Comparing Characters from Albert Camus's "The Fall" and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

By Katherine Blakeney
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Albert Camus's The Fall and the mysterious Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner each experience something that radically shifts his worldview and his view of himself. Arrogant and overly confident, they are both traumatized by coming face to face with their own imperfections. Their ways of dealing with their feelings of guilt and responsibility, however, are quite different.

Clamence’s crime is rather more like a mistake. He witnesses a total stranger committing suicide and does nothing to help her, although as she sinks below the waters of the Seine she obviously utters a cry for help. Clamence is tortured by doubts and feelings of guilt; Was it his responsibility to save her? Did he even have the right to get involved? Did he walk away because he was scared, or indifferent? And was his passivity in fact tantamount to an act of murder? All of these questions plague his mind for years along with “that cry which had sounded over the Seine behind me years before”.

The Mariner’s crime, though much more active in nature, would hardly be regarded as a crime at all by the ordinary conventions of society. The Mariner idly shoots an albatross that perches on his ship. He does not require it for food, nor does he kill it in self-defence, he is not even particularly irritated by its presence. In fact, the Mariner never bothers to give himself or his listener (the intercepted Wedding Guest) any reason at all for this act. It seems he did it either out of boredom, arbitrary cruelty, or some other subconscious motive whose nature he is either unwilling, or unable to grasp.

When it comes to the question of their guilt, they almost seem to switch roles. Clamence’s passive crime of non-interference rebounds on his imagination with unexpected violence. There is no one to witness his crime, no one to blame or punish him. It is even hard to say with certainty that it was a crime, the woman threw herself off the bridge after all. Even if she regretted it afterwards, it can be seen as her punishment for taking her own life for granted and selfishly valuing her feelings of despair over the love of her friends and relatives. Clamence however, fixates on the idea that this incident is just an example of the worthlessness and evil of his nature. He chooses it as the ultimate symbol of his sinfulness, the reason that the world will always laugh at him. As there is no one to punish him for his hypocrisy he takes it upon himself to cast himself into a metaphorical “little-ease” to wallow forever in his guilt. He deprives himself of his home, his successful career, and his comfortable life. He shuts himself off in a dingy little pub in Amsterdam ready to declare his sins to anyone who will listen. He sees this almost as a mission of mercy; he teaches others to recognize their internal evil before their subconscious self-deceit leads them to despair.

Where the formerly passive Clamence takes the initiative in his own punishment, the aggressive Mariner does quite the reverse. He suffers only through the scorn of others; his shipmates who hang the dead albatross around his neck because they believe he has murdered their luck, and the spirits who curse him for his pointless act of cruelty. The Mariner is destined to suffer first the derision of his shipmates, then the guilt of their extermination on his account, and later the long-term vengeance of the spirits. It is the spirits who compel him to share his woeful tale with strangers, not the tug of his own conscience.

It seems he is not willing to take responsibility for his actions at all. He killed the albatross because he wanted to, and because he could – it was just a bird after all. If nothing had come of it, he would simply have walked on and forgotten all about it. He would not have been devoured by guilt like Clamence, and he would certainly not remember the look in the albatross’s eyes as his arrow pierced its heart. He needed the violent interference of others to feel remorse. He could only begin to understand his guilt through the sufferings inflicted on him from without. When he describes the touching beauty of the frolicking water-snakes and says he “blessed them unaware”, it is hard to tell what he is really feeling. Does he bless them because he has reached a full understanding of the value of every living thing, or is he simply envious of their freedom and joy? Does he just want to forget all his sufferings and mistakes and swim of thoughtlessly in a whirl of “elfish light” and “golden fire” instead of counting himself among “ a thousand thousand slimy things”. Perhaps he blesses them as he blesses his long lost peace of mind.

It is hard to say which of these characters is the most admirable or the least guilty. Both crimes are subjective and are mostly important for what they say about their perpetrators. Clamence’s guilt relies entirely on one’s view of responsibility and accountability for the actions of others. He considers himself guilty not so much of the woman’s death as of a severe misunderstanding of his own character. This specific act is just an outward manifestation of who he really is – a hypocrite and a coward. The Mariner’s act would have been seen in a completely different light if he had killed the albatross for food or safety. The rules change when it comes to survival. It is not the act on its own that is repulsive, it is the motive. One cannot help but wonder what it is that impels the Mariner to kill a harmless, innocent creature for no apparent reason. Such a disregard for life and such a need for random violence cannot help but be unnerving. One wonders how far the Mariner is capable of going, and whether he has any inhibitions left.

There is nothing wrong with being a hypocritical coward, just like there is nothing wrong with fighting for your survival. Clamence punishes himself because he feels he has sinned against himself. He is not the man he thought he was and the disappointment is more than he can bear. By laying open his nature to the world and inviting others to do the same, he hopes to somehow undo the humiliation of his loss of control. Sinful and flawed as he is, he is at least determined to be honest with himself and the world, still maintaining his superior position.

The Mariner, on the other hand, would escape his punishment if he could. It may seem that lifelong suffering is a heavy price to pay for the death of one albatross. However the spirits do not see fit to release him, and who can see inside his soul better than they? Perhaps they feel that the moment they release him he will lose all that he has learned from them. Perhaps he harmed himself more by his empty sense of superiority to nature, and only through suffering can he become one with the world. Or do the spirits also have ulterior motives? The Mariner is not more worthy of pity because he suffers more, he killed the albatross because he could, and now the spirits are punishing him because they can. The punishment may be unjust, but so was the crime.

Clamence’s punishment is also oddly parallel to his crime. His crime was self-deception, and now his punishment is to accept his true self. The mariner pities himself as he “ crawls with legs/Upon the slimy sea”, while Clamence almost rejoices in counting himself among the “thousand slimy things” - at least he will never again mistake himself for a shimmering sea snake. Perhaps he really is as honest as he thought he was.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is about a man on a voyage by ship, who in one impulsive and heinous act, changes the course of his life – and death.  The Mariner faces an inner struggle over the crime he has committed, and must understand his actions and perform his penance... MORE»
Man in his search for meaning—everyman— is Albert Camus’ rebel. In The Rebel man must accept and seek to encounter the universe as it presents itself in absurdity. He encounters the universe out of a strange love and a need for something in which he can place his hope: “a moment... MORE»
Albert Camus lived during a tumultuous time that included his experience of World War II and the Algerian War. Camus is most prominently known as an author of fine French literature but he was also a philosopher. While it is debatable whether Camus was an existentialist, a label he personally disliked, his analysis of rebellion... MORE»
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