THE PLAGUE

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					Plague overview                                                                             page 1


                                           THE PLAGUE
Type of work: Novel
Author: Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Type of plot: Impressionistic Realism
Time of plot: The 1940s
Locale: Oran, Algeria
First published: 1”7
        Principal characters
        DR. Bernard R. Rieux, a young physician
        Jean Tarrou, a traveler
        Cottard, a fugitive
        Joseph Grand, a clerk
        Raymond Rambert, a journalist
        Father Paneloux, a priest

Critique                                           wanted to do a story for his metropolitan
   Camus in this novel exhibits those traits so    paper on living conditions a young physician
frequently attributed to him: classical clarity,   among the workers in Oran. Rieux refused to
independence, and logic. The Plague has been       help him, for he knew an honest report would
very well received here and abroad; in fact, it    be censored.
has been called the best novel to come out of         Day by day the number of dead rats
postwar Europe. In structure the work is           increased in the city. After a time truckloads
compact, covering only the duration of the         were carried away each morning. People
plague. The characters are projected with          stepped on the furry dead bodies whenever
insight. But characters and plague alike are       they walked in the dark. Rieux’s first case of
subordinated to a search for meanings. From        fever was the concierge who had grumbled
the frightful course of events Rieux finds an      about having to clean up the rats on the stair
answer to the eternal question. Why are we         landing. He had a high temperature and
here?                                              painful swellings. Rieux was apprehensive.
                                                   By telephoning around he learned that his
The Story:                                         colleagues had similar cases.
    For a few days Dr. Bernard Rieux gave             The prefect was averse to taking any
little thought to the strange behavior of the      drastic action because he did not want o alarm
rats in Oran. One morning he found three on        the population. Only one doctor was sure the
his landing, each animal lying inert with a        sickness was bubonic plague; the others
rosette of fresh blood spreading from the          reserved judgment. When the deaths rose to
nostrils. The concierge grumbled about the         thirty a day, however, even officialdom was
strange happening, but Rieux was a busy            worried. Soon a telegram came instructing the
doctor and just then he had personal cares.        prefect to take drastic measures, and the news
    Madame Rieux was going away from               became widespread; Oran was in the grip of
Oran. She suffered from a lingering illness        the plague. Rieux had been called to
and Rieux thought that a sanatorium in a           Cottard’s apartment by Grand, a clerk and
different town might do her some good. His         former patient. Grand had cut down Cottard
mother was to keep house for him while his         just in time to prevent his suicide hi hanging.
wife was absent. Rambert, a persistent             Cottard could give no satisfactory reason for
journalist, cut into his time. The newsman         his attempt to kill himself. Rieux was
Plague overview                                                                             page 2


interested in him; he seemed rather an             room by cremating the remains in the older
eccentric person.                                  graves. At last two pits were dug in an
    Grand was another strange man. He had          adjoining field, one for men and one for
for many years been a temporary clerk,             women. When those pits were filled, a greater
overlooked in his minor post, whom                 pit was dug and no further effort was made to
succeeding bureaucats kept on without              separate the sexes. The corpses were simply
investigating his status. Grand was too timid      dropped in and covered with t1uicklime and a
to call attention to the injustice of his          thin layer of earth. Discarded streetcars were
position. Each evening he worked hard on his       used to transport the dead to the cemetery.
manuscript and seemed to derive much solace            Rieux was in charge of one of the new
from it. Rieux was surprised when he saw the       wards at the infirmary. There was little he
work. Grand in all those years had only the        could do, however, for the serum from Paris
beginning sentence of his novel finished, and      was not effective. He observed what
he was still revising it. He had once been         precautions he could, and to ease pain he
married to Jeanne, but she had left him.           lanced the distended buboes. Most of the
    Tarrou was an engaging fellow, a political     patients died. Castel, an older physician, was
agitator who had been concerned with               working on a new serum.
governmental upheavals over the whole                  Father Paneloux preached a sermon on the
continent. He kept a meticulous diary in           plague in which he called Oran’s pestilence
which he told of the ravages and sorrows of        retribution. M. Othon, the judge, had a son
the plague. One of his neighbors was an old        under Rieux’s care by the time Castel’s new
man who each morning called the                    serum was ready. The serum did the boy little
neighborhood cats to him and shredded paper        good; although he did show unexpected
for them to play with. Then, when all the cats     resistance, be died a painful death. Father
were around him, he would spit on them with        Paneloux, who had been watching as a lay
great accuracy. After the plague grew worse        helper, knew the boy was not evil.; he could
the city authorities killed all cats and dogs to   no longer think of the plague as a retribution.
check possible agents of infection. The old        His next sermon was confused. He seemed to
man, deprived of his cats as targets, stayed       be saying that man must submit to God’s will
indoors, disconsolate.                             in all things. For the priest this view meant
    As the blazing summer sun dried the town,      rejection of medical aid. When he himself
a film of dust settled over everything. The        caught the fever, he submitted to Rieux’s
papers were meticulous in reporting the            treatment, but only because he had to. Father
deaths by weeks. When the weekly total,            Paneloux died a bewildered man.
however, passed the nine hundred mark, the             Rambert, because he was not a citizen of
press reported only daily tolls. Armed             Oran, tried his best to escape. Convinced that
sentinels were posted to permit no one to          there was no legal means of leaving the city,
enter or leave the town. Letters were              he planned to leave with some illicit
forbidden. Since the telephone lines could not     smugglers. Then the spirit of the plague
accommodate the increased traffic. the only        affected him. He voluntarily stayed to help
communication with the outside was by              Rieux and tire sanitation teams, for he
telegraph. Occasionally Rieux had an               realized that only in fighting a common evil
unsatisfactory wire from his wife.                 could he find spiritual comfort.
    The disposal of the dead bodies presented          Tarrou had left home early because his
a problem. The little cemetery was soon            father was a prosecutor; the thought of the
filled, but the authorities made a little more     wretched criminals condemned to death
Plague overview                                                                                    page 3


