Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria. His father was killed in World War I at the battle of Marne. Although his family was impoverished, Camus went on to attend university in Algiers. He paid the expenses of his education with various odd jobs until a severe attack of tuberculosis forced him to drop out. His writing is greatly influenced by the poverty and illness of his youth. He also wrote extensively about the conditions of poverty in Algeria while working as a journalist for an anti- colonialist newspaper.
During World War II, Camus went to Paris and joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement. It was in wartime Paris that Camus developed his philosophy of the absurd--the assertion that life ultimately has no rational meaning. While the philosophy of Camus' fiction often tends to imply that no moral order actually has a rational basis, Camus himself did not act with moral indifference. Rather, since Camus does not draw a direct correlation between the lack of hope and despair, his philosophy can best be characterized as a form of optimism without hope . The absurd hero is a hero because he achieves the ultimate rebellion--that which resists the illusion of a rational order while also resisting despair.
Throughout his life, Camus was deeply concerned with the problem of human suffering in an indifferent world. In The Plague, Camus addresses the collective response to catastrophe when a large city in Algeria is isolated due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Although the effort to alleviate and prevent human suffering seems to make little or no difference in the ravages of the plague, Camus asserts that perseverance in the face of tragedy is a noble struggle even if it ultimately fails to make an appreciable difference. Such catastrophes test the tension between individual self-interest and social responsibility.
Camus' philosophy borrows a lot of ideas from the Existentialist movement. Similar to the Existentialists, Camus asserted that there is no intrinsic rational or moral meaning in human existence. However, his body of work suggests that within every human being there is an innate capacity for good, although many people never fully realize their potential. Camus often challenged the validity of accepted moral paradigms, but he did not view the human character as a moral vacuum. Camus won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. On January 4, 1960, he was killed in an automobile accident in Southern France.
SummaryThe Plague is a novel about a plague epidemic in the large Algerian city of Oran. In April, thousands of rats stagger into the open and die. When a mild hysteria grips the population, the newspapers begin clamoring for action. The authorities finally arrange for the daily collection and cremation of the rats. Soon thereafter, M. Michel, the concierge for the building where Dr. Rieux works, dies after falling ill with a strange fever. When a cluster of similar cases appears, Dr. Rieux's colleague, Castel, becomes certain that the illness is the bubonic plague. He and Dr. Rieux are forced to confront the indifference and denial of the authorities and other doctors in their attempts to urge quick, decisive action. Only after it becomes impossible to deny that a serious epidemic is ravaging Oran, do the authorities enact strict sanitation measures, placing the whole city under quarantine.
The public reacts to their sudden imprisonment with intense longing for absent loved ones. They indulge in selfish personal distress, convinced that their pain is unique in comparison to common suffering. Father Paneloux delivers a stern sermon, declaring that the plague is God's punishment for Oran's sins. Raymond Rambert endeavors to escape Oran to rejoin his wife in Paris, but the city's bureaucrats refuse to let him leave. He tries to escape by illegal means with the help of Cottard's criminal associates. Meanwhile, Rieux, Tarrou, and Grand doggedly battle the death and suffering wrought by the plague. Rambert finalizes his escape plan, but, after Tarrou tells him that Rieux is likewise separated from his wife, Rambert is ashamed to flee. He chooses to stay behind and help fight the epidemic. Cottard committed a crime (which he does not name) in the past, so he has lived in constant fear of arrest and punishment. He greets the plague epidemic with open arms because he no longer feels alone in his fearful suffering. He accumulates a great deal of wealth as a smuggler during the epidemic.
After the term of exile lasts several months, many of Oran's citizens lose their selfish obsession with personal suffering. They come to recognize the plague as a collective disaster that is everyone's concern. They confront their social responsibility and join the anti-plague efforts. When M. Othon's small son suffers a prolonged, excruciating death from the plague, Dr. Rieux shouts at Paneloux that he was an innocent victim. Paneloux, deeply shaken by the boy's death, delivers a second sermon that modifies the first. He declares that the inexplicable deaths of innocents force the Christian to choose between believing everything and believing nothing about God. When he falls ill, he refuses to consult a doctor, leaving his fate entirely in the hands of divine Providence. He dies clutching his crucifix, but the symptoms of his illness do not match those of the plague. Dr. Rieux records him as a "doubtful case."
