Composed in 1948, Albert Camus’ The Plague (Vintage International, 308 pages) is a study of human habit and frailty in a time of widespread destruction and crisis. A plague appears in a modern city called Oran in Algeria, afflicting the community for most of a year, then as abruptly lifts. Residents celebrate, much in the way of celebrations for the ending of world wars, with renewed energy for humanity’s “humble yet formidable love” (301). It is this love, an adult’s understanding of love in the view of protagonist Dr. Rieux, that Camus highlights toward the ending of the novel—that is, love as desire to join with another, whether adult son with mother, father with child, doctor with patients, wife with husband, or “true healers” who seek peace (254).
The significance of this potential for “humble” love is preceded by a long outlay of the horrors of the plague. Camus’ description of the plague is thoroughly researched, with references throughout history of these calamities from ancient times in various parts of the globe, whether in bubonic or pneumonic form. In Oran it takes both forms, and couldn’t be worse. With a dedicated and indefatigable Dr. Rieux prominent in the fight, the town attempts to deal with the onslaught via isolation wards, serums, and surgical procedures. However, as with all plagues, its attack is sudden and mysterious, and degeneration of the victim rapid. Bacteria live in clothing and people’s breath, the plague seems to swarm in the air, disease is omnipresent. Staying alive is a matter of luck more than precaution.
Camus’ characters for this fiction show a wide range of responses from hysterical to self-serving to self-sacrificing, as may be expected in response to any crisis in history or present day. A religious dilemma is not shirked. If the plague is the will of God then resistance is not only futile but questionable as right procedure. Father Paneloux wrestles with this conundrum while strenuously helping to fight the plague’s ravages. Finally, it is only the dying howl of an eight year old that concludes his falling away into silence, following his earlier sermons on God’s will. He too will die, but it is not clear whether from plague or his own despair. Father Paneloux is a moving figure of conflict and struggle, heroic in his resistance to the plague and fighting it. However, although greatly respected, he is socially isolated and without personal love.
Of course a parallel between plague and war is inevitable, the Oran microcosm fully applicable to “a world in which men were killed off like flies” (298), so, as might be expected from Camus, his primary subject in terms of the phenomenon of plague throughout the centuries is secondary to the correlative phenomenon of war. Close by to the creation of this novel is Camus’ experience as a resistance fighter to Nazism, which has created similar effects in destruction of the human community. Camus draws the analog carefully, and his account is remarkably factual and calmly stated, as in the mouth of the character Tarrou, who confesses that he himself is the plague, and so the two arms of destructive force are brought together in an embrace—plague and mankind.
Tarrou appeared in Oran as the plague started, a tourist, who, while trapped in the town due to its being closed and isolated, fights strenuously against the affliction and keeps notebooks on events. Rieux and Tarrou become friends and at one point late in the narrative have a long conversation. Tarrou states he has already had plague, and by that he means himself as plague. That is, although ordinary in upbringing, education, and interest in love affairs as a young man, he had done little thinking. Then, he felt riveted into new conclusions from witnessing his father as a prosecuting attorney mercilessly pursue an accused murderer, who resembled for Tarrou a kind of frightened owl desperate to undo and atone for his crime. This aspect of the story underscores the difficulty in understanding human behavior, including the potential to change and start anew, as well as vengeful response with little tolerance for reform.
Further, experiencing an execution by firing squad led Tarrou to a completely altered worldview in which he seeks the peace of being a healer. Clearly, he admires Rieux as such a person, although Rieux himself may not know himself in this way. For Tarrou, Rieux (as well as Rieux’s mother) is the model of calm, deliberate, tolerant, healing behavior. Here is the heart of Tarrou’s statement to Rieux, and the inner core of the plague symbolism:
For many years I’ve been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn. As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can bring relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good. So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others’ putting him to death (252-253).
Nearing the end of this novel, plague and war are again blended when the plague eases and eventually lifts. Oran is re-opened to boats coming to its harbor, trains begin again, and family members re-unite. The peculiar sibilance of the plague Rieux has heard so many times as a kind of high whistling noise in the sky subsides, replaced by the sounds of joy, in scenes reminiscent of jubilant parades at a war’s end. Unquestionably changed but unsure of what that change is, families and lovers return to what they most long for—the experience of love. Cottard, on the other hand, a man for whom the plague has suited his need for refuge as a criminal, behaves maniacally, attacking the police. His behavior, however, connects to Tarrou’s sympathy with the criminal who desperately regrets his past and longs to start over. With the plague ended Tarrou once again becomes a hunted man, his dream of “a second chance” ended in a shoot-out.
Camus’ The Plague speaks to any horrific affliction, whether the black death, world war, or the current state of western resource wars in conflict with jihadist revenge. Up against irrational and bewildering onslaught, human response is feeble and essentially unaware. It is similar to that of the young Tarrou before his enlightenment, when he confides to Rieux: ” . . . I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else. Only there are some people who don’t know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know it and want to get out of it. I’ve always wanted to get out of it” (245).
This view of humanity seems highly accurate for both Camus’ time and our own time in terms of moral dereliction (“ . . . there are some people who don’t know it, or feel at ease in that condition”) and a strong, restless yearning for peace (“others know it and want to get out of it”). But what answer is possible given the powerful cataclysms operative in nature’s way, including humanity’s colossal abilities for destruction? The Plague will not provide, nor is it meant to provide, an answer to this question. The problem is too complex, humanity too bewildering, despite whatever good intentions may be pursued.
Tarrou’s answer is to strive to be a “saint,” which he says is only slightly less difficult than being a “man,” which quality he ascribes to Rieux. Sainthood comes in speaking clearly, simply, truthfully, and refusing to be an instrument of plague in oneself, such as condemning to execution a criminal whose desperate desire is to start over, to come to grips with personal error and begin anew. (On this point we may also be reminded of Camus’ The Stranger.) But Rieux himself finds Tarrou’s position difficult to understand, although he himself and his mother embody qualities Tarrou seeks. Camus’ novel suggests there is no answer. Plagues will come and go mysteriously, their destruction endured by some who will celebrate with joy and renewed efforts to love only when the conflict is exhausted.
For readers familiar with Camus this position is well-known and, in considering his work, part of what is often called “the absurd.” The nature of reality and the cosmos is “absurd” in the sense of incomprehensible, including human potentials as part of that indecipherable complexity. A Tarrou may come to enlightenment and work hard to be a “saint,” then die, as Tarrou dies as one of the last victims of a plague that is withdrawing. Whether the reader sees Camus’ vision in the figure of Tarrou as hopeful or ironically meaningless, this profound chronicle The Plague beautifully elaborates the problems of humanity in large-scale crisis. This work will challenge readers’ thinking on how to respond to our troubled world.
–Peter Bollington, author of Mechanic of Fortune 2012