The Plague by Albert Camus

“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria.  His father was killed at the Battle of the Marne in World War I and he and his brother were raised by their mother in a state of poverty.  He became a journalist, and during World War II, moved to Paris where he worked for an underground newspaper, and it was then that he began to craft his “philosophy of the absurd.”  The Stranger, published in 1942, was followed by The Plague in 1947, and in 1957 Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Tragically he died in a car accident in the south of France at only 46 years old.

Often Camus is lumped in with the existential philosophy, but he rejected that appellation, claiming himself an absurdist.  What is an absurdist?  Well, I like to think of them as existentialists with hope.  Absurdism is an idea that man is longing for meaning and clarity in a world that contains neither.  The conflict between the search for a purpose and the lack of one, creates absurdism.  Yet while Camus felt a meaninglessness in life, he wondered if man could create his own morality and follow it, even though his achievements would be fruitless.

St. Macarius of Ghent giving aid
to the plague victims (1672)
Jacob van Oost
source Wikimedia Commons

The Plague is set in the town of Oran in Algeria, a town perhaps like any other, yet the citizens are so ingrained in their day-to-day activities, there is no real life or passion within its walls.  When the plague arrives, their lethargic outlook and self-centred actions initially prevent them from seeing the danger that is so obviously present, as evidenced by the number of rats dying throughout the town.  As the plague is finally realized and claims its victims, Camus employs a scientific and philosophical examination of how the people react to the pestilence, what emotions and actions are brought to the forefront and the significance of their struggle to survive, not only the plague but the day-to-day trials that they must face.

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikimedia Commons

Camus shows the futility of attempted comprehension of the events, when the priest, Father Paneloux, declares the plague a judgement from God on the sins on the people.  In reality, the plague is not a moral judgement, nor anything that can be explained rationally, and therefore it is futile to try to rationalize it; one must simply accept the circumstances.  The plague means death, no more nor less than any other death, and the only reaction should be to battle against it.  Another character, Grand, decides to write a story perfect in its execution, but finally realizes his hopes are impossible.  As we meet more and more characters in Oran, we see its paralysis in the life of these men and women who choose actions that are meaningless and therefore self-isolating.  Because perfection cannot be obtained, a type of helplessness is portrayed, yet in a few characters we see another option.  While some victims have quietly succumbed to the inescapable death, others choose to fight, which gives their struggle significance within the inevitable.

Each character plays an important part in Camus’ philosophy, almost like a symphony, as Camus presses the loud pedal with one, and the soft with another. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tactic.  On one hand, it really gives the reader the ability to scrutinize each person’s part in the plague and, of course, Camus’ philosophy, but on the other, the story perhaps suffers. With such close dissection, the humanness fades into the background as the emphasis is given to worldview over plot, and in some cases the plausibility of the character and his/her actions is sacrificed to communicate Camus’ pet beliefs.


Plague in Ashod (1629)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikimedia Commons

With the existentialist worldview, the novel would have signified defeat in the face of a world devoid of hope and purpose, but Camus spurs us to vigilance and action. He may not believe in truth or God, but one gets the feeling that he wants to believe.  It is as if he is waiting …… waiting for a sunbeam in a storm or a flower in the desert, and while he waits, he fights for the right to hope in what he tells himself is impossible.

Ultimately Camus struggled against his own belief system.  When the Nazi’s invaded France, he actively worked against them.  He made a judgement that their actions were wrong and attempted to stop them, showing that he did indeed believe there was something worth fighting for in the world.  Unlike the existentialists that I’ve encountered, Camus confronted the implications of his unbelief — and ultimately offered a solution, or at least a compromise with regard to his dilemma: while he still held to the absence of meaning within life, that did not mean that the search could not be rewarding.  At the end of his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

A Read-Along with Bookstooge – January 2015


The Plague Read-Along Update #4

I’m reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge.

Part V

The outbreak of the plague definitely appears to be slowing down, yet people are hesitant to accept it after living so long under its shadow.  Yet gradually people show hope and there are more escapes than ever as people are terrified of succumbing to the pestilence just as an end is in sight.  M. Othon does catch the plague and dies as does Tarrou, yet Tarrou struggles and fights until the disease takes him in the end.  Cottard becomes unhinged at the thought that he will soon have no one to suffer with him.  He begins a gun fight in town and soon his taken into custody by the police.  And finally Dr. Rieux is revealed as the narrator of the story.  After the plague it is suspected that the people will forget about it and continue to live their lives as before, therefore Rieux wished to write a chronicle of the pestilence in honour of its victims so they will not be forgotten.  The chilling end is not really an end; the plague, we’re told, can live dormant for years, just sleeping and waiting for a new emergence.

St. Roch praying to the Virgin for
and end to the Plague (1780)
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikiart

Thoughts:  This part seemed a little rushed but with the cases of the plague decreasing, perhaps it was a natural wind-up of the outbreak and the story.  Again Camus explores the psychological effect of the town returning to “normal” after a crisis and his psychology is rather heavy-handed, sacrificing story for pet philosophy.  The characters are still rather drab and lifeless, which could have been intentional.  He makes sure he kills the one spark of love throughout the story:  Rambert who had been wild to escape to be reunited with the love of his life, at the end meets her but it’s a rather low and uninspiring reunion; the plague has changed him and snuffed out the flame of his love.

Review to come …..

The Plague Read-Along Update #3

I’m reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge.

