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Camus, Albert 1913–1960
Camus was an Algerian-born French novelist, dramatist, and existentialist essayist. His "philosophy of the absurd," developed in The Stranger, a novel, and The Myth of Sisyphus, essays, became a point of reference for an entire generation during the forties and fifties.
Modern literature is oversupplied with madmen of genius. No wonder, then, that when an immensely gifted writer, whose talents certainly fall short of genius, arises who boldly assumes the responsibilities of sanity, he should be acclaimed beyond his purely literary merits.
I mean, of course, Albert Camus…. Being a contemporary, he had to traffic in the madmen's themes: suicide, affectlessness, guilt, absolute terror. But he does so with such an air of reasonableness, mesure, effortlessness, gracious impersonality, as to place him apart from the others. Starting from the premises of a popular nihilism, he moves the reader—solely by the power of his own tranquil voice and tone—to humanist and humanitarian conclusions in no way entailed by his premises. This illogical leaping of the abyss of nihilism is the gift for which readers are grateful to Camus. This is why he evoked feelings of real affection on the part of his readers. Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love. His death in 1960 was felt as a personal loss by the whole literate world.
Whenever Camus is spoken of there is a mingling of personal, moral, and literary judgment. No discussion of Camus fails to include, or at least suggest, a tribute to his goodness and attractiveness as a man. To write about Camus is thus to consider what occurs between the image of a writer and his work, which is tantamount to the relation between morality and literature. For it is not only that Camus himself is always thrusting the moral problem upon his readers. (All his stories, plays, and novels relate the career of a responsible sentiment, or the absence of it.) It is because his work, solely as a literary accomplishment, is not major enough to bear the weight of admiration that readers want to give it. One wants Camus to be a truly great writer, not just a very good one. But he is not. It might be useful here to compare Camus with George Orwell and James Baldwin, two other husbandly writers who essay to combine the role of artist with civic conscience. Both Orwell and Baldwin are better writers in their essays than they are in their fiction. This disparity is not to be found in Camus, a far more important writer. But what is true is that Camus' art is always in the service of certain intellectual conceptions which are more fully stated in the essays. Camus' fiction is illustrative, philosophical. It is not so much about its characters—Meursault, Caligula, Jan, Clamence, Dr. Rieux—as it is about the problems of innocence and guilt, responsibility and nihilistic indifference. The three novels, the stories, and the plays have a thin, somewhat skeletal quality which makes them a good deal less than absolutely first-rate, judged by the standards of art. Unlike Kafka, whose most illustrative and symbolic fictions are at the same time autonomous acts of the imagination, Camus' fiction continually betrays its source in an intellectual concern.
What of Camus' essays, political articles, addresses, literary criticism, journalism? It is extremely distinguished work. But was Camus a thinker of importance? The answer is no. Sartre, however distasteful certain of his political sympathies are to his English-speaking andience, brings a powerful and original mind to philosophical, psychological, and literary analysis. Camus, however attractive his political sympathies, does not. The celebrated philosophical essays (The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel) are the work of an extraordinarily talented and literate epigone. The same is true of Camus as a historian of ideas and as a literary critic. Camus is at his best when he disburdens himself of the baggage of existentialist culture (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Kafka) and speaks in his own person. This happens in the great essay against capital punishment, "Reflections on the Guillotine," and in the casual writings, like the essay-portraits of Algiers, Oran, and other Mediterranean places.
Neither art nor thought of the highest quality is to be found in Camus. What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of his work is beauty of another order, moral beauty, a quality unsought by most 20th century writers. Other writers have been more engaged, more moralistic. But none have appeared more beautiful, more convincing in their profession of moral interest. Unfortunately, moral beauty in art—like physical beauty in a person—is extremely perishable. It is nowhere so durable as artistic or intellectual beauty. Moral beauty has a tendency to decay very rapidly into sententiousness or untimeliness. This happens with special frequency to the writer, like Camus, who appeals directly to a generation's image of what is exemplary in a man in a given historical situation. Unless he possesses extraordinary reserves of artistic originality, his work is likely to seem suddenly denuded after his death….
Camus is the writer who for a whole literate generation was the heroic figure of a man living in a state of permanent spiritual revolution. But he is also the man who advocated that paradox: a civilized nihilism, an absolute revolt that acknowledges limits—and converted the paradox into a recipe for good citizenship. What intricate goodness, after all!
