Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612
In the decade and a half after the end of World War II, as the West strove to repair the physical, psychic, and spiritual damage, the voice of Albert Camus was one of the major artistic, philosophical, and moral sources of strength and direction. Camus offered reasoned yet passionate affirmation of human dignity in the face of an “absurd” universe, an absurdity that had been made evident to all by the Nazi horrors.
The Plague is the most thorough fictional presentation of Camus’s mature thinking. In earlier works—notably the play Caligula (pb. 1944; English translation, 1948), the novel L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), and the essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955)—Camus articulated his concept of the “absurd.” Human beings are absurd because they have neither metaphysical justification nor essential connection to the universe. They are not part of any divine scheme and, being mortal, all of their actions, individual and collective, eventually come to nothing. The only question, then, is how to deal with their absurdity.
Camus’s answer lies in his concept of “revolt.” Human beings revolt against their condition first by understanding it and then, in the face of their cosmic meaninglessness, creating their own human meanings. In his earlier works, Camus explored that problem in terms of the individual; in The Plague, Camus extends his moral and philosophical analysis to the question of human beings as social creatures. What, Camus asks, in the face of an absurd universe, is one person’s relationship to, and responsibility for, another?
The paradox that lies at the center of Camus’s revolt concept is that of heroic futility. People struggle in spite of—even because of—the fact that, ultimately, they must lose. While the idea of the absurd denies a cosmic meaning to human beings, it does affirm their common bond. Since all people must die, all are brothers and sisters. Mutual cooperation, not self-indulgence, is the logical ethic that Camus derives from his perspective of the absurd. Camus chooses a plague as an appropriate metaphor for the human condition, since it intensifies this awareness of human mortality and makes the common bond especially clear.
Camus carefully divides the novel into five parts that correspond to the progression of the pestilence. Parts 1 and 5 show life before the plague’s onslaught and after its subsidence. Parts 2 and 4 concentrate on the details of communal and personal suffering and, in particular, on the activities and reactions of the main characters as they battle the disease. Part 3, the climax of the book, shows the epidemic at its height and the community reduced to a single collective entity, where time has stopped, personal distinctions are lost, and suffering and despair have become routine.
The story is narrated by Dr. Bernard R. Rieux, who waits until almost the end of the novel to identify himself, in a factual, impersonal, almost documentary style. His account is occasionally supplemented by extracts from the journal of Jean Tarrou, but these intrusions, while more subjective and colorful, are characterized by an irony that also keeps the reader at a distance. Both narratives are juxtaposed against vivid, emotionally charged scenes. This continual alternation between narrative austerity and dramatic immediacy, and from lucid analysis to emotional conflict, gives The Plague much of its depth and impact.
Three of the principal characters—Rieux, Tarrou, and Joseph Grand—accept their obligation to battle the epidemic as soon as it is identified. Rieux is probably the character who comes closest to speaking for Camus. Since Rieux is a medical doctor who has devoted his life to the losing battle with disease and death, the plague is simply an intensification of his normal life. From the outset, he accepts the plague as a fact and fights against it with all the skill, endurance, and energy he can muster. He finds his only certitude in his daily round. There is no heroism involved, only the logic of the situation. Even after the plague has retreated, Rieux has no conviction that his actions had anything to do with its defeat. Yet Rieux learns much from his experience and, as the narrator, his is Camus’s final word on the meaning of the ordeal.
Unlike Rieux, whose ideas are the practical consequence of his professional experience, Tarrou first experiences the philosophical revelation, then shapes his life to it. Seeing his father, a prosecuting attorney, condemn a man to death, Tarrou becomes enraged with the inhumanity of his society and turns to revolutionary politics. That, too, he comes to realize, inevitably involves him in condemning others to death. Thus, long before coming to Oran, he has felt infected with the “plague”—defined as whatever destroys human life—which has reduced him to a purposeless life colored only by the ironical observations he jots down in his journal. When the plague arrives, he quickly and eagerly organizes the sanitation squads; the crisis gives him the opportunity to side with the victims of life’s absurdity without fearing that his actions will inadvertently add to their misery. Such obvious, total commitments, however, are not available under normal conditions, and so Tarrou appropriately dies as one of the plague’s last victims.
