“The town itself, let us admit, is ugly.” So says Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of Albert Camus’ The Plague. “A glamourless, soulless, treeless town … which ends by seeming restful and after a while you can go complacently to sleep there.”
The novel takes place in the Algerian city of Oran, a small Mediterranean town in North Africa. Not only does Dr. Rieux find Oran ugly, he finds its inhabitants dreary people with little involvement in the actual business of living. Oran seems to be ruled by a dim commitment to business, and none of the inhabitants ever seem to awaken from their deep emotional slumber. Little curiosity is displayed when rats begin dying in masses upon the street. When the foreshadowing of what might be a plague hits the town, the reaction is merely one of pure “resignation, the same long sufferance, inexhaustible without allusions.”
In April, however, in what seems to be an ordinary day, when Dr. Rieux first steps on a dead rat – then another, and another – seeing them everywhere, thousands of rats staggering into the open and die, and littered among the bloated corpses of Oran’s inhabitants, Oran and its people soon discover that the dead and dying have a far more sinister tale to tell.
When hysteria begins to grip 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 severe sanitation measures, placing the whole city under quarantine, turmoil, and endangerment.
The Plague is about love, exile, and suffering as illuminated by living around death. What is the meaning of life? For many, that question is an abstraction except in the context of being aware of losing some of the joys of life, or life itself. In The Plague, Camus creates a tale of humans caught in the jaws of implacable death, in this case a huge outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran. With the possibility of dying so close, each character comes to see his or her life differently, and death as a reality rather than an abstraction. What role would you take if a plague were to be unleashed in your community? Would you flee? Would you help relieve the suffering? Would you become a profiteer? Would you help maintain order? Would you withdraw or seek out pleasures? Would you yield to grief, to pain, to misery and death, or fight it?
The idea of the absurd has much more of an abstract quality in The Plague than in Camus’ earlier work, like, say, The Stranger, but as always it is an ever-present theme. The plague itself can be read as a metaphor for absurdity, or at least as the type of devastating circumstance – such as a war – that brings people face to face with the absurd. When the plague initially breaks out, Dr. Rieux ponders how everyone was caught off guard by its appearance simply because it is not a normal part of the human experience.
“In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
While the plague teaches its victims of life’s absurdity by destroying freedom and killing at random, this universal death sentence that is the human condition is merely accentuated and made more immediate by the plague.
The central irony in The Plague lies in Camus’ treatment of freedom. The citizens of Oran become prisoners of the plague when their city falls under total quarantine, but it is questionable whether they were really “free” before the plague. Their lives were strictly regimented by an unconscious enslavement to their habits. It is even questionable whether they were really “alive.” It is only when they are separated by quarantine from their friends, families, and everyone who mattered to them that they most intensively begin to love them. Before, they were indifferent, unmoved, and took their loved ones for granted.
The destruction of freedom is an equally important element of the absurd condition forced upon the citizens of Oran. Like the French citizens in occupied Germany, they found their possibilities shrink from nearly limitless to virtually nonexistent, and eventually all of their separate destinies converge into one.
Camus uses the image of the sea to symbolize freedom. In the early weeks, the sea continues to have a real existence for them since it serves as a palpable reminder of a link with that outside world with which they are confident of resuming contact in the near future. But, as the plague established itself in all its terrifying permanence, the sea recedes from minds that no longer dare to dwell on freedom and are simply concerned to survive within the imprisoning walls of the town. As a symbol of freedom, the sea diminishes in reality as the action of the novel proceeds.
As war and tyranny grow stronger, freedom grows weaker. In the novel, it is plague that eventually engulfs the people and reduces the town from a free society into something more closely resembling a Nazi death camp. Camus writes:
“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the cross-currents of revolt and fear set up by these.”
But although the collective destiny of the people is one of suffering and death, the positive side is that the destiny is shared by them all. Rather than face absurdity on their own, the people stand together as victims. The feeling of exile is difficult to bear, but is a feeling common to them all. Once the plague finally subsides, Rieux considers this prevalent emotion and its counter-part: the desire for a reunion.
“For the first time Rieux found that he could give a name to the family likeness that for several months he had detected in the faces in the streets. He had only to look around him now. At the end of the plague, with its misery and privations, these men and women had come to wear the aspect of the part they had been playing for so long, that part of emigrants whose faces first, and now their clothes, told of long banishment from a distant homeland. … Most of them had longed intensely for an absent one, for the warmth of a body, for love, or merely for a life that habit had endeared. Some, often without knowing it, suffered from being deprived of the company of friends and from their inability to get in touch with them through the usual channels of friendship – letters, trains, and boats. Others, fewer these – Tarrou may have been one of them – had desired reunion with something they couldn’t have defined, but which seemed to them the only desirable thing on earth. For want of a better name, they sometimes called it peace.”
When a person is forced to confront the absurd, there are bound to be difficulties. But when forced to confront the true horrors of the world on a large scale with many other people, a feeling of solidarity is bound to develop, and out of the ashes will rise the values needed to face the absurd with assurance.