Susan Sontag, "Camus' Notebooks" (1963), in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus, 1966, pp. 52-60.
Throughout [Camus'] career he remained an artist who was also an intellectual, rather than an intellectual, like Sartre, who used the arts for polemical and theoretical ends. Although he did his university work in philosophy—his thesis was on Plotinus—he was never a professional, or even a particularly natural philosopher; he was a moralist who managed to make a persuasive system out of his novelist's preoccupation with conduct. The Rebel may be a remarkably probing and sustained intellectual performance for a man of letters, but it is also, for such a difficult, abstruse work, curiously beautiful. The man of letters triumphed over the philosopher, not only in the lucid rhetoric of the close, but in the texture itself of the book. What gives it that sombre, unexpected beauty is something beyond mere style as artifice; it is the quality that forms and controls style: an unwavering sense of justice, a tense humility….
One of his greatest strengths as a thinker was that he demonstrated from the inside just how hopeless the liberal humanist position has become. It is not simply that modern industrial states are too vast and highly organized for the creed to be effective, or even meaningful. It is rather that they are organized in such a way that they exert on all beliefs an intolerable pressure which forces them into totalitarianism. Both the nineteenth century's nihilism and its revolutionary utopianism produced their separate brands of totalitarianism—of the right and the left, Hitler's and Stalin's. Against them, liberal humanism was too vaguely loving, hopelessly enlightened and full of optimistic intentions to be a viable alternative.
What Camus set in its place was not a philosophy but a personal stance that assumed nothing, expected nothing and was critical of everything. His early concept of the Absurd was, I suppose, a secularized sense of tragedy, an analysis of the way a meaningless death gratuitously calls in question a life without meaning, or a life amounting, at best, to no more than that death. 'Nothing, nothing had the least importance, and I know quite well why…. From the dark horizon of my future', says Meursault the Outsider, 'a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing towards me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.'…
[By] cutting the roots to his childhood [as Camus did], a writer not only cuts off much confusion and mess and darkness, he also runs the risk of cutting himself off from the sources of real feeling. Camus avoided this by giving himself with extraordinary generosity to the present. He did so without drama or self-pity, without preconceptions, regrets or illusions, with great intelligence and modesty, and by creating a style which was lucid, unfailingly objective, yet humane, tentative and lonely. He was courageous without making claims; he had, above all, no conceit. Simply by recognizing the present impossibility of systematized morality he emerged as the one genuine imaginative moralist of our time.
A. Alvarez, "Albert Camus" (originally published in The Spectator, 1965), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 123-27.
For Camus, the greatness of man, that which releases him from absurdity, lies in his 'consciousness' and his power of rebellion—a rebellion which Camus calls 'metaphysical'. It is a rebellion, not so much against the terms in which existence is given, as against the submissiveness, the unthinking acceptance, which allows those terms to determine human reality. This Sisyphean theme is the basis of Camus' novel, The Plague, which could be said to be an extended working out, in a modern setting, of the old myth….
'To leave all justice to God', says Camus in The Rebel, 'is to sanctify injustice', and that is why 'it is better to die on one's feet than live on one's knees'.
In the work of Camus, then, we see the human rebellion hurling itself against a meaningless universe and claiming for itself the power to justify happiness. The rebellion is not an individual act of Promethean defiance, but a work of human compassion, and it neither seeks nor requires any absolute to vindicate it. In the words of Colin Smith, 'Rebellion has its own meaning as the final action of which man is capable when everything else dissolves into irrationality and death.' The meaning is in the rebellion itself: it is not in the results of rebellion, which may be nothing but failure and which in any case can never create permanent values….
The obvious difference between Camus and Sartre is that the former gives an important place to human relatedness and avoids the latter's loveless individualism. For both writers there can be only one kind of meaning, and that is the meaning created by man himself; but for Camus this meaning is found not so much in individual as in corporate action, and the metaphysical rebellion which he demands issues in a sense of human solidarity….
[In The Stranger,] Camus cannot subscribe to any 'objective' theory of the atonement: the cross is meaningful because it typifies the human rebellion against the senselessness of existence, but we make a serious mistake if we think that it has created new conditions in which meaning has somehow become 'given' and permanent. This is precisely the mistake which the Church has made. If there is resurrection, if a supernatural order has now imposed its solutions upon absurdity, then Christ's death is no longer the desperate throw of man against futility; it is surrender, not rebellion, and it is therefore 'inhuman' in the sense that it ends by denying the need for rebellion and proclaims acceptance as the way of salvation. So man loses one of his essential dimensions, and turns into an ideology the values which have no existence except in unceasing, ever-renewed struggle.