When the epidemic ends, Cottard cannot cope. He begins randomly firing his gun into the street until he is captured by the police. Grand, having recovered from a bout of plague, vows to make a fresh start in life. Tarrou dies just as the epidemic is waning, but he battles with all his strength for his life, just as he helped Rieux battle for the lives of others. Rambert's wife joins him in Oran after the city gates are finally opened, but Dr. Rieux's own wife dies of a prolonged illness before she and her husband can be reunited. The public quickly returns to its old routine, but Rieux knows that the battle against the plague is never over because the bacillus microbe can lie dormant for years. The Plague is his chronicle of the scene of human suffering that all too many people are willing to forget.
Part I: Chapters 1-3
An unnamed narrator, who promises to reveal his identity later, states that the chronicle that follows is as objective as possible. He assures the reader that he reports only those things he witnessed himself, the eyewitness accounts he received first hand, and a written eyewitness account of the events in question.
In the Algerian city of Oran, Dr. Bernard Rieux steps out of surgery and finds a dead rat lying on the landing. In the days that follow, an increasing number of rodents stagger out into the open and die, blood spurting from their muzzles. Dr. Rieux, preoccupied by his wife's impending trip to a sanitarium, doesn't give a great deal of attention to the phenomenon at first. M. Michel, the concierge for the building where Dr. Rieux works, is convinced that the dead rats in the building have been placed there by pranksters. Dr. Rieux's elderly asthma patient declares that hunger has driven the rodents to die in the open by the hundreds. A young journalist, Raymond Rambert, calls on Dr. Rieux to discuss his current project, a report on the sanitary conditions in the Arab population. Dr. Rieux's main concern before talking with Rambert is to make sure that Rambert will report the truth about the sad state of public sanitation.
Dr. Rieux's mother comes to stay with him while his wife is away. Meanwhile, Dr. Rieux contacts Mercier, the man in charge of pest control, to suggest that sanitation measures be taken. The public begins to feel uneasy when the flood of dying rats continues to increase. The newspapers clamor for the city government to address the problem. In response, the city arranges for the daily collection and cremation of the corpses. Just as a mild hysteria begins to grip the public, the phenomenon abruptly disappears.
The same day, Dr. Rieux meets Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, escorting a feverish, weakened M. Michel to his home. M. Michel's neck, armpits, and groin are swelling painfully. Dr. Rieux promises to visit him later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, he receives a telephone call from a former patient, Joseph Grand, regarding an accident suffered by his neighbor, Cottard. Upon his arrival, Dr. Rieux discovers that Cottard has tried to hang himself. Cottard becomes agitated when Dr. Rieux states that he will have to submit a report about the incident to the police. Dr. Rieux visits M. Michel to find his condition worsening. M. Michel dies in an ambulance en route to the hospital.
Other victims succumb to the same illness in the days that follow. The narrator introduces the reader to Jean Tarrou, the author of the written documents mentioned earlier. Tarrou, a vacationer in Oran, keeps notebooks containing detailed reports of his observations about daily life in Oran. He records conversations regarding the appearance of the mysterious illness in the wake of the dying rats. An old man periodically comes out onto a balcony opposite Tarrou's hotel room to spit on the cats sunning themselves below. When the plague of dead rats entices the cats away, the little old man seems greatly disappointed. Tarrou writes about a family of four with a disagreeable, strict father, M. Othon, who dines every day at the hotel. The hotel manager, dismayed at the dead rats in his three-star hotel, takes no comfort in Tarrou's assurance that everyone is in the same boat. The manager snootily explains that he is bothered precisely because his hotel is now like everyone else. One of the chambermaids becomes sick with the strange illness, but the manager assures Tarrou that it probably isn't contagious. In the midst of these vignettes of daily life in Oran, Tarrou ponders philosophical matters such as how not to waste one's time.
Part I: Chapters 4-8
When Dr. Rieux urges the head of the medical association, Dr. Richard, to order any new cases of the disease into isolation wards, Dr. Richard insists that the Prefect must issue the order. A spate of rainy weather produces a "moody listlessness" in the population with the exception of Dr. Rieux's asthma patient who welcomes it as a curative for his asthma. Dr. Rieux and Grand meet with the police inspector for the inquiry into Cottard's attempted suicide. Grand suffers intense anxiety over his choice of words when giving his deposition. The inspector chastises Cottard for disturbing other people's peace.
Dr. Rieux lances the swellings on the necks, armpits, and groins of the victims of the disease, releasing a thick, bloody pus. Most of the cases are fatal. The newspapers that made such a fuss over the rats are strangely silent regarding the disease. Dr. Rieux and his colleague, Castel, speculate that the disease is probably the bubonic plague. Castel predicts that their colleagues and the city government will try to deny the obvious. Despite periodic outbreaks of the plague, people tend to hold the view that it has disappeared in "temperate climates."
