Albert Camus's novel The Plague is about an epidemic of bubonic plague that takes place in the Algerian port city of Oran. When the plague first arrives, the residents are slow to recognize the mortal danger they are in. Once they do become aware of it, they must decide what measures they will take to fight the deadly disease.
The Plague was first published in France in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. Early readers were quick to note that it was in part an allegory of the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1944, which cut France off from the outside world, just as in the novel the town of Oran must close its gates to isolate the plague. But the novel has more than one level of meaning. The plague may also be understood as the presence of moral evil or simply as a symbol of the nature of the human condition. Whatever the plague signifies, the various characters must face up to the situation and decide what their attitude to it will be. Should they accept their condition with a kind of religious resignation? Should they continue to seek their own personal happiness, ignoring what is going on around them? Should they deliberately exploit the situation in order to profit from it themselves? Or should they band together out of a sense of obligation to the community to do whatever is necessary to fight the plague? As the plague rages on, at its peak taking hundreds of victims every week, each of the major characters has his own unique approach to the situation.
Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondavi, Algeria. His French father, Lucien Auguste Camus, was killed less than a year later at the Battle of the Marne in France during World War I. Camus was then raised by his mother Catherine (who was of Spanish descent) in a working-class area of Algiers. He attended the lycée (secondary school) until graduation in 1930, after which he studied literature and philosophy at the University of Algiers.
In 1930, Camus had his first attack of tuberculosis, from which he suffered all his life. In 1933, as Hitler came to power in Germany, Camus joined an anti-Fascist organization in Algiers, and in the mid-1930s he became a member of the Communist Party, helping to organize the Marxist-based Workers' Theatre. But a year after his graduation with a degree in philosophy in 1936, he broke with the communists. Until the beginning of World War II in 1939, Camus was a journalist with a left-wing Algerian newspaper.
It was during the 1930s that Camus published his first books. The Wrong Side and the Right Side (1937) consisted of five short stories. Nuptials (1939) was a collection of four essays. Both volumes received only small circulation in Algeria.
In 1934, Camus married Simone Hié. The marriage broke up two years later. In 1940, he married Francine Faure.
From 1942 to 1945, Camus lived in Paris under the German occupation. He was a member of the French Resistance and edited an underground newspaper, Combat. He also published a novel, The Stranger (1942), a philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1943), and two plays, The Misunderstanding (produced in 1944) and Caligula (produced in 1945). In 1944, Camus met Jean-Paul Sartre and associated with Sartre's group of existentialists, although he denied that he was an existentialist. After the war, Camus received a Resistance Medal from the French government for his wartime activities.
In 1948, Camus published The Plague, which was a great commercial success. He became a major literary and political figure in France. The Rebel, a philosophical work in which Camus elaborated on some of the issues presented in The Plague, followed in 1951. The hostile reception of the work by existentialists led to Camus's break with Sartre, which lasted until Camus's death.
Camus wrote little for several years following the attack on The Rebel. Then in 1956, he published The Fall, a short novel, followed by Exile and the Kingdom (1957), a collection of short stories. In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
In 1958, Camus's play, The Possessed, adapted from Dostoevsky's novel, was produced, and the following year he was appointed director of the new state-supported experimental theater.
Camus was working on a novel to be called The First Man, when he was killed in an automobile accident in France on January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six.
The narrator of The Plague announces that he is to relate the unusual events that happened during one year in the 1940s in the town of Oran, a large French port on the Algerian coast in North Africa.
The story begins in mid-April when Dr. Bernard Rieux discovers a dead rat in the building where he lives. Within a week, thousands of rats are emerging from their hiding places and dying in the street. A feeling of unease spreads over the town. Two weeks later, Michel, the concierge of Rieux's building is taken ill with a strange malady. The rats suddenly disappear, but Michel dies within two days.
Rieux is called by Joseph Grand, a former patient, to assist his neighbor, Cottard, who has tried to hang himself. The police call on Cottard, who sees them only with reluctance and who says he has no intention of trying to kill himself again.
The narrative is enriched by the observations of Jean Tarrou, who comments on life in Oran in his notebook.
More victims die. Castel, Rieux's older colleague, and Rieux agree that everything points to the disease being bubonic plague. But the townspeople are slow to realize what is happening; they do not believe in pestilence.
A health committee convenes to decide how to combat the plague. But the measures adopted are halfhearted, designed not to alarm the populace. Rats are to be exterminated, people are advised to practice extreme cleanliness, and all cases of fever (as the plague is officially described) are to be isolated in special wards at the hospital. The number of victims rises to thirty and forty a day. Rieux feels apprehensive and knows that the measures are inadequate. The regulations are tightened, and a serum is sent from Paris. But it will not be enough if the epidemic spreads. Finally, the French prefect sends a telegram instructing the authorities to proclaim a state of plague and quarantine the town.
The townspeople begin to understand the gravity of the situation. Many are cut off from loved ones in other cities. This includes Rieux, whose sick wife is in a sanatorium. Correspondence with the outside world is forbidden, and people in the town feel like prisoners and exiles, even though they are at home.
Rieux gets to know Grand and hears the story of his life. He also meets for the second time the journalist Rambert, who is in Oran to write a story about living conditions in the Arab quarter. But Rambert is now trapped in the city, while his wife is in Paris. He wishes to leave Oran at once and asks Rieux to help him, but Rieux says there is nothing he can do.
Rieux runs an auxiliary, five-hundred bed hospital for plague victims. He works long hours, which strains his endurance. The first month of the plague ends gloomily, with the epidemic still on the rise. Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest, preaches a dramatic sermon in the cathedral. He says that the townspeople have brought this calamity on themselves. Plague is a scourge sent by God as punishment for sin. Paneloux also says that the town should rejoice because the plague works for good by pointing to the path of righteousness. He urges them to pray.
Grand reveals to Rieux that he is writing a novel and that he ponders over every single word and phrase until it is perfect. He shows Rieux the opening sentence, which appears to be all he has written. Meanwhile, Rambert unsuccessfully pesters the authorities to allow him to leave.
The first hot weather of summer arrives, and plague deaths rise to nearly seven hundred a week. A new consignment of serum from Paris seems less effective than the first.