Camus distinguishes sharply between 'the only two possible worlds that can exist for the human mind': they are 'the world of grace' and 'the rebel world'. The former is Christian, the latter is not. Either we deny all power to justify ourselves and wait submissively for supernatural blessings; or we decide that meaning can come only from our own efforts, and act accordingly….
The Plague is one of those rare novels which release the tragic protest and deepen our awareness of what is 'genuinely human'. We recognize ourselves in it, and yet we did not know that we could be as admirable as this. Given the conditions of the plague, we might all hope to act like a Rieux or a Tarrou or an Othon.
Camus is surely right in thinking that to understand oneself as 'genuinely human' is to understand oneself as a rebel. It is important, however, to remove political overtones from the word 'rebel'. While it is true that the human rebellion may and often will find political forms of expression, the 'metaphysical' rebellion of which Camus speaks refers to something which preexists specific forms of rebellion and stands for a characteristic of our existential awareness as such. The word is not used to mean an attempt to overthrow some constituted authority: it points rather to the vision, the questioning, the protest which man finds in himself. The starting-point of rebellion is the recognition that the world provides no objective correlate which is coincident with man's interior vision, and it lays upon him the necessity of acting in the light of that vision while refusing to be an instrument of the forces which threaten it….
Of course there are limits to human understanding beyond which God is inscrutable and his ways past tracing out; if this were not so, God would be nothing more than an idol—a projection of human fantasies and ambitions claiming authoritative status. But the prophets of Israel will have none of this. The divine word is not an echo of human ambitions: it is a word of judgment as well as promise; it summons men to depart from iniquity and to ally themselves with the divine compassion.
There are thus two kinds of rebellion open to man: the false, self-destroying kind which is rebellion against God; and the true, liberating and life-giving kind which is rebellion with God. To obey God is to become a rebel against sin and evil, against all that separates man from the source of life and virtue, against all the destructive forces inside and outside man which masquerade as God. To obey God is also to align oneself with meanings and values which have their source in God but which man himself is called to actualize in human history—in politics, economics, social organization, as well as in the individual himself. The fact that these meanings and values always transcend the power of man to grasp or achieve is the reason why the human rebellion always has a Sisyphean character and never attains finality; at the same time, it also forces upon man the realization that he is not God. Only a transcendent God can give the lie to the absolutist claims of man; only a transcendent God is our safeguard against attributing divine authority to human programmes. Camus is right when he points to the terrible consequences which follow when man introduces 'absolutes' into his affairs and claims to be acting in their name. But this is precisely the primal sin of man in the biblical doctrine: 'ye shall be as gods' are the words which lead to the Fall; it is man at the height of his aspiration who forgets the limits of rebellion and plunges into disorder and misery. But without the transcendent God to remind him of his imperfect insights and the hidden 'cellarage' of his self-regard, there is no reason why he should ever do otherwise or understand the cause of his collapse.
The transcendence of God is therefore both the source of the human rebellion and its limitation….
I think we must say that Camus is mistaken when he places in opposition to each other the world of grace and the rebel world. To live by grace is to live as a 'rebel' and to find one's power of rebellion increased. This may seem a startling statement to those who see in the Church nothing but submission and inaction, but I agree with Harvey Cox in his belief that it is one of the great biblical correctives to the distortions of 'tradition'. Catholic and Protestant alike have too often understood 'grace' or 'justification' in essentially static terms having little to do with the ongoing challenge of the secular conditions of man's existence. This is not to deny the Church's historic role in the relief of need and suffering, but generally speaking this role has been performed without much radical questioning by the Church of the political, social, and economic orders themselves.
David Anderson, in his The Tragic Protest (© SCM Press Ltd., 1969; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox, 1969, pp. 82-103.
Camus's Don Juan is not 'innocent'. He has decided to live as if he were innocent, which is a very different thing. Such a choice is already reflective, already rational, and the life thus chosen must at least sometimes be beset by the alternatives which the choice has excluded. No doubt it is true that man is 'penetrated by the absurd', as Camus says, but it is no less true that he is penetrated by a sense of moral realities—which may, indeed, be ignored, but which cannot simply be excluded from consciousness by an initial choice. The philosophy of the absurd makes all purposive action—including the choice of absurdity itself—impossible. If, as Camus suggests, consciousness of the absurd makes all actions equal, then there can be no basis for choosing anything at all and life becomes a mere succession of random impulses….
