1st US edition (Alfred A. Knopf)
|Original title||La Peste|
|Genre(s)||Philosophical novel, Absurdist fiction|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Plague (Fr. La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story of medical workers finding solidarity in their labour as the Algerian city of Oran is swept by a plague epidemic. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, all help to show the effects the plague has on a populace.
The novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonization, but the novel is placed in the 1940s. Oran and its environs were struck by disease multiple times before Camus published this novel. According to a research report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but outbreaks after European colonization, in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.
The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial, where individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition. Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage. The novel has been read as a metaphorical treatment of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.
Although Camus's approach in the book is severe, his narrator emphasizes the ideas that we ultimately have no control, irrationality of life is inevitable, and he further illustrates the human reaction towards the ‘absurd’. The Plague represents how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd, a theory which Camus himself helped to define.
The text of The Plague is divided into five parts.
In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially going unnoticed by the populace, began to die in the streets. A hysteria develops soon after, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.
The main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building's concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Castel, about the illness until they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory, but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more and more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic.
Authorities are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A "special ward" is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined, corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is only enough to treat existing cases and the country's emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.
The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to "urgent" calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.
One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his lover in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God for the citizens' sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves and who would not have done so under normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal remorseful enough to attempt suicide yet fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Dr. Rieux, a vacationer Jean Tarrou, and a civil servant Joseph Grand exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.
Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, also have loved ones outside the city that they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and changes his mind. He then decides to join Tarrou and Dr. Rieux to help fight the epidemic.
In mid-August, the situation continues to worsen. People try to escape the town, but some are shot by armed sentries. Violence and looting break out on a small scale, and the authorities respond by declaring martial law and imposing a curfew. Funerals are conducted with more and more speed, no ceremony, and little concern for the feelings of the families of the deceased. The inhabitants passively endure their increasing feelings of exile and separation; despondent, they waste away emotionally as well as physically.
In September and October, the town remains at the mercy of the plague. Rieux hears from the sanatorium that the condition of his wife is worsening. He also hardens his heart regarding the plague victims so that he can continue to do his work. Cottard, on the other hand, seems to flourish during the plague, because it gives him a sense of being connected to others, since everybody faces the same danger. Cottard and Tarrou attend a performance of Gluck's opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, but the actor portraying Orpheus collapses with plague symptoms during the performance.
Rambert finally has a chance to escape, but he decides to stay, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he left.
Towards the end of October, Castel's new anti-plague serum is tried for the first time, but it cannot save the life of Othon's young son, who suffers greatly, as Paneloux, Rieux, and Tarrou look on in horror.
Paneloux, who has joined the group of volunteers fighting the plague, gives a second sermon. He addresses the problem of an innocent child's suffering and says it is a test of a Christian's faith, since it requires him either to deny everything or believe everything. He urges the congregation not to give up the struggle but to do everything possible to fight the plague.
A few days after the sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. His symptoms do not conform to those of the plague, but the disease still proves fatal.
Tarrou and Rambert visit one of the isolation camps, where they meet Othon. When Othon's period of quarantine ends, he elects to stay in the camp as a volunteer because this will make him feel less separated from his dead son. Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life, and the two men go swimming together in the sea. Grand catches the plague and instructs Rieux to burn all his papers. But Grand makes an unexpected recovery, and deaths from the plague start to decline.
By late January, the plague is in full retreat, and the townspeople begin to celebrate the imminent opening of the town gates. Othon, however, does not escape death from the disease. Cottard is distressed by the ending of the epidemic, from which he has profited by shady dealings. Two government employees approach him, and he flees. Despite the ending of the epidemic, Tarrou contracts the plague and dies after a heroic struggle. Rieux's wife also dies.
In February, the town gates open and people are reunited with their loved ones from other cities. Rambert is reunited with his wife. Rieux reveals that he is the narrator of the chronicle and that he tried to present an objective view of the events.
Cottard goes mad and shoots at people from his home. He is arrested. Grand begins working on his book again. Rieux reflects on the epidemic and reaches the conclusion that there is more to admire than to despise in humans.