Tarrou visits Rieux and suggests a plan for volunteers to fight the plague. Rieux agrees to help him implement it. He warns Tarrou that his chances of surviving are only one in three. The next day Tarrou sets to work and organizes teams that work to improve sanitary conditions, accompany doctors on their house visits, and drive vehicles transporting sick people and dead bodies. Grand becomes general secretary and keeps statistics.
Meanwhile, Cottard introduces Rambert to Garcia, who can arrange to have Rambert smuggled out of the town. But after a number of frustrating experiences, Rambert tells Rieux that he wishes to become a volunteer until such time as he can leave the town.
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 wors-ening. 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.
The asthma patient receives regular visits from Dr. Rieux. He is a seventy-five-year-old Spaniard with a rugged face, who comments on events in Oran that he hears about on the radio and in the newspapers.
Dr. Castel is one of Rieux's medical colleagues and is much older than Rieux. He realizes after the first few cases that the disease is bubonic plague and is aware of the seriousness of the situation. He labors hard to make an anti-plague serum, but as the epidemic continues, he shows increasing signs of wear and tear.
Cottard lives in the same building as Grand. He does not appear to have a job, although he describes himself as "a traveling salesman in wines and spirits." Cottard is an eccentric figure, silent and secretive, who tries to hang himself in his room. Afterwards, he does not want to be interviewed by the police, since he has committed a crime in the past and fears arrest.
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.
Garcia is a man who knows the group of smugglers in Oran. He introduces Rambert to Raoul.
Gonzales is the smuggler who makes the arrangements for Rambert's escape.
Joseph Grand is a fifty-year-old clerk for the city government. He is tall and thin and always wears clothes a size too large for him. Poorly paid, he lives an austere life, but he is capable of deep affection. In his spare time, Grand polishes up his Latin, and he is also writing a book, but he is such a perfectionist that he continually rewrites the first sentence and can get no further. One of his problems in life is that he can rarely find the correct words to express what he means. Grand tells Rieux that he married while still in his teens, but overwork and poverty took their toll (Grand did not receive the career advancement that he had been promised), and his wife Jeanne left him. He tried but failed to write a letter to her, and he still grieves for his loss.
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.
Louis is one of the sentries who takes part in the plan for Rambert to escape.
Marcel, Louis's brother, is also a sentry who is part of the escape plan for Rambert.
M. Michel is the concierge of the building in which Rieux lives. An old man, he is the first victim of the plague.
Jacques Othon is M. Othon's young son. When he contracts the plague, he is the first to receive Dr. Castel's anti-plague serum. But the serum is ineffective, and the boy dies after a long and painful struggle.
M. Othon is a magistrate in Oran. He is tall and thin and, as Tarrou observes in his journal, "his small, beady eyes, narrow nose, and hard, straight mouth make him look like a well-brought-up owl." Othon treats his wife and children unkindly, but after his son dies of the plague, his character softens. After he finishes his time at the isolation camp, where he is sent because his son is infected, he wants to return there, because this would make him feel closer to his lost son. But before Othon can do this, he contracts the plague and dies.
Father Paneloux is a learned, well-respected Jesuit priest. He is well known for having given a series of lectures in which he championed a pure form of Christian doctrine and chastised his audience about their laxity. During the first stage of the plague outbreak, Paneloux preaches a sermon at the cathedral. He has a powerful way of speaking, and he insists to the congregation that the plague is a scourge sent by God to those who have hardened their hearts against him. But Paneloux also claims that God is present to offer succor and hope. Later, Paneloux attends at the bedside of Othon's stricken son and prays that the boy may be spared. After the boy's death, Paneloux tells Rieux that although the death of an innocent child in a world ruled by a loving God cannot be rationally explained, it should nonetheless be accepted. Paneloux joins the team of volunteer workers and preaches another sermon saying that the death of the innocent child is a test of faith. Since God willed the child's death, so the Christian should will it, too. A few days after preaching this sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. He refuses to call for a doctor, trusting in God alone. He dies. Since his symptoms did not seem to resemble those of the plague, Rieux records his death as a "doubtful case."
The Prefect believes at first that the talk of plague is a false alarm, but on the advice of his medical association, he authorizes limited measures to combat it. When these do not work, he tries to avoid responsibility, saying he will ask the government for orders. After this, he does take responsibility for tightening up the regulations relating to the plague and issues the order to close the town.
Raymond Rambert is a journalist who is visiting Oran to research a story on living conditions in the Arab quarter of the town. When the plague strikes, he finds himself trapped in a city with which he feels he has no connection. He misses his wife who is in Paris, and he uses all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to persuade the city bureaucracy to allow him to leave. When this fails, he contacts smugglers, who agree to help him to escape for a fee of ten thousand francs. But there is a hitch in the arrangements, and by the time another escape plan is arranged, Rambert has changed his mind. He decides to stay in the city and continue to help fight the plague, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he pursued a merely private happiness. He now feels that he belongs in Oran and that the plague is everyone's business, including his.
Raoul is the man who agrees, for a fee of ten thousand francs, to arrange for Rambert to escape. He introduces Rambert to Gonzales.
Dr. Richard is chairman of the Oran Medical Association. He is slow to recommend any action to combat the plague, not wanting to arouse public alarm. He does not even want to admit that the disease is the plague, referring instead to a "special type of fever."
Dr. Bernard Rieux
Dr. Bernard Rieux is the narrator of the novel, although this is only revealed at the end. Tarrou describes him as about thirty-five-years-old, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair. At the beginning of the novel, Rieux's wife, who has been ill for a year, leaves for a sanatorium. It is Rieux who treats the first victim of plague and who first uses the word plague to describe the disease. He urges the authorities to take action to stop the spread of the epidemic. However, at first, along with everyone else, the danger the town faces seems unreal to him. He feels uneasy but does not realize the gravity of the situation. Within a short while, he grasps what is at stake and warns the authorities that unless steps are taken immediately, the epidemic could kill off half the town's population of two hundred thousand within a couple of months.
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.
Mme. Rieux is Dr. Rieux's mother, who comes to stay with him when his sick wife goes to the sanatorium. She is a serene woman who, after taking care of the housework, sits quietly in a chair. She says that at her age there is nothing much left to fear.
