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 in contending with adversities. The two men are closer in their thinking than Rieux, a self-proclaimed atheist, and Paneloux, a heretic in some of his preaching, will concede. Paneloux is among those who succumb to the plague.
Jean Tarrou (zhah[n] tah-REW ), an enigma to his associates among the volunteers in fighting the plague. Addicted to simple pleasures but no slave to them, Tarrou has no apparent means of income. Little is known of his background until he tells Rieux of his beginnings. The son of a prosecutor, he had been horrified by the thought of the criminals condemned because of his father. He himself has been a political agitator. Tarrou becomes a faithful...
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helper to Rieux, and as a volunteer he records the social aspects of the plague. In telling of the plague, Rieux borrows from these records. After the worst of the pestilence has passed, Tarrou dies from the plague.
Joseph Grand (zhoh-SEHF grah[n]), a municipal clerk. Characterized by all the attributes of insignificance, Grand has spent twenty-two years in his job, to which he was appointed temporarily. He is unable to escape from this imprisonment because he cannot find words with which to protest. He announces early in his acquaintance with Rieux that he has a second job, which he describes as a “growth of personality.” The futility of this avocation, writing, is epitomized by Grand’s continuing work on the first paragraph of a novel that he anticipates will be the perfect expression of love.
M. Cottard (koh-TAHR), a dealer in wines and liquors, treated by Rieux after an attempt at suicide. His undercover deals and unsettled life are sublimated or furthered by his keen delight in gangster movies. He survives the plague, only to go berserk during a shooting fray with the police.
Dr. Richard (ree-SHAHR), the chairman of the medical association in Oran. He is more interested in observing the code of the organization than in trying to reduce the number of deaths.
M. Othon (oh-TOH[N]), the police magistrate. His isolation after contracting the plague shows Rieux’s impartiality in dealing with plague victims.
Jacques Othon (zhahk), the magistrate’s son, on whom a new serum is tried. The lengthy description of young Othon’s illness illustrates the suffering of the thousands who die of the plague.
Madame Rieux, the doctor’s mother, who comes to keep house for her son during his wife’s absence. She is an understanding woman who reminds Tarrou of his own childhood and elicits his philosophical discussion of a man’s role in life.
Marcel (mahr-SEHL), and
Louis (lwee), the men involved in Rambert’s contemplated escape from Oran. The intricacies of illegality are shown as Rambert is referred from one of these men to another. From Garcia, an accomplice of Cottard, to Marcel and Louis, guards at the city gate, each one must have his stipend, until finally the cost of escape becomes exorbitant.
Critics have different perceptions of the characters in The Plague. O'Brien limits them to three: the plague, the city, and the narrator. Others see them as stereotypes in a kind of morality play. None is Camus, but all are a part of him. All are dominated by one passion, which is their attitude toward the plague. Although the accusation that he created shadowy figures and symbols may be true, Camus has the talent to portray a person in a few lines, often in a few words.
Rambert, the journalist who is caught in Oran by accident, is separated by the irony of fate from the woman for whom he lives, recalling Camus's own separation from his wife during the war. He is impatient for happiness, wants to escape, but finally realizes that he must stay. Joseph Grand, who continually rewrites the same sentence, incarnates the artistic sense of the work, according to Fitch. He is also a sensitive, steadfast worker, and represents the virtue of quiet patience that Camus admired and becomes a modern nonhero, who is barely distinguishable from the crowd. The severe Father Paneloux, in life and in death, is a "doubtful case," and is as critic Jean Onimus writes, a "tragic Christian," one who sees the God of vengeance rather than the God of mercy.
Tarrou and Rieux, whose accounts of the plague form the basis of the narrative, are perhaps two sides of the same person. Tarrou is more complex, an anguished person in the tradition of Pascal and Kierkegaard. His aim is be a "saint without God," an apostle of the new religion of humanism. Rieux, the narrator, is a man committed to duty, to saving people, and to simply "being a human being." He is interested not in the salvation of humanity, like Paneloux, but in its health. Like Grand, he is not distinguishable from the ordinary crowd; he strives for the humanism of everyday life.
Asthma Patient The asthma patient receives regular visits from Dr. Rieux. He is a seventy-five-year-old Spaniard with a rugged face, who comments on events in Oran that he hears about on the radio and in the newspapers.
