The Plague  

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“It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” ― Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (epigraph to The Plague)

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Plague (Fr. La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story of medical workers finding solidarity in their labour as the Algerian city of Oran is swept by a plague. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, all help to show the effects the plague has on a populace.

The novel is believed to be based in the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 after French colonization. Oran and its environs were struck by the plague multiple times before Camus published this novel. According to a research report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but outbreaks after European colonization in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases) were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.

The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial, where individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition. Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage. The novel has been read as a metaphorical treatment of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.

Although Camus's approach in the book is severe, his narrator emphasizes the ideas that we ultimately have no control, irrationality of life is inevitable, and he further illustrates the human reaction towards the ‘absurd’. The Plague represents how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd, a theory which Camus himself helped to define.


Plot Summary

The text of The Plague is divided into five parts.

Part one

In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially going unnoticed by the populace, began to die in the streets. A hysteria develops soon after, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.

The main character, Dr. Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building's concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Castel, about the illness until they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory, but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more and more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic.

Authorities are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A "special ward" is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined, corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is only enough to treat existing cases and the country's emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.

Part two

The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to "urgent" calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.

One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his lover in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God for the citizens' sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves and who would not have done so in normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Dr. Rieux, a vacationer Jean Tarrou, and a civil servant Joseph Grand exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.

Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, also have loved ones outside the city that they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and changes his mind. He then decides to join Tarrou and Dr. Rieux to help fight the epidemic.

At the peak of the plague's destruction, the townspeople eventually give up on their personal concerns and band together to help each other. When a child dies from the plague, Dr. Rieux criticizes Father Paneloux's first sermon about God's vengeance for sinful behaviour, citing the innocence of children. This inspires Father Paneloux to deliver a second sermon, however not to directly address the innocence, but to suggest that death was, in Paneloux's opinion, an expression of God's will. Therefore, the child's death is a "test" for Christians who have to choose between following God wholly or not at all. Paneloux also implies that all those who died from the plague were sinful. Then he too is stricken with illness, dying with a crucifix in his hands.

When the plague ends, the townspeople return to their daily routine becoming self-absorbed and ignorant again. Rambert reunites with his wife; Cottard, not being able to make a living outside of the plague, is captured by the police; Tarrou dies just before the plague ends. Dr. Rieux learns that his wife died from illness though she was outside the city.

Characters in "The Plague"

  • The Narrator: presents himself at the outset of the book as witness to the events and privy to documents, but does not identify himself with any character until the ending of the novel.
  • Dr. Bernard Rieux: The principal character of the novel, though not a traditional protagonist. He describes himself as tired of the world, but is actively involved in events as a medical professional. He is among the first to notice the dying rats and human cases of the disease.
  • Jean Tarrou: A recent visitor to Oran, apparently independently wealthy. His diary notebooks provide an additional perspective on unfolding events, recording things seen and overheard accompanied by commentary that is often cryptic.
  • Joseph Grand: A municipal clerk of 22 years, passed over for promotion or adequate raise. As a result of his inadequate means, he lives in a sparingly furnished apartment. He has difficulty asserting himself and is uncomfortable communicating with others, yet aspires to write a book. He is a neighbor of M. Cottard.
  • M. Cottard: Introduced in the novel just following his attempted suicide, from which he is saved by his neighbor M. Grand. He is eager to socialize, but has few friends. He undergoes major changes throughout the novel.
  • Dr. Castel: An older colleague of Dr. Rieux. His personal experiences with bubonic plague outbreaks in China and Paris enable him to be the first to recognize the symptoms of the disease and give it a name.
  • Dr. Richard: A more cautious and methodical doctor. He is unwilling to take action to curtail spread of the disease without definitive proof that it is in fact plague.
  • Father Paneloux: A Jesuit priest, who Camus uses to represent the failings of Christian morality. He dies of the plague.
  • M. Othon: Police magistrate. He has a wife and two children.
  • Raymond Rambert: A journalist who, after finding himself isolated within Oran after the plague strikes, embarks upon several escapades with smugglers in an attempt to escape and reunite with his spouse. Following his failure to escape he assists Dr. Rieux in care of plague victims and later joins his wife after being released from quarantine.

Allusions/references to other works

In the first part of The Plague, Rieux overhears a conversation concerning an Algerian man being shot to death on a beach. This is in all probability a reference to the plot of Camus's earlier novel The Stranger.

Early in the The Plague, Cottard refers to Kafka's The Trial.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Plague" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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