Camus moved away from this position in The Plague and The Rebel. He did so by trying to fit a philosophy of revolt into his philosophy of the absurd. I have suggested that the two philosophies are inconsistent with each other: there is no reason for being a healer in an absurd world, and Camus was right when he said in Le Mythe de Sisyphe that in such a world we can be virtuous only by accident. But The Plague shows that there are moral values: the whole novel can be read as a passionate protest against totalitarian political systems which are founded on murder and outrage. The philosophy of the absurd cannot account for the existence of the categorical imperative which summons men to revolt against human suffering; on the contrary, the fact that the world contains this imperative must be counted as evidence against absurdity. It must also make untenable the view that man can choose 'innocence'….
Throughout the novel one feels the intensity of Camus's sympathy for ordinary people, who may indeed have lost the innocence of childhood but whose guilt can never merit the monstrous tyranny of a hideous death. It is hard to disagree with this verdict, and the fact that the problem is a very old one which has called forth many attempts to justify God is hardly a sufficient answer to Camus's agonized question. One cannot help feeling that Camus has shown that all theodicies are in the end nothing but callous sophistry.
If The Plague were merely about external evil for which man is not responsible, we should have to concede that Camus had made his point. But we have noticed that this is not so. The disease is also meant to be a symbol of the evil in man, and it is a weakness of the novel that microbes are very inadequate symbols of human motives. The plague bacillus creates no moral conflict: it must simply be opposed and eliminated. The matter is clear-cut and the appropriate human action is obvious to any reasonable man. But if the plague represents the evil element in man—the desire to dominate, for example—then moral conflict must arise and the problem of appropriate action will become incomparably more complex. The weakness of The Plague is that it tries to treat the latter kind of case as though it were the former kind, with the result that the moral ambiguity of human motives is hard to fit into the framework of the parable….
It is impossible to achieve personal sanctity, with or without God, in a world which does not offer unambiguous moral choices. Our very existence is a kind of 'fall' into unfulfilled potential in which there are no hard outlines and no escape from the anxiety which conditions all our becoming. Christ himself was not exempt from the tragic destiny which marks all genuinely human existence. To seek to abstract oneself from a sinful world in order to cultivate a detached rectitude is to be guilty of what Berdyaev called a transcendent egoism. It turns out that the pursuit of individual moral integrity is itself morally blameworthy, and may even be a subtle way of achieving that very sense of domination which, in its overt political forms for example, we righteously condemn. It is to this problem that Camus turns his attention in The Fall….
It is certainly a mistake to suppose, as some have been all too ready to do, that in The Fall Camus shows himself to be a convert to the orthodox Christian doctrine of original sin. Camus has not abandoned his theory of limits: excessive claims to virtue and excessive accusations of guilt are both disastrous, leading inevitably to tyranny and servitude. Man is not wholly innocent, and Clamence's recognition of the presence of self-regarding motives in his life of virtue is an advance on Rieux's simplistic morality of 'doing his job'. But to swing as Clamence does to the opposite extreme of unremitting self-denunciation is to forget that there are also limits to guilt. Camus is suggesting that denial of man's relative innocence is as catastrophic as denial of his relative wickedness….
I think Camus is implying that, although we are guilty, our only hope lies in our being treated as if we were innocent. He is hinting at something that is surprisingly like the doctrine of grace…. Camus sees that this is the only exit from the crushing morality of merit and desert, but he has failed to notice the emphasis of the New Testament on the cost and sacrifice which made it possible. The conclusion which Clamence seems to draw from the Gospel is the optimistic one that human guilt is not, after all, a very serious matter—a view which is very much in line with Camus's idea of the secret 'innocence' of man which we have noticed in his earlier books….
[For] all the shrewdness of its insights and the clarity of its language, The Fall is finally a disappointing book: it offers only an ironical commentary on a serious human question. We are left with a false prophet, and the solution to the problem of human guilt seems to vanish into the rain and fog of Amsterdam where the judge-penitent carries on his profession. Perhaps Camus is simply saying that there is no solution and that we must be content to live ambiguously in the strange half-light between guilt and innocence without claiming virtue and without losing heart. This is an attractive, almost Epicurean view, and probably most of us are able to live by it for most of the time. But it does not help us 'in the sombre season or the sudden fury', and it is hard to see how it can include the kind of challenge and sacrifice which made Camus's earlier imperative of revolt so exhilarating. There are limits to the living of life within limits.
