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Jean-Baptiste Clamence and Morality

In Albert Camus’ r?cit, The Fall, main protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence is a former Parisian lawyer turned judge-penitent presently living in Amsterdam who confesses to an unnamed bar patron about his past. Clamence’s journey from being a prominent lawyer to a now lesser known judge-penitent who provides his services in a bar is confounding. Given Clamence’s past profession and prominence in law, it brings into question as to why Clamence is at such a low point of his life where he is providing his services at a bar.

Clamence’s failure is due to his lack of morality, which is characterized by his selfishness, duplicity, and ultimately, his absurdity.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a former Parisian lawyer, succumbs to the center of Amsterdam’s Red-Light District. Given that Clamence “was a lawyer in Paris and, indeed, a rather well-known lawyer,” he has fallen from his eminence to his triviality, now living at the center of Amsterdam (The Fall 284). Clamence remarks to the unknown bar patron about how “when one comes from the outside [of Amsterdam’s concentric canals]· life – and hence its crimes – become denser [and] darker,” for the canals resemble the circles of Hell (The Fall 283).

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It cannot be a coincidence that Clamence “takes up residence in the direct center of the city” where Amsterdam’s “concentric canals become a stand in for Dante’s Purgatory” in which Clamence is at the heart of (Robertson 146). Clamence’s fall from the “highlands of Paris to the lowlands of Amsterdam” are a result of his own selfish, immoral actions, actions which ultimately led him to his demise; to Amsterdam’s Red-Light district which has become his inescapable Hell (Robertson 146).

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It is through Clamence’s selfishness acts that drive him to commit the actions he takes part of and result in his fall.

Given Clamence’s decline from prominent lawyer to constant bar frequenter, his motives are not done out of pure sincerity to help those who need his assistance, but out of self-interest. As a lawyer, Clamence would take on cases of “widows and orphans,” “never charge the poor,” and, “loved to help blind people cross the street,” that of which makes Clamence seem like a genuine person who cares for others and wants to help them; Clamence is all but that (The Fall 286). Clamence willingly admits that when helping a blind man cross the road, he would touch his hat towards the man, “obviously the hat touching wasn’t intended for him since he couldn’t see it,” but it was intended for the public to witness (The Fall 301). Clamence is willing to act “for oneself over others,” in this case for how society would react to the kind deed of making sure a blind man does not get hurt (Holman 126-7). Clamence’s actions towards others are not done out of integrity, he does not care for the people that he helps because his actions are done out of self-interest and the lack of self-morals that drive him. Morality “descriptively refers(s) to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society;” therefore, Clamence’s tipping of the hat is an “obeisance to society’s demands of a civil, polite man,” but in reality, for Clamence, it is not done out of genuine sincerity because he is putting on a facade of what a civil, polite man is for his own self-gratification and the praise that he would receive from society (Gert; Robertson 150). Clamence prefers the overall self-satisfaction that is received when he does something deemed morally good by society and to succeed in that “he simply acts the way that society dictates” (Robertson 149). It is through Clamence’s self-interest and lack of morality that leads him to his later outcome, as well as his own selfish acts that allow for a woman’s suicide.

Clamence has shown that he lacks morals for he is a selfish man, and that is again made evident on the night that he allows for a woman to jump off a bridge. One night in Paris as Clamence is walking home after a night with a mistress, he “makes out a young woman dressed in black” standing, leaning over the bridge railing looking out to the river, yet he continues his on his way home despite “hearing a body strike the water,” for him to only stop for a moment and not even look back (The Fall 313). Clamence witnesses this young woman on the bridge about to commit suicide and does nothing. This woman could have been saved if it were not for Clamence’s selfish needs of wanting to be recognized for “good” thing that he does. Clamence was the one person who was there at the exact moment when this woman believed that she had to “die because [she] judged that life is not worth living;” Clamence could have been her savior had he not been so driven by his own needs of needing to have a crowd in sight to witness his heroism (The Myth 495). Clamence had the opportunity to save this woman’s life, and it was then when he “was forced to realize the real motive for all his actions” because he never acted out “of virtue, but out of a selfish desire to obtain accolades of society” (Robertson 152). Clamence becomes self-aware of how society dictates his actions and his own selfish needs; therefore, it would be no benefit to him if he saved this young woman because there would be no one to praise his righteous act, therefore he would receive no pleasure from it. Clamence was never concerned with the well-being of any other person regarding their situation as states that he can no longer bear his duplicity, wishing to “jostle the blind man on the street· [and] smack infants in the subway,” as it would bring him joy (The Fall 325). Clamence is living a double self for he “takes care to demonstrate the selfishness beneath the selflessness” by masking his selfish needs through selfless acts like “helping” others; his duplicity converts his “selflessness into selfishness” (Holman 130). It is in the event of the woman’s suicide where Clamence’s realizes that he has been living in duplicity and has ultimately fallen. Clamence “realizes that his selfish nature was driving everything he did” and that “his actions were just a charade” of what a virtuous person should be in society (Robertson 151). Clamence is man that with society’s rules implemented on him, realizes his true other self.