Cottard's personality changes after the outbreak of plague. Whereas he was aloof and mistrustful before, he now becomes agreeable and tries hard to make friends. He appears to relish the coming of the plague, and Tarrou thinks this is because he finds it easier to live with his own fears now that everyone else is in a state of fear, too. Cottard takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor.
When the epidemic ends, Cottard's moods fluctuate. Sometimes he is sociable, but at other times he shuts himself up in his room. Eventually, he loses his mental balance and shoots at random at people on the street. The police arrest him.
Grand is a neighbor of Cottard, and it is he who calls Rieux for help, when Cottard tries to commit suicide. When the plague takes a grip on the town, Grand joins the team of volunteers, acting as general secretary, recording all the statistics. Rieux regards him as "the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups." Grand catches the plague himself and asks Rieux to burn his manuscript. But then he makes an unexpected recovery. At the end of the novel, Grand says he is much happier; he has written to Jeanne and made a fresh start on his book.
During the epidemic, Rieux heads an auxiliary hospital and works long hours treating the victims. He injects serum and lances the abscesses, but there is little more that he can do, and his duties weigh heavily upon him. He never gets home until late, and he has to distance himself from the natural pity that he feels for the victims; otherwise, he would not be able to go on. It is especially hard for him when he visits a victim in the person's home, because he knows that he must immediately call for an ambulance and have the person removed from the house. Often the relatives plead with him not to do this, since they know they may never see the person again.
Rieux works to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and his job is to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand, religious purpose, like Paneloux (Rieux does not believe in God), or as part of a high-minded moral code, like Tarrou. He is a practical man, doing what needs to be done without any fuss, even though he knows that the struggle against death is something that he can never win.
It is Tarrou who first comes up with the idea of organizing teams of volunteers to fight the plague. He wants to do this before the authorities begin to conscript people, and he does not like the official plan to get prisoners to do the work. He takes action, prompted by his own code of morals; he feels that the plague is everybody's responsibility and that everyone should do his or her duty. What interests him, he tells Rieux, is how to become a saint, even though he does not believe in God.
Later in the novel, Tarrou tells Rieux, with whom he has become friends, the story of his life. His father, although a kind man in private, was also an aggressive prosecuting attorney who tried death penalty cases, arguing strongly for the death penalty to be imposed. As a young boy, Tarrou attended one day of a criminal proceeding in which a man was on trial for his life. However, the idea of capital punishment disgusted him. After he left home before the age of eighteen, his main interest in life was his opposition to the death penalty, which he regarded as state-sponsored murder.
When the plague epidemic is virtually over, Tarrou becomes one of its last victims, but he puts up a heroic struggle before dying.
The theme of exile and separation is embodied in two characters, Rieux and Rambert, both of whom are separated from the women they love. The theme is also present in the many other nameless citizens who are separated from loved ones in other towns or from those who happened to be out of town when the gates of Oran were closed. In another sense, the entire town feels in exile, since it is completely cut off from the outside world. Rieux, as the narrator, describes what exile meant to them all:
That sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.
Some, like Rambert, are exiles in double measure since they are not only cut off from those they want to be with but they do not have the luxury of being in their own homes.
The feeling of exile produces many changes in attitudes and behaviors. At first, people indulge in fantasies, imagining the missing person's return, but then they start to feel like prisoners, drifting through life with nothing left but the past, since they do not know how long into the future their ordeal may last. And the past smacks only of regret, of things left undone. Living with the sense of abandonment, they find that they cannot communicate their private grief to their neighbors, and conversations tend to be superficial.
Rieux returns to the theme at the end of the novel, after the epidemic is over, when the depth of the feelings of exile and deprivation is clear from the overwhelming joy with which long parted lovers and family members greet each other.
For some citizens, exile was a feeling more difficult to pin down. They simply desired a reunion with something that could hardly be named but which seemed to them to be the most desirable thing on Earth. Some called it peace. Rieux numbers Tarrou among such people, although he found it only in death.
This understanding of exile suggests the deeper, metaphysical implications of the term. It relates to the loss of the belief that humans live in a rational universe in which they can fulfill their hopes and desires, find meaning, and be at home. As Camus put it in The Myth of Sisyphus, "In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile."
