Chaos prevails when the bubonic plague strikes the Algerian coastal city of Oran. A haunting tale of human resilience in the face of unrelieved horror, Camus' novel about a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature.
Camus' The Pague follows a small collection of men in the city, each of whom reacts to the Plague in different ways. We have the reporter Rambert, who spends his time trying to escape back to his wife in Paris, the criminal Cottard who takes solace in the fact that everyone else is now suffering as much as he has suffered, and the doctor Rieux, who accepts the facts of the plague and does what he feels is the only thing there is to do, fight it wherever it reveals itself, among others.
While the plague is real and terrible in the book, Camus is not simply writing about a single epidemic. The lifeshaking event of the plague is not the terror itself in his novel, but rather a giant focusing crystal through which people are forced to look at the essence of our everyday lives. It shocks the characters and the readers into contemplation of what has value in their lives and how we should live when living is so full of struggle and uncertainty.
This isn't a book all about a plague and what it does to a city, it's a book about a city and what it does when faced with the plague. It is not a gut wrenching horror novel, but a book for serious contemplation. It is literature written to provoke thought in the reader, and if the reader is not interested in taking the ideas of The Plague and applying them to their own everyday life, the value of The Plague will be be lost on them.
The greatest part of this novel is in its dialogue. The characters in The Plague are all symbolic of particular mindsets, and their discussions are not just discussions between people but interactions of various ways of thinking. As a quick example here is a chat between Tarrou and Rieux, the two men who probably have the greatest understanding of each other in the book.
"What do you think of Paneloux's sermon, Doctor?"
The questions was asked in quite an ordinary tone, and Rieux answered in the same tone.
"I've seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment. But, as you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They're better than they seem."
"However, you think, like Paneloux, that the plague has a good side; it opens men's eyes and forces them to take thought?"
The doctor tossed his head impatiently.
"So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What's true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you'd need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague."
You can flip to any page in this book and find similar dialog, all contemplative and struggling with the reality of the plague and life. I've yet to read a work of existential thought so well crafted or that illuminated my own philosophy so well.
The Plague will not be for everyone. It is critical of certain aspects of religion, can be considered extremely depressing or nihilistic, and anyone looking for a 'page turner' will not find any narrative suspense to keep them interested here. This is a sober thinker's book, and one that I have mentally shelved (face forward) as reference as I continue my philosophical education.
The setting for the novel is the town of Oran on the Algerian coast, a town that Camus knew well and a place that he did not like. In his novel the outbreak of plague is preceded by an inundation of rats, these rodents seem to erupt from the pavements, drains, and foundations of the houses to die in the public places, the authorities are at a loss to know what to do but the deaths of these rodents seem to solve the problem and the townsfolk can get on with what they do best: making money from their commercial enterprises. Soon the first cases of plague are reported, but again the authorities are loathe to introduce measures that will disrupt their commercial life: it is only when the daily death count reaches thirty that they decide to act and a state of siege is declared. Without warning the town gates are closed, nobody is allowed in or out and the army set up camp to impose these measures. The citizens of the town are trapped as are all visitors, there is no communication with the outside world apart from the telegram system. The town and its people are on their own. It is from this imposed isolation that the inhabitants suffer most, and Camus focuses on a group of men who suffer this isolation most keenly either because their loved ones are separated from them in the outside world or because they themselves were trapped alone in the town when the gates were closed. These men band together to revolt against the pestilence and they fight with all means at their disposal. Dr Bernard Rieux is central to all that takes place working to the point of exhaustion to alleviate the suffering of the plague victims and fighting an uphill battle against it's spread. It is Jean Tarrou an older man who had just recently come to settle in Oran who along with Dr Rieux's assistance organises the volunteer groups who will put themselves out amongst the victims in the firing line of the plague. They are helped eventually by Raymond Rambert who is working clandestinely to escape from the town, but when he eventually gets a chance to leave chooses to stay and fight and then they are joined by Father Paneloux a Jesuit who had preached a sermon at the start of the plague whose theme was that it was Gods vengeance on a community who were deserving of everything that they were suffering. Perhaps the real hero however is Joseph Grand a minor clerk in the City Hall, who is writing a novel in his spare time and is the epitome of a man quietly working for the common good.
