(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 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...

(The entire section is 785 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1197 words.)