Albert Camus - The Plague

Albert Camus - The Plague
Rating - 10.0

'So the only thing for us to do was to go on waiting, and since after a too long waiting ones gives up waiting, the whole town lived as if it had no future.'

The small city of Oran is an ordinary city filled with people who possess ordinary values. That is to say, they make love, they work hard at their jobs, they attend church or swim in the nearby bay - the swimmers far outweigh the churchgoers - they drink wine, they laugh, they live. They could be the people of any town, though the narrator admits early that in Oran the pursuit of money outweighs the pursuit of happiness, but isn't that, as well, indicative of a normal city, a normal people, a normal time?

Dr Rieux has recently said goodbye to his wife, who is traveling to a sanitarium as a last ditch effort to cure her ailment. He is a calm, mannered, thoughtful man who does not want to show emotion at her parting, because he needs to be strong. After she is gone, a dead rat is found on his balcony, something the manager, M Michel, declares must surely be a prank on behalf of the local schoolboys.

But soon, other rats are found in other areas. Not just the hotel now but elsewhere, all around the city, rats are bleeding and dying. In a matter of days, thousands of rats are dead.

Dr Rieux continues his rounds as normal, checking up on his patients and discussing the rats. He does not know what has caused their death and agrees that it is unpleasant, but for the moment there is nothing more to do than burn the bodies and continue living. Returning home from a patient, he finds his manager, who is very sick and has developed ganglia on his neck, as well as two black patches on his thighs. 'It's like fire,' he whimpered. 'The bastard's burning me inside.'

The next day, the hotel manager is dead. In the words of the narrator, 'Michel's death marked, one might say, the end of the first period, that of bewildering portents, and the beginning of another, relatively more trying, in which the perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic.' And he is right - the deaths, few and far between, steadily rise. Soon, people want an answer and, along with a committee of other doctors, it is decided that, although they will not admit the epidemic is plague, they will treat it as such and quarantine the city. Whatever has arrived shall be treated as plague, which is the same as saying that the plague has entered the city of Oran.

The narrator allows himself the luxury of chronicling not so much individual stories of plague victims and their problems as the story of Oran itself. Long, thoughtful stretches of text discuss the implications of plague and quarantine, and what it means to the community as a whole. If the entire population is involved in the same problem, has no goal other than that of surviving through the plague, then what is there that a man can do? What can call him forward to act and live as a man should?

If we consider that a person living under the spectre of the plague can have no future, then it is up to them to determine the course and flow of the present. But with death everywhere, how is it possible to plan? Too often, we push aside our needs and wants and dreams to an undefined future, a point in our lives when we are free to do as we wish, a hazy 'then' that may never come. When plague strikes - and the narrator argues, quite firmly, that the plague will never be defeated, that it will always come back, when we least expect it and when we are least prepared - our endless future is limited to the abrupt, defined point of tonight. If we wake up alive and plague-free, we may continue living, but our only hope can be to last until we fall asleep and the cycle repeats.

While the large majority of the novel is involved with the philosophical aspects of plague - and it would be a weak reader who cannot stretch the metaphor of the plague to that of war, or, more broadly, that of life and living itself - there are characters and situations. There is Rambert, a young journalist who is desperate to leave the city, to be with his fiancee. Or Grand, an old, worn civil-servant who spends his nights composing a novel such that, upon reading the first sentence, his publisher will declare 'Hats off, gentlemen!'. There are deep implications in the character of Grand, for he has never progressed beyond that first sentence, instead refining and enhancing the sentence such that the rest of his work suffers. Again, the metaphor is clear and honest.

A note should be made of the friendship between Tarrou and Rieux. At first theirs is a compatibility of thought, a shared understanding of the dogged forward movement of life, but their relationship grows beyond that to become something quite special. Tarrou, it is revealed, has dealt with the plague all his life, has dealt with the different aspects of a plague that is present in all people, and potentially in all situations. When God is not the answer, when hope is not the answer, when there doesn't seem to be an answer at all, they understand that the answer can in fact be something as simple as doing what you consider your best, no matter how terrible the odds.

Camus writes with a steadied, sure hand. He is as capable with writing the 'grand overview' sections of the novel that deal with the overall impact of the plague, as he is in developing the friendship of Rieux and Tarrou. At no time does the novel stumble, there is a clear flow and progression of both though and plot, as the culmination of the plague becomes the culmination of the philosophy Camus is expounding. The end of the narrative is both sad and amazingly uplifting, if we consider that, through an unbelievably difficult time, man was capable of rising above and beyond the shroud of plague, and becoming good not for its own sake, but for the sake of goodness itself.

The message he has is one that is timely, important, and utterly necessary. The plague is our lives, for we are under the eternal plague of an absent death that is approaching rapidly. Given that we know we shall die, the question becomes, how shall we live? Camus argues through his characters that living is not about when we die but the right now in which we are alive and breathing. We should not do the good in life, and be good purely because of an external reward or for the praise of others no, we should do good because in itself, it is a worthwhile endeavour. Consider: if we praise a man for doing a good deed, aren't we then implying that this good deed is out of the ordinary for the character of man? Is it possible to live in a time when goodness itself is an extra-personal characteristic, and not one that is inherent within all people? Camus says yes, goodness is inherent, and if, in a city ravaged by the plague, ordinary men and woman can do good things, then there is hope for our now - we don't have to relegate it to a distant future that may or may not come to pass.




French Authors