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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,918 words.)