Jean Tarrou arrived in Oran some weeks before the plague broke out, for unknown reasons. He is not there on business, since he appears to have private means. Tarrou is a good-natured man who smiles a lot. Before the plague came, he liked to associate with the Spanish dancers and musicians in the city. He also keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which Rieux incorporates into the narrative.
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.
Exile and Separation
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:
[T]hat 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."
Solidarity, Community, and Resistance
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.
Topics for Further Study
- What is the story told in the ancient Greek myth What is the story told in the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice? What is the significance of the episode in which Tarrou and Rambert attend a performance of Gluck's opera, Orpheus and Eurydice?
- Research the history of Vichy France, from 1940 to 1944. What were the goals of the French leaders, such as Pierre Laval, who openly collaborated with the Germans? How did they justify their actions?
- Reread the first chapter of The Plague, in which Rieux describes the town of Oran and its people. Is Rieux really as objective a narrator as he claims to be? What are his main criticisms of Oran's citizens? How does the epidemic change their attitudes?
- Why does the narrator say, in Part II, that the "true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups" was not himself or Tarrou but Grand? In what sense is Grand a hero?
- Imagine a debate between a modern-day Father Paneloux and Dr. Rieux or Tarrou over the modern plague of AIDS. What might each man say and do in response to the epidemic?
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
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. 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."
The term absurdism is applied to plays and novels that express the idea that there is no inherent value or meaning in the human condition. Absurdist writers reject traditional beliefs and values, including religious or metaphysical systems that locate truth, purpose, and meaning in transcendental concepts such as God. For the absurdist, the universe is irrational and unintelligible; it cannot satisfy the human need for order or fulfil human hopes and aspirations. Human beings are essentially alone in an indifferent universe and must make their way through their bleak, insignificant existence in the best way that they can. As Eugene Ionesco, a prominent French writer of absurd drama (quoted by M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms) put it: "Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."
According to Abrams, absurdism has its roots in the 1920s, in such works as Franz Kafka's The Trial and The Metamorphosis. But it is most often associated with French literature as it emerged from World War II, in the work of writers such as Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus's The Stranger (1942) was one of the first works that applied an absurdist view to a work of fiction. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who lived in Paris and who often wrote in French and then translated his works into English, is often described as the most influential writer of absurdist literature. His most famous play is Waiting for Godot (1955).
France in World War II
After France capitulated to Germany in June 1940, Marshal Pétain, an eighty-four-year-old World War I hero, was installed as prime minister. The northern half of France, including the Channel and Atlantic ports, was placed under German occupation. French forces were demobilized and disarmed, and France was forced to pay all costs of the occupation. The Pétain government made its headquarters at Vichy, in unoccupied France, where it was granted a nominal independence. General Charles de Gaulle, who had been Undersecretary for War in the fallen French government, flew to England, where he enrolled a French Volunteer Force to cooperate with the British and continue the war.
The Pétain government pursued an active collaboration with the Germans, hoping to find a place for France in what it assumed would be a German-dominated Europe for the foreseeable future. Under the premiership of Pierre Laval, the Vichy government repressed the French underground movement, which was increasingly harassing the Germans by attacking their supply lines. In 1942, the Germans extended their occupation to include all of France, after which the Vichy government had little independent power and declining prestige.
During the occupation, life in France was hard for French citizens. Communication from the occupied zone with family members who were on the other side of the demarcation zone was difficult. The Germans permitted only postcards containing the minimum of information to be sent (just as in The Plague, the townspeople can communicate with the outside world only through telegrams). There were many other restrictions, including curfews and food shortages. People waited in long lines for inadequate supplies. There was also a flourishing black market, which involved all levels of French society. As Milton Dank puts it in The French Against the French, "The large-scale black market was carefully organized by operators who made fantastic fortunes practically overnight at the expense of their starving compatriots."
Following the allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the end of the war was in sight. French Resistance forces played a significant role in the battles that followed, sabotaging bridges and railways as the Germans were forced back. When Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, Camus, who was the editor of the underground newspaper Combat, wrote the following:
Paris fired off all its bullets into the August night. In the immense stage set of stone and water, the barricades of freedom have once again been raised everywhere around that river whose waves are heavy with history. Once more, justice must be bought with men's blood.
The Plague was an immediate success with the reading public, and the first edition of twenty-two thousand copies rapidly sold out. It was quickly reprinted, and in the four months between publication in June 1947 and September, more than one hundred thousand copies were sold. Reviews, including one by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, were also positive, and the book established Camus's reputation as a major writer. The Plague was awarded the French Critics' Prize and was one of the reasons that Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957.
Compare & Contrast
- 1940s: World War II pits the major European powers against each other, with axis powers Germany and Italy, and later Japan, on one side and allied powers Britain, Russia and later the U.S. on the other. The entry of the United States into the war in 1941 tips the scales in favor of Britain and its allies.
Today: The main European combatants of World War II are steadily moving toward more and more economic and political integration through the European Union. In January 2002, twelve European countries, including France and Germany, adopt a single currency, the Euro.
- 1940s: Radio and newspapers are the media through which people get their information. Communication is via telephone, letters, and, in urgent cases, telegrams.
Today: Television has replaced the newspaper as the principle source of information for most people. The Internet is a rapidly growing resource for news and entertainment. Cheap telephone rates make worldwide communication easy, as does electronic mail and the facsimile (fax). Telegrams are a thing of the past.
- 1940s: After the devastation of World War II, Europe starts to rebuild. The United States, fearing that an economically weak Europe will allow communism to make quick gains, provides large-scale financial assistance through the Marshall Plan.
Today: An increasingly unified Europe is a powerful economic competitor of the United States.
The book proved to have more than ephemeral success. In 1980, it was still high on the list of best-sellers, having sold 3,700,000 copies. Translations had appeared in eleven languages.
Critical approaches to The Plague have varied. When it was first published, only two years after the end of World War II, much of the explication was based on the allegorical reading, in which Oran afflicted by plague represents France under the German occupation. But Camus was criticized by some, including Roland Barthes, for making the enemy a disease and so avoiding the moral question of whether people should take up arms against a violent oppressor. In a reply to Barthes, Camus rejected the criticism, saying that since terror has several faces, not just one, by not naming a particular terror he struck better at them all.
