Bernard Rieux (behr-NAHR ryew), a physician and surgeon in Oran, Algeria, where a plague is claiming as many as three hundred lives a day. Dr. Rieux, a thirty-five-year-old man of great patience, fortitude, and unselfishness, represents the medical profession during the long siege of disease and deaths that strikes rich and poor alike and from which there is no reprieve. The plague means failure to Rieux because he can find no cure or relief for the sufferers. His attitude is characterized by his regard for his fellow people and his inability to cope with injustice and compromise. Very much involved with humankind, he explains that he is able to continue working with the plague-stricken population only because he has found that abstraction is stronger than happiness. He is identified at the end of the book as the narrator of the story, and his account gives the pestilence the attributes of a character, the antagonist. Events of the plague are secondary to philosophies as he pictures the people’s reactions, individually and collectively, to their plight. These run the range of emotions and rationality: escape, guilt, a spirit of lawlessness, pleasure, and resistance. During the plague, individual destinies become collective destinies because the plague and emotions are shared by all. Love and friendship fade because they ask something of the future, and the plague leaves only present moments. As the pestilence subsides, relieving the exile and deprivation, there is jubilation, followed by the stereotyped patterns of everyday living.
Madame Rieux, the doctor’s wife, the victim of another ailment. Mme Rieux is sent away to a sanatorium before the town is quarantined. Her absence from Rieux points up his unselfishness in staying on in Oran.
Raymond Rambert (ray-MOH[N] rahm-BEHR), a journalist from Paris. Assigned to a routine story on Oran, he is caught in exile when the city is quarantined because of the plague. Rambert, wanting to return to his wife, resorts to various means in attempting to escape. A nonresident, alien to the plight of the people, he personifies those who feel no involvement with the problems of others. When escape from the city becomes a reality for him, Rambert declines his freedom and accepts Rieux’s philosophy of common decency, which amounts merely to doing one’s job. In this instance, Rambert’s job, according to Rieux, is to fight the plague. The journalist becomes a volunteer on the sanitation teams.
Father Paneloux (pah-neh-LEW ), a Jesuit priest who represents the ecclesiastical thinking of people caught in the crisis represented by the plague. Preaching on the plague, he compares the present situation with pestilences of the past and tells his parishioners that they have brought the plague upon themselves through their godlessness. Placing the scientific and the spiritual in balance, Paneloux and Rieux debate whether this man of God and this scientist can consort...
(The entire section is 3,332 words.)