Plague Albert Camus Essay

Among the misfortunes haunting humankind throughout its history, the most significant three were wars, famine, and epidemics; these three often come together. In the Bible, one can find these calamities described as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death as the eternal companion of the first three. Each of these disasters are morbid, and probably due to the human nature, each message about them draws the attention of millions of people. However, media rarely goes further than calculating the amounts of victims, and people rarely bother themselves with an attempt to comprehend and philosophically reflect on these misfortunes; usually, people say “how awful,” and forget about bad news until the next news report.

At the same time, in world literature, these disasters have been widely described, discussed, and paid a lot of attention to. One of the most famous French philosophers and writers of the 20th century–Albert Camus–wrote a novel in which he tried to not just describe the horrors of the plague raging in a small French town, but to convey the atmosphere, thoughts, and moods of the people who found themselves locked up in the quarantine in the contaminated city of Oran.

It all starts with a rather innocent episode, when the main character of the novel, Dr. Bernard Rieux, finds a dead rat on his staircase. Consumed with his personal concerns, he barely pays attention to this event, and only informs a porter. Within the next several days, however, Dr. Rieux finds a couple more dead rats, and also gets to know that other city dwellers have also encountered the same problem. No one really cares, however, and the newspapers only publish a small note about this fact.

As time goes on, the scales of the seemingly-innocent event increases. Dead rats are found all over the city, they are everywhere, and municipal authorities do not seem to have efficient ways to deal with this problem. At the same time, a porter at Dr. Rieux’s house develops strange symptoms–in particular, enlarged and painful lymph nodes, and abscesses. In a couple of days, the porter dies.

Soon, the same cases appear in other corners of Oran. The disease quickly gathers momentum; Dr. Castel, Rieux’s colleague, is the first to name the problem directly: this is the plague that has caused the first mass extinction of rats, and then deaths among citizens. Soon Dr. Rieux and other specialists have to meet with the authorities in order to decide what can be done to prevent the plague’s further spreading.

The preventive measures, rather mild at first, gradually become more and more harsh, and sometimes unjust as the plague carries away even more victims every day. Oran becomes completely isolated from the rest of the country; no one is let in or out. This causes additional stress for many common people and the main characters, including Dr. Rieux–his severely-ill wife has left the city, right before the epidemic broke out; he misses her but, on the other hand, he is glad his wife is not in danger.

Camus pays a lot of attention to the mental anguish among Oran inhabitants. In general, people are depressed and desperate, their condition can be described as emotionally and mentally numb. Citizens only hope that the plague will finish as quickly and unpredictably as it broke out. However, there are people who have not lost their ability to act and to make decisions. Dr. Rieux, doing his best fighting the plague; Rambert, a Parisian journalist trapped in Oran, desperately seeks all possible legal and illegal means to leave the city, looking forward to meet his beloved woman again; Cottard, a smuggler who tried to commit suicide because of becoming a suspect for police in the beginning of the story, on the contrary, seems to enjoy the mess the plague has caused–the more ravaging the plague becomes, the safer he feels; Tarrou, a playboy and a seemingly light-minded person, who suddenly shows nobility and dedication–he organizes and leads teams of volunteers helping the authorities fight the plague; Grand, a modest and unremarkable officer, who does his best to help with gathering statistics and other important data. These, as well as other characters, are depicted with all their emotions and thoughts, and through them, Camus manages to convey all the palette of emotional conditions people go through during severe times of disaster.

In the end, an anti-plague serum is invented, and the death rate decreases gradually. Tarrou dies right before the plague is dealt with; Cottard cannot stand the fact that the emergency is over and that he can be caught–hysteric, he starts a shooting in the streets. Grand, who got sick with the plague, gradually recovers. Dr. Rieux’s wife has died from her sickness, far away from him. Rambert reunites with his beloved in Paris as soon as the city is open again. Common citizens seem to be doing their best to forget about the catastrophe as quickly as possible.

“The Plague” is an incredibly strong and touching novel, not just about the disease itself, but about those changes that an unexpected emergency can cause in people, about their feelings, hopes, and dreams when faced with one of the greatest dangers in the history of humankind–the pestilence.

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Albert Camus was the first writer I remember whose death made the news while I was growing up; my mother cried when the car crash was described on the telly. For my 1960s self, Camus was the hero of life's pointlessness, the dark prophet of resistance and its impossibility, the ultimate hip smoker and café philosopher, the contemporary writer as the messenger of bad news, tough guy and prince of cool. Camus showed how all pieties stink, and my teenage heart went molten with admiration. I read L'étranger (The Outsider) and tried to grasp such concepts as alienation and the absurd; I read La Peste (The Plague) and brought away comforting corroboration of my deeply held opinion that, yes, life was a plague, and its victims were condemned to an endless cycle of futile revolt.