The Plague has also been read in the light of existentialism, even though this is a philosophy that Camus did not espouse, and from the point of view of absurdism—the belief that human life has no rational order or purpose. More recent critics have concentrated on the novel's narrative technique, its structure, and its language. There has also been work on how the novel fits in with the overall body of Camus's work. Germaine Brée, for example, following Camus's own statement that there was a line of progression in his works, argues that The Plague
appears as the first step in moving beyond the boundaries of the 'absurd,' or rather, perhaps, working within those boundaries to explore the power of human beings to make sense of their lot even in the most stringent circumstances.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the character of Tarrou in Camus's story, highlighting Tarrou's opposition to capital punishment and comparing this to Camus's arguments in his essay "Reflections on the Guillotine."
Of the main characters in The Plague, Tarrou is the only one who gives a long, first-person account of his life and the events that shaped his thinking. It is obvious that Camus attached great importance to Tarrou's story, which occurs toward the end of part IV, in his conversation with Rieux. Tarrou is a central character in The Plague, because it is he who organizes the volunteer sanitary teams, which he does because he believes it to be his moral duty. Tarrou's story of how his life had been shaped by his revulsion at the death penalty echoes Camus's own passionate opposition to capital punishment. Much of what Tarrou says about capital punishment can also be found in greater detail in Camus's essay, "Reflections on the Guillotine," which he wrote in 1956 and published the following year. Camus's essay, according to his biographer Olivier Todd, helped to create a climate that eventually led, several decades later in 1981, to the abolition of the death penalty by the French government. Today, the death penalty has been abolished by all member nations of the European Union but remains legal in the United States. Camus's views on the issue, both in The Plague and in his later essay, are a fierce contribution to one side of the debate.
In The Plague, Tarrou tells Rieux of his father, who was a prosecuting attorney. When Tarrou was seventeen, his father asked him to come to court to hear him speak in a death penalty case. What Tarrou remembered most about the trial was the frightened defendant. Tarrou did not doubt the man's guilt, but he was vividly impressed by the fact that the man was "a living human being" and that the whole purpose of the proceedings was to make arrangements to kill him. Instinctively, he took the side of the defendant.
Tarrou noticed also how his father's demeanor was different in court from his demeanor at home. Normally, he was a kindly man, but in his role as prosecutor he was fierce in his denunciation of the accused and in his call for the "supreme penalty," which Tarrou says should better be called "murder in its most despicable form."
From that point on, Tarrou took a horrified interest in everything to do with the death penalty, and he realized that often his father rose early in order to witness the executions. It was Tarrou's horror at this that forced him to leave home and begin campaigning against the death penalty. He came to believe that the entire social order was based on the death penalty and that this "supreme penalty" was being applied even in the name of the political causes he supported. He fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and admits that his side used the death penalty, but he was told that a few deaths were necessary for the creation of a new world in which murder would no longer happen. He reluctantly accepted this argument until in Hungary he witnessed an execution by firing squad. He tells Rieux that such an execution is far more grisly than the way it is usually imagined. The firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man, and the bullets blow a hole in his heart big enough to thrust a fist into. Since witnessing that execution, Tarrou has never been able to sleep well, and he has based his morality on the need to avoid becoming involved in anything that could lead directly or indirectly to the death penalty.
"Reflections on the Guillotine" expands on Tarrou's arguments and also sheds light on some of his more esoteric points. Just as Tarrou told a story about his own revulsion at the death penalty, so also Camus begins with a personal story, although it is not about himself but was told to him about his father. His father supported the death penalty, but on the only occasion when he attended an execution, he returned home and was apparently so disgusted and nauseated by what he had witnessed that he vomited. Camus uses this story to point out (as he had Tarrou do) how the death penalty is deliberately spoken of in euphemisms, such as "paying a debt to society," designed to conceal what really happens. Tarrou had said that all "our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language," and Camus takes up this point in his essay, arguing that if the truth were told, ordinary people would realize the horror of the act of severing a man's head from his body (the method of execution in France) and would no longer support it. According to Camus, society does not in fact believe what it proclaims about the death penalty setting an example for others, since, if it did, it would hold executions in public, show them on television, and publish eyewitness accounts and medical reports on what happens to a human body immediately after execution. (He quotes some accounts of actual executions that make for disturbing reading.)
Camus assembles more arguments against the death penalty, some of which will be easily recognized by those who are familiar with the contemporary debate over capital punishment in the United States. Camus claims, for example, that crime statistics show that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. Given this lack of correlation, Camus argues that the death penalty is merely an act of revenge, based on the primitive urge to retaliate, which, he says, is based on an emotion, not a principle. He also argues that the principle of equivalence (one death for another) does not operate either, for the punishment, since it is preceded by a period of confinement, is worse than the crime. For there to be equivalence, the state would have to
punish a criminal who has warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.
Camus also adopts the argument of the modern liberal, arguing that society is not entirely blameless for the crimes that individuals commit. He points to the link between crime and poor living conditions, and he also points out that many crimes are linked to the consumption of alcohol and that corporations make healthy profits from the sale of alcohol, some of which benefit members of parliament who have shares in those companies. In other words, the precise responsibility of the killer cannot be measured, since there are other factors involved.
This does not exhaust the arguments Camus marshals against the death penalty in his essay. He points to the possibility of error, which would involve the execution of the innocent, and to the arbitrary nature of the death sentence, since it can be influenced by irrelevant factors like the defendant's appearance and demeanor. He also claims that no one can ever know for certain that a man is so depraved that he will never be able to make amends for what he has done.
Finally, Camus turns to the question of the death penalty as carried out for political reasons. This is what had such a deep effect on Tarrou in The Plague, who appears to believe that taking part in politics of whatever sort makes him an accomplice to murder, since the death penalty is a weapon commonly used by those who wish to impose a particular ideology on others. Tarrou tells Rieux that, given his opposition to anything that results in state-sanctioned murder, he has no place in the world: "[O]nce I'd definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to make history."
