The Plague Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

In the decade and a half after the end of World War II, as the West strove to repair the physical, psychic, and spiritual damage, the voice of Albert Camus was one of the major artistic, philosophical, and moral sources of strength and direction. Camus offered reasoned yet passionate affirmation of human dignity in the face of an “absurd” universe, an absurdity that had been made evident to all by the Nazi horrors.

The Plague is the most thorough fictional presentation of Camus’s mature thinking. In earlier works—notably the play Caligula (pb. 1944; English translation, 1948), the novel L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), and the essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955)—Camus articulated his concept of the “absurd.” Human beings are absurd because they have neither metaphysical justification nor essential connection to the universe. They are not part of any divine scheme and, being mortal, all of their actions, individual and collective, eventually come to nothing. The only question, then, is how to deal with their absurdity.

Camus’s answer lies in his concept of “revolt.” Human beings revolt against their condition first by understanding it and then, in the face of their cosmic meaninglessness, creating their own human meanings. In his earlier works, Camus explored that problem in terms of the individual; in The Plague, Camus extends his moral and philosophical analysis to the question of human beings as social creatures. What, Camus asks, in the face of an absurd universe, is one person’s relationship to, and responsibility for, another?

The paradox that lies at the center of Camus’s revolt concept is that of heroic futility. People struggle in spite of—even because of—the fact that, ultimately, they must lose. While the idea of the absurd denies a cosmic meaning to human beings, it does affirm their common bond. Since all people must die, all are brothers and sisters. Mutual cooperation, not self-indulgence, is the logical ethic that Camus derives from his perspective of the absurd. Camus chooses a plague as an appropriate metaphor for the human condition, since it intensifies this awareness of human mortality and makes the common bond especially clear.

Camus carefully divides the novel into five parts that correspond to the progression of the pestilence. Parts 1 and 5 show life before the plague’s onslaught and after its subsidence. Parts 2 and 4 concentrate on the details of communal and personal suffering and, in particular, on the activities and reactions of the main characters as they battle the disease. Part 3, 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.

The story is narrated by Dr. Bernard R. 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 an irony that also keeps the reader at a distance. Both narratives are juxtaposed against vivid, emotionally charged scenes. This continual alternation 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 Joseph Grand—accept their obligation to battle the epidemic as soon as it is identified. Rieux is probably the character who comes closest to speaking for Camus. Since Rieux is a medical doctor who has devoted his life to the losing battle with disease and death, the plague is simply an intensification of his normal life. From the outset, he accepts...

(The entire section is 1612 words.)