David Anderson, in his The Tragic Protest (© SCM Press Ltd., 1969; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox, 1969, pp. 144-55.
It is true that, compared to the Arthur Koestler of Darkness at Noon, to the Malraux of La Condition humaine, to the Orwell of 1984 or of the essays on Mahatma Gandhi and Burnham, or to the Sartre of Les Mains sales or Les Séquestrés d'Altona, Camus does tend, because of [his] obsession [with the death penalty], to look at politics from a very narrow angle. He sees little but the problem of violence, and always in the highly generalized terms of a philosophy which, in his view, justifies killing in the name of historical inevitability. He offers nothing of Sartre's or Koestler's feeling for the complexity and unpredictability of history, little of Orwell's detailed analysis of how doctrines and attitudes change in response to different situations, none of Malraux's ability to dramatize the wide general sweep of the historical process and thus make it emotionally as well as intellectually comprehensible. But if he sees things narrowly, Camus also sees them sharply. The concern for the living individual already implicit in his early work, and essential to his view of the artist's calling, recurs in its most intense and moving form in those books and articles in which he is striving to protect men against the two worst things on ideology can do to them: kill them outright or deprive them of their individuality. It is this concern to protect the individual against both these dangers which inspires what is, from a political standpoint, his most complex and probably his most satisfying work: The Plague.
From the moment of its publication, in 1947, this novel was interpreted in political terms: as an allegory of the German occupation and French Resistance movement and as an interpretation of this movement presented by a man once involved in it, as a more general description of totalitarianism in action, and as a novel that recommended, though without leaving the plane of allegory, a certain form of political behavior. While it is on the first level that its transposition of the definite ambitions of the Nazi movement into the more impersonal activity of the plague is most open to criticism, it is nevertheless here that its immediate appeal to the 1947 reader was to be found….
[Paneloux] is, in fact, forced to confront the dilemma which Camus himself presents, in The Rebel and elsewhere, as the major objection to Christianity: that if God is all-powerful and all-good, it is impossible to understand why he should allow the innocent to suffer through natural causes. Such considerations are, of course, only tangentially relevant to the political content of the novel. No philosopher of history, however providential his vision, has maintained that absolutely everything is for the best, and that the progress of the dialectic knoweth even the fall of the sparrow. What the introduction of these wider issues does illustrate, however, is the extent to which the Camus of The Plague avoids the major pitfalls of the political novel: relevance to only one period and to only one problem.
The Plague treats the problem of totalitarianism from a number of different angles, and it also recommends an attitude of tolerant agnosticism in political matters. But it is also a novel of the human condition, an attempt to show the problem of suffering in a metaphysical as well as in a political context. It may well be that, with the passage of time, its immediate applicability to the problems confronting France or Europe in the 1940's will become less immediately visible. It is already difficult for young readers to grasp the references to the German occupation and to the Resistance movement, and the gradual liberalization of even the French Communist party will make Camus's attack on totalitarianism increasingly difficult to understand. Nevertheless, three aspects of The Plague will more than outweigh these possible disadvantages: the excellence of Camus's prose, especially in the imagery which serves to emphasize both the naturalness of the plague and the delights of the natural life; the criticism of all forms of abstract thought; and the plea for tolerance, which has a far wider applicability than the immediate circumstances for which Camus was writing….
[The] political meaning [of The Fall] is linked to a particular interpretation of why bourgeois intellectuals are attracted by the absolute discipline of the Communist party which seems to have occurred to Camus during the controversies over The Rebel. They feel guilty at the privileges and freedom which they enjoy in a society where so many others are neither rich nor free, and they lack the strength of character to adopt a reasonable attitude toward their guilt. Acceptance of communism enables them to see this guilt as a necessary phenomenon and also offers them a way of escaping from it through the highly disciplined revolutionary struggle for a classless society. This meaning is not, however, something that leaps immediately to the eye, and it has never been as widely discussed as the relevance of The Plague to the German occupation. Indeed, it could even be argued that it is so well disguised by the other aspects of the novel, and especially by the light which The Fall casts upon Camus's attitude to Christianity, that a political interpretation is almost a classic example of the intentionalist fallacy….