The novel was published in 1947 and was greeted by the critics as an allegory of the Nazi's occupation of Paris in the second world war and while certain pointers in the novel lead the reader in this direction I think it is misleading to read The Plague in this way. The Plague is not the Nazi's but it could be an allegory for any dogma that entraps people and obstructs their ability to act as human beings. Camus message is that we must revolt against any such imposition and it is up to the individual to revolt, usually outside of official channels, but on no account should that revolt lead to the death of our fellow men. Many of the characters in the band of volunteers seem to be endorsing Camus philosophy and it is intriguing to wonder as to which of them Camus identified with most, perhaps all of them. It would be wrong however to paint this novel as some obscure allegory or philosophical tract, because there is a real feel for the characters and the town of Oran. Camus writes superbly and we care about the characters although in typical modernist fashion we feel just a step away from them, as emotions are kept in check and it is only on rare occasions we get an insight as to their inner thoughts. The descriptions of the town under siege are atmospheric as is the effect of the weather which again is a key feature of this novel. Camus also does not spare the reader the vicissitudes of the effects of the plague on individuals: the deaths of the Mayors young son and also of one of the leading characters is full of horror and poignancy. Again as in his first novel [L'estranger] the reader is left with a text in where hardly a word seems out of place and one which can be read on many levels.
Having read more of Camus recently I am struck by this authors love of his fellow man. It is love that must in the end lead us to a life that is fulfilling. Camus idea that we are all alone in an unfeeling universe and that the absurd (death) can strike us at any moment is almost too much too bear if we do not have the capacity for love.
"Tears were running in a steady stream down the old Civil Servant's face. And these tears were devastating to Rieux because he understood them and he also felt a lump in the back of his throat. He too recalled the unfortunate man's engagement, in front of a shop, at Christmastime, and Jeanne leaning towards him to say how happy she was. From the depths of years long past, in the very heart of this madness, Jeanne's fresh face was speaking to Grand, that was sure. Rieux knew what the old man was thinking at that moment as he wept and he thought the same: that this world without love was like a dead world and that there always comes a time when one becomes tired of prisons, work and courage, and yearns for the face of another human being and the wondering affectionate heart."
Camus manages to pull off these moments with real pathos when his characters exhausted by their work and their stoicism are able to reach out to each other. The moments are few but all the more effective for that.
This novel is a magnificent achievement and will lend itself to many re-reads. Themes of separation, exile, revolt and love are bound inextricably into a story that plays itself out in its own very modernist world. A five star read.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story and there are enough reviews and literary critiques online to fill a million plague infested towns. I won’t be going down that route. I’ll only embarrass myself. But, just in case you have lived in a concrete shoe for many years, The Plague is, as one would expect, about a plague taking over a town which ultimately leads to its’ complete isolation and separation from the rest of the world. This town is Oman in Algiers which is said to have suffered the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is set in the 1940′s and Camus wrote the book with the intent that it would also be an allegory for the French Resistance during the occupation by the Nazi’s.
The story is told in five parts by an anonymous narrator who provides his account of the events as they unfold. The account follows the experiences of the town as it’s inhabitants endure the various stages of the plague. Ultimately, it’s a story about the human condition relating to isolation, separation and death. Underlying the story is Camus own belief that as humans we have a profound resilience and adaptability which enables us to cope with most of the crap which is thrown at us – when faced with exile and the threat of death. Camus constantly reminds us about the depth of isolation and separation people are subject to as a consequence of being quarantined from those they love and the outside world. In describing the habits of the townspeople at moments of such exile, the narrator tells us;
“Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars”(p.62).
