*Oran. Algerian port city on the Mediterranean Sea. From its opening paragraphs, The Plague calls attention to the banality, even the ugliness, of the Algerian city in which the events that Rieux chronicles take place. Though the real Oran, where Camus, a native of Algeria, lived from 1941-1942, was not nearly so bleak, Rieux’s city is an ugly, soulless place devoid of trees, pigeons, and gardens and grimly devoted to commerce. Unlike the historical Oran, Rieux’s version is secured by municipal gates, and the official opening of the ramparts at the end of the novel is celebrated by the inhabitants as a kind of liberation.
In the 1940’s, before an anticolonial insurrection brought it independence in 1962, Algeria still constituted part of France, and the relatively large percentage of Oranians of European descent regarded their town as a provincial outpost of French culture. Yet Raymond Rambert, a journalist on assignment from a Parisian newspaper, feels particularly frustrated at being stranded by the local epidemic in distant Oran.
Almost all Camus’s writing accentuates the presence of the sea, the sun, and the sky. Yet, in The Plague, Oran is described as having been built with its back to the sea, without easy access to the cleansing Mediterranean, even under ordinary circumstances. The city’s segregation from the sea is reinforced when, as part of the quarantine, residents are prohibited from wandering to the harbor, and it is a particularly dramatic moment of release when, exhausted by their efforts to contain the plague, Rieux and Jean Tarrou defy regulations and sneak off for a brief, exhilarating swim in the sea.
Rieux’s description of Oran is not very specific, and its majority Muslim population remains invisible. A desolate city of the existential imagination, the quarantined Oran of The Plague functions as an archetype of modern urban anonymity, an arena in which solitary individuals pursue their absurd struggles.
Rieux’s residence (ree-YEW). Rooms in which Rieux lives. After his wife departs for a sanatorium out of town, Rieux’s mother moves in to help him. Several of the novel’s characters, including Tarrou, Cottard, and Rambert, come to speak with Rieux here. Before the plague, which finally kills him, is officially declared, Monsieur Michel, the concierge, spots a dead rat in the building.
Rue Faidherbe (rew fehd-ehrb). House on the third floor in which Cottard, who makes personal profit out of the general misfortune by trading on the black market, lives. It is in the same apartment that, at the beginning of the novel, Cottard attempts to hang himself and at the end dies resisting arrest. Living in a nearby apartment and struggling through numerous revisions of a sentence he composes is the municipal clerk, Joseph Grand.
Football stadium. Makeshift quarantine center in which Oranians who have been diagnosed with the plague are involuntarily assembled and isolated from the rest of the population. In keeping with Camus’s own reading of the novel as an allegory of resistance against Nazi occupation, the football stadium has been interpreted as analogous to the European concentration camps.
Cathedral. Prodded into piety by the imminence of death, an unusually large number of Oranians congregate here for High Mass on the Sunday concluding the Week of Prayer proclaimed during the first month of the epidemic. It is in the cathedral that Father Paneloux delivers each of his two crucial sermons, in books 2 and 4 of the novel.
Municipal opera house
Municipal opera house. Night after night, a touring company, trapped in Oran by the quarantine, performs the same work, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed...
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Euridice (1762). On the Friday evening that Rieux and Tarrou happen to go to the opera house together, the singer playing Orfeo dies suddenly, on stage, of the plague.
Absurdism The term absurdism is applied to plays and novels that express the idea that there is no inherent value or meaning in the human condition. Absurdist writers reject traditional beliefs and values, including religious or metaphysical systems that locate truth, purpose, and meaning in transcendental concepts such as God. For the absurdist, the universe is irrational and unintelligible; it cannot satisfy the human need for order or fulfil human hopes and aspirations. Human beings are essentially alone in an indifferent universe and must make their way through their bleak, insignificant existence in the best way that they can. As Eugene Ionesco, a prominent French writer of absurd drama (quoted by M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms) put it: “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.”