The ravages of the plague in Oran vividly convey the absurdist position that humans live in an indifferent, incomprehensible universe that has no rational meaning or order, and no transcendent God. The plague comes unannounced and may strike down anyone at any time. It is arbitrary and capricious, and it leaves humans in a state of fear and uncertainty, which ends only in death. In the face of this metaphysical reality, what must be the response of individuals? Should they resign themselves to it, accept it as inevitable, and seek what solace they can as individuals? Or should they join with others and fight back, even though they must live with the certainty that they cannot win? Camus's answer is clearly the latter. It is embodied in the characters of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou. Rieux's position is made clear in part II, in the conversation he has with Tarrou. Rieux argues that one would have to be a madman to give in to the plague. Rather than accepting the natural order of things — the presence of sickness and death — he fights against them. He is aware of the demands of the community; he does not live for himself alone. When Tarrou points out that "your victories will never be lasting," Rieux admits that he is involved in a "never ending defeat," but this does not stop him engaging in the struggle.
Rieux is also aware that working for the common good demands sacrifice; he cannot expect personal happiness. This is a lesson that Rambert learns. At first he insists that he does not belong in Oran, and his only thought is to get back to the woman he loves in Paris. He thinks only of his own personal happiness and the unfairness of the situation in which he has been placed. But gradually he comes to recognize his membership of the larger human community, which makes demands on him that he cannot ignore. His personal happiness becomes less important than his commitment to helping the community.
This is also the position occupied by Tarrou, who lives according to an ethical code that demands that he act in a way that benefits the whole community, even though, in this case, he risks his life by doing so. Later in the novel, when Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life, he adds a new dimension to the term plague. He views it not just as a specific disease or simply as the presence of an impersonal evil external to humans. For Tarrou, plague is the destructive impulse within every person, the will and the capacity to do harm, and it is everyone's duty to be on guard against this tendency within themselves, lest they infect someone else with it. He describes his views to Rieux:
What's natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.
In times of calamity, people often turn to religion, and Camus examines this response in the novel. In contrast to the humanist beliefs of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou, the religious perspective is given in the sermons of the stern Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. While the other main characters believe there is no rational explanation for the outbreak of plague, Paneloux believes there is. In his first sermon, given during the first month of the plague, Paneloux describes the epidemic as the "flail of God," through which God separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the evil. Paneloux is at pains to emphasize that God did not will the calamity: "He looked on the evil-doing in the town with compassion; only when there was no other remedy did He turn His face away, in order to force people to face the truth about their life" In Paneloux's view, even the terrible suffering caused by the plague works ultimately for good. The divine light can still be seen even in the most catastrophic events, and a Christian hope is granted to all.
Paneloux's argument is based on the theology of St. Augustine, on which he is an expert, and it is accepted as irrefutable by many of the townspeople, including the magistrate, Othon. But it does not satisfy Rieux. Camus carefully manipulates the plot to bring up the question of innocent suffering. Paneloux may argue that the plague is a punishment for sin, but how does he reconcile that doctrine with the death of a child? The child in question is Jacques Othon, and Paneloux, along with Rieux and Tarrou, witnesses his horrible death. Paneloux is moved with compassion for the child, and he takes up the question of innocent suffering in his second sermon. He argues that because a child's suffering is so horrible and cannot easily be ex-plained, it forces people into a crucial test of faith: either we must believe everything or we must deny everything, and who, Paneloux asks, could bear to do the latter? We must yield to the divine will, he says; we cannot pick and choose and accept only what we can understand. But we must still seek to do what good lies in our power (as Paneloux himself does as one of the volunteers who fights the plague).
When Paneloux contracts the plague himself, he refuses to call a doctor. He dies according to his principles, trusting in the providence of God and not fighting against his fate. This is in contrast to Tarrou, who fights valiantly against death when his turn comes.
It is clear that Camus's sympathy in this contrast of ideas lies with Rieux and Tarrou, but he also treats Paneloux with respect.