Camus is a wonderful writer, prone to completing many beautiful passages which conjure up the atmosphere, sights, sounds of any particular setting and some which seek to have an alternative meaning. It’s also a book which confuses me a little. I would imagine that a story about a town being cut off from the rest of the world because of an epidemic which means many people suffer a painful and gruesome death would be least be sensational with a great sense of panic and chaos. Camus does not write in such a way. As beautiful and sparkling as some of the passages are, the story is often told in a matter of fact way and there are equally mundane passages and, dare I say it, there were a few occasions where I did feel a little…bored… However, these were few and far between. Camus would then raise the bar with the most delicate touch in describing something so simple yet beautiful. One of my favourite parts is the moment when two of the main characters are sitting on a roof terrace, getting some brief respite from their relentless care of the dying. For the first time they open up and let down their defenses. The sounds, sights and senses lift off the page as Camus describes the almost idyllic setting amidst a town gripped by plague.
“In a sky swept crystal clear by the night wind, the stars showed like silver flakes, tarnished now and again by the yellow gleam of the revolving light. Perfumes of spice and warm stone were wafted on the breeze. Everything was very still” (p.200).
How I wish I could write like that!
As we come to the end of the book the narrator, who so far has remained anonymous, takes away the cloak and reveals himself. Still speaking in the third person, he lets us know that his decision to remain anonymous whilst recounting the tale has been done purposely in order that the tale be told more objectively and to enable him to speak for the town. He says -
“To be an honest witness, it was for him to confine himself mainly to what people did or said and what could be gleaned from documents. Regarding his personal troubles and his long suspense, his duty was to hold his peace…. Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad of voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the others and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all” (p.246).
So, I have read Camus. I can’t say it’s changed my life and there were a couple of occasions where it had felt like I had been reading the book for months. However, the smattering of beautiful passages more than made up for the times where I did become distracted. Additionally, I have gone on to read more about Camus, his philosophies and views on life and think he must have been a pretty cool chap to know. I’ll certainly pick up some more of his work in the future.
'The Plague' is a chronicle penned by Dr Bernard Rieux. Rieux tells how the plague penetrated and occupied Oran, an unimpressive town occupied by bored and unimpressive people who fritter away their lives. “Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and after a while you go complacently to sleep there.”
Rieux wants his account to bear witness to the suffering. To record what needed to be done, and to caution what may need to be done in the future. He says finally that it is a confirmation “that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
This is almost a comment on himself, as at the start of the novel Rieux sees the townspeople as merely existing; thoughtless, and banal, but not living. He is very tired of them. But when the first signs of plague appear he tries to rouse the local authorities. Once the plague settles in, Rieux leads the official defence against plague, while a small group of friends form the nucleus of the unofficial resistance. He does this not from any love he has for the people of Oran, but from a sense of duty. He believes that in a situation such as the plague, felt so impossibly acutely, all that can be done is the right thing. We must still seek to do what good lies in our power. And we must put our duty to the community is greater than the needs of the individual.
This view is contrasted to that of local Jesuit priest Paneloux, who believes the townspeople are being punished for their laxity. “Calamity has come on you my brethren, and my brethren, you deserved it”. He preaches that the “plague is the flail of God”, caused by the sins and evils deeds. He says God “will thresh out his harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff”. Although the plague is a bane and a sufferance, Paneloux argues that it is God’s will and should be borne with gratitude. We should submit to Providence, because through suffering Christians find hope and are comforted.
Rieux, and his close friend Tarrou, make studies of the reactions and social changes that occur as a result of the extended exile produced by the plague. Feelings vacillate through despair and hope, habits change and values shift. Rieux makes these observations from an emotional distance because he must. He has to take an abstracted view, from which he admonishes and urges those suffering, yet fights for them.
These sections of studies are interesting, especially if taken as an allegory of Nazi occupation of France. The novel was published in 1947, two years after the end of WWII, and Camus was active in the resistance movement. These pieces may then be accepted as social comments and observations that Camus had during the war. Unfortunately, I felt these pieces slow the pace of the novel. They lack immediacy, pulling the reader out of the personal story of Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, Cottard and Paneloux. I found it difficult to pin my interest on these generalised musings. But this is where the tale speaks of the universal, and the metaphysical themes drawn of out the work.
