I’ve been meaning to read The Plague, by Albert Camus, for a long time. For some morbid reason, books about epidemics appeal to me. Unlike other pandemic books, The Plague asks readers to think about the meaning (or whether there is a meaning) to a devastating illness. No, The Plague doesn’t just ask. It demands that its readers think about what it means to live in a city cut off from the world by one of history’s most terrifying and leveling diseases.
At it’s most basic, the plot follows a handful of characters in the city of Oran sometime in the 1940s as they cope with an outbreak of bubonic plague. It’s been suggested that this book is also an allegory for the invasion and occupation of France during the Second World War. As I read the book, I could see the connections. I’ve found that very definite allegories don’t age well, as history moves further and further away from the events the book or story explores and as readers move on to different topics of concern. For example, it’s very hard to relate to books like Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan) or The Faerie Queene (Edmund Spencer). The Plague, however, has other things going for it that will keep it relevant no matter how long its been since Camus wrote it. As I read it, I felt that The Plague is probably one of those books I could read and re-read and still find new ideas to explore.
I won’t be so presumptuous as to say that I know what the book is about. I will, however, say what the book was about for me, at this reading. Camus doesn’t linger much on what the plague is or what its symptoms are, except when it serves the purpose of the story to do so. He does linger on the characters who try to assign meaning to the plague. The characters are not especially well rounded. Instead they serve as examples of how people chose to cope with something as horrific as an epidemic of the bubonic plague. Four characters stood out to me, as they demonstrate four different paths.
Cottard is a criminal who bizarrely thrives in the new Oran. Where other people cower indoors or join the fight against the disease, Cottard suddenly finds himself a big man in a smuggling operation. He could probably be seen as an analogue for war profiteers, especially considering what happens to him at the end. As the plague winds down, he grows increasingly panicked about what will happen after the plague ends. He all but hopes aloud that the plague will continue indefinitely.
Paneloux, the priest, represents a more traditional perspective on the plague–so traditional that his attitudes hark back to the medieval outbreaks of the plague. He gives two sermons, one after the city quarantines itself and another towards the end of the isolation period. The first sermon comes close to fire and brimstone at a couple of points, though Paneloux is a sophisticated, educated man. The first sermon boils down to Paneloux’s interpretation of the plague as a punishment from God. The plague is imagined as a flail, whipping the population back onto the path of righteousness. It was hard to read, even though I know that that interpretation was not uncommon. To my way of thinking, it demonstrates a very human tendency to wonder why terrible things happen. If we suffer, there has to be a reason. Paneloux’s second sermon is more temperate. Rather than being a scourge, the plague is a test for believers. He says:
[W]e must convince ourselves that there is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We must accept the dilemma and chose either to hate God or to love God. (205*)
Even when finally succumbs to plague, Father Paneloux accepts his fate. He refuses a doctor and lets the disease take him.
Jean Tarrou had a different perspective. Rather than falling back on what theology dictates, Tarrou lets his more logical philosophy guide him. Towards the end of the book, Tarrou talks to Dr. Rieux about an experience in his childhood that lead him to a lifelong abhorrence of death, especially the death penalty. In a way, the plague can be seen as a death penalty being passed on all the inhabitants of Oran, and there are references to the plague in this sense in the text. Just as he found against the death penalty in his younger years, Tarrou fights against the plague in every way that he can. As he talks to the doctor, Tarrou starts to talk about the plague as a personification of the evil that humans inflict on one another and he explains why he helps as much as he can”
I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can being relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good. (228)
Tarrou later asks “Can one be a saint without God?” (230). Speaking for myself, I think it is possible. I’m a little surprised that Tarrou didn’t take that last logical step. He built for himself an admirable code of ethics and he stuck to it until the end. If nothing else, he shows that one can be moral without God or a church threatening one with hellfire in order to make them behave.
The fourth character, Dr. Rieux, is more atheistic than Tarrou. While he goes to church, Rieux doesn’t ascribe any supernatural meaning to the plague. It’s a disease and its his duty to save as many people as possible. He listens to the other characters, and doesn’t argue with them directly. He just does his duty as he sees it. Interestingly, he’s the only one of the four to survive the plague.
Rieux’s the character I most identified with. I’m not enough of a bastard to profit while other suffer like Cottard does. And even when I went to church, I never thought the way Paneloux does. I wish I were as good and brave as Tarrou. The man is one of the most interesting would-be saints I’ve encountered. But Rieux, I think that way he does. Diseases are terrible things. An epidemic is terrifying, but it’s just a disease. It’s not sent to punish or to teach (unless it’s to teach us better hygiene). A bacilli or a virus or a prion just does what biology tells it to do. We fight back as best we can or we die. It’s simple, brutal biology.
This line of thought leads me to whether the book is existentialist or not. Camus split from the existentialists and didn’t like being labeled as one. I haven’t read a lot of existentialist literature, so I’m not sure what the hallmarks are. As I understand it, it’s all about pondering what life is supposed to mean and what one’s purpose is, outside of religion, at great length and in great anxiety. Camus doesn’t have the anxiety part, but The Plague could be read as an exploration of how humans deal with life in general. Do we embrace the inner schmuck and take advantages wherever we can? Should we kowtow to a deity and hope for a reward after death? Do we create our own code of conduct and try to live without hurting one another? Or do we just live, as best we can, without assigning meaning to every trial and reward?
I don’t know if I’m reading The Plague the right way, assuming there is a right way. But I found it a fascinating, profound read.
* All quotations from 1948 Modern Library edition.