembark. He asks you to walk him home so he can finish the story. Jean-Baptiste digresses a bit about the Bible before saying that God can no longer judge people but that he can. You arrive at his door, and he explains. He says that he is an “empty prophet for shabby times” and that he judges lawless men. He tells you that he will explain the rest tomorrow.
The next day when you get to Jean-Baptiste’s house, he is sick in bed. He says that he has fevers like this sometimes because he once suffered malaria. He explains that he was once in a prison camp where he was named “pope.” It was in Africa during World War II. He was in the French army and was held as a prisoner of war in Tunisia. In the camp where he was taken, there was a Frenchman who proclaims him as pope because he has the most failings of anyone in the camp.
Jean-Baptiste admits that he used to have a different name but doesn’t say what it is. He served as pope for weeks until he drank the water of a dying man. This made him realize that one has to forgive the pope because it is the only way to be above him, morally. Jean-Baptiste asks you to look in a cabinet which holds the painting from the Mexico City bar. The art thief from earlier in the novel stole the painting, but no one knew it was a real master work until Jean-Baptiste saw it. The bartender got nervous and agreed to let him have it. He finally explains his role as judge-penitent and says that his job is to judge others. He left Paris and set up a practice in Amsterdam, waiting in bars for the type of men that he needed to come along.
He then confesses his crime to the man that he chooses and fills the story with lots of details that relate him to the man. In the end, he builds a story about himself that makes him an everyman but no man in particular. He tells you to confess to him. You laugh, and Jean-Baptiste says that he knew you’d be difficult. He asks you to admit that you hate yourself more after talking to him. He says the purpose of life is to confess you’re horrible deeds from time to time so that you can continue doing them.
He has taken this role because he likes to make people confess to him and break down so that he can feel above them. He notices that it is snowing outside and you both go out to stand in it, seeking its purity before it becomes brown and dirty with street grime. He says that he wishes to have a policeman as a client because then he might be arrested for the theft of the painting. If he were arrested and executed he would no longer have to fear death. You reveal that you are a lawyer and he says that he assumed that you were. He asks you to tell him the story of the night you accidentally let a woman drown in the Seine. He says that you are saying the same thing he has always said about wishing that he had a second chance to save her but there are no second chances. Thank God for that, he says.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence – the narrator, main character, and subject of the novel. Jean-Baptiste narrates the book as though he were having a conversation with you, the reader. In the first chapter, you meet him in a bar called the “Mexico City, ” and he decides to tell you his life story while setting you up to be judged by himself. Jean-Baptiste is many things. A former highly successful lawyer who regularly engaged in altruistic acts to satisfy his self-obsession. A highly introspective genius. A forgetful idiot. A man who has learned everything and nothing.
The big moment that the novel hinges around is the moment in Paris when Jean-Baptiste lets a woman fall to her death off of a bridge. He seems to feel that his whole life changed that day, despite the fact that he does not acknowledge why. The laugh that bubbled up from the water that scared Jean-Baptiste is an obvious representation of his guilt for letting the woman drown. The laugh seems to follow him for the rest of his life. But he never clearly acknowledges this guilt in conjunction with the woman.
This is an excellent example of how contradictory Jean-Baptiste is a character. Many times throughout the novel he contradicts himself in his speeches to you. He portrays himself as both God and the Devil. Good and evil. However, since Jean-Baptiste’s speech is meant to draw you (the character) in and make you confess your sins, it could be argued that any part of it was fake.
After hearing the laugh, Jean-Baptiste left Paris and his high-powered job to move to Amsterdam which he considered being a city full of the type of men that would need to confess their sins. He set himself up as what he calls a “judge-penitent” and began meeting men in bars and telling them his worst sin to convince them to tell him theirs. This is what he does to you and what he confesses in the last chapter of the novel.
Jean-Baptiste is a clear example of hubris, and it’s effect on a person. “The fall” of the novel could be said to reference not only the woman falling into the river but Jean-Baptiste’s fall from his high position in society.
You – in an interesting narrative device, the other character of the novel is you, the reader. Jean-Baptiste spends the novel talking to you and answering your questions as if you had asked them. It is important to remember when reading that “you” the character and you, the reader are not the same person. The character of you is a forty-something man from Paris.
But it is unclear how much of the “you” in the novel is real and how much Jean-Baptiste fabricates for his story-telling ends. Throughout the story, “you” seem to become enamored with Jean-Baptiste’s story and continue to return to the “Mexico City” every night to hear more of it. By the end, you and he appear to be friends until he reveals his ploy.
Albert Camus Biography
Albert Camus was born on November 7th, 1913 in Drean, French Algeria. The son of a poor agricultural worker who died during World War I and a house cleaner, Camus had a difficult and poor childhood. Eventually, he was accepted into the University of Algiers on a football scholarship which he abruptly lost after contracting tuberculosis. Camus took odd jobs to pay for school and graduated in 1936 with a BA in philosophy.
In 1934, Camus met and married Simone Hie. They two were only married for a few months before infidelities on both sides caused them to separate. In 1935, Camus joined the French Communist Party but was expelled from the Party a year later for joining the Algerian People’s Party for being a Trotskyite. He then became associated with the French anarchist movement. Camus began writing for anarchist magazines such as Le Libertaire, La revolution Proletarienne. He joined many protests during this time, including the workers uprising in Poznan, Poland, and the Hungarian Revolution.
In 1937, he began writing for a socialist paper called Alger-Republicain but later lost the job for reporting on the poor living conditions of peasants in Kabylie. In 1940, he was turned away by the French army because of his tuberculosis. That year, he married a pianist and mathematician named Francine Faure. Francine gave birth to twins named Jean and Catherine in 1945. Camus never fundamentally believed in the idea of marriage and argued against it passionately. He cheated on his wife with numerous mistresses sometimes in very public affairs.
In 1941, Camus began working for another newspaper and moved to Bordeaux with his family. He also began writing his first books. “The Stranger” was published in 1942, followed five years later by “The Plague” in 1947. In 1947, Camus founded the “Revolutionary Union Movement” a trade union movement. During the 1950’s, he dedicated much of his time to working for UNESCO and human rights campaigns in Germany and Poland.
Camus’ last novel during his lifetime was published in 1956. “The Fall” would go on to become one of his best-known novels. At the age of 44, Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the second youngest person to ever receive the prize.
Camus died in a car accident in Villeblevin, France on January 4th, 1960 at the age of 46. The car was driven by his publisher and good friend, who passed away from his injuries five days later. More of Camus’ works have been published posthumously, including “A Happy Death” in 1970 and “The First Man” in 1995, an unfinished autobiography that Camus was writing when he died.