The stories of a small group of friends are shown to be only threads in an overarching fabric. Life is small, irrational, and vulnerable. There is no right and wrong. There is no meaning, he insists, in the innumerable deaths that, over time, “are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination.” It is nobody’s will, nor the ‘Flail of God’, nor Fate. It is simply the chance combination of indifferent factors and their arbitrary effect. So, although these sections are distant, they are purposeful.
Regarding the writing style, ‘The Plague’ is written beautifully. Camus has charming phrases; “twilight of our minds” and his description of people like Grand “obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities”. The themes of the novel are romantic and grand. And when I read this novel for the first time I was moved by its profundity that seemed so simple and familiar, and its bold but sophisticated challenge to religion. Camus seemed to be daring the world. The challenge he puts forth is: How should we respond?
How should we respond to this state of meaninglessness and uncertainty? We must be vigilante, even of the tendencies within ourselves, our communities, and we have a duty to resist. The righteous men do not let themselves become a “shade amongst the shadows”; the righteous continue, despite everything. They do not give up; they continue to hope and to search for happiness.
The action of The Plague takes place in the '40s, in the town of Oran. It is a town just like any other all over the Western world. The inhabitants are busy living their materialistic lives consumed with careers, successes, money and goods that can be bought for it. The lives they lead are, in short, industrial lives with no place for emotions, existential thoughts and spiritual insights. Until, one day the rats start coming out and dying right in the open. The reader already has an idea of what's to come but not the residents of Oran. They are still preoccupied with their orderly lives and the phenomenon of dying rats is nothing more than an inconvenience and an annoying intrusion upon their 'in the box' reality. However, slowly, but surely Oran drowns in the plague, people, instead of rats are dying by hundreds every week and those who are not infected yet find themselves imprisoned in their own homes, their own town, having no choice but to look on their lives from a different, emotional perspective.
Camus tells the story through the eyes of an objective narrator, intertwining it with accounts of personal experiences of major characters: Tarrou, Dr. Rieux, Cottard, Rambert, Grand and Father Paneloux. They are all very different people, who would otherwise never have met and gotten close, but the disease devouring the town brings them together in many, sometimes unpredictable, ways. As it goes with almost all classics, there are various ways The Plague can be looked upon. And not one single opinion will be the correct one. My thoughts on it are many. But the most important one is that it has to be read. Whether one likes it or not, whether the writing seems tedious or there is not enough action going on, and whether it seems difficult to comprehend or not deep enough, it is a novel that is worth the time and effort. Besides Camus's word artistry, the universal theme is what everyone should have the time to ponder upon at least once in their lifetime. The plague is not just a medical affliction, it is a phenomenon which, in its cruelty and indifference, cuts those afflicted with it off from the rest of the world, from their own families even and leaves them utterly alone with their individual suffering. Now, with death glaring at them and coming ever so closely, they question their lives, their morals, they ask who brought it upon them and why, and they never really get one satisfactory answer. How many plagues have afflicted our world since The Plague was written? I think that every misery that brings death, isolation and suffering of the innocents is that plague.
There is no structural experimentation here: but it combines highly effective narration over its arc, the presentation in a sober and undramatic way of the approach to life Camus put forth in his non-fiction works, and a quasi-allegorical perspective on the past occupation of France by the Germans. Camus' prose is spare and clean, effective and with an understated elegance.
Well worth reading, and rereading.
Everyone will at some point be struck by the absurdity of life. Camus urges us to step up and fight for what is right regardless of this absurdity. The rebellion in full knowledge of the lack of hope is a necessary condition of life. Besides Dr. Rieux there is a secondary character that is continuously working on a book but can never perfect the first paragraph. Again here we have a rebellion that this man must keep working in the face of horrific pain and in the sure knowledge that as much as he would like to finish this book he will never be able too.
There is another step that Camus takes when speaking about the church in Oran. Camus feels that when the absurdity is revealed it must strip away the pieces of our lives used as crutches. The church serves to try and explain those most difficult parts of our lives. Here in the face of this horror Camus uses Dr. Rieux to show the inadequacy of its explanation. The church here serves as source of comfort that obscures the unsettling facts of the situation. Camus finds this unacceptable and believes real freedom of the mind comes without these filters.
