Set in Oran, in Camus’ native Algeria, during the 1940’s, the book chronicles the onset and duration of a bubonic plague. An alarming rate of casualties induces the authorities to declare an epidemic and to quarantine the city. The closing of Oran’s gates causes the separation of families, friends, and lovers. Such is the case for Dr. Bernard Rieux, whose wife happens to be out of town when the quarantine is imposed.
Rieux takes a leading role in assisting the victims of the plague, though it is not clear that medical aid makes any difference whatsoever. He is joined in his stubborn efforts by Tarrou, a solitary figure who keeps a diary in a very understated style, and by Joseph Grand, a meek civil servant intent on writing a single perfect sentence.
Rambert, a French journalist stranded in Oran and separated from his lover, abandons efforts to escape the city and makes common cause with those resisting the plague. Cottard takes personal advantage of adversity by profiteering in smuggled goods.
In the second and fourth of the novel’s five sections, Father Paneloux delivers a sermon in the Oran cathedral. His first sermon excoriates the townspeople for the sinfulness that must surely be responsible for the divine retribution of a plague. By the time of the second sermon, however, Paneloux has come to accept unprovoked suffering as a cosmic mystery, and his righteous indignation gives way to humble compassion.
The plague departs as inscrutably as it arrived, oblivious to collective human efforts to combat it. Yet those futile labors are portrayed as valuable in themselves. In its final pages, the text suddenly abandons its pretense of detached objectivity when one of the characters reveals that he has been the narrator all along. The novel’s narrative structure is another representation of the struggle to overcome isolation and idiosyncrasy, to affirm solidarity.
Amoia, Alba. Albert Camus. New York: Continuum, 1989. An introduction to Camus as an important “Mediterranean” literary figure. In a chapter on The Plague entitled “A Holograph,” the author is particularly attentive to the novel’s coordinates in North Africa.
Fitch, Brian T. The Narcissistic Text: A Reading of Camus’ Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. A sophisticated study of Camus as a metafictionalist. The chapter on The Plague examines how,...
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