This argument must be understood in the context of the times. During the 1930s and 1940s, Nazism, Fascism, and Soviet totalitarianism were committing atrocities, including mass executions, and justifying them in terms of the new society they claimed they were building. In "Reflections on the Guillotine," written over a decade later, Camus's argument remains essentially the same. He was writing shortly after the Soviet Union crushed a revolt in Hungary, at a time when Spain was ruled by the fascist dictatorship of General Franco; when the Soviets sent political dissidents to slave labor camps; and Algerian nationalists fighting French rule were subject to execution. Memories of Nazism were also still fresh in people's minds. Against this background, Camus argues that the biggest practitioner of crimes against individuals is now the State and that it is the State that individuals must defend themselves against. The abolition of capital punishment would be one major step, he argues, in ending worship of the State as an embodiment of absolute values and reaffirming respect for the individual. It would be an acknowledgement that nothing authorizes the State to carry out a punishment of such severity and finality that it can never be reversed.
This aspect of Camus's argument (which is the same argument he gives to Tarrou in The Plague) belongs very much to its time and place. Since the demise of communism throughout the world in the late 1980s and 1990s, few people in the West today are prepared to see the solution to society's problems in terms of increasing the power of the state. But when Camus was writing, in the 1940s and 1950s, the defeat of totalitarian ideologies was not yet in sight, and his work was an attempt to grapple with real problems facing European societies. Curiously, it is in the United States, which historically has been the nation most wary of sacrificing individual freedom to the power of the state, that capital punishment has been retained and vigorously endorsed by politicians of all parties. But as far as Europe is concerned, Camus's dream, as he expressed it in "Reflections on the Guillotine," has come true: "in the unified Europe of the future the solemn abolition of the death penalty ought to be the first article of the European Code we all hope for." Today, no nation that still retains the death penalty can be admitted to the European Union.
Of course, whether abolition of the death penalty in Western Europe has in fact contributed, as Camus's character Tarrou desired, to the lessening of the "plague" in every human being—the tendency, under certain circumstances to do harm to another person—is another matter, less easily decided upon.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Plague, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
David L. Kirp, Andrew Koehler and Jaime Rossi
In the following essay, Kirp, Koehler, and Rossi discuss The Plague and Orwell's 1984 and how these works have helped shape the cultural landscape of the last half century.
In the summer of 1948 an English translation of Albert Camus's The Plague was published, and George Orwell's 1984 appeared several months later. During the half-century since, those two books have helped to shape the cultural landscape. Books were weapons and the stakes survival in the politics-soaked late forties, when seemingly every event was viewed through the prism of democracy and its virulent enemies. At a loyalty board hearing conducted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1949, a sheet-metal worker was questioned about what book clubs he subscribed to (shades of Kenneth Starr!). "The Book Find Club," he responded. "Does Dreiser contribute?" a board member queried. "Some of their writers adhere to the Communist Party line … They weave doctrine into a story." The worker responded in the manner of someone trying to evade the Thought Police. "I ain't that much of a genius. I read the words, not the weaving."
Literary niceties didn't matter overmuch in such a climate. Reviewers called The Plague a sermon and an allegory, and labeled 1984 a diatribe—characterizations delivered as praise, as if justifying the failure of the prose to do the usual work of fiction. So what if neither packed the punch of Rain-tree County or The Naked and the Dead, both of which, along with The Young Lions and The Big Fisherman, appeared on the 1948 bestseller list. Their messages matched the preoccupations of the time.
The Plague conjured in postwar readers' minds the insidious spread of Nazism and underlined the moral authority of resistance. For such a deadly serious book, it was a surprising commercial success, and most reviewers genuflected to its apparent profundity. "The Plague is one of the few genuinely important works of art to come out of Europe since the war's end," Time trumpeted. "It makes most recent American war novels seem tinny and thin by comparison."
1984 was published just as the Soviet Union was undergoing the fate of Orwell's Eurasia, transformed almost overnight from ally to archenemy. Orwell was renowned as an honest witness to injustice across generations and continents, and his novel was a smash hit—170,000 sold in the first year, another 190,000 of the Book of the Month Club edition. Life ran an illustrated, Classic Comics-style version of the novel. "Have you read this book?" a New York shoeshine boy asked English critic Isaac Deutscher. "You must read it, sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the Bolshies!" Writing in The New York Times, Mark Schorer was hardly less boosterish. "No other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fulness."
The Zeitgeist shifts like a tectonic plate, and one generation's manifesto often becomes another generation's soporific. The Soviet Union that figures in 1984 ceased to merit its chief bogyman status years before its formal collapse, and the Nazism that informs The Plague has been no more than a political sideshow for generations. Still, these books shape our worldview. They keep selling; some 30,000 copies of The Plague and more than 100,000 copies of 1984 are sold each year in the United States. More than 10 million copies of 1984 have been sold, ranking it among the all-time U.S. bestsellers. In recent years each has been packaged as a movie, 1984 for a second time, and there is also a mock sequel, a conservative tract called Orwell's Revenge.
That The Plague features prominently in discussions about AIDS is understandable, since Camus's story centers on another plague. What's surprising, though, is that the message of the novel creeps into analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—where partisans on both sides have drawn comfort from the text—as well as Swiss money-laundering during World War II. Half a century after 1984's appearance, scarcely a week goes by without Big Brother, Newspeak or Thought Police turning up in public argument.
The morals of these morality plays turn out to be more capacious, the archetypes they represent more profound, than their creators could ever have anticipated. The imagery of 1984 and The Plague still produces the bile-in-the-throat feeling of utter panic that arises when we are pushed into confronting our absolute powerlessness. Dread nature rising up, the punishing Flood, the helpless individual who becomes the plaything of a malevolent fate: These are what our nightmares are made of.
Plagues and People
In 1948 memories of Nazi terror were vivid, and The Plague contains scenes that could have been lifted straight from those wartime memories: painful separations from loved ones, attempts to escape the war zone, the formation of isolation camps for the contaminated, the smell of dead and burning bodies. "There will be few readers," a Herald Tribune reviewer contended, "who will not see in it a parable of the condition of all mankind, especially during the recent war." Time relied on The Plague when analyzing the French Resistance: "To continue upholding one's human obligations when there seems the least possibility of fulfilling them is, if not heroism, the best that men can do."
Camus once described himself as committed to "everyday life with the most possible light thrown upon it." Long after the priest's sermons on faith and fatalism have faded from our memory of the book, what remains are those everyday life moments: the journalist's poignant decision to stay in a city where he has found himself by chance, rather than fleeing to his home and his fiancee; the death of the judge's child; the nightly performances of a play brought to town by a troupe of thespians entrapped by the plague, a ritual that ends only when one of the actors falls dead on the stage. Even in times that are truly unspeakable, Camus insists, we constantly construct the normal or else we go mad. "The task is to favor freedom against the fatalities that close in upon it."