Clamence has been living a hypocritical life, needing to conform to society’s norms to mask his selfishness, and it is when the young woman commits suicide, and his willingness to not help her, that makes him realize the facade of a life that he has been living. When Clamence meets for a second time with the unnamed bar patron, he states that he is a judge-penitent named “Jean-Baptiste Clamence”. “Clamence” is a pseudonym, for he states that he, “didn’t tell [him his] real name,” and neither did he elaborate on what a judge-penitent is (The Fall 284). This occurrence demonstrates that Clamence is not an honest man as well as a man with two sides. After the event that led him to his fall, Clamence changes his name and “establishes himself as a judge-penitent” at a bar in Amsterdam where he is “able to judge his contemporaries while he purges himself of his own sins” (Stolbach 180). Clamence indulges in debauchery, where he would go “to bed with harlots and drink for days on end,” since debauchery is “liberating because it creates no obligations” unlike the societal norms that he was previously conforming to (The Fall 331). For Clamence indulging in debauchery was a form of living his true other self since “he could forget his duplicity in trying to live a ‘holy’ life with ‘sinful’ motives” like when he would mask his true selfish motives in the virtuous deeds of helping others, perhaps the reason why he chose being a lawyer as his profession (Robertson 156). Clamence knows that he is a hypocrite, and states that he has “accepted [his] duplicity instead of being upset about it,” and to free himself from the guilt that gnaws at him, he liberates himself by confessing his guilt to those who seek his assistance at the bar. (The Fall 353). In accepting his duplicity and confessing his guilt, Clamence “can once again pass judgement on all of humanity and rise above it,” because in doing so he deflects his own guilt and puts in on the bar patron/audience, freeing himself of his guilty conscience (Stolbach 180). The guilt and judgement is no longer on Clamence, it is on who is receiving his story, for they cannot judge Clamence unless they are put into his situation as Clamence “cleverly affirms everyone’s guilt” through his story enslaving them into a trap of his own guilt so that others think about their own guilt and selfishness (Stolbach 180). Clamence’s duplicity as well as his other characteristics are shaped by his lack of immorality as well as his absurdity.

As for Clamence being an immoral, selfish, and duplicitous, it is Clamence’s absurdist views that play a key role into shaping his qualities; he is an absurd man. Clamence, being an absurd man, “does nothing for the eternal,” simply because “the value of a notion or of life is measured by its sterility,” for life itself is meaningless, and the actions that one commit simply do not and will not matter in the end (The Myth 546, 548). Clamence “look(s) merely for objects of pleasure and conquest” so that he can use them to gain something in return, similarly to the way in which he meets people at the bar and confesses about his past so that he can trap them in his game (The Fall 307). For instance, Clamence mentions how he lays “late at night between two prostitutes” while living in debauchery; Clamence is a “Don Juan who goes from woman to woman” for his own needs over that of the women that he is soliciting (The Fall 331, The Myth 548). Also, continuing with his narrative about his own guilt, Clamence admits that the “more [he] accuses himself, the more [he] has the right to judge [others],” entrapping his audience of their own guilt (The Fall 352). Instead of Clamence resolving his own inner conflict, he “simply wishes to enslave everyone else” as he seeks to conquer others to free himself, feeding into his need to feel superior over others (Robertson 157). In another instance, Clamence shows the unnamed bar patron his business card, the card has a “double face, Janus” with the motto: “Don’t rely on it” beneath his name and title, which states that he is a “play-actor” (The Fall 301). Given Clamence’s cryptic business card and how he had previously mentioned giving a false name to the bar patron, Clamence is once again showing his duplicitous side. Clamence acts as different people, he “project(s) himself as deeply as possible into lives that are not his own” to gain something out of it whether it be self-pleasure, in the same way that he would conform to society’s norms and feed off of the praise given to him by society (The Myth 557). In these instances, Clamence’s actions each “represent a style of life·[that] plays the absurd” of a Don Juan, drama (actor), and conqueror (They Myth 566). Clamence’s lack of morality can be speculated as a result of his absurdity.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence, former Parisian lawyer turned judge-penitent. Clamence is an absurd man whose ultimate demise was a result of his own absurdity. Clamence’s selfishness, lack of morality, and duplicity are a result of the meaningless of life, for the actions he narrated to the unnamed bar patron, whether or not they be true given “Clamence’s” fictitious name and suspicious business card, are a result of him trying to conquer his audience through the different roles he would play, such as being a lawyer or a lawful citizen that resulted in Clamence’s ultimate fall.

Works Cited

  1. Camus, Albert. The Fall. “The Plague, The Fall, Exile and The Kingdom, and Selected Essays.” Translated by Justin O’Brien, Everyman’s Library, 2004, pp. 277-356.
  2. —. The Myth of Sisyphus. “The Plague, The Fall, Exile and The Kingdom, and Selected Essays.” Translated by Justin O’Brien, Everyman’s Library, 2004, pp. 495-605.
  3. Gert, Bernard and Gert, Joshua. “The Definition of Morality.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  4. Holman, Emily. “Selfishness in Camus’ La Chute.” Journal of Camus Studies 2012, edited by Peter Francev, Camus Society, 2013, pp. 125-150.
  5. Robertson, Derik. “Hawthorne and Camus: Visions of The Fall.” Journal of Camus Studies 2011, edited by Peter Francev, Camus Society, 2012, pp. 145-174.
  6. Stolbach, Ren?. “Intertextual Links Connecting Camus’ The Fall and Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew.” Journal of Camus Studies 2011, edited by Peter Francev, Camus Society, 2012, pp. 175-190.

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Jean-Baptiste Clamence and Morality. (2019, Nov 28). Retrieved from

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