Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Oran. Algerian port city on the Mediterranean Sea. From its opening paragraphs, The Plague calls attention to the banality, even the ugliness, of the Algerian city in which the events that Rieux chronicles take place. Though the real Oran, where Camus, a native of Algeria, lived from 1941-1942, was not nearly so bleak, Rieux’s city is an ugly, soulless place devoid of trees, pigeons, and gardens and grimly devoted to commerce. Unlike the historical Oran, Rieux’s version is secured by municipal gates, and the official opening of the ramparts at the end of the novel is celebrated by the inhabitants as a kind of liberation.
In the 1940’s, before an anticolonial insurrection brought it independence in 1962, Algeria still constituted part of France, and the relatively large percentage of Oranians of European descent regarded their town as a provincial outpost of French culture. Yet Raymond Rambert, a journalist on assignment from a Parisian newspaper, feels particularly frustrated at being stranded by the local epidemic in distant Oran.
Almost all Camus’s writing accentuates the presence of the sea, the sun, and the sky. Yet, in The Plague, Oran is described as having been built with its back to the sea, without easy access to the cleansing Mediterranean, even under ordinary circumstances. The city’s segregation from the sea is reinforced when, as part of the quarantine, residents are prohibited...
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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...
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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.
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The Plague is written in the form of a journal, a dry, monotonous chronicle, intended to express the stifling atmosphere of the plague. Its author is anonymous until the end, although this aspect reminds one of the traditional nineteenth-century "omniscient narrator." Unlike The Stranger which bases all on sensations, this work relies on documentation and witnesses. The use of free indirect speech weakens the emotional veracity of the account. At all times, except for Tarrou's journal, perhaps the best writing in the book, the narration remains remote.
In a manner somewhat reminiscent of Flaubert, Camus excels in subtle irony. The primary significance of the plague to most people is that it ruins the tourist business. Hundreds have already died in the early stages of the plague, but the authorities will do nothing until the malady is officially named. The press is no help; perhaps Camus recalled the futility of many of his articles for Combat. Yet beneath this monotonous and ironical universe is the image of deep sensuality and sensibility. The climate is always violent, burning sun or torrential rain. The sea and the sun, as in all Camus's Mediterranean works, are omnipresent, as are women. Quilliot and McCarthy have noted that there are almost no young women in the novel, yet woman is everywhere present as the symbol of the need for love and human bonds.
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Compare and 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.
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Topics for Further Study
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?
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Camus's account of the plague recalls classical and modern sources, among them Thucydides' History of Peloponnesian Wars (c.431-400 B.C.), Sophocles' Oedipus the King (c. 429 B.C.), the book of Exodus in the Bible, Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851). Germaine Bree sees a more immediate source in Antonin Artaud's Le Theatre et son double, where the plague is a concrete symbol of spiritual illness. The question of the suffering of innocent children is an echo of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov. Throughout, there are echoes of Flaubert, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Balzac.
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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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Amoia, Alba. Albert Camus. New York: Continuum, 1989. An introduction to Camus as an important “Mediterranean” literary figure. In a chapter on The Plague entitled “A Holograph,” the author is particularly attentive to the novel’s coordinates in North Africa.
Fitch, Brian T. The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus’ Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. A sophisticated study of Camus as a metafictionalist. The chapter on The Plague examines how, through the use of several writer figures and by calling attention to its own narrative design, the novel makes its own artifice overt.
Kellman, Steven G., ed. Approaches to Teaching Camus’s “The Plague.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1985. A collection of essays primarily concerned with pedagogical strategies for the college-level study of Camus’ novel. Provides a bibliographical survey and thirteen individual essays that situate the novel within the contexts of French literature, philosophy, medicine, and history.
Kellman, Steven G. “The Plague”: Fiction and Resistance. New York: Twayne, 1993. A general overview, including chronology and bibliography, of Camus’ novel. Discusses the historical, philosophical, and biographical contexts of the work, and provides analyses of its style,...
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