Dr. Rieux notes that wars and plagues have always existed in human populations, yet people are always surprised when they become victims of one or the other. Even though he has personally seen several fatal cases, the events seem unreal even to him. As he recalls vivid, horrifying historical accounts of plague epidemics, Dr. Rieux braces himself for the possibility of another one.
Grand is assigned the daily task of calculating the deaths. Accompanied by Cottard, he reports to Dr. Rieux that the number of deaths is on the rise. Afterwards, he bids the doctor and Cottard goodbye because he must attend to some mysterious, important activity.
Twenty years ago when Grand accepted his job, he was promised advancement to better paying positions. However, the man who promised him the possibility of advancement has long since died, and Grand is unsure of the specifics of his promises. He has a great deal of difficulty expressing himself because he has a fanatical need to find the "right words." Therefore, he has never written a letter of protest demanding that the promises made to him be kept. Dr. Rieux intuits that Grand is trying to write a book.
Dr. Rieux wires to Paris to request plague serum. Meanwhile, his colleagues wage war against the "wait and see" attitude of the city's government. Dr. Rieux urges that immediate measures to deal with problem be taken because he fears the disease could kill off half the city. As the newspapers begin to cautiously discuss the disease, the authorities continue to drag their feet. Meanwhile, the tally of deaths continues to mount.
Grand reports that Cottard keeps acting as if he has something weighing on his conscience. The serum for the plague is long in coming, and Dr. Rieux finally realizes that he is afraid. When he checks on Cottard, Cottard seems stricken with a strange paranoia. Rieux's asthma patient speculates that the disease is an outbreak of cholera, noting that people seem nervous and jittery. Finally, Dr. Rieux demands that the Prefect take real measures to address the rising epidemic. When the serum arrives, it is adequate to deal only with the immediate cases. As spring settles on Oran, people continue to lead their lives as they always do. A sharp spike in deaths finally prompts the authorities to declare a state of plague and quarantine the town.
Part II: Chapters 9-10
The public reacts to their unexpected isolation with an intense longing for loved ones outside Oran. Mail service is stopped for fear of spreading the plague beyond the city walls. The public, settling into a grim acceptance of exile, ceases to ponder a hopeful future. If someone speculates that the epidemic will last six months, he or she quickly realizes that there is no reason why it should not last for a year or longer. Contemplation of the present provokes helpless impatience, and the past provokes regret. The citizens, who now consider themselves prisoners, drift aimlessly through the days because all of their hope and suffering seem irrational. Fortunately, the selfish obsession with personal distress prevents widespread panic. The cafes and the movie theaters enjoy brisk business because the idle public needs to occupy its time.
Grand explains to Dr. Rieux why his marriage to Jeanne failed. They married, continued to love one another, and worked. However, they worked so hard that they forgot to love one another, and she eventually left him. Grand has tried unsuccessfully for years to write her a letter explaining his actions.
Rambert is determined to escape Oran in order to rejoin his wife in Paris. He tells the authorities that he is entitled to leave Oran because he has no real connections to it, having been trapped there by chance. The authorities state that they cannot set a "precedent" by letting him leave. Dr. Rieux refuses to give him a certificate declaring him free of the plague. Rieux acknowledges that it is an absurd situation, but there is nothing to do but accept it. Rambert accuses him of using the language of abstraction. After all, the interests of the public are a collection of the interests of private individuals. Meanwhile, Rambert settles in lethargy, drifting from one cafe to another.
Dr. Rieux muses that his situation requires a certain "divorce from reality." The beds in the emergency hospitals are full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. Pity has become useless, so he no longer indulges in it.
Part II: Chapters 11-14
On Sunday, Father Paneloux delivers a sermon to a packed church declaring that God has sent the plague to punish Oran's citizens for their sins. Rambert continues his efforts to persuade the authorities to allow him to leave Oran. Rambert is briefly hopeful when he is asked to fill out a a detailed form about his education and work experience until he learns that it will be used to contact his family in case he dies of the plague. He is amazed that the bureaucracy continues to function as always.
Grand explains to Rieux that in writing his book he wants to create a flawless manuscript. So far, he has succeeded in creating a rough draft of his opening line, which he shares with Rieux. Outside, the mood of Oran drifts towards hysteria. Some people try to escape, and there are scenes of violence.
Summer descends on Oran, accompanied by its characteristic scorching heat. When the sounds of groaning victims drift out to the street, no one stops to listen in pity. Escape attempts are now punishable by long prison terms. The tally of deaths is announced daily over the radio rather than weekly. The little man across from Tarrou's room ceases to appear on his balcony because all the cats have been shot as possible carriers of the plague. Othon, the magistrate, continues to dine at Tarrou's hotel with his children even though his wife has been quarantined.
