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The Plague by Albert Camus

February 1, 2009

I haven’t read nearly enough by Albert Camus. Prior to reading The Plague, I had read The Stranger and the short “Myth of Sisyphus.” The Stranger is one of my favorite novels; if I try to explain now, this will turn into a review of that. Anyway…

According to the back of the book, “The Plague stands alongside The Stranger among the great novels of the twentieth century. Camus’ first book to be published after World War II, it is imbued with the intense concern for the human being that marks all his work. The story takes place in the Algerian port of Oran, where a ravaging epidemic of bubonic plague—which symbolically suggests other spiritual and political plagues—has thrown the city into a harrowing agony. Quarantined from the outside world, Oran becomes a prison of death and disease, to which each character reacts in his own way; the efforts of those seeking to alleviate the suffering become the focus of Camus’ human and humane passion.”

Some say this novel is an allegory for some crazy-ass political shit: that is is either a metaphor for the French resistance to Nazi occupation, or the spread of fascism. Honestly, I don’t know enough about either of those to go into that. I would make an ass of myself. (Then again, some may I make an ass of myself with all this pretentious existentialist talk)…

A. I read somewhere (bad me, no citations) that Camus specifically said this was not an existentialist novel (quickly: Existentialism dictates that existence precedes meaning. It is essential for us to CREATE meaning, because there is no inherent meaning to our existence. It’s closely related to Absurdism, in which humans try to find meaning but fail because no such meaning exists. Camus wrote a great deal on these topics (what a badass). I will be a total nerd right now and link to a livejournal post I wrote after reading some Camus. It totally sent me into a mini-crisis). So Camus said this book was not written to make us question the meaning. Were the characters able to realize how absurd life is, fighting the BUBONIC PLAGUE?! Or did they find meaning, thus rising above the absurdity? If we are not allowed to look at the book this way, I am not sure of how to approach it. I don’t want Camus’ corpse rising from the dead to smite me because I saw The Plague as a book all about finding meaning. What say you. Should I risk it? SHOULD I RISK ZOMBIE-CAMUS?

B. We could write papers and papers on each individual character (well, it’s been done, but we could do it again). Cottard tries to kill himself, but finds a reason to live when the plague comes; he smuggles in contraband and makes a killing. Grand spends his free time writing a novel, struggling for months with a complicated opening sentence (only to, at the end of the novel, cut out all the adjectives). Rieux fights the plague tirelessly while his wife is at a sanitarium, only to never be reunited, as she died near plague’s end. Paneloux delivers two strikingly different sermons, and believes his faith is enough to fight the plague. And more.

C. You know, this theme of creating meaning is all I got GOOD. There are some others:
*reason vs. emotion (always a literary favorite)
*separation, particularly if it is unending
*does human suffering prove God doesn’t exist?
*If you have no future, can you love? Or the converse.
*Modern life—we spend it frittering it away
*being prosecuted for unknown crime

I will stay away from the “meaning of life” analysis, because, well, I do that all the time. In elementary school, during morning announcements, a student was given the opportunity to recommend a book. My teacher nominated me; they expected to be blown away by my recommendation (yeah, I was a nerd then, too). However, I went with the classic One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and disappointed the hell out of them. But you know what? That book totally describes the meaning of life. That’s why I picked it.

Instead, let’s go with this “spread of fascism” I was so dead-set against. But rather than fascism singularly, I think it is a novel about the spread of isms. An -ism is a suffix that denotes a system of beliefs/theory/doctrine, a state/condition; a disease; a movement… well, there are lots of things -ism can be attached to. So it’s not that simple.

You may be thinking, “C’mon, Kristina, what the eff is your point?” That’s a very good question. I am finding it insanely difficult to articulate a cogent point. This novel blew my brains out all over the place. Not only are there 19,000 subtexts to every sentence, but it is written so beautifully, too! I have all of these notes, and all of these directions to take this review.

My point: read this book. Read it with a friend, or perhaps a book club. It is very dense and difficult (obviously—I kept putting off finishing it). I knew that it would come to a point where I would admit defeat and say “this book is so hard!” That time came three days ago, when I finished reading it. I admit defeat. Albert Camus, I have no idea what your book is about.

I am going to discuss, then, one of several thousand points he makes. In the novel, the doctor crusading against the plague, Rieux, and his old doctor buddy Castel, determine it must be the plague. And even if it isn’t plague, it is best to proceed with precautionary measures as if it were. Because it is certainly something! After agreeing that prophylactic measures were necessary, the agency in charge displayed some nonchalant official notices. But Rieux thought “one had the feeling that many concessions had been made in a desire not to alarm the public” (50).

But why? Well, the government is afraid.
But not afraid of the Plague.
They are afraid of the townspeople’s reaction to an announcement about the plague.

Might their priorities be skewed? Should they let people be oblivious until all the sudden, they are having buboes lanced open before dying in agony?
But it’s not just a statement about the government. It’s about us, humans, in general.
It’s not just our governments or leaders who are slow to react (or even refusing to react). We all are. Some say Camus makes it an allegory for Nazi occupation or Fascism (the last chapter really nails this). But it could be an epidemic of any kind:
starvation
genocide
disease
_________ism

We are blind to what is happening elsewhere; to others’ pain/agony/situation/inability to live comfortably and happily… But we know something is happening. We prefer to remain unaware and ignorant, as did the people of Oran:

Hiterto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat… (63)

In Oran, before the townspeople knew it, their borders were closed and hundreds were dying a day. Bodies could no longer be buried, but were either cremated in batches or dissolved in lime.
This sounds a lot like other things going on in this perfect world of ours.

The Plague is not all pessimistic and heavy-handed like this. There is actually quite a bit of hope, and a lot about love. Rieux and his friends face the plague head-on, determined to find peace with themselves and be reunited with loved ones. Rambert tries to escape the walls, yet realizes his place is fighting the plague; but he is reunited with his wife. Tarrou found his meaning by working against the plague; but when the epidemic waned, his strength did too, and he found peace at death. I leave you with this, bittersweet:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city (287).

KK

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