[The] political meaning of The Fall is clear only to the reader who has been told that it is there, and the book is much less obviously a political novel than The Plague. There is no point in being committed unless people can see what you are being committed about, and the same criticism of relative obscurity can also be leveled at the short story "The Renegade," whose political implications are apparent only to someone with a fair understanding of The Rebel…. The Fall and "The Renegade" are thus concerned, like The Plague, with totalitarianism, and both recommend, as did Camus's earlier novel, the same attitude of moderation: We must guard against exaggerating either our sinfulness or our initial revolt, lest we become infected with the intolerance and lust for power which characterize the bacillus of the plague.
All three works express the same agnostic humanism, but the second two are particularly open to the criticism that the diagnosis which they offer involves a considerable oversimplification of the issues involved….
Almost everything which Camus says about politics in the two volumes of his Carnets that have so far been published indicates that he took part in politics only reluctantly and always tried to give priority to artistic considerations. Had he been born in a different age, when political questions presented themselves with less urgency, there is little doubt that he would have remained a more detached artist, and that his work would have reflected more of his declared ambition to write prose as Mozart composed music. In a way, this would have been a pity. The great appeal which Camus made in the 1940's was as a moralist, and his intense concern for ethical questions fitted in remarkably well with the political mood of the time. The excellence of The Plague lies precisely in the way that this encounter between his conscience and the political atmosphere of postwar France gives rise to considerations that are applicable to the permanent problems of political action and not solely to one period. Without the impact that politics made on Camus in the 1940's, we should be poorer by a masterpiece; and without the political concerns that continued to inspire part of his work in the 1950's, we should lack the opportunity of seeing how some very good books can be written under the inspiration of some rather limited ideas.
Philip Thody, in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorne, 1971, pp. 189-206.
The Plague will endure partly because it achieves something rare in fiction: its theme and plot resemble each other closely, each in itself demonstrating the same concept. Considering the horse and rider or chest and treasure relationship of plot and theme in most fiction, Camus' is a remarkable accomplishment. Much of the power of this powerful work is found in the natural interweaving of plot and theme which here, because of their similarity, peculiarly reinforce and electrify each other….
The plot of the story is revealed in five parts. Of these the middle one is smallest and the second and fourth largest, so there is in the structure some symmetry which is not, however, worked out down through the level of the individual chapters. Why then bother with dividing the novel into parts? Obviously Camus feels that each is doing a distinct job….
I believe the best one-word summary of the five parts of the book, in order, would be: unawareness, awareness, death, commitment, and life. First the people of Oran, and they are not extraordinary in this way, are characterized as making no effort to reach the true nature of each other, and, unaware of the reality of their world and its other inhabitants, they are unfit to become easily aware of the coming plague. Then the brutal statistics awaken them, and they psychologically gird for battle. In the third part, they are crushed both physically and psychologically; their bodies die, and so do their minds and hearts; they are ready to surrender, and their hearts are emptied of love. But in part four they learn how to fight; they learn that their resistance must be organized; they learn that only by fighting beside and for one another do they have any hope of surviving themselves. When in part five the plague leaves, the survivors, despite their tendency to isolate themselves once again, are keenly alive; and they have learned how to live better. Unawareness, awareness, death, commitment, life: that is the shape of the plot….
The theme of the plague is this: in life we choose either to live or to die. To die we first cease truly to communicate; to live we first communicate truly and then we commit ourselves to our fellow man. So this is the shape of the theme of The Plague: death—noncommunication—communication—commitment—life. Notice how very similar this is to the shape of the plot: unawareness, awareness, death, commitment, life. (Unawareness and awareness are so like non-communication and communication in this book that they are virtually the same.) Therefore, between the plot and the theme the only difference is that the concepts are in a slightly different order: compared to the order of the plot, the theme's parts are ordered 2, 3, 1, 4, 5; compared to the order of the theme, the plot's parts are ordered 3, 1, 2, 4, 5. The obvious reason for this juxtaposition is that death, which is thematically at the opposite pole from life, must dominate the fulcrum of the book for dramatic reasons. Either way,… both plot and theme demonstrate the same concept, a concept which, when applied in an analysis of all the works of its remarkable author, should shed new light on his landmark thinking.
Francis J. Henninger, "Plot-Theme Fusion in 'The Plague'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Summer, 1973, pp. 216-21.