Rieux's asthma patient declares that everything is "topsy turvey." Although there are "more doctors than patients," the death toll continues to rise. Tarrou records that the asthma patient decided one day that he had worked enough for a lifetime. He detests watches, so he marks time by moving peas from one saucepan into another. The Plague Chronicle is launched under the guise of providing informed commentary on the epidemic, but it contains nothing but advertisements for "infallible antidotes" against the plague. The public spends extravagantly on costly meals and expensive wines at restaurants.
Part II: Chapters 15-17
The serum from Paris proves ineffective, and the plague turns pneumonic. Rieux thinks that his wife is lying about the state of her health in her telegrams. Tarrou draws up a plan to recruit volunteers for the sanitation league because he does not want to see anyone condemned to death by compulsory service. Rieux would be grateful for the help, but he asks Tarrou if he has weighed the dangers. When Tarrou asks for his opinion on Paneloux's sermon, Rieux states that the plague victims' suffering makes him detest the idea of "collective punishment." Tarrou believes that human catastrophes have a positive side because they force people to "rise above themselves." When Tarrou asks if he believes in God, Rieux avoids the question by explaining that Paneloux has not seen the suffering first hand, so he has the luxury of believing in "Truth." Rieux believes that it might be best to cease believing in God and to throw all efforts into defying death. Although such efforts might be useless, he sees no reason for giving up.
Although Tarrou's plan proves effective, Rieux hesitates to exaggerate the importance of the volunteers' efforts because it makes them seem like rare occurrences. He believes that people are basically good, and that ignorance is their worst vice. The volunteers realize that the plague is everyone's concern, so they do their duty by helping to fight it. Doctor Castel begins making serum using the local bacillus microbe. Grand becomes a general secretary for the sanitation league. Rieux muses that many readers will require a "hero," so he offers Grand as an "insignificant and obscure hero."
When Rambert begins investigating illegal methods of escape, Cottard offers to help him. Cottard has become a smuggler, and he has made many acquaintances in the criminal underworld that has profited from the plague. He brings Rambert ever deeper through the criminal underworld, until he meets someone who is able to help. Rambert has to wait two days while his escape is arranged, so he contacts Dr. Rieux to update him on his endeavors. Dr. Rieux is tired because there is a constant shortage of equipment and manpower to fight the plague. A snag delays Rambert's escape again, but eventually all is in place: two sentries, Marcel and Louis, agree to smuggle him out in return for 10,000 francs.
When Tarrou suggests that Rambert might be useful in the anti-plague efforts, Rambert becomes taciturn and obstinate. Moreover, his escape plan again hits a snag when Marcel and Louis miss their appointment to meet him the next day. He has to start over again, and goes back to Cottard. Cottard remarks to Tarrou that the efforts of the sanitation league are useless because they don't seem to be making much difference. Tarrou insists that it is every able-bodied man's duty to help fight the plague and asks Cottard to join the league. Cottard refuses because "it's not [his] job." He would have been arrested for a crime he committed in the past were it not for the plague.
Rambert reveals that he stopped believing in heroism after taking part in the Spanish Civil War on the losing side. When he states that Tarrou is capable of dying for an idea, Rieux asserts, "Man isn't an idea." Rambert retorts that man is an idea if he is incapable of love. Rieux insists that fighting the plague isn't heroic, but a matter of "common decency." Tarrou draws Rambert aside to inform him that Rieux's wife is in a sanitarium 100 miles away from the city. Chagrined, Rambert offers to join the sanitation league until he can escape.
Part III: Chapter 18
By mid-August, the public begins to view the plague as a collective disaster. The plague delivers "impartial justice" because its victims occupy all levels of the social hierarchy. Owing to the high number of deaths, funerals are stripped of their ceremony to ensure speedy interment. Eventually, it becomes necessary to bury the victims in mass graves. When there is no longer space in the cemetery, the authorities begin cremating the bodies. Fortunately, the plague does not get worse after the capacity of the crematorium is reached. The memories of absent loved ones fade as the public sinks into despondency. The residents of Oran begin to speak of their pain to others.