Part III & Part IV

As the deaths from the plague mount, the town runs out of coffins and room in the cemetary.  Eventually the victims are disposed of in much the same way as the rats early in the story.  Yuck!  Reality appears to set in on the collective group and the citizens of Oran feel united in their plight.  Cottard continues to make money amid the suffering, Rambert decides to stay in Oran, in spite of being given a new plague serum M. Othon’s young son dies in agony, Father Panaloux delivers a fiery sermon and then succumbs to a sickness which does not resemble the plague, Tarrou confesses his history and we find he is in rebellion against societal systems which are “plagues” themselves, and Grand is found wandering the streets ill and somewhat disoriented.  He is expected to die but he recovers and soon 4 other patients follow suit.  Has the plague finally run its course?

St. Charles cares for the
plague victims of Milan (1655)
Jacob Jordaens
source Wikiart

Thoughts:  In these two parts Camus deals in depth with the psychological effects of the plague, but not only this particular plague.  Tarrou recounts how horrified he was at his father’s behaviour in his vocation as a lawyer; how he advocated for the death of defendents without any compassion or thought. Tarrou directly left this kind of life, joining societies that would fight against it, only to find that the very people who condemned these actions, would commit them themselves, if they thought the ends justified the means.  Disgusted by people in general and referring to their actions as a type of a “plague”, Tarrou has placed himself in voluntary exile, removing himself and trying to live by “sympathy.”

Alienation appears to be a central theme.  Rieux must alienate himself from his feelings to continue to work, Cottard feels more in tune with group suffering but in reality he is still alienated, of course as mentioned above, Tarrou is alienated, the citizens of Oran are alienated from the rest of the world as they are in quarantine, and each person, to an extent, is alienated from another in fear of catching the plague.

The Plague Read-Along Update #2

I’m reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge.

Part II

Camus examines the experiences of different people when faced with disease and death.  Some ignore the obvious, some, who are in the throes of love affairs are nearly oblivious to the plague’s effects, some seek pleasures without limits, some profit from the disaster, and some attempt to escape the quarantine.

The plague becomes pneumonic and can now be transmitted by air.  Not good.  A sermon is given by Father Paneloux stating that the plague has been sent from God to punish the citizens for their sins and, oddly, Grand is writing a book and agonizing over the perfection of the first sentence.  Rambert, the journalist, is desperate to escape and enlists Cottard for help, as Cottard is now benefiting from the plague through smuggling.  We find that Cottard had committed a crime earlier in life and that is what lead to his suicide attempt. With his escape delayed, Rambert finally agrees to join the sanitation committee who keep the town clean, in perhaps a futile effort to stay the pestilence.

The Fifth Plague of Egypt (1800)
William Turner
source Wikiart

Thoughts:  I can see how Camus lets us examine the effects of the plague through an examination of certain characters of the town and their reactions to it.  Rieux is the calm in the storm of the disaster and is a sort of anchor for the story.  Cottard is rather fascinating.  He has at some past time committed a crime for which he, early in the novel, attempts to escape the ramifications of it through suicide.  He is on the outside of the community with this secret and his internal conflict pushes him to an extreme action.  Yet with the advent of the plague, it is as if the community has been brought to his level with their suffering and Cottard, I’m afraid to say, appears to almost feed off this suffering and carves a rather satisfying life for himself within the hurricane of despair around him.  And what’s with Grand and his story?  His battle to write the perfect sentence is obviously going to be a failure.  What was Camus doing here?  Was he trying to show that perfection is never to be found, but we should struggle for it in any case?  Hmmm ……

The Plague Read-Along Update #1

I’m reading The Plague by Albert Camus as part of a read-along with Bookstooge and so far am quite enjoying it!

Part I

Suddenly in the port town of Oran in Algeria, rats begin to die.  Dr. Rieux happens upon the first rat, and from there, their numbers grow.  As the population of dead rats increases from a trickle to a flood, people start to sicken with fevers and swollen glands in the neck, armpits and groin.  The narrator introduces us to a man called Jean Tarrou, who is vacationing in Oran and claims that his notebooks will give an unusual window into the burgeoning epidemic. With the corpses beginning to pile up, it becomes more difficult to pretend the disease is anything other than the plague or a type of plague.  Dr. Rieux suggests that the information be released to the public, but Dr. Richard still attempts to minimize the crisis, and only signs with sparse information appear in town.  More deaths and the state of emergency can no longer be ignored.  The town is put into quarantine.

Thoughts:  The narrator was so careful to set himself up as credible.  He’s quick to declare that everything he relates will be able to be corroborated.   Tarrou is also described as a person who will give a unique perspective to the plague because he focuses on particulars instead of generalizations …… he’s a peculiar fellow and I wonder if his peculiarities will have some specific bearing on the story.  Cottard’s attempted suicide and his change of personality from introverted liberal to a friendly conservative is also puzzling.  I quite like Dr. Rieux so far; sensible and intelligent, with little time to suffer fools, he is so far very clear-sighted.

The manner in which Camus links and compares the response to war and plague gives the reader a very believable portrait.

“…… There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always the plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.  In fact, like all our fellow-citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence.  When a war breaks out people say, ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’  But though a war may we be ‘too stupid’, that doesn’t prevent its lasting.  Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”

So not only do we have a tragedy brewing, we have a little mystery mixed in with a dollop of varying personalities.  An interesting recipe to be sure!