Albert Camus’s The Plague

I thought that every so often I should post on a classic European novel and today I felt the urge to tell you about Camus’s masterpiece, The Plague. For years I avoided reading this novel because I thought it would be a grisly catalogue of unpleasant deaths. In retrospect this was a wholly unfair prejudice to hold (is there such a thing as a fair one?) when I knew what a talented and subtle writer Camus was. When I finally did get around to reading it, I discovered it to be one of those books that you cannot consume without it having some profound effect on your internal configurations. I think Camus has to be one of my all time favourite writers because he makes you aware of what literature can do, or at least that’s how he affects me. I’m not sure I entirely approve of the word ‘impact’ being used as a verb, but it’s an accurate description of the experience of reading Camus; he impacts upon me, leaving novel-sized marks stamped onto my soul.

So, The Plague concerns the Algerian town of Oran that is about to suffer as never before in the grip of a plague that will ravage its population and isolate it from the rest of the country, imprisoning its inhabitants with their fear and their grief. The story focuses on Dr Rieux and his struggle against the might of the plague, but it has none of the glamour, adventure or heroism we have come to associate with the Hollywood disaster movie. Most notably, this is a novel without the kind of clear-cut moral framework we audiences tend to demand if people are going to be dropping like flies. The courageous are not rewarded here, nor villains punished; it is not a citizen’s laundry whereby the weak, the evil, the cynical and the facetious are weeded out leaving only the strong to found a new community. Instead, arbitrary injustice rules. One of Dr Rieux’s oldest patients, a demonic little man confined to bed with chronic asthma, sits shelling peas and telling the doctor that he is unafraid of the plague because you cannot die of two things at once. He is prepared to view it as a spectator sport. Elsewhere in the town the priest rails against his congregation, declaring the plague to be a judgement by God on the sins of mankind. But then he is forced to witness the death of an innocent child, and the following sermon he delivers shows a marked change of tune. His religion is no longer there to punish but to provide a place of communion for the townspeople in their grief. The alteration in his philosophy seems to be too much for him, however, and not long afterwards he falls ill and dies. But we are never sure whether or not it is the plague that has killed him, and his body is labeled with clever ambiguity as a ‘cas douteux’, a doubtful case. As for the death of that child, well, that’s the only part of this book I’ve never been able to read. Camus is gentle with his readers most of the time, but for those few pages he abandons all constraint. It’s not that he becomes hysterical or emotional in his writing, oh no, but his cool, measured prose, when used to describe accurately the way the plague ensnares its victims, has an even more devastating effect. It’s in many ways the central part of the narrative, the point when the power and the ferocity of the plague reach their zenith, but it remains a small black hole for me.

If Dr Rieux is what we might call the hero in this book it’s because he can find a way to witness the atrocity of a child’s suffering and keep on relentlessly fighting the plague. He’s one of Camus’s cold fish; he won’t be drawn into discussing what the plague means, he won’t predict its progress, and he won’t waste his energy on compassion for the dying. At first he seems a bit repellent, but then his constant repetition that he must do his job and his tireless attempts to cure the sick and to co-opt the healthy into community work confers upon him a kind of authentic nobility. Rieux recognizes that concerns and anxieties beyond the immediate limits of his role are misplaced and ultimately self-indulgent. His quiet devotion to his duty, and the terrible personal losses he will suffer make him a profoundly moving character.

Yet part of Camus’s brilliance is to show us how the plague is not simply bad, for it forces the indifferent inhabitants of Oran into an acute self-awareness. It reveals the fragility and beauty of life, reawakening love and desire in those who have been separated, demanding a new level of understanding of existence, and creating a community of committed individuals who learn to fight together. The team that Rieux builds includes men like the journalist Rambert, who makes several aborted attempts to escape from the town before deciding to stay and help in any way he can. The community is not perfect, and it in no way transcends individual desires, but within the constraints imposed by the plague, it does at least offer some consolation. This is Camus posing his classic philosophical question – are we as individuals solitaire or solidaire? Is it true that together we are stronger, or is it down to each and every one of us to make a change? Can we transcend our individual limits to bond with others, and if we can, how are we to bear the grief and the frustration their loss entails? Camus is too ambiguous, too slippery to give us answers to these questions, but he poses them like the master of literature that he is.

One way Camus poses the question is in the developing relationship between Rieux and his friend, Jean Tarrou. Tarrou is the alternative hero of the piece, a man whose quirky accounts of the plague are included in the narrative, and who works closely with Rieux in the alliance of men who fight the disease. What’s surprising about Tarrou is he does all this and puts forward a theory about the plague, making him one of the very few Existentialists who can think and do at the same time. Tarrou’s theory arises out of a traumatic incident in his youth that forces him to recognize that he is not innocent but guilty. This trauma occurs when he sees his father, a lawyer, condemn a man to death. The shocking juxtaposition of his father’s calm pronouncement and the excessive violence of taking a man’s life, reveals to Tarrou the madness of society and the intrinsic aggression of men that, even if controlled and organized, cannot be eliminated. Tarrou recognizes that every individual is capable of causing mortal harm to another and for this reason we are all contaminated, to some extent, by the plague. Tarrou uses the term ‘plague’ here as a metaphor for a kind of violence than is born from having superiority or dominance over another. He shows a fierce desire to isolate himself from the violence of humanity, but recognizes how difficult this would be, and is obsessed with learning how one could become a saint, that is to say, someone who performs the miracle of hurting no one. His fate in this purpose is an ambiguous one, but I cannot reveal it for fear of spoiling the ending.