The threat of a real plague had seemingly played itself out, medical science supposedly having triumphed over mass contagion, by the time the book appeared. Camus revives the image, and our sense of plague as threat now comes not from tales of medieval London but from his novel. The imagery has often been used to represent a fearsome intrusion, the uninvited guest at the garden party who smashes all the glasses. When a mad killer disrupts the "happy city" of Gainesville, Florida (the reference is to Oran), The Plague is summoned, as it is in the context of an outbreak of violence against the children of Bangor, terrorism in the Tokyo subways and arson in Laguna Beach. Even a baseball columnist drew inspiration from the novel: "Albert Camus, a heavy hitter in his own field, might have appreciated slumps as a symbol of random evil … The malady speads, too…. But the struggle goes on for a cure."
The literal plague—the slow progression of a deadly, contagious disease and the various attempts to combat it—went undiscussed until the summer of 1981, when a brief story in The New York Times brought news of a disease that was killing gay men. With that first press reference to AIDS, The Plague became invested with new meaning.
Never mind Susan Sontag's plea, in Illness as Metaphor, that diseases be treated as signifying only themselves: Because AIDS especially menaced gay men, the epidemic became a breeding ground for metaphors that had less to do with the disease than the state of society. AIDS was God's judgment on homosexuals, fundamentalist Christian preachers thundered, even as medical science was bent to support this point of view. "If AIDS is the Plague of the Eighties," Michael Fumento insisted in The National Review, "then homosexuals are the rats."
On the other side of this great cultural divide, the fight against this disease and the social judgments barnacled to it became the moral equivalent of war. For Randy Shilts, whose And the Band Played On is the J'Accuse for AIDS, the preachments of The Plague turned into whips to flagellate the AIDS-phobic. But while Camus concludes optimistically that "in a time of pestilence … there are more things to admire in men than to despise," the trajectory of AIDS has been less cheering.
Despite all the God-doubting and personal angst that news of the plague evokes among the residents of Camus's Oran, what was required to combat the epidemic was plain enough: universal reporting of infection, quarantine of the infected and the imposition of strict health measures on the healthy. Because the plague struck indiscriminately, maintaining the privacy of its victims was not a worry—indeed, respect for privacy would have meant more deaths.
Dr. Rieux, the main character, is portrayed as brave because of his decisiveness, while the unheroic fret about panicking the populace by acting too quickly. Ironically, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the person whose behavior most resembled Rieux's was Lyndon LaRouche, who demanded universal testing and quarantine for those with H.I.V. Those positions made him a hero only to the AIDS-phobic, for reasons that illuminate the difference between these epidemics. AIDS was a condition that initially could be neither diagnosed nor treated. To be infected with the virus was socially devastating, so the call for universal testing spread panic. (When former Georgia governor and segregationist die-hard Lester Maddox was diagnosed with Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of cancer linked to AIDS, he was mortified; he'd much prefer to die from "straight cancer," he said.) While in Oran the plague ran its course in less than a year, AIDS could conceivably last forever.
"No one was prepared for AIDS," observed one of the first AIDS doctors. "It's like Albert Camus said in The Plague: 'Plagues and wars always afflict us but they always catch us by surprise.'" What resonates from the novel is how good people respond in terrible times—not by allowing themselves to be paralyzed or blaming the diseased for their affliction but by acting to contain the harm. "All who attend AIDS victims need to find the grace described in The Plague," wrote a journalist in the Chicago Tribune who went on to quote a 1986 statement from the American Medical Association. "Though unable to be saints, [health professionals should] refuse to bow down to pestilences and strive to their utmost to be healers."
That reading of The Plague sharpens the moral distinction. But the novel also invites the plague victim to contemplate the very different possibility that he has brought this condition upon himself, that the plague is our Flood. This understanding, which turns inward Fumento's diatribe about AIDS patients as rats, resonates with many gay men who live not only with a fatal disease but also with deeply internalized homophobia.
What Do I Read Next?
- Camus's widely known first novel, The Stranger (1942), is about an alienated, aimless young Algerian man who gets caught up in bad company and ends up murdering an Arab. His subsequent imprisonment and trial reflect Camus's view of the absurd nature of life.
- Vichy France (revised edition, 2001), by Robert O. Paxton, is a classic study of France under the German occupation in World War II. Paxton shows how the Pétain government pursued a double agenda: an authoritarian and racist revolution at home and an attempt to persuade Hitler to accept this new France as a partner in German-dominated Europe.
- Alfred Cobban, in A History of Modern France: 1871–1962 (1965), presents a readable overview of modern French history, including the tragic years of the German occupation and the Vichy government.
- Plagues and People (updated edition, 1998), by William H. McNeill, examines the enormous political, demographic, ecological, and psychological impact that infectious diseases have made on human history. Among the topics McNeill discusses are the medieval black death, the epidemic of smallpox in Mexico that followed the Spanish conquest, the bubonic plague in China, and the typhoid epidemic in Europe.
At the end of The Plague, Dr. Rieux reveals that he is not just a character in the story but also the narrator, returned to "bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people, so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure." In "When Plagues End," a New York Times Magazine essay, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan strikes a similar pose. In lieu of the dead rat in the hallway that is the harbinger of plague in Oran, Sullivan describes the suddenly darkened apartment of a stricken friend as signaling the advent of AIDS. He imagines he is seeing the end to this plague, marked by the development of new pharmaceutical regimes—hence the title of his article. But in this he is entirely premature. For AIDS, there is no happy ending, no Rieux on the train station platform, waiting for his wife and the chance to resume his ordinary life, only a disease that resists being domesticated by medical science and the persistent desire to find something, or someone, to blame….
The Happy City
The imagery of 1984 may feel as tired and unimaginative today as the stale metaphors against which Orwell inveighs in "Politics and the English Language," but it is this very familiarity that explains why these symbols endure. The vision of 1984, so startling half a century ago, has long since become ordinary, just as Freudian categories are taken-for-granted tools in our intellectual kitbag. Imagining a world without airbrushed history or a watchful eye, Big Brother or the computer databank is as hard as letting go of repression or sublimation. Fifty years on, 1984 lingers in the air. So too does The Plague, with its images of natural and insidious evil.
