Social Concerns / Themes

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The Plague can be read on several levels. The three most important are the literal, which matches classical and scientific descriptions of the bubonic plague; the political, which has obvious echoes of the Occupation from 1941-1944; and the metaphysical, which addresses the problem of evil in the world. Critics have also explored others, such as the psychoanalytic, delineated by Alain Costes, the narcissistic, in Brian Fitch's interpretation, and the linguistic, examined by Paul Fortier and Gerald Prince. In a letter of Camus to Roland Barthes in 1955, Camus says that it was to symbolize oppression in all its forms that he wrote the book.

Critics contemporary with Camus hailed the novel as a parable of the German Occupation. Since Camus conceived the idea in 1938 and began to work on it in 1943, when he was "exiled" from Algeria in a remote mountain village in the Massif Central, he evidently did have the Occupation in mind. Frenchmen during this period called the German presence "la peste brune." The closed universe of Oran, sealed off from all communication, is not unlike the France of the early 1940s, which like Oran monotonously pursued its daily occupations, yet remained subconsciously aware of a threatening presence. The "equipes sanitaires" (health teams) organized by Rieux and his friends are like the small groups of the Resistance in which Camus himself participated. The rationing of food and gas, the careful use of electricity, all evoke wartime measures. Father Paneloux's first sermon recalls typical exhortations made at the beginning of the war, which was seen as divine retribution.

The Plague also addresses the problem of evil in the world. In this way it is closer to Paneloux's second sermon, which sees evil as a painful riddle. One of the greatest causes of evil is human indifference. In the novel, most people are relatively unconcerned about the plague. They face the tragedy by stupefying themselves in cafes or movie theaters; they take refuge in religion. or, like Cottard, they engage in shady deals and black market operations. Only a small "aristocracy" fights against the plague, yet without a violent revolt. Here Sartre and Barthes see a flaw in Camus's moral thinking, for they maintain that it is impossible to combat evil without violence.

The novel articulates Camus's particular vision of the absurd in 1947, different from that of 1942 and The Stranger. Now he expresses it as the struggle against creation such as it is. Rieux refuses to accept the suffering of children, namely the death of Judge Othon's son. The hatred of capital punishment haunts Tarrou, as it did Camus. Yet he maintains that one must never resign oneself to what one cannot understand. This refusal to accept being condemned to the absurd struck critics of the 1950s and 1960s, together with the implicit message of fraternity contained in the book. At least six times he insists that everyone is involved in this problem. Critics have again reproached him for ignoring a moral question, for he equates evil with a plague that comes from unknown sources; similarly, he sees ignorance as the source of human unhappiness.


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Exile and Separation The theme of exile and separation is embodied in two characters, Rieux and Rambert, both of whom are separated from the women they love. The theme is also present in the many other nameless citizens who are separated from loved ones in other towns or from those who happened to be out of town when the gates of Oran were closed. In another sense, the entire town feels in exile, since it is completely cut off from the outside world. Rieux, as the...

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narrator, describes what exile meant to them all:

[T]hat sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.

Some, like Rambert, are exiles in double measure, since they are not only cut off from those they want to be with but they do not have the luxury of being in their own homes.

The feeling of exile produces many changes in attitudes and behaviors. At first, people indulge in fantasies, imagining the missing person’s return, but then they start to feel like prisoners, drifting through life with nothing left but the past, since they do not know how long into the future their ordeal may last. And the past smacks only of regret, of things left undone. Living with the sense of abandonment, they find that they cannot communicate their private grief to their neighbors, and conversations tend to be superficial.

Rieux returns to the theme at the end of the novel, after the epidemic is over, when the depth of the feelings of exile and deprivation is clear from the overwhelming joy with which long parted lovers and family members greet each other. For some citizens, exile was a feeling more difficult to pin down. They simply desired a reunion with something that could hardly be named but which seemed to them to be the most desirable thing on Earth. Some called it peace. Rieux numbers Tarrou among such people, although he found it only in death.

This understanding of exile suggests the deeper, metaphysical implications of the term. It relates to the loss of the belief that humans live in a rational universe in which they can fulfill their hopes and desires, find meaning, and be at home. As Camus put it in The Myth of Sisyphus, “In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile.”