Dr. Castel Dr. Castel is one of Rieux’s medical colleagues and is much older than Rieux. He realizes after the first few cases that the disease is bubonic plague and is aware of the seriousness of the situation. He labors hard to make an anti-plague serum, but as the epidemic continues, he shows increasing signs of wear and tear.
Cottard Cottard lives in the same building as Grand. He does not appear to have a job, although he describes himself as “a traveling salesman in wines and spirits.” Cottard is an eccentric figure, silent and secretive, who tries to hang himself in his room. Afterwards, he does not want to be interviewed by the police, since he has committed a crime in the past and fears arrest.
Cottard’s personality changes after the outbreak of plague. Whereas he was aloof and mistrustful before, he now becomes agreeable and tries hard to make friends. He appears to relish the coming of the plague, and Tarrou thinks this is because he finds it easier to live with his own fears now that everyone else is in a state of fear, too. Cottard takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor.
When the epidemic ends, Cottard’s moods fluctuate. Sometimes he is sociable, but at other times he shuts himself up in his room. Eventually, he loses his mental balance and shoots at random at people on the street. The police arrest him.
Garcia Garcia is a man who knows the group of smugglers in Oran. He introduces Rambert to Raoul.
Gonzales Gonzales is the smuggler who makes the arrangements for Rambert’s escape.
Joseph Grand Joseph Grand is a fifty-year-old clerk for the city government. He is tall and thin and always wears clothes a size too large for him. Poorly paid, he lives an austere life, but he is capable of deep affection. In his spare time, Grand polishes up his Latin, and he is also writing a book, but he is such a perfectionist that he continually rewrites the first sentence and can get no further. One of his problems in life is that he can rarely find the correct words to express what he means. Grand tells Rieux that he married while still in his teens, but overwork and poverty took their toll (Grand did not receive the career advancement that he had been promised), and his wife Jeanne left him. He tried but failed to write a letter to her, and he still grieves for his loss.
Grand is a neighbor of Cottard, and it is he who calls Rieux for help when Cottard tries to commit suicide. When the plague takes a grip on the town, Grand joins the team of volunteers, acting as general secretary, recording all the statistics. Rieux regards him as “the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups.” Grand catches the plague himself and asks Rieux to burn his manuscript. But then he makes an unexpected recovery. At the end of the novel, Grand says he is much happier; he has written to Jeanne and made a fresh start on his book.
Louis Louis is one of the sentries who takes part in the plan for Rambert to escape.
Marcel Marcel, Louis’s brother, is also a sentry who is part of the escape plan for Rambert.
M. Michel M. Michel is the concierge of the building in which Rieux lives. An old man, he is the first victim of the plague.
Jacques Othon Jacques Othon is M. Othon’s young son. When he contracts the plague, he is the first to receive Dr. Castel’s anti-plague serum. But the serum is ineffective, and the boy dies after a long and painful struggle.
M. Othon M. Othon is a magistrate in Oran. He is tall and thin and, as Tarrou observes in his journal, “his small, beady eyes, narrow nose, and hard, straight mouth make him look like a well-brought-up owl.” Othon treats his wife and children unkindly, but after his son dies of the plague, his character softens. After he finishes his time at the isolation camp, where he is sent because his son is infected, he wants to return there because this would make him feel closer to his lost son. But before Othon can do this, he contracts the plague and dies.
Father Paneloux Father Paneloux is a learned, well-respected Jesuit priest. He is well known for having given a series of lectures in which he championed a pure form of Christian doctrine and chastised his audience about their laxity. During the first stage of the plague outbreak, Paneloux preaches a sermon at the cathedral. He has a powerful way of speaking, and he insists to the congregation that the plague is a scourge sent by God to those who have hardened their hearts against him. But Paneloux also claims that God is present to offer succor and hope. Later, Paneloux attends at the bedside of Othon’s stricken son and prays that the boy may be spared. After the boy’s death, Paneloux tells Rieux that although the death of an innocent child in a world ruled by a loving God cannot be rationally explained, it should nonetheless be accepted. Paneloux joins the team of volunteer workers and preaches another sermon saying that the death of the innocent child is a test of faith. Since God willed the child’s death, so the Christian should will it, too. A few days after preaching this sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. He refuses to call for a doctor, trusting in God alone. He dies. Since his symptoms did not seem to resemble those of the plague, Rieux records his death as a “doubtful case.”