Suffice to say, Camus uses it in his ceaseless quest to explore the meaning of life when we have to die. Sometimes this book is read as an allegory of the Occupation, but it’s fundamentally about the terrifying possibility of facing an untimely and unreasonable death and not knowing how to deal with that. The Plague does not answer the pressing questions it poses, because one thing is for sure, whenever the plague visits us, we will be just as confused and unprepared as we were for the last crisis. This is a dark book, yes, but it’s one that engages your intellect as much as your emotions, and it is therefore bearable. That’s not to say it won’t wring your heart at moments, but its worth it to have the experience of reading it. It’s certainly on my list of books that everyone ought to read at some point in their lives.

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15 thoughts on “Albert Camus’s The Plague

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Plague and I can’t say that I remember any of it, a more recent reading of The Stranger has imposed itself on top of it. Your beautiful post, however, tells me I should read The Plauge again. I know it’s on my bookshelf somewhere…

  2. I have never read this. And I feel now that I must, because this review makes it quite clear why we read: to consider, even if we cannot answer, the questions that matter the most to us. You have so beautifully identified the book’s central concerns that it would be an enormous loss not to read it. Thank you.

    –By the way, I imagine you probably read this in French, but would you recommend any particular translation?

  3. Litlove,
    I have this in the French, and keep meaning to read it, but oh the list is so large! I am motivated now after reading your piece here. I’ve read Camus’ L’étranger in the French, which is so much more satisfying than in English. This was a thrill of learning French late and being able to delve into a universe I never imagined I would be able to access. I also read Camus’ Le Premier Homme in the French. They take strips off the translations. L’étranger, for me, should be The Outsider in English, not The Stranger. Always a question of personal preference: translation.

  4. Camus is my favorite too — my favorite part of the plague was that little side plot involving the writer (I forget his name) and his unfruitful attempts to begin his novel… he has only that one, first, sentence — something very romantic and imagistic involving a horse and a complicated narrative perspective, if I remember correctly?

  5. Thanks for this review. It’s many years since I read The Plague,when I did French A Level that was, and you have reminded me how much I enjoyed it and how complex it is. I must read it again, although it’ll have to be in English this time as my French is practically non-existent now (my copy of the book cost 3/6, that’s how old it is). Shameless, my Penguin Twentieth Century Classic is called The Outsider.

  6. Thanks, Litlove, for this great account. I remember reading ‘The Plague’ in the 1970s, and although I have forgotten most of the detail, I still remember it as a profound reading experience. I think the style is a great part of this, as it doesn’t strive for effect or wallow in the sensational and grisly just to create an effect. I recall the opening, the town of Oran seen as not special in any way, in fact rather dull and dried out. Camus seems to be saying that the plague, in whatever form, can strike anywhere – it doesn’t have to be Paris, London, New York. There’s a line by Larkin about how, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’, which inverts this theme, but is saying something similar. It was probably that moral complexity that stunned me, back then. Being a much less experienced reader I was no doubt used to the traditional model where everything was sorted in the end, God was in his heaven, etc, Elizabeth marries Darcy, Oliver Twist is finally rescued and the nasties get their just desserts. I agree that the book was linked to the war, not doubt because of its proximity, but it is much wider in scope than that. The same thing tends to happen to Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, but of course it’s about any oppressive force misusing language alongside secrecy and threat to overcome democracy. The same is true of Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita”, which despite its Stalin links opens up to everywhere and every time with the inclusion of the devil, etc. And now I must go and revisit Oran to see if anything’s changed (in me), over the years. Thanks again!

  7. Stefanie – I’d love to know what you think of it if you do. I also love L’Etranger, and one day will post on that too. My dear BL, same goes for you if you read it. I don’t know which translation is best but leave it with me – I’ll email you. Shameless – it IS such a treat to be able to read them in the original. Do you know, I haven’t read Le premier homme – is it good? (I say that having loved everything else he’s ever written). Ian – do read it, and let me know what you think! Casey – you are quite right; you’re thinking of M Grand who writes and rewrites that sentence in endless permutations. When he thinks he’s going to die he makes his friends burn all his papers, but then, surprisingly, he survives. It’s a wonderful mini-subplot. Brad – yes, do read it! I’d love to read your review on it. Booksplease – welcome to the site! I feel that way with my German. I did a joint languages degree but my German hasn’t been used properly for over 15 years now and is decidedly threadbare! Dear Bookboxed – you are brilliant at finding appropriate quotes! That’s exactly the point of nondescript Oran. And oh dear – I MUST read The Master and Margarita. I’ve been wanting to for years. Dare I admit to not having read Animal Farm either??

  8. Camus is not someone who tends to come to mind when I’m thinking of people I’d like to read, but I can see now this is not a good thing 🙂 I think I would enjoy this — not in the sense that it would be a pleasurable read, exactly, but that it would be intellectually and emotionally engaging, as you say.

  9. Pingback: newcritics - » What Camus Sees: The Plague Within

  10. I have a read a lot of Camus and even gifted this title to a friend, but somehow have managed not to read this. If only someone paid me to read. Wouldn’t have to waste my time on this stupid job.

    I read the Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in quick succession and it bowled me over. I understand Camus’s theory of absurd and it has become the only theory I can live by – if I wish to live happy.

    He has also given me the mantra of life – There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. Litlove, thanks for reminding me that my favourite author’s masterpiece lies on my unread pile. What a shame!

  11. Thanks for this, litlove. I discovered Camus recently when I read The Fall. I agree that he “impacts” one’s psyche. I felt that he was peering fixedly into mine.

  12. I must say yours is a beautiful review. You have so powerfully retold the tale of the plague that has gripped the town of Oran and the sentiments of the victims caught in its grip and how resiliently Dr Rieux manages to make them see reason.

  13. Each sentence in this review is beautiful… It’s obvious from the comments that you are making people go back to their books… I hope my review of Camus’s The Stranger in my blog is at least halfway there !!!

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