Solidarity, Community, and Resistance The ravages of the plague in Oran vividly convey the absurdist position that humans live in an indifferent, incomprehensible universe that has no rational meaning or order, and no transcendent God. The plague comes unannounced and may strike down anyone at any time. It is arbitrary and capricious, and it leaves humans in a state of fear and uncertainty, which ends only in death. In the face of this metaphysical reality, what must be the response of individuals? Should they resign themselves to it, accept it as inevitable, and seek what solace they can as individuals? Or should they join with others and fight back, even though they must live with the certainty that they cannot win? Camus’s answer is clearly the latter. It is embodied in the characters of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou. Rieux’s position is made clear in part II, in the conversation he has with Tarrou. Rieux argues that one would have to be a madman to give in to the plague. Rather than accepting the natural order of things—the presence of sickness and death—he fights against them. He is aware of the demands of the community; he does not live for himself alone. When Tarrou points out that “your victories will never be lasting,” Rieux admits that he is involved in a “never ending defeat,” but this does not stop him engaging in the struggle.

Rieux is also aware that working for the common good demands sacrifice; he cannot expect personal happiness. This is a lesson that Rambert learns. At first he insists that he does not belong in Oran, and his only thought is to get back to the woman he loves in Paris. He thinks only of his own personal happiness and the unfairness of the situation in which he has been placed. But gradually he comes to recognize his membership of the larger human community, which makes demands on him that he cannot ignore. His personal happiness becomes less important than his commitment to helping the community.

This is also the position occupied by Tarrou, who lives according to an ethical code that demands that he act in a way that benefits the whole community, even though, in this case, he risks his life by doing so. Later in the novel, when Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life, he adds a new dimension to the term plague. He views it not just as a specific disease or simply as the presence of an impersonal evil external to humans. For Tarrou, plague is the destructive impulse within every person, the will and the capacity to do harm, and it is everyone’s duty to be on guard against this tendency within themselves, lest they infect someone else with it. He describes his views to Rieux:

What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.

Religion In times of calamity, people often turn to religion, and Camus examines this response in the novel. In contrast to the humanist beliefs of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou, the religious perspective is given in the sermons of the stern Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. While the other main characters believe there is no rational explanation for the outbreak of plague, Paneloux believes there is. In his first sermon, given during the first month of the plague, Paneloux describes the epidemic as the “flail of God,” through which God separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the evil. Paneloux is at pains to emphasize that God did not will the calamity: “He looked on the evil-doing in the town with compassion; only when there was no other remedy did He turn His face away, in order to force people to face the truth about their life.” In Paneloux’s view, even the terrible suffering caused by the plague works ultimately for good. The divine light can still be seen even in the most catastrophic events, and a Christian hope is granted to all.

Paneloux’s argument is based on the theology of St. Augustine, on which he is an expert, and it is accepted as irrefutable by many of the townspeople, including the magistrate, Othon. But it does not satisfy Rieux. Camus carefully manipulates the plot to bring up the question of innocent suffering. Paneloux may argue that the plague is a punishment for sin, but how does he reconcile that doctrine with the death of a child? The child in question is Jacques Othon, and Paneloux, along with Rieux and Tarrou, witnesses his horrible death. Paneloux is moved with compassion for the child, and he takes up the question of innocent suffering in his second sermon. He argues that because a child’s suffering is so horrible and cannot easily be explained, it forces people into a crucial test of faith: either we must believe everything or we must deny everything, and who, Paneloux asks, could bear to do the latter? We must yield to the divine will, he says; we cannot pick and choose and accept only what we can understand. But we must still seek to do what good lies in our power (as Paneloux himself does as one of the volunteers who fights the plague).

When Paneloux contracts the plague himself, he refuses to call a doctor. He dies according to his principles, trusting in the providence of God and not fighting against his fate. This is in contrast to Tarrou, who fights valiantly against death when his turn comes.

It is clear that Camus’s sympathy in this contrast of ideas lies with Rieux and Tarrou, but he also treats Paneloux with respect.