The idea that one might achieve utopia on earth, so tempting when these novels were published, has vanished except among the maddest of cults, a casualty of the many sins committed in the name of utopia. 1984 and The Plague urged against trusting the visionary, because we know that good times are never truly the best of times and worse times are likely lurking around the corner. Always there is the possibility of a clock waiting to strike thirteen or a plague that will "rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."
Source: David L. Kirp, Andrew Koehler, and Jaime Rossi, "Moral Rorschachs," in the Nation, Vol. 266, No. 16, May 4, 1998, pp. 32-36.
Steven G. Kellman
In the following essay, Kellman discusses the impact of The Plague in the 1980s with the widespread emergence of AIDS.
Even before his narrative begins, Albert Camus offers a cue on how to read The Plague. He positions a statement by Daniel Defoe as epigraph to the entire work. Any novelist writing about epidemics bears the legacy of A Journal of the Plague Year, the 1722 text in which Defoe recounts the collective story of one city, in his case London, under the impact of a plague, and uses a narrator so self-effacing that his only concession to personal identity is the placement of his initials, H.F., at the very end. Camus's The Plague insists that it is the "chronicle" of an "honest witness" to what occurred in Oran, Algeria, a physician named Bernard Rieux who is so loath to impose his personality on the story that he conceals his identity until the final pages. Rieux claims the modest role of "chronicler of the troubled, rebellious hearts of our townspeople under the impact of the plague."
The particular passage appropriated as epigraph to Camus's novel comes from another book by Defoe, from the preface to volume III of Robinson Crusoe. And, for the reader of The Plague, it immediately raises questions of representation: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not." Coming even before we have met the first infected rat in Oran, the Defoe quotation is an invitation to allegory, a tip that the fiction that follows signifies more than the story of a town in Algeria in a year, "194_," deliberately kept indeterminate to encourage extrapolation. "I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I'm like everybody else," says a healthy Jean Tarrou, by which he suggests that the pestilence that is the focus of the story is not primarily a medical phenomenon; nor is it, like Camus's adversary, quarantined in one city during most of one year, from April 16 to the following February. "I know positively—yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see—that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it," declares Tarrou. Camus's novel invites its readers to recognize that they, too, are somehow infected, though the diagnosis seems more metaphysical than physical.
In 1941, a typhus outbreak near Oran resulted in more than 75,000 deaths. However, that epidemic was clearly a source not the subject for Camus's novel. The Plague is one of the most critically and commercially successful novels ever published in France. It has managed to sell more than four million copies throughout the world and to inspire an army of exegetes. For the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was, like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Catch-22, a book that was devoured although and because it was not assigned in school. But its appeal has not been as an accurate case study in epidemiology. Particularly in North America, where Oran seems as remote as Oz, readers have accepted Camus's invitation to translate the text into allegory. The Plague offered a tonically despairing vision of an absurd cosmos in which human suffering is capricious and unintelligible. The lethal, excruciating disease strikes fictional Oran indiscriminately, and when it does recede it does so temporarily, oblivious to human efforts at prophylaxis. As in Camus's philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus, the health workers of Oran combat each case from scratch without ever being convinced that their labors accomplish anything.
In a famous letter addressed to Roland Barthes in 1955, Camus attempted to narrow the terms of interpretation. He insisted that his 1947 novel be read not as a study in abstract evil but as a story whose manifest reference is to the situation of France under the Nazi occupation:
The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof of this is that although the specific enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized it. Let me add that a long extract from The Plague appeared during the Occupation, in a collection of underground texts, and that this fact alone would justify the transposition I made. In a sense, The Plague is more than a chronicle of the Resistance. But certainly it is nothing less. (Lyrical and Critical Essays …)
Long after the Liberation of France, readers, particularly those born after World War II, preferred to read The Plague as something more than a chronicle of the Resistance, as the embodiment of a more universal philosophical vision. The novel was, in fact, even more popular in the United States, which did not experience the Nazi Occupation, than in France, where Camus's aversion to torture and violence made him politically suspect by both the left and the right. The absence of an immediate historical context encouraged younger Americans to read The Plague as a philosophical novel. So, too, did our inexperience with plagues. "Oh, happy posterity," wrote Petrarch in the fourteenth century, when more than half the population of his native Florence perished in the bubonic plague, the Black Death, "who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable."
Before 1980, The Plague was facilely read as a fable. Polio had been vanquished, and the smallpox virus survived only in a few laboratories. Aside from periodic visitations of influenza, usually more of a nuisance than a killer, epidemics, before the outbreak of cholera in Peru in 1991, had been as common in this hemisphere as flocks of auks. Those of us who first read The Plague during the era of the Salk and Sabin vaccines were hard put to imagine a distant world not yet domesticated by biotechnology, in which a lere bacillus could terrorize an entire city. We read The Plague not as the story of a plague, an atavistic nemesis that seemed unlikely to menace our own modern metropolises. The story was a pretext, an occasion for ethical speculation, in short an allegory without coordinates in space and time.
However, though published long before the first case of AIDS was diagnosed and thirty-five years before the acronym was even coined, The Plague assumed a new urgency during the 1980s, as it became apparent that epidemics were not obsolete occurrences or quaint events confined to distant regions. Not long after a 1981 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported seven inexplicable cases of severe infection, AIDS became a global pandemic. In the United States alone, more than 160,000 have died from the disease, and another 80,000 have been diagnosed with the deadly disorder. Close to 2 million Americans have been infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, believed to be the precondition for AIDS. At first, AIDS seemed to target homosexual men, Haitians, and intravenous drug users, but, like Camus's plague, it was soon striking capriciously, without any regard to the social status of its hundreds of thousands of helpless, hapless victims. As in The Plague, a panicked populace responded in a variety of ways but without any cure. It is no longer possible to read The Plague with the innocence of Existentialist aesthetes. Joseph Dewey suggests that, for a contemporary novelist in quest of a paradigmatic AIDS narrative, it is not profitable to read The Plague at all—"Camus's use of contagion as an undeniable occasion of mortality that tests whether those quarantined in the Algerian port can find significance in life within an infected geography seems too metaphoric, a luxury when compared to what AIDS victims must confront: the indignities of a slow and grinding premature death."