The Prefect The Prefect believes at first that the talk of plague is a false alarm, but on the advice of his medical association, he authorizes limited measures to combat it. When these do not work, he tries to avoid responsibility, saying he will ask the government for orders. After this, he does take responsibility for tightening up the regulations relating to the plague and issues the order to close the town.
Raymond Rambert Raymond Rambert is a journalist who is visiting Oran to research a story on living conditions in the Arab quarter of the town. When the plague strikes, he finds himself trapped in a city with which he feels he has no connection. He misses his wife who is in Paris, and he uses all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to persuade the city bureaucracy to allow him to leave. When this fails, he contacts smugglers, who agree to help him to escape for a fee of ten thousand francs. But there is a hitch in the arrangements, and by the time another escape plan is arranged, Rambert has changed his mind. He decides to stay in the city and continue to help fight the plague, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he pursued a merely private happiness. He now feels that he belongs in Oran and that the plague is everyone’s business, including his.
Raoul Raoul is the man who agrees, for a fee of ten thousand francs, to arrange for Rambert to escape. He introduces Rambert to Gonzales.
Dr. Richard Dr. Richard is chairman of the Oran Medical Association. He is slow to recommend any action to combat the plague, not wanting to arouse public alarm. He does not even want to admit that the disease is the plague, referring instead to a “special type of fever.”
Dr. Bernard Rieux Dr. Bernard Rieux is the narrator of the novel, although this is only revealed at the end. Tarrou describes him as about thirty-five-years-old, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair. At the beginning of the novel, Rieux’s wife, who has been ill for a year, leaves for a sanatorium. It is Rieux who treats the first victim of plague and who first uses the word plague to describe the disease. He urges the authorities to take action to stop the spread of the epidemic. However, at first, along with everyone else, the danger the town faces seems unreal to him. He feels uneasy but does not realize the gravity of the situation. Within a short while, he grasps what is at stake and warns the authorities that unless steps are taken immediately, the epidemic could kill off half the town’s population of two hundred thousand within a couple of months.
During the epidemic, Rieux heads an auxiliary hospital and works long hours treating the victims. He injects serum and lances the abscesses, but there is little more that he can do, and his duties weigh heavily upon him. He never gets home until late, and he has to distance himself from the natural pity that he feels for the victims; otherwise, he would not be able to go on. It is especially hard for him when he visits a victim in the person’s home, because he knows that he must immediately call for an ambulance and have the person removed from the house. Often the relatives plead with him not to do this, since they know they may never see the person again.
Rieux works to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and his job is to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand, religious purpose, like Paneloux (Rieux does not believe in God), or as part of a high-minded moral code, like Tarrou. He is a practical man, doing what needs to be done without any fuss, even though he knows that the struggle against death is something that he can never win.
Mme. Rieux Mme. Rieux is Dr. Rieux’s mother, who comes to stay with him when his sick wife goes to the sanatorium. She is a serene woman who, after taking care of the housework, sits quietly in a chair. She says that at her age there is nothing much left to fear.
Jean Tarrou Jean Tarrou arrived in Oran some weeks before the plague broke out, for unknown reasons. He is not there on business, since he appears to have private means. Tarrou is a good-natured man who smiles a lot. Before the plague came, he liked to associate with the Spanish dancers and musicians in the city. He also keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which Rieux incorporates into the narrative.
It is Tarrou who first comes up with the idea of organizing teams of volunteers to fight the plague. He wants to do this before the authorities begin to conscript people, and he does not like the official plan to get prisoners to do the work. He takes action, prompted by his own code of morals; he feels that the plague is everybody’s responsibility and that everyone should do his or her duty. What interests him, he tells Rieux, is how to become a saint, even though he does not believe in God.
Later in the novel, Tarrou tells Rieux, with whom he has become friends, the story of his life. His father, although a kind man in private, was also an aggressive prosecuting attorney who tried death penalty cases, arguing strongly for the death penalty to be imposed. As a young boy, Tarrou attended one day of a criminal proceeding in which a man was on trial for his life. However, the idea of capital punishment disgusted him. After he left home before the age of eighteen, his main interest in life was his opposition to the death penalty, which he regarded as state-sponsored murder. When the plague epidemic is virtually over, Tarrou becomes one of its last victims, but he puts up a heroic struggle before dying.