Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Plague, which propelled Camus into international celebrity, is both an allegory of World War II and a universal meditation on human conduct and community. Organized into five sections, The Plague recounts the collective ordeal of Oran, Algeria, in the throes of an outbreak of bubonic plague. At the outset, even before the sudden proliferation of dead rats and sick humans that persuades reluctant officials to declare an epidemic, Oran is described as a drab, ugly city whose inhabitants are preoccupied with commerce.
Trapped within Oran after a quarantine is imposed are the novel’s principal characters: Bernard Rieux, a physician separated from the ailing wife he sent to a sanatorium before the outbreak of the plague; Raymond Rambert, a Parisian journalist on assignment in Oran; Jean Tarrou, a stranger who takes an active part in opposing the epidemic; Joseph Grand, a municipal clerk obsessed with composing a perfect sentence; Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who delivers two crucial sermons during the course of the plague; and Cottard, a black-market opportunist.
Camus begins his novel with an epigraph from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) that invites readers to read the book as a veiled representation of something other than merely an epidemic in Oran. In a 1955 letter to critic Roland Barthes, the author specified the terms of the allegory; “The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of...
(The entire section is 785 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
At first, Dr. Bernard R. Rieux gives little thought to the strange behavior of the rats in Oran. One morning, he finds three on his landing, each animal lying inert with a rosette of fresh blood spreading from its nostrils. The concierge grumbles at having to clean up the rats, but Rieux is a busy doctor and just then he has personal cares. Madame Rieux is leaving Oran. She suffers from a lingering illness, and Rieux thinks that a sanatorium in a different town might do her good. His mother is to keep house for him while his wife is absent.
The doctor is also being bothered by Raymond Rambert, a persistent journalist, who wants to do a story for his metropolitan paper on living conditions among the workers in Oran. Rieux refuses to help him, for he knows that an honest report will be censored.
Day by day the number of dead rats increases in the city. After a time, trucks come by each morning to carry them away. People step on the furry dead bodies when they walk in the dark. Rieux’s first case of fever involves his concierge, who has a high temperature and painful swellings. Rieux is apprehensive. By making telephone inquiries, he learns that his colleagues are getting similar cases.
The prefect is averse to taking any action because he does not want to alarm the population. Only one doctor is convinced that the sickness is bubonic plague; the others reserve judgment. When the deaths rise to thirty a day, however, even the town...
(The entire section is 1197 words.)
Part 1 Summary
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...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
Part 2 Summary
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...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Part 3 Summary
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.
(The entire section is 83 words.)
Part 4 Summary
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 worsening. 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 antiplague 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.
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Part 5 Summary
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 entire section is 162 words.)