According to Abrams, absurdism has its roots in the 1920s, in such works as Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Metamorphosis. But it is most often associated with French literature as it emerged from World War II, in the work of writers such as Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus’s The Stranger (1942) was one of the first works that applied an absurdist view to a work of fiction. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who lived in Paris and who often wrote in French and then translated his works into English, is often described as the most influential writer of absurdist literature. His most famous play is Waiting for Godot (1955).
France in World War II After France capitulated to Germany in June 1940, Marshal Pétain, an eighty-four-year-old World War I hero, was installed as prime minister. The northern half of France, including the Channel and Atlantic ports, was placed under German occupation. French forces were demobilized and disarmed, and France was forced to pay all costs of the occupation. The Pétain government made its headquarters at Vichy, in unoccupied France, where it was granted a nominal independence. General Charles de Gaulle, who had been Undersecretary for War in the fallen French government, flew to England, where he enrolled a French Volunteer Force to cooperate with the British and continue the war.
The Pétain government pursued an active collaboration with the Germans, hoping to find a place for France in what it assumed would be a German-dominated Europe for the foreseeable future. Under the premiership of Pierre Laval, the Vichy government repressed the French underground movement, which was increasingly harassing the Germans by attacking their supply lines. In 1942, the Germans extended their occupation to include all of France, after which the Vichy government had little independent power and declining prestige.
During the occupation, life in France was hard for French citizens. Communication from the occupied zone with family members who were on the other side of the demarcation zone was difficult. The Germans permitted only postcards containing the minimum of information to be sent (just as in The Plague, the townspeople can communicate with the outside world only through telegrams). There were many other restrictions, including curfews and food shortages. People waited in long lines for inadequate supplies. There was also a flourishing black market, which involved all levels of French society. As Milton Dank puts it in The French Against the French, “The large-scale black market was carefully organized by operators who made fantastic fortunes practically overnight at the expense of their starving compatriots.”
Following the allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the end of the war was in sight. French Resistance forces played a significant role in the battles that followed, sabotaging bridges and railways as the Germans were forced back. When Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, Camus, who was the editor of the underground newspaper Combat, wrote the following:
Paris fired off all its bullets into the August night. In the immense stage set of stone and water, the barricades of freedom have once again been raised everywhere around that river whose waves are heavy with history. Once more, justice must be bought with men’s blood.
Point of View Point of view refers to the method of narration, the character through whose consciousness the story is told. In The Plague this is Rieux. However, Rieux does not function as a first-person narrator. Rather he disguises himself, referring to himself in the third person and only at the end of the novel reveals who he is. The novel thus appears to be told by an unnamed narrator who gathers information from what he has personally seen and heard regarding the epidemic, as well as from the diary of another character, Tarrou, who makes observations about the events he witnesses.
The reason Rieux does not declare himself earlier is that he wants to give an objective account of the events in Oran. He deliberately adopts the tone of an impartial observer. Rieux is like a witness who exercises restraint when called to testify about a crime; he describes what the characters said and did, without speculating about their thoughts and feelings, although he does offer generalized assessments of the shifting mood of the town as a whole. Rieux refers to his story as a chronicle, and he sees himself as an historian, which justifies his decision to stick to the facts and avoid subjectivity. This also explains why the style of The Plague often gives the impression of distance and detachment. Only rarely is the reader drawn directly into the emotions of the characters or the drama of the scene.
Allegory An allegory is a narrative with two distinct levels of meaning. The first is the literal level; the second signifies a related set of concepts and events. The Plague is in part an historical allegory, in which the plague signifies the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1944 during World War II.
There are many aspects of the narrative that make the allegory plain. The town Oran, which gets afflicted by pestilence and cut off from the outside world, is the equivalent of France. The citizens are slow to realize the magnitude of the danger because they do not believe in pestilence or that it could happen to them, just as the French were complacent at the beginning of the war. They could not imagine that the Germans, whom they had defeated only twenty years previously, could defeat them in a mere six weeks, as happened when France fell in June 1940.