This book was tremendously important in my life and while I can see its problems, Camus exposed a new realm. I plan on reading this book again soon and its message to me at this point may well be different but I still find this first reading very influential. I recommend this to anyone and everyone. Even if you hate the book I can understand that but it explains a worldview of significance in our complex modern world.
This relatively short work, easily read in two sittings, is concerned with an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the Algerian port city on Oran at some point in the 1940s. While there is some description of the disease and the impact on the city’s populace, as you would expect, the bulk of the novel concerns a handful of the citizenry (a broad cross section), their experiences and mental state as the outbreak gradually worsens and society begins to break down.
It has been said that the Plague is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France and that may certainly be true, given the time frame. In any event, while this is not my preferred style of work, I was pleasantly surprised at the accessibility of the prose and had no problem appreciating the author’s message. That said, it is unlikely that I will seek out other such work. At least now I can say that I read Camus.
I probably should have read the book instead of listening to the audiobook... I think I probably missed a lot of the philosophical nuances because I couldn't slow down to contemplate things.
What struck me the most (and what I found the most disappointing, based on my expectations of the book) was that people's reactions to the plague in their town are so banal. There is none of the extremism of the medieval reaction - no crazy hedonism, no looting, no extreme religious fervor. In fact, the reactions all seem very understated to me. People mourn their loved ones, but mostly people are upset about being quarantined.
Mostly, I feel like I missed something here. There were some interesting philosophical questions, and some interesting contrasts between those people who retreated into themselves and those who worked to help others. Perhaps I should have read this in the context of a class or a book discussion group to get more out of it.
"It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!" - (Daniel Defoe, Preface to Volume three of Robinson Crusoe)
The importance of this selection suggests Camus' story will be about more than the town of Oran in 194_ and points to motifs of imprisonment and existence. This is certainly worth considering as one enters Camus' fictional world as are most epigraphs. In his excellent survey of modern French writers, From Proust to Camus, Andre Maurois observes that:
In The Plague Camus is mainly interested in the reactions of men faced with the collapse of everything they had believed to be secure: communications systems, trade, health. It is no longer a single Sisyphus but a city of Sisyphuses who themselves crushed by disaster.(p. 356)
This aspect of the novel is certainly a rich topic for discussion as one nears the end of its second section. The work abounds with Sisyphean metaphors while even the structure demonstrates this theme as Camus has a virtual rebeginning at the start of the second part mirroring the opening of the novel and reminding us of the greater Sisyphean task before us. The failure of communication exists at all levels and we see reminders on almost every other page; for example in chapter 9 (the opening of Section two) we see "all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another."
In some sense the novel becomes one of creating a community within Oran to deal with the Sisyphean task of the ordeal of the Plague and the greater task of living one's life. The city and the people change as they try to deal with the cataclysm that has overtaken them. The community is infected and imprisoned and becomes obsessed with communication and the futility of communication with no response (more Sisyphus or merely the absurd?) The novel is written with simple complexity in that the seemingly simple prose reveals through careful analysis complexity that rivals any of Camus' favorite authors (Melville, Dostoyevsky, Kafka). The narrator claims to be writing a chronicle (see Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year), but there are contrasts and mysteries that arise immediately including the question of the identity of the narrator. On page 6 we read that "the narrator (whose identity will be made known in due course". When that will be will have to wait until quite near the end of the novel. At any rate the narrator claims to have access to both his own witness of events, the testimony of other eyewitnesses and documents that record the events (this will include a journal that forms part of the subsequent text). The first person to whom we are introduced is Dr. Rieux who encounters rats almost immediately, but does not think much of that. We wondered why, especially after he notices a bleeding rat, that as a doctor he does not think about plague and disease, but he does not and that will have to wait.
It isn't long before the town's physicians, including Dr. Bernard Rieux, whose ailing wife had just departed Oran to be cared for in a sanitorium, declare that bubonic plague is upon the town during a meeting with the Prefect.
