Essays and Criticism
The Character of Tarrou
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...
(The entire section is 1792 words.)