The different attitudes of the characters reflect different attitudes in the French population during the occupation. Some were the equivalent of Paneloux and thought that France was to blame for the calamity that had befallen it. They believed that the only solution was to submit gracefully to an historical inevitability—the long-term dominance of Europe by Germany. Many people, however, became members of the French Resistance, and they are the allegorical equivalents of the voluntary sanitary teams in the novel, such as Tarrou, Rambert, and Grand, who fight back against the unspeakable evil (the Nazi occupiers).
Some French collaborated with the Germans. In the novel, they are represented by Cottard, who welcomes the plague and uses the economic deprivation that results from it to make a fortune buying and selling on the black market.
Other details in the novel can be read at the allegorical level. The plague that carries people off unexpectedly echoes the reality of the occupation, in which people could be snatched from their homes by the Gestapo and imprisoned or sent to work as slave labor in German-controlled territories or simply killed. The facts of daily life in the plague-stricken city resemble life in wartime France: the showing of reruns at the cinemas, the stockpiling of scarce goods, nighttime curfews and isolation camps (these paralleling the German internment camps). The scenes at the end of the novel, when Oran’s gates are reopened, recall the jubilant scenes in Paris when the city was liberated in 1944.
In some places, Camus makes the allegory explicit, as when he refers to the plague in terms that describe an enemy in war: “the epidemic was in retreat all along the line; . . . victory was won and the enemy was abandoning his positions.”
Symbolism Imagery of the sea is often used in Camus’s works to suggest life, vigor, and freedom. In The Plague, a key description of Oran occurs early, when it is explained that the town is built in such a way that it “turns its back on the bay, with the result that it’s impossible to see the sea, you always have to go to look for it.” Symbolically, Oran turns its back on life. When the plague hits, the deprivation of this symbol of freedom becomes more pronounced, as the beaches are closed, as is the port. In summer, the inhabitants lose touch with the sea altogether: “for all its nearness, the sea was out of bounds; young limbs had no longer the run of its delights.”
A significant episode occurs near the end of part IV, when Tarrou and Rieux sit on the terrace of a house, from which they can see far into the horizon. As he gazes seaward, Tarrou says with a sense of relief that it is good to be there. To set a seal on the friendship between the two men, they go for a swim together. This contact with the ocean is presented as a moment of renewal, harmony, and peace. It is one of the few lyrical episodes in the novel: “[T]hey saw the sea spread out before them, a gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild.”
Just before Rieux enters the water, he is possessed by a “strange happiness,” a feeling that is shared by Tarrou. There is a peaceful image of Rieux lying motionless on his back gazing up at the stars and moon, and then when Tarrou joins him they swim side by side, “with the same zest, the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.”
The Plague is written in the form of a journal, a dry, monotonous chronicle, intended to express the stifling atmosphere of the plague. Its author is anonymous until the end, although this aspect reminds one of the traditional nineteenth-century "omniscient narrator." Unlike The Stranger which bases all on sensations, this work relies on documentation and witnesses. The use of free indirect speech weakens the emotional veracity of the account. At all times, except for Tarrou's journal, perhaps the best writing in the book, the narration remains remote.
In a manner somewhat reminiscent of Flaubert, Camus excels in subtle irony. The primary significance of the plague to most people is that it ruins the tourist business. Hundreds have already died in the early stages of the plague, but the authorities will do nothing until the malady is officially named. The press is no help; perhaps Camus recalled the futility of many of his articles for Combat. Yet beneath this monotonous and ironical universe is the image of deep sensuality and sensibility. The climate is always violent, burning sun or torrential rain. The sea and the sun, as in all Camus's Mediterranean works, are omnipresent, as are women. Quilliot and McCarthy have noted that there are almost no young women in the novel, yet woman is everywhere present as the symbol of the need for love and human bonds.
1940s: World War II pits the major European powers against each other, with axis powers Germany and Italy, and later Japan, on one side and allied powers Britain, Russia and later the U.S. on the other. The entry of the United States into the war in 1941 tips the scales in favor of Britain and its allies.