because of his father’s zeal horrified him.                 Grand caught the fever but miraculously
After he had been an agitator for years be              recovered to work again on his manuscript.
finally realized that the workings of politics          Tarrou, also infected, died in Rieux’ house.
often resulted in similar executions. He had            As the colder weather of January came, the
fled to Oran just before the plague started.            plague ended. Rieux heard by telegram that
There he found an answer to his problem in              his wife had died.
organizing and directing sanitary workers.                  The streets became crowded again as
   Cottard seemed content with plague                   lovers, husbands, and wives were reunited.
conditions. Wanted for an old crime, he felt            Rieux dispassionately observed the masses of
safe from pursuit during the quarantine.                humanity. He had learned that human contact
When the plague eased a little, two officers            is important for every one. For himself, he
came for him but he escaped. He was                     was content to help man fight against disease
recaptured in a street gunfight.                        and pain.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
    In the decade and a half that followed the end of World War II, as the West strived to repair the
physical, psychic, and spiritual damage wrought by that holocaust, the voice of Albert Camus, with
its reasoned yet passionate affirmation of human dignity in the face of an “absurd” universe--an
absurdity made palpable by the Nazi horror--was one of the major artistic, philosophical, and moral
sources of strength and direction.
    The Plague (La Peste) is the most thorough fictional presentation of Camus’ mature thinking. In
earlier works--notably the play Caligula (1938). the novel The Stranger (1942) and the essay “The
Myth of Sisyphus” (1942)-- Camus articulated his concept of the”absurd. Man is “absurd” because
he has neither metaphysical justification nor essential connection to the universe. He is part of no
divine scheme and, since he is mortal, all of his actions, individual and collective, eventually come
to nothing. The only question then, is how can man deal with his absurdity?
    Camus’ answer lies in his concept of “revolt.” Man “revolts” against his condition first by
understanding it and then, in the face of his cosmic meaninglessness, creating his own human
meanings. In the previously mentioned works Camus explored the problem in terms of the
individual; in The Plague Camus extends his moral and philosophical analysis to the question or
man as a social creature. What, Camus asks, in the face of an absurd universe, is man’s relationship
to, and responsibility for, his fellow man?
    The paradox that lies at the center of Camus’ “revolt” concept is that of heroic futility. One
struggles in spire of--even because of--the fact that, ultimately, one must lose. If the idea of the
absurd denies man’s cosmic meaning, it affirms his common bond. Since all men must die, all men
are brothers. Mutual cooperation not self-indulgence, is the logical ethic that Camus derives from
his absurd perspective. To give an artistic shape to these convictions, Camus chooses a “plague” as
an appropriate metaphor for the human condition, since it intensifies this awareness of man’s
mortality and makes the common bond especially clear.
    Camus carefully divides the novel into five parts which correspond to the progression of the
pestilence. Parts I and V show life before the plague’s onslaught and after its subsidence. Parts II
and IV concentrate on the details of communal and personal suffering and, in particular, on the
activities and reactions of the main characters as they do battle with the disease. Part III, the climax
of the book, shows the epidemic at its height and the community reduced to a single collective
entity, where time has stopped, personal distinctions are lost, and suffering and despair have
become routine.
Plague overview                                                                                   page 4