Both Rieux and Tarrou are too personally inhuman—Rieux with his abstract view of humanity, Tarrou with his desire for secular sainthood—to qualify as heroic; the most admirable person in the book is Grand, who accepts his role in the plague automatically, needing neither professional nor philosophical justifications, simply because “people must help each other.” His greater humanity is further demonstrated by the fact that, while carrying out his commitment to the victims of the plague, he continues to show active grief over the loss of his wife and tenaciously revolts in his artistic attempt to write the perfect novel (even though he cannot manage the perfect first sentence).
Among the other principal characters, the journalist Raymond Rambert opts for “personal happiness,” Father Paneloux presents the Christian reaction to the pestilence, and Cottard acts out the role of the criminal. Caught in Oran by accident when the plague breaks out, Rambert turns his energies to escape, exhausting every means, legal and otherwise, to rejoin his wife. It is in him that the issue of exile or separation from loved ones is most vividly presented. For most of the novel he rejects the view that the plague imposes a social obligation on all, insisting that individual survival and personal happiness are primary. Although Rieux is the book’s principal advocate of collective responsibility, he admits to Rambert that happiness is as valid an option as service. Even when Rambert finally decides to remain voluntarily and continue the fight, the issue remains ambiguous. At the end, as Rambert embraces his wife, he still wonders if he made the right moral choice.
If Rieux accepts Rambert’s happiness as a decent option, he does not extend that tolerance to Father Paneloux’s Christian view of the epidemic. The Plague has been called the most anti-Christian of Camus’s books and that is probably correct, although it could be argued that the ethical values advocated are essentially Christian ones. As a system of beliefs, however, it is clear that Christianity—at least as understood by Paneloux—is tested by the pestilence and found wanting. If the priest’s beliefs are inadequate, however, his actions are heroic, and it is this incongruity between his theological convictions and his existential behavior that gives his character and fate a special poignancy.
Near the beginning of the epidemic, Paneloux preaches a sermon in which he proclaims that the plague is a manifestation of divine justice. Later in the book, after he has become one of the most active fighters against the plague and a witness to the suffering and death of many innocent people, Paneloux’s simple vision of sin and punishment is shaken. He preaches a second sermon in which he advocates a blind, total acceptance of a God who seems, from the human vantage point, to be indifferent, arbitrary, even, perhaps, evil. Driven to this extreme, Paneloux finally dies of the plague. Significantly, he is the only victim whose body is unmarked by the disease; he has been destroyed emotionally and spiritually because his religious vision is inadequate to the challenge and because he cannot live without that theological justification.
The most ambiguous character of all is Cottard. A criminal, he has lived in a constant state of fear and exile. Unable to endure such separation, he attempts to commit suicide near the beginning of the book. Once the plague sets in and all are subjected to that same sense of fear and solitude, Cottard rejoins humanity and flourishes; the plague is his natural element. Once it dissipates and he is again faced with isolation, Cottard goes berserk.
Thus, Camus describes the various human reactions to the plague—acceptance, defiance, detachment, solitary rejection, social commitment, criminality. The only value of the epidemic, Rieux admits, is educational, but the price paid for the knowledge is high. Nevertheless, even in the middle of the ordeal, there are moments of supreme pleasure and meaningful human connection. Shortly before the plague’s last onslaught that takes Tarrou’s life, he and Rieux defy regulations and go for a short swim. For a few brief moments, they are at one with the elements and in natural instinctive harmony with each other. The interlude is brief, of course, and both men return to the struggle—Tarrou to die, Rieux to chronicle its passing. He finally concludes that the only victory won from the plague amounts to “knowledge and memories” and the conviction that human beings are, on the whole, admirable.