Today: The main European combatants of World War II are steadily moving toward more and more economic and political integration through the European Union. In January 2002, twelve European countries, including France and Germany, adopt a single currency, the Euro.
1940s: Radio and newspapers are the media through which people get their information. Communication is via telephone, letters, and, in urgent cases, telegrams.
Today: Television has replaced the newspaper as the principle source of information for most people. The Internet is a rapidly growing resource for news and entertainment. Cheap telephone rates make worldwide communication easy, as does electronic mail and the facsimile (fax). Telegrams are a thing of the past.
1940s: After the devastation of World War II, Europe starts to rebuild. The United States, fearing that an economically weak Europe will allow communism to make quick gains, provides large-scale financial assistance through the Marshall Plan.
Today: An increasingly unified Europe is a powerful economic competitor of the United States.
Camus's account of the plague recalls classical and modern sources, among them Thucydides' History of Peloponnesian Wars (c.431-400 B.C.), Sophocles' Oedipus the King (c. 429 B.C.), the book of Exodus in the Bible, Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851). Germaine Bree sees a more immediate source in Antonin Artaud's Le Theatre et son double, where the plague is a concrete symbol of spiritual illness. The question of the suffering of innocent children is an echo of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov. Throughout, there are echoes of Flaubert, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Balzac.
Sources Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. 1.
Camus, Albert, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
—, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, pp. 173–234.
Dank, Milton, The French against the French: Collaboration and Resistance, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1974.
Ellison, David R., Understanding Albert Camus, University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Kellman, Steven G., ed., Approaches to Teaching Camus’s The Plague, Modern Language Association of America, 1985.
Further Reading Amoia, Alba, Albert Camus, Continuum, 1989. Amoia’s book is a lucid introduction to Camus’s work. Amoia sees The Plague as a depiction of man’s struggle against solitude and death, and he emphasizes Rieux’s respect for the individuality of each human’s personality—a quality he consistently finds in Camus’s life and work.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Albert Camus, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1988. This text is a collection of essays on all aspects of Camus’s work, notable for Bloom’s negative assessment of The Plague and for the essay on the same work by Patrick McCarthy.
Brée, Germaine, Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962. This collection of essays was published not long after Camus’s death and shows the way contemporary critics interpreted his work. Gaëton Picon in “Notes on The Plague,” faults the novel for failing to create unity between the two levels on which it operates, the realistic and the symbolic or allegorical.
Luppé, Robert de, Albert Camus, translated by John Cumming and J. Hargreaves, Funk & Wagnalls, 1966. Luppé traces the development of Camus’s ideas, which he identifies as dualism (life and death, love and hatred) and the attempt to maintain equilibrium between contrary and exclusive terms.
Merton, Thomas, Albert Camus’s The Plague: Introduction and Commentary, Seabury Press, 1968. This brief introduction to the novel is by a leading religious thinker and former Roman Catholic monk. Merton is particularly lucid in analyzing Camus’s attitude to Christianity, and he also compares Camus’s thought to that of a modern Catholic thinker, Teilhard de Chardin.
Todd, Olivier, Albert Camus: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. This thorough biography presents Camus’s life and times but avoids detailed exposition of the works.
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, through the use of several writer figures and by calling attention to its own narrative design, the novel makes its own artifice overt.
Kellman, Steven G., ed. Approaches to Teaching Camus’s “The Plague.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1985. A collection of essays primarily concerned with pedagogical strategies for the college-level study of Camus’ novel. Provides a bibliographical survey and thirteen individual essays that situate the novel within the contexts of French literature, philosophy, medicine, and history.
Kellman, Steven G. “The Plague”: Fiction and Resistance. New York: Twayne, 1993. A general overview, including chronology and bibliography, of Camus’ novel. Discusses the historical, philosophical, and biographical contexts of the work, and provides analyses of its style, structure, characters, and themes.
Tarrow, Susan. Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985. A rereading, in chronological order, of Camus’ journalism and fiction as works that are linked to historical events and as embodiments of his ambivalences about political issues. Includes one chapter on The Plague, entitled “A Totalitarian Universe.”