The Plague was published in 1947 and is widely considered as Albert Camus’s most successful novel. It tells the story of a plague epidemic in the Algerian coastal town of Oran, where thousands of rats are found dead all over the city.
Camus’ absurdist philosophy is at the background of the novel. He stresses the powerlessness of the individual to affect his destiny in an indifferent world. In fact, in the novel he mentions “a young company employee who had killed an Arab on a beach”. This, of course, is an allusion to Meursault’s murder in The Stranger and is connected with the ravages of the pestilence in The Plague.
Illness, exile, and separation are themes that were present in Camus’ life and his reflections upon them form a vital counterpoint to the allegory. This makes his description of the plague and the pain of loneliness exceptionally vivid and heartfelt.
The book begins with an unnamed narrator, who reveals his identity at the end of the novel, so as to make the chronicle that follows as objective as possible. The main character of the book, Dr. Rieux, is a committed humanist and atheist. He struggles with the authorities’ denial when he urges that stringent sanitation measures be taken to fight the rising epidemic. And despite his efforts in fighting the plague makes little or no difference, he continues to do so.
One day, Dr. Rieux steps out of surgery and finds a dead rat lying on the floor. In the days that follow, an increasing number of rodents stagger out into the open and die. At first, he doesn’t give a great deal of attention to this event, and the concierge for the building believes that someone is pulling a prank on them.
As the appearance of dying rats continues to increase, the citizens of Oran start to feel uneasy and question the city government’s ability to address the problem. The concierge is the first victim of the plague. Other victims succumb to the same illness in the days that follow.
The narrator introduces the reader to Jean Tarrou, the author of a written eyewitness account of the events in question. He keeps notebooks containing detailed reports of his observations about daily life in Oran, including the mysterious illness that strikes the city.
The unknown narrator states that before Oran was struck by the plague, it was a city of monotonous routines: work, cafés, movies, and empty commercialism. The citizens are not living their lives to the fullest, their narrow routines prevents them from making the most of their finite existence. In other words, they are wasting their time and live meaningless lives.
When the plague hits the city, the citizens react slowly and the government adopts an attitude of “wait-and-see” instead of alarming the public. Dr. Rieux urges immediate measures to be taken, requesting a plague serum, because he fears the disease could kill off half the city. His stance is that one has to act as if the disease were the bubonic plague. His main concern is saving as many lives as possible.
This shows the power of indifference and denial present in the city, the metaphorical plague of the novel. It is only when things escalate and the citizens become prisoners of the plague under total quarantine, that they realise how little priority they gave to the things that mattered most to them, suggesting that it is questionable whether they were really “free” before the plague.
Dr. Rieux notes that wars and plagues have always existed, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other. He recalls the horrifying historical accounts of plague epidemics and braces himself for the possibility of another one.
It starts with the citizens feeling a deep sense of isolation. Many have been separated from their loved ones and the mail service has ceased, for fear of spreading the plague beyond the city walls. They begin to slowly accept their exile. The past provokes regret, the present provokes helpless impatience, and slowly the future too, ceases to be hopeful.
The citizens are like prisoners drifting aimlessly, but continue to be selfishly self-absorbed with their personal suffering. One of Dr. Rieux’s patients has chosen to spend time by counting peas from one pan into another, a meaningless and time-wasting activity.
On the other hand, Joseph Grand, an elderly civil servant who is assigned the daily task of calculating the deaths, takes the complete opposite view. He tries to write a book but cannot “find the right words for it”, spending endless days on rewriting the same sentence so as to make it flawless. He contemplates on how he had worked so hard that he forgot to love his wife, who eventually left him, and has tried unsuccessfully for years to write her a letter explaining his actions, representing an unattainable ideal that leads to inaction.
For Camus, a third option is possible: acknowledging the absurd impossibility of winning the struggle for the ideal and then struggle anyway.
Dr. Rieux continues his work. The beds in the emergency hospitals are always full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. His situation requires a certain “divorce from reality”, avoiding pity because he needs to preserve his energy to continue working against the plague. This is, however, not a matter of indifference, as that would require one to be in a state of inaction or denial in response to other people’s suffering.
The only person who finds himself relieved in the plague is Cottard, a man who committed a crime and feared his arrest every day. However, with the plague, the authorities change priorities. His happiness is also due to his relief that everyone in the city now shares his anxiety. Contrary to being isolated, he becomes liberated.
Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, delivers a sermon to his confused and frightened congregation declaring that the plague is a God-sent punishment for their sins. He believes there to be a “Truth” behind the plague, other than seeing it as a collective disaster.
However, the irony is that death is an irrefutable fact of human existence. Before the plague, the citizens were doing little more than waiting for death, passively entertaining themselves and unaware of the certainty of their deaths.
Dr. Rieux has frequently seen people face impending death, as patients declared their resistance to death as they took their last breath. The dying realise the utter futility of their resistance, yet many of them declare defiance anyway, it is the absurd condition of intense desire to continue living and being condemned to death.
Camus suggests that the only meaningful thing to do in response to it, is to rebel against it, that is, rebel against death. When asked what keeps him going, Dr. Rieux states:
“[…] This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency. ‘What is decency?’ Rambert asked, suddenly serious. ‘In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.’”
The inhabitants of Oran begin to view the plague as a collective disaster. It is neither rational nor moral and its victims occupy all levels of the social hierarchy. Death is always a collective catastrophe because it is humankind’s collective fate.
The bodies in the cemeteries start to overflow and the authorities begin to cremate them. The plague victims are disposed of in the same manner as the rats had been a few months earlier.
In Part IV the inhabitants escape to a performance, an inability to recognise the real dangers facing them. However, they are confronted with the denial of their own death and at the end, they run for the exit.
“After the plague, I’ll do this, after the plague I’ll do that… They are ruining their lives, instead of staying calm. And they don’t even realise what they have going for them … I think they are miserable because they don’t let themselves go.”
Camus suggests that the citizens can break the isolation produced by their fear not by surrendering, but only by fighting the plague.
When Father Paneloux delivers his next sermon, the church is emptier than before. He declares that the unanswerable question of an innocent child’s suffering is God’s way of placing the Christian’s back to a wall.
“One must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you would dare to deny everything?”
He later dies, although it is not clear if he died of the plague, symbolising the doubtful nature of his understanding of human existence.
Camus declares that the rebellion against the relentless progress of the epidemic is nonetheless a noble, meaningful struggle even if it means facing never-ending defeat.
We must continually fight the “plague” within us, for we all are contaminated in some measure:
“No one in the world, no one, is immune […] we must constantly keep a watch on ourselves to avoid being distracted for a moment and find ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting him.”
The deaths slowly begin to decline. However, the inhabitants hesitate to show any hope because they have become cautious during their long confinement.
The unknown narrator reveals himself to be Dr. Rieux, who limited himself to reporting only what people did and spoke so as to present an objective narrative.
The survivors of the plague honour the dead with a memorial before returning to their old lives and activities as if nothing happened.
“ … the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely … it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and … perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
They think about finding her a husband that can sustain the family. This suggests that a new chapter in her life is beginning. The story concludes with Grete stretching, an act that suggests emerging after a long period of confinement, as if from a cocoon.
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The Plague in 10 Minutes | Albert Camus
The Plague (La Peste) was published in 1947 and is widely considered as Albert Camus’s most successful novel. It tells the story of a plague epidemic in the Algerian coastal town of Oran, where thousands of rats are found dead all over the city.