   The story is narrated by Dr. Bernard Rieux, who waits until almost the end of the novel to
identify himself, in a factual, impersonal, almost documentary style. His account is occasionally
supplemented by extracts from the journal of Jean Tarrou, but these intrusions, while more
subjective and colorful, are characterized by a running irony that also keeps the reader at a distance.
Both narratives, however, are juxtaposed against vivid, emotionally charged scenes. This continual
movement back and forth between narrative austerity and dramatic immediacy, and from lucid
analysis to emotional conflict, gives The Plague much of its depth and impact.
   Three of the principal characters--Rieux, Tarrou, and the clerk Joseph Grand--accept their
obligation to battle the epidemic as soon as it is identified. Rieux is probably the character who
comes the closest to speaking for Camus. As a medical doctor he has devoted his life to the losing
battle with disease and death and so the plague is simply an intensification of his “normal” life.
From the outset he accepts the plague as a fact and fights against it with all the skill, endurance, and
energy he can muster. He finds his only “certitude” in his daily round. There is no heroism
involved: only the logic of the situation. And even after the plague has retreated, Rieux has no
conviction that his actions had anything to do with its “defeat.” Yet Rieux learns much from his
experience and, as the narrator, his is Camus’ final word on the “meaning” of the ordeal.
   Unlike Rieux, whose ideas are the practical consequence of his professional experience, Jean
Tarrou first had the philosophical revelation and then shaped his life to it. Seeing his father, a
prosecuting attorney, condemn a man to death, Tarrou became enraged with the inhumanity of his
society and turned to revolutionary politics. But that too; he came to realize, inevitably involved
him in “condemning” others to death. Thus, he felt infected with the “plague”--defined as whatever
destroys human life--long before coming to Oran and it has reduced him to a purposeless life
colored only by the ironical observations he jots down in his journal. When the plague arrives he
quickly and eagerly organizes the “sanitation squads”; the crisis gives him the opportunity to “side”
with the “victims” of life’s absurdity without fearing that his actions will inadvertently add to their
misery. But such obvious, total commitments are not available under “normal” conditions and so
Tarrou appropriately dies as one of the plague’s last victims.
   But both Rieux and Tarrou are too personally inhuman--Rieux with his “abstract” view of man,
Tarrou with his desire for secular “sainthood”--to qualify as “heroic”; the most admirable person in
the book is the clerk Joseph Grand, who accepts his role in the plague automatically, needing
neither professional nor philosophical justifications, simply because “people must help each other.”
His greater humanity is further demonstrated by the fact that, while carrying out his commitment to
the victims of the plague, he continues to show active grief over the loss of his wife and tenaciously
“revolts” in his artistic attempt to write the perfect novel (even though he cannot manage the
“perfect” first sentence).
   Among the other principal characters, the journalist Raymond Rambert opts for “personal
happiness”; Father Paneloux presents the “Christian” reaction to the pestilence; and Cottard acts
out the role of the “animal.”
   Caught in Oran by accident when the plague breaks out, Rambert turns his energies to escape,
exhausting every means, legal and otherwise, to rejoin his wife. It is in him that the issue of “exile”
or separation from loved ones is most vividly presented. For most of the novel he rejects the view
that the plague imposes a social obligation on all; he insists that individual survival and personal
happiness are primary. And, although Rieux is the book’s principal advocate of collective
responsibility, the doctor admits to Rambert that happiness is as valid an option as service. Even
when Rambert finally decides to remain voluntarily and continue the fight, the issue remains
Plague overview                                                                                 page 5


ambiguous. At the end, as Rambert embraces his wife, he still wonders if he made the right moral
choice.
   But if Rieux accepts Rambert’s “happiness” as a decent option, he does not extend that tolerance
to Father Paneloux’s “Christian” view of the epidemic. The Plague has been called the most “anti-
Christian” of Camus’ books and that is probably correct, although it could be argued that the ethical
values advocated are essentially “Christian” ones. As a system of beliefs, however, it is clear that
Christianity--at least as understood by Paneloux--is tested by the pestilence and found wanting.
However, if the priest’s beliefs are inadequate, his actions are heroic and it is this incongruity
between his theological convictions and his existential behavior that gives his character and fate its
special poignancy.
   Near the beginning of the epidemic he preaches a sermon in which he proclaims that it is a
manifestation of divine justice. Later in the book, after he has become one of the most active
fighters against the plague and a witness to the suffering and death of numerous innocents,
Paneloux’s simple vision of sin and punishment is shaken. He preaches a second sermon in which
he advocates a blind, total acceptance of a God who seems, from the human vantage point, to be
indifferent, arbitrary, even, perhaps, evil. And thus, driven to this extreme “either/or” position,
Paneloux finally dies of the plague. Significantly, he is the only victim whose body is unmarked by
the disease; he has been destroyed emotionally and spiritually because his religious vision was
inadequate to the challenge and he could not live without that theological justification.
   The most ambiguous character of all is Cottard. As a “criminal” he has lived in a constant state
of fear and “exile.” Unable to endure such separation he attempts to commit suicide near the
beginning of the book. Once the plague sets in and all are subjected to that same sense of fear and
solitude, however, Cottard “rejoins” humanity and flourishes; the plague is his natural element. But
once it dissipates and he is again faced with isolation, Cottard goes berserk.
   Thus, Camus describes the various human reactions to the plague-- acceptance, defiance,
detachment, solitary rejection, social commitment and criminality. The only “value” of the
epidemic, Rieux admits, is “educational” but the price paid for the knowledge is much too high.
Nevertheless, even in the midst of the ordeal, there are moments of supreme pleasure and
meaningful human connection. Shortly before the plague’s last onslaught that takes Tarrou’s life,
he and Rieux defy regulations and go for a short swim. For a few brief moments they are at one
with the elements and in natural instinctive harmony with each other. But the interlude soon ends
and both men return to the struggle, Tarrou to die, Rieux to chronicle its passing. And so, he finally
concludes, the only “victory” won from the plague amounts to “knowledge and memories” and the
conviction that men are, on the whole, admirable.

--Keith Neilson

				
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