Point of view refers to the method of narration, the character through whose consciousness the story is told. In The Plague this is Rieux. However, Rieux does not function as a first-person narrator. Rather he disguises himself, referring to himself in the third person and only at the end of the novel reveals who he is. The novel thus appears to be told by an unnamed narrator who gathers information from what he has personally seen and heard regarding the epidemic, as well as from the diary of another character, Tarrou, who makes observations about the events he witnesses. The reason Rieux does not declare himself earlier is that he wants to give an objective account of the events in Oran. He deliberately adopts the tone of an impartial observer. Rieux is like a witness who exercises restraint when called to testify about a crime; he describes what the characters said and did, without speculating about their thoughts and feelings, although he does offer generalized assessments of the shifting mood of the town as a whole. Rieux refers to his story as a chronicle, and he sees himself as an historian, which justifies his decision to stick to the facts and avoid subjectivity. This also explains why the style of The Plague often gives the impression of distance and detachment. Only rarely is the reader drawn directly into the emotions of the characters or the drama of the scene.
An allegory is a narrative with two distinct levels of meaning. The first is the literal level; the second signifies a related set of concepts and events. The Plague is in part an historical allegory, in which the plague signifies the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1944 during World War II.
There are many aspects of the narrative that make the allegory plain. The town Oran, which gets afflicted by pestilence and cut off from the outside world, is the equivalent of France. Camus draws from his own experience of isolation during the war in writing The Plague. The citizens are slow to realize the magnitude of the danger because they do not believe in pestilence or that it could happen to them, just as the French were complacent at the beginning of the war. They could not imagine that the Germans, whom they had defeated only twenty years previously, could defeat them in a mere six weeks, as happened when France fell in June 1940.
The different attitudes of the characters reflect different attitudes in the French population during the occupation. Some were the equivalent of Paneloux and thought that France was to blame for the calamity that had befallen it. They believed that the only solution was to submit gracefully to an historical inevitability — the long-term dominance of Europe by Germany. Many people, however, became members of the French Resistance, and they are the allegorical equivalents of the voluntary sanitary teams in the novel, such as Tarrou, Rambert, and Grand, who fight back against the unspeakable evil (the Nazi occupiers). Some French collaborated with the Germans. In the novel, they are represented by Cottard, who welcomes the plague and uses the economic deprivation that results from it to make a fortune buying and selling on the black market.
Other details in the novel can be read at the allegorical level. The plague that carries people off unexpectedly echoes the reality of the occupation, in which people could be snatched from their homes by the Gestapo and imprisoned or sent to work as slave labor in German-controlled territories or simply killed. The facts of daily life in the plague-stricken city resemble life in wartime France: the showing of reruns at the cinemas, the stockpiling of scarce goods, nighttime curfews and isolation camps (these paralleling the German internment camps). The scenes at the end of the novel, when Oran's gates are reopened, recall the jubilant scenes in Paris when the city was liberated in 1944. In some places, Camus makes the allegory explicit, as when he refers to the plague in terms that describe an enemy in war: "the epidemic was in retreat all along the line; victory was won and the enemy was abandoning his positions."
Imagery of the sea is often used in Camus's works to suggest life, vigor, and freedom. In The Plague, a key description of Oran occurs early, when it is explained that the town is built in such a way that it "turns its back on the bay, with the result that it's impossible to see the sea, you always have to go to look for it." Symbolically, Oran turns its back on life. When the plague hits, the deprivation of this symbol of freedom becomes more pronounced, as the beaches are closed, as is the port. In summer, the inhabitants lose touch with the sea altogether: "for all its nearness, the sea was out of bounds; young limbs had no longer the run of its delights." A significant episode occurs near the end of part IV, when Tarrou and Rieux sit on the terrace of a house, from which they can see far into the horizon. As he gazes seaward, Tarrou says with a sense of relief that it is good to be there. To set a seal on the friendship between the two men, they go for a swim together. This contact with the ocean is presented as a moment of renewal, harmony, and peace. It is one of the few lyrical episodes in the novel: "[T]hey saw the sea spread out before them, a gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild." Just before Rieux enters the water, he is possessed by a "strange happiness," a feeling that is shared by Tarrou. There is a peaceful image of Rieux lying motionless on his back gazing up at the stars and moon, and then when Tarrou joins him they swim side by side, "with the same zest, the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague."
In the first part of The Plague, Rieux overhears a conversation concerning an Algerian man being shot to death on a beach. This is in all probability a reference to the plot of Camus's earlier novel The Stranger.