The Plague can be read on several levels. The three most important are the literal, which matches classical and scientific descriptions of the bubonic plague; the political, which has obvious echoes of the Occupation from 1941-1944; and the metaphysical, which addresses the problem of evil in the world. Critics have also explored others, such as the psychoanalytic, delineated by Alain Costes, the narcissistic, in Brian Fitch's interpretation, and the linguistic, examined by Paul Fortier and Gerald Prince. In a letter of Camus to Roland Barthes in 1955, Camus says that it was to symbolize oppression in all its forms that he wrote the book.
Critics contemporary with Camus hailed the novel as a parable of the German Occupation. Since Camus conceived the idea in 1938 and began to work on it in 1943, when he was "exiled" from Algeria in a remote mountain village in the Massif Central, he evidently did have the Occupation in mind. Frenchmen during this period called the German presence "la peste brune." The closed universe of Oran, sealed off from all communication, is not unlike the France of the early 1940s, which like Oran monotonously pursued its daily occupations, yet remained subconsciously aware of a threatening presence. The "equipes sanitaires" (health teams) organized by Rieux and his friends are like the small groups of the Resistance in which Camus himself participated. The rationing of food and gas, the careful use of...
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...