Unfortunately, it takes the rest of the population a bit longer to acknowledge the outbreak, since the plague's attack begins slowly. Bubonic plague is the last thing anyone expects. It is not until the Prefect orders the town gates closed and all vehicular transportation terminated than panic truly sets in.
While Rieux works tirelessly to treat the victims, ultimately unable to do more than keep a tally of the ever-increasing death rate, each of his colleagues and friends reacts to the crisis differently.
Dr. Castel begins formulating an inoculation against the plague once it's realized that the medicines sent in from Paris have no effect.
An elderly town clerk, Joseph Grand struggles with his novel-in-progress, fretting over the opening sentence for months all the while struggling with the fact that his wife, Jeanne, left him as she could no longer tolerate living in poverty. Finally, Grand volunteers to assist with plague prevention.
The mysterious Cottard, a man of "independent means", attempts to commit suicide at the onset of the plague, but is stopped by his neighbor, Grand. Cottard has a deep distrust of the police, but comes to find that while they are distracted by the plague, his seedy activities can continue unchecked.
Young journalist Raymond Rambert is only visiting Oran for a story when the town is quarantined and will go to any lengths to escape and return to his wife. When all legal means are exhausted, he turns to Cottard in desperation.
Father Paneloux, pastor of the town's Catholic church, believes that the plague is God's punishment and delivers a sermon to that effect, but eventually has a change of heart, stating that God will also offer succor and mercy. He then volunteers to assist Rieux with caring for the sick and is witness to the violent death of Magistrate Othon's son.
Jean Tarrou, who quickly becomes Rieux's closest friend, arrived in Oran just weeks before the plague erupted and decides to form teams of sanitation workers on a volunteer basis to fight the plague. Eventually, he reveals his life story to Rieux as a way of explaining why he is fiercely determined to help people when lives are at stake.
Other characters come in and out of the narrative, but the question is whether the efforts of this core team can bring an end to a plague that ravages Oran over the course of nearly a full year. The general atmosphere and attitude of the town is brilliantly depicted as the plague escalates through the seasons.
The Plague was Camus's first book published after WWII. Contemporary readers unfamiliar with Camus—or with works written in this era—will most certainly cringe at pages of dense background information that would, in today's terminology, be considered "infodumps." There are also the occasional archaic sentence structures and words (a few even sent me to the dictionary) and outdated expressions of the time.
However, as I tend to gravitate toward classics, this style of prose is no stranger to me and is to be expected. It does nothing to diminish the enjoyment of such stories, but instead offers a glimpse into the history and evolution of literature.
PS A new translation of Exile and the Kingdom appeared in 2007. Can a new translation of The Plague be far off? Let's hope not. This one was published in 1948!
The main character, Dr. Rieux, is the protagonist, first notices that the rats of the town seem to be dying en masse. The authorities gather up these rats and burn them, but the collection of the rats in one place before burning exacerbates the situation, causing a plague to break out.
The town is quarantined, awaiting serums to treat the plague. Rieux helps treat the sick, but other take advantage of the situation: criminals rising to the top as smugglers, religious officials converting droves of followers, and so forth.
This story tells more than a tale of a French town facing a plague. It has deeper layers beyond that, showing the more basic aspects of humanity in panic, but also exhibits an absurdist slant, akin to Kafka's The Trial.
Camus, while overshooting the heads of most readers, may find his books welcome on the shelves of fans of other existentialist writers: Sartre, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. If you don't think you're capable of handling such a work as this, go to your local video store and rent Outbreak. It'll at least give you a little culture (Wolfgang Petersen films usually do), not counting if you contract the deadly Motaba virus.
I know it's set in the 1940's, so maybe that's why they are so dumb? Let me see, a bunch of rats come out of the sewer and die, then people start dying and we just stand around and wonder if it's a plague... HELLO!
The style is dry (i.e. boring and un-engaging). You never get to care about any of the characters, so what does it matter if they all die in a plague? Again, I don't know if this is due to the era in which it was written, or the language it was originally written in, or maybe the author is just boring.
Anyway... if it wasn't a classic, I don't think I'd give it more than one star.