What Camus’ “The Plague” Teaches Us


There are times when we’re not ready for a book, especially when young. So it was when I first read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, lacking the maturation to comprehend its resonance that only experience can fully render. Since those early years, better equipped from life’s lessons, I’ve gone on to other Camus works such as The Myth of Sisyphus, which critics seem to have omitted as a fitting introduction to his sequel, The Plague.

I’ve been wanting to catch-up on classics I’ve missed over the years, despite being an omnivorous reader of humanity’s most accomplished writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction. The Plague is one of them.

I had especially wanted to read it because of its topical relevance to COVID-19. I was curious. Readers will discover, however, that the book isn’t confined to detailing a deadly pandemic. The Plague, in short, is metaphor for what ails us beyond disease. As with his The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus posits an absurd universe of randomness, annulling meaning. How then are we to live our lives? The Plague is Camus’ answer.

Plagues, or pandemics, have been intrinsic to the human experience and, despite modern medicine’s vast repertoire of advanced treatment, remain with us. Ironically, The Plague surprised me, nonetheless, with its plethora of protocol that has varied little: vaccines, boosters, masks, quarantine and, in extreme cases, geographical isolation as in China’s Wuhan City and Shanghai.

More striking to me still is The Plague’s ominous depiction of a virus’ ability to mutate and thus pose continuing menace, even when apparently subsiding, lying dormant and ready to strike again.

America’s last great bout with a pandemic came with the 1918-19 epidemic that infected a third of the human population and killed an estimated 50 million; in the U.S., 675,000 (CDC). It killed a woman my father loved. As I write, the worldwide death toll of our current pandemic is a staggering 6,309,976 (worldmeters/info.com). In the U.S., we just recently recorded 1 million deaths. With new, more resistant variants and lessened protocols, the numbers are surging again.

Camus presumably employed the Oran (Algeria) cholera outbreak of 1849 shortly after French colonization as its backdrop. (Camus was Algerian born and had lived in Oran for eighteen months, subsequently revisiting it several times.) The novel, however, is set in the 1940s, suggesting he may have had the Nazi tyranny in mind as the ultimate scourge historically confronting humanity: “Calmly they denied, in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies…. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.”

It takes courage, if not resolve, to continue reading its 226 pages of grinding suffering and loss. And yet not to read it is to miss out on one of the supreme narratives of the human condition in a cosmos where mortality hovers over everything, even what we love most.

There are no saviors to deliver us, no gods descending to the earth with quixotic formulae of a compensatory afterlife of eternal bliss. Ours is an irrational, or absurd, cosmos. We have only each other and, as such, we must create our own meaning, regardless of our temporality, if we are to achieve rapport with the dissonance that confronts us.

On another level, Camus, an atheist, decries the irrelevance of traditional Christianity through the ineffectual priest, Father Paneloux, with his platitudes of resignation to divine providence, reiterating a central complaint in his The Myth of Sisyphus.

This theme of revealed religion’s impotency and irrelevance in the context of pandemic isn’t new; for example, there is Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous The Decameron where religion is mocked. Subsequently, there is Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in which Fermina Daza, lover of the story’s protagonist, comes to loathe her religion.

Despite The Plague’s seeming morbidity, the book’s ultimate affirmation is that crisis bequeaths solidarity. Empathy is suffering’s gift in a world depicted in Auden’s memorable “Musee des Beaux Arts” indifferently pursuing its mundane interests. Camus’ “The Rebel” makes clear his resistance to nihilism amidst absurdity, setting him apart from his contemporary, Sartre. Empathy inspires collective resistance to abate a sea of troubles; namely, the myriad horrors of unleashed human tyranny not confined to temporal-spatial parameters.

An unknown editor assembles the plague’s details, gathered largely from the notebook diaries of Jean Tarrou and other documents. The principal character is Dr. Rieux, saintly in depiction, compassionately persevering in treating victims, keen in observation.

Camus hated despotism in all its myriad guises, joining the French Resistance, ultimately rejecting Soviet communism, opposing the Russian repression of the East German uprising (1953) and of Hungary (1956). As a pacifist working for human rights, he fervently sought abolition of capital punishment. The Plague’s Raymond Rambert is spokesperson for his view. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his anti-capital punishment essay, “Réflexions sur la Guillotine.” Camus died in January, 1960, in a car accident. He was 46.

The characters in The Plague are few, but memorable. They include:

Dr. Bernard Rieux, dedicated healer and inveterate observer.
Jean Tarrou, Rieux’ close friend, whose notebooks detail much of the pandemic’s course.
Joseph Grand, the underpaid, dutiful city prefect, who takes the pandemic seriously in the context of ineffectual government.
Raymond Rambert, who foregoes escape for commitment and joins Rieux and Tarrou in their efforts to stem the disease.
M. Cottard, self-centered opportunist alienated from his fellows.
Othon, police magistrate.
Father Paneloux, Jesuit priest, representative of ineffectual Christian response.
The Plague’s unidentified editor.

The plot is readily available from many sources. I do want to comment on one scene, archetypal, that critics miss. Toward the book’s end, Rieux and his close friend, Tarrou, decide on a night swim: “Rieux turned and swam level with his friend, timing his stroke to Tarrou’s. But Tarrou was the stronger swimmer and Rieux had to put on speed to keep up with him. For some minutes they swam side by side, with the same zest, in the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.”

As in baptism, they have been immersed into rebirth, and, for all the town’s woes, informed by experience, they discover mutuality and the contentment human fellowship confers. Isolation is one of the supreme agonies of the pestilence. In connection, we find meaning.

The Plague isn’t really a message of doom. Even in an irrational cosmos, humanity can find purpose. As such, the book offers respite in a collective citizenry awakened from apathy, resistant to the sources of suffering. It ends in the plague’s demise, the opening of the city’s gates, Oran’s streets filled with crowds jubilant in their reclaimed freedom, made possible, of course, through the daily, concerted efforts of organized health squads, quiet, uncelebrated stalwarts, transcending self-interest for the welfare of others. As Dr. Rieux exclaims, “…there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.”

The Plague also offers two admonitions: firstly, the forfeiture of freedom in resuming previous habits of material solicitude. In this sense, even before the plague’s intrusion, Oran’s populace wasn’t really free: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.”

Secondly, we must always be awake to the lurking dangers of tyranny to mankind’s freedom. Were Camus still with us, he would decry Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and China’s growing aggression in the Pacific; and perhaps as a committed socialist, corporate hegemony and nativism as seedbeds of inequity and discrimination, marginalizing access to human fulfillment:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Along with Orwell’s 1984, The Plague ranks among the most essential reads of modern times.

–rj

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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