Laurel Brodsley, however, does not dismiss The Plague. She takes it seriously enough to try to demonstrate how Defoe provides a model for it and two other twentieth-century plague books: Paul Monette's Borrowed Time, and Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On, both of them AIDS narratives. Yet it would be more accurate to say that Camus mediates between Shilts and Defoe—and even between Shilts and the contemporary pestilence whose first five years he recounts. Published in 1987, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is a detailed report on the onset and spread of AIDS and of the spectrum of reactions to it. What, to a student of Camus, is remarkable about Shilts's book—which, selected for the Book of the Month Club, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback—is how much it has in common with The Plague. Not only does Shilts document the same pattern of initial denial followed by acknowledgment, recrimination, terror, and occasional stoical heroism that Rieux recounts during the Oran ordeal. But it is clear that Shilts has read Camus and has adopted much of the style and structure of The Plague to tell his story of an actual plague. Where Camus appropriates Defoe for the epigraph to his novel, Shilts mines Camus's The Plague for epigraphs to four of his book's nine sections: Parts IV, V, VI, and VII. In Part II, describing baffling new developments among homosexual patients, Shilts echoes Camus's absurdist Myth of Sisyphus when he states: "The fight against venereal diseases was proving a Sisyphean task." That same Greek myth, for whom Camus is the modern bard, is alluded to two other times by Shilts—flippantly, in reference to AIDS victim Gary Walsh's "Sisyphean task" of renovating his Castro District apartment and, more portentously, in reference to the "Sisyphean struggle" against AIDS directed by Donald Francis, a leading retro-virologist at the Centers for Disease Control….
Early in The Plague its still anonymous narrator attempts to establish his credibility by assuming the humble role of historian. He insists on his distaste for rhetorical flamboyance and literary contrivance, assuring the reader that: "His business is only to say: 'This is what happened,' when it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace, and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth of what he writes." Rather than his own eccentric fabrication, what follows, he assures us, is an impartial account adhering scrupulously to reliable sources. "The present narrator," says the present narrator, in an attempt at objective detachment even from himself, "has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses (thanks to the part he played, he was enabled to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring in this chronicle); and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands."….
Camus is of course writing fiction, and his artful prose aspires to the spare eloquence of the solitary sentence that Joseph Grand is forever honing into an economy of eloquence. Shilts's massive book overwhelms his reader with the numbing evidence of actuality. Footnotes would have been an impertinence to The Plague, but they are essential to Shilts's claim on the reader's belief. Nevertheless, not every reader has honored that claim. Douglas Crimp reacted harshly to Shilts's deployment of conventional novelistic technique, and James Miller, who contends that "Shilts has artfully mated Hard Times with Oliver Twist to produce a symphonic opus of public oppression and private suffering", is enraged over the book's Dickensian caricatures and emotional excesses. "I suspect that Shilts is making lots and lots of money out of his success de scandale," rails Miller, "by feeding his straight and some of his gay readers exactly what they want: large dollops of guilt." Readers often turn pages because they want to find solutions. And the Band Played On is, like The Plague, a whodunit, a book designed to arouse and shape our curiosity about causes. What are the origins of catastrophe? Judith Williamson in fact faults And the Band Played On for exploiting the conventions of detective fiction so effectively that it demonizes Gaetan Dugas, Patient Zero, as the primal culprit in the global drama: "While Shilts's book is rationally geared to blame the entire governmental system for failing to fund research, educate the public and treat those infected, he nevertheless cannot entirely resist the wish for a source of contamination to be found, and then blamed."
Whatever the sources of misfortune, Camus leaves us with his plague in temporary remission, but, in Shilts's final pages, AIDS is merely gaining momentum. Neither disease is near a cure. Yet both epidemics and both books leave us enlightened about the limitations of human understanding but the need to act on what we know. William Styron spoke for many American admirers when he praised Camus for his tonic recognition of a bleak cosmos: "Camus was a great cleanser of my intellect, ridding me of countless sluggish ideas and, through some of the most unsettling pessimism I had ever encountered, causing me to be aroused anew by life's enigmatic promise." Stronger on enigma than promise, Shilts has nevertheless created a book designed to arouse.
Source: Steven G. Kellman, "From Oran to San Francisco: Shilts Appropriates Camus," in College Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, February 1997, pp. 202-12.
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. 1.
Camus, Albert, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
―――――――"Reflections on the Guillotine," in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, pp. 173-234.
Dank, Milton, The French against the French: Collaboration and Resistance, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1974.
Ellison, David R., Understanding Albert Camus, University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Kellman, Steven G., ed., Approaches to Teaching Camus's "The Plague," Modern Language Association of America, 1985.
Amoia, Alba, Albert Camus, Continuum, 1989.
Amoia's book is a lucid introduction to Camus's work. Amoia sees The Plague as a depiction of man's struggle against solitude and death, and he emphasizes Rieux's respect for the individuality of each human's personality—a quality he consistently finds in Camus's life and work.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Albert Camus, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1988.
This text is a collection of essays on all aspects of Camus's work, notable for Bloom's negative assessment of The Plague and for the essay on the same work by Patrick McCarthy.
Brée, Germaine, Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
This collection of essays was published not long after Camus's death and shows the way contemporary critics interpreted his work. Gaëton Picon in "Notes on The Plague," faults the novel for failing to create unity between the two levels on which it operates, the realistic and the symbolic or allegorical.
Luppé, Robert de, Albert Camus, translated by John Cumming and J. Hargreaves, Funk & Wagnalls, 1966.
Luppé traces the development of Camus's ideas, which he identifies as dualism (life and death, love and hatred) and the attempt to maintain equilibrium between contrary and exclusive terms.
Merton, Thomas, Albert Camus's "The Plague": Introduction and Commentary, Seabury Press, 1968.
This brief introduction to the novel is by a leading religious thinker and former Roman Catholic monk. Merton is particularly lucid in analyzing Camus's attitude to Christianity, and he also compares Camus's thought to that of a modern Catholic thinker, Teilhard de Chardin.
Todd, Olivier, Albert Camus: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
This thorough biography presents Camus's life and times but avoids detailed exposition of the works.