Dr. Bernard Rieux, the unnamed narrator of the novel, begins his story some time in the 1940s in the city of Oran, Algeria. The French port on the Mediterranean is a mix of white, brown, and black people, French and Muslim, and sailors from all over. It is very cosmopolitan and diverse. It is set up like most colonies: a small white minority controls a vast non-white majority. So there is racial, religious, and cultural tension.
The story, like many great works, begins mid-April. According to T.S. Eliot, April is "the cruelest month" because it sets up modern man for a re-birth and renewal that will never come.
The novel chronicles a plague that spreads throughout the city. The plague is obviously a metaphor for absurdity. It is based on a real plague that spread through Oman in the 1840s. In fact, "According to a research report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but outbreaks after European colonization, in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel." So, there seems no cause for it: colonists and natives have suffered from it throughout time.
Other characters we meet are Michel, the concierge of Rieux’s building, Joseph Grand, a former patient, Cottard, a neighbor who has tried to hang himself. Also Jean Tarrou, a good man with an ever-present smile, who keeps a diary of Oran. Look at his diary for another perspective of life in Oran.