Part IV: Chapters 19-25
Grand often talks about Jeanne to Rieux; he, in turn, unburdens his worries about his own wife. Rieux verifies his suspicion that her health is failing with the sanitarium authorities. Rieux hardens his heart against the desperation of the families of plague victims in order to continue doing his work. Meanwhile, Tarrou devotes a great deal of attention to Cottard in his notebooks. Cottard has always lived with a constant sense of fear. He is happier now that he no longer bears that burden alone. He craves human contact, but he distrusts everyone as a possible police informant. During the plague, everyone craves this same contact, but they must also distrust everyone as a possible carrier of the deadly plague. Tarrou writes of a performance of Gluck's Orpheus. The actor playing Orpheus collapses on the stage in the manner of a plague victim just as Eurydice is taken back to the Underworld. Calm at first, the audience eventually stampedes for the exit.
When a definite time for his escape is finally set, Rambert chooses to stay because he is too ashamed to leave during such a crisis. Meanwhile, Castel finishes the first batch of serum, and Othon's small son is the first to receive it. The child suffers terribly before dying as Paneloux, Rieux, and Tarrou watch in horror. Rieux lashes out at Paneloux, shouting that the boy was an innocent victim. Paneloux understands that Rieux's anger is directed at his sermon some months earlier.
In the deadly grip of the plague, the public has turned its attention from religion to superstition. When Paneloux delivers his next sermon, the church is emptier than before. He maintains that his first sermon is still relevant. He declares that the unanswerable question of an innocent child's suffering is God's way of placing the Christian's back to a wall. It tests his faith because it requires him to either deny everything or believe everything. Paneloux cites a chronicle of a previous epidemic in which only four monks survived, three of whom fled the stricken city. He declares to his congregation that each of them should choose to be the one who stays behind. He argues against mute resignation because there is no excuse to give up the struggle. Soon thereafter, Paneloux falls ill, but he refuses to consult a doctor. His symptoms do not conform to those of the plague, so when he dies, Rieux marks him as a "doubtful case."
When his period of quarantine ends, Othon volunteers to remain in the camp to help out with the anti-plague effort because it would make him feel "less separated" from his son. Rieux is amazed to see gentleness in Othon's character because he has always regarded him as a steely, inflexible man. During Christmas, Grand is overcome with depression because it reminds him of his courtship with Jeanne. He falls ill with the plague and Rieux burns his papers at his request. Most of the papers concern the opening line to Grand's book, but one sheet contains an unfinished opening to a letter addressed to Jeanne. Grand makes a surprising recovery, and better yet, the plague deaths overall begin to decline. Rieux's asthma patient gleefully declares that the rats are back.
The population hesitates to show any hope in response to the declining death rate because they have become cautious during their long confinement. Castel's serum proves effective in a number of cases, and all signs point to a waning of the epidemic. However, Othon succumbs to the plague just as hope is strongest. The Prefect issues an announcement that the gates will be opened in two weeks, but the sanitation measures will remain in effect for another month. Cottard becomes distressed at signs of the end of the plague. When Tarrou walks him home, two men who look like government employees approach Cottard. Cottard flees, while they follow him unhurriedly.
When Tarrou falls ill with the plague, Rieux and his mother care for him. Tarrou vows to fight for his life, but he asks that Rieux be entirely truthful with him about his condition. Despite a hard struggle against the plague, Tarrou dies after several days. Rieux receives a telegram reporting his wife's death.
When the gates open in February, the incoming trains are packed. Rambert's wife comes from Paris to meet him in Oran. Rambert finds himself greatly changed by the plague. He regards their impending reunion with anticipation, but not with the burning passion of before.
Dr. Rieux reveals that he is the narrator of the chronicle. He wanted to do his best to present an objective narrative. As a doctor, he had a great deal of contact with all levels of Oran society during the plague. He feels that there are only a few things that the townspeople have in common--love, exile, and suffering. He limited himself to reporting only what people did and said, rather than speculating as to what they thought or felt. Of Cottard, Tarrou said that only his real crime was approving of something that killed people. Rieux adds that Cottard had an ignorant, lonely heart. Unable to cope with the end of the plague, Cottard shuts himself in his apartment and begins firing a gun into the street. The police eventually take him into custody. Afterwards, Grand informs Rieux that he wrote Jeanne a letter and has been feeling much better. He has also resolved to continue working on his book.
Rieux's asthma patient, remarking about Tarrou's death, notes that it seems the best always die. The patient notes the odd pride that some of the town residents take in having survived the plague. They will honor the dead with a memorial before returning to their old lives and activities as if nothing happened. When Rieux watches the public rejoice at the end of their exile, he is forced to agree with him. For that reason, he decided to bear witness to the plague victims. The plague has drawn him to the conclusion that there is more to praise than despise in humans. He acknowledges that the bacillus microbe can lie dormant for years, and he notes that for that reason the chronicle does not record a final victory by any means.
D. B. Gavani