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 levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof of this is that although the specific enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized it.”
The book is, moreover, a meditation on human solidarity and individual responsibility. What is the logical and ethical response to a universe in which suffering prevails and effort seems futile? In the first of two sermons strategically positioned in part 2 and part 4 of the five-part chronicle, Paneloux posits an anthropomorphic God who has sent the plague as retribution for human sin. After witnessing the agonizing death of an innocent child, however, Paneloux revises his theodicy to reconcile unmerited torment with belief in a logical and benevolent Providence.
Tarrou, a magistrate’s son who left home in revulsion over state executions, remains forever opposed to a scheme of things in which cruelty triumphs. His selfless, if hopeless, dedication to the struggle against the plague—both the actual disease and the metaphorical plague he contends is the human condition—offers a sharp contrast to the egoism of Cottard, who exploits the misfortunes of Oran for personal advantage. Rambert’s initial reaction to the quarantine is concern for his personal happiness, for how he can escape from the city and return to Paris to the woman he loves. He learns, however, that his lot is also Oran’s, and he stays in the city to make common cause with the victims of the plague.
Under such circumstances, the flamboyant individualism that enlivens traditional fiction is inappropriate, and the novel, conceding that readers crave heroes, nominates the lackluster Grand, whose grandness resides in selfless, bootless dedication to writing a perfect sentence and ending the plague:Yes, if it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a “hero,” the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
One of the novel’s most striking features is its handling of narrative point of view. The story...
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is told in meticulously neutral prose, from a perspective that seems detached from the experiences it recounts. Less than a dozen pages from the end, however, when the plague has subsided and the gates of Oran have been reopened, Rieux steps forward to confess that he has been the narrator all along. Though the text’s preoccupation with exile and isolation are clearly the result of Rieux’s own enforced separation from his ailing wife, he as narrator has taken great pains to present an impersonal “chronicle,” the objective account of an honest witness. Writing himself into the story of his community is another way in which Rieux tries to overcome the solitude that is his lot as a widower and a human being.
In a universe in which “plague” is inexplicable and gratuitous, Rieux realizes that physicians are as ineffectual as anyone else. Yet he finds value in collective struggle, regardless of the outcome. The plague is never defeated. It merely, and mysteriously, recedes, and the reader is left with Rieux’s realization that eternal vigilance is necessary against an indomitable foe.
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 officials get worried. When a telegram instructs the prefect to take drastic measures, the news spreads like wild fire: Oran is in the grip of the plague.
Rieux is called to the apartment of someone named Cottard, who has tried to hang himself. Joseph Grand, a clerk and Rieux’s former patient, cut the man down just in time to save him, but he can give no satisfactory reason for his attempt to kill himself. Rieux is interested in Cottard, who seems rather an eccentric person.
Grand, too, is a strange man. For many years, he has been a temporary clerk, overlooked in his minor post, whom a succession of bureaucrats keep on without investigating his status. Grand has been too timid to call attention to the injustice of his position. In the evenings he works hard on a novel he is writing, from which he seems to derive much solace. Rieux is surprised when he sees the work. In all of those years, Grand has only the first sentence of his novel finished, and he is still revising it. He has once been married to Jeanne, but she had left him.
Jean Tarrou is an engaging fellow, a political agitator concerned with governmental upheavals over the whole continent. He keeps a meticulous diary of the ravages and sorrows of the plague. Tarrou had left home at an early age because he disliked his father’s profession as prosecutor; the thought of the wretched criminals condemned to death because of his father’s zeal horrified him. After having been an agitator for years, he finally realizes that the workings of politics often result in similar executions. He had fled to Oran just before the plague started. Here he finds an answer to his problem in organizing and directing sanitary workers.
One of Tarrou’s neighbors is an old man who each morning calls the neighborhood cats to him and shreds paper for them to play with. Once all the cats are around him, he will spit on them with great accuracy. After the plague grows worse, the city authorities kill all cats and dogs to check possible agents of infection. The old man, deprived of his targets, stays indoors, disconsolate.
As the blazing summer sun dries the town, a film of dust settles over everything. The papers are meticulous in reporting the weekly total of deaths, but once the number passes the nine hundred mark, the press reports only daily tolls. Armed sentinels are posted to permit no one to enter or leave the town. Letters are forbidden. Since the telephone lines cannot accommodate the increased traffic, the only communication with the outside is by telegraph. Occasionally, Rieux receives an unsatisfactory wire from his wife.
The disposal of the dead bodies presents a problem. The little cemetery is soon filled, but the authorities make more room by cremating the remains in the older graves. At last two pits are dug in an adjoining field, one for men and one for women. When those pits are filled, a greater pit is dug, and no further effort is made to separate the bodies of men and women. The corpses are simply dropped in and covered with quicklime and a thin layer of earth. Discarded streetcars are used to transport the dead to the cemetery.
Rieux is in charge of one of the new wards at the infirmary. There is little he can do, however, for the serum from Paris is not effective. He observes what precautions he can, and to ease pain he lances the distended buboes. Most of the patients die. Castel, an older physician, is working on a new serum.
Father Paneloux preaches a sermon on the plague in which he calls Oran’s pestilence a retribution. Monsieur Othon, the judge, has a son under Rieux’s care by the time Castel’s new serum is ready. The serum does the boy little good; although he does show unexpected resistance to the disease, he dies a painful death. Father Paneloux, who has been watching as a lay helper, knows the boy is not evil; he can no longer think of the plague as a retribution. His next sermon is confused. He seems to be saying that human beings must submit to God’s will in all things. For the priest, this view means rejecting medical aid. When he himself catches the fever, he submits to Rieux’s treatment only when forced to do so. Father Paneloux dies a bewildered man.
Rambert, who is not a citizen of Oran, tries his best to escape. Convinced that there is no way to legally leave the city, he plans to leave with some illicit smugglers. Then the spirit of the town affects him, and he chooses to stay to help Rieux and the sanitation teams. He has realized that only in fighting a common evil can he find spiritual comfort.
Cottard seems content with plague conditions. Wanted for an old crime, he feels safe from pursuit during the quarantine. When the plague eases a little, two officers come for him, but he escapes. He is recaptured in a street gunfight. Grand catches the fever but miraculously recovers to work again on his manuscript. Tarrou, also infected, dies in Rieux’s house. The plague ends as the colder weather of January arrives. Rieux hears by telegram that his wife has died.
The streets are crowded again as lovers, husbands, and wives are reunited. Rieux dispassionately observes the masses of humanity. He has learned that human contact is important for everyone. For himself, he is content to help fight disease and pain.