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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

The Plague was an immediate success with the reading public, and the first edition of twenty-two thousand copies rapidly sold out. It was quickly reprinted, and in the four months between publication in June 1947 and September, more than one hundred thousand copies were sold. Reviews, including one by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, were also positive, and the book established Camus’s reputation as a major writer. The Plague was awarded the French Critics’ Prize and was one of the reasons that Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957.

The book proved to have more than ephemeral success. In 1980, it was still high on the list of bestsellers, having sold 3,700,000 copies. Translations had appeared in eleven languages.

Critical approaches to The Plague have varied. When it was first published, only two years after the end of World War II, much of the explication was based on the allegorical reading, in which Oran afflicted by plague represents France under the German occupation. But Camus was criticized by some, including Roland Barthes, for making the enemy a disease and so avoiding the moral question of whether people should take up arms against a violent oppressor. In a reply to Barthes, Camus rejected the criticism, saying that since terror has several faces, not just one, by not naming a particular terror he struck better at them all.

The Plague has also been read in the light of existentialism, even though this is a philosophy that Camus did not espouse, and from the point of view of absurdism—the belief that human life has no rational order or purpose. More recent critics have concentrated on the novel’s narrative technique, its structure, and its language. There has also been work on how the novel fits in with the overall body of Camus’s work. Germaine Brée, for example, following Camus’s own statement that there was a line of progression in his works, argues that The Plague

appears as the first step in moving beyond the boundaries of the ‘absurd,’ or rather, perhaps, working within those boundaries to explore the power of human beings to make sense of their lot even in the most stringent circumstances.