I wanted to go back to The Plague because I'd just read his posthumous memoir, The First Man , with its pitiless account of want and scarcity as he grew up among war widows in colonial Algeria. It upset my presuppositions about empire families. In addition, the current crisis makes me burn to understand more about North Africa and the colonial conflicts that form its long, bitter background (Palestine, Suez, Algeria, Lebanon). But The Plague surprised me. It's not about North Africa at all, unlike The First Man. The stricken city is Oran in Algeria, but it's also France, during the second world war. This France, however, stands for Everywhere, a banal small place where history unfortunately takes a terrible turn.

Far from being a study in existential disaffection, as I had so badly misremembered, The Plague is about courage, about engagement, about paltriness and generosity, about small heroism and large cowardice, and about all kinds of profoundly humanist problems, such as love and goodness, happiness and mutual connection. Camus published the novel in 1947 and his town's sealed city gates embody the borders imposed by the Nazi occupation, while the ethical choices of its inhabitants build a dramatic representation of the different positions taken by the French. He etches with his sharp, implacable burin questions that need to be faced now more than ever in the resistance to terrorism. Perhaps even more than when La Peste was published, the novel works with the stuff of fear and shame, with bonds that tie and antagonisms that sever.

But The Plague couldn't be written now, not the way it is - and this I think dates it to a degree that differs from other studies in terrorism - Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent or Dostoevsky's The Possessed . Though the novel is set in Algeria, there are no Arabs in it . The best that can be said in defence of this blindness is that Camus didn't bring on a native or two in the background in order to throw into relief the moral enterprise of his heroes, as Toni Morrison's essays, Playing in the Dark , have sharply criticised with regard to black presences in Melville and Hemingway et al. But because the empire was not yet writing back in the days when I was first reading La Peste, I didn't notice the Arabs were passed over. Nor did the absence of women strike me.

Women are achingly always elsewhere in this book, seeping from the novel's outer edges in the ghost of a mother's smile from childhood, an ailing wife, an absent girlfriend longed for, possessively and obsessively dreamed of. In one of the emblematic strands of the novel, the orderly Joseph Grand is looking throughout for the right words to perfect his vision of a woman rider out in the Bois de Boulogne: this recurrent sentence works like the little phrase of Vinteuil, hinting at a kind of Proustian Sapphic splendour in the distant capital of moral adventure and sexual consumption; the "svelte Amazon" embodies the preposterous hopes and dreams of an everyman in exile.

The gaps don't, however, ruin the novel. It's excitingly and tightly plotted, constructed in five acts like a Greek tragedy. From the plague's ominous annunciation, the first dead rat, rotting on the turn of the stair in the protagonist's apartment block, to the end of the first act and the prefect's terse command, "close the town", plot fits meaning with tailored perfection. Alongside the plague-stricken inhabitants, we have to turn inwards and face imprisonment amid harrowing scenes of isolation, disease and death. But even more than this bravura dramatic writing, the story of Dr Rieux's selfless struggle with the illness, and the different responses of other citizens, colleagues and chance acquaintances, unfolds an urgent allegory of war. The themes of The Plague - terror, poison, cruel and tormented deaths, heroic struggle, acquiescence, alliance - are examined from every angle through various protagonists, from the patient, inarticulate, generous-hearted Joseph Grand, to the brooding, conflicted journalist Jean Tarrou (a kind of self-portrait) and of course Rieux himself, the indefatigable plague doctor who will turn out to be the narrator. It's a consummation of fiction as a close-up dissection table of human psychology, as well as the larger space of tragic political expression and moral and philosophical conundra.

Again and again, Camus invokes some condition of well-being that has been forfeited, because the pestilence has taken hold. Cut off in the plague city, the people's moorings of past loves and values are all lost: "They experienced the deep suffering of all prisoners and all exiles, which is to live with a memory which serves no purpose." Sequestered and sullied, the inhabitants suffer the breaking of all social bonds; all time becomes time present and erases hope (in the future) and love (with its connectedness to the past). But the central puzzle Camus worries at comes towards the end of the novel, with Tarrou's celebrated question, "Can one be a saint without God?" To which Dr Rieux responds, "Heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to me . . . What interests me is - being a man."

But what does this mean? Primo Levi is fingering some similar lesion in the title of his postwar memoir, written almost concurrently with Camus, If This Is a Man . Humanity is denatured by the war; can its bones be reassembled and animated again, in a form that can be lived with? What does Camus let us take away from The Plague ? Misanthropy and pessimism (those aspects that gave me such satisfaction 40 years ago) glint through the fabric of the novel, but they signal a call to vigilance rather than defeat. No one is immune from the plague, Camus writes, and he urges: "Not to become one of the plague-stricken - neither carrier nor patient - that is the overwhelming task."

Above all though, his voice calls out to us now most clearly from the grave when he says, "On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill."

In The Plague, the stricken protagonists are searching for some way of being human beyond heroism and sanctity. I suppose I was right that Camus vision was bleak, but I was wrong to take comfort from that. The Plague doesn't give permission to despair but works out the complex hope offered by resistance and the urgency of understanding the long, deep reach of war's corrupting power.

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