Author– Albert Camus (French- Algerian)
Genre– Philosophical Fiction
Award– The Nobel Prize( 1957)
Albert Camus biography
Born in Algeria (1913), he studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. His father was killed in 1914 during WW 1 and he was reared by his deaf mother. He spent most of his childhood days in poverty, under the blistering African sun on the plains of the Mediterranean (The sun and the sea are major presences in most of his works as the emotions and memories of his childhood, adult years and hometown.)
Camus developed Tuberculosis during his University years and had to do multiple jobs to support himself. Around the same time, he joined the Communist Party and founded the Worker’s Theatre group for presenting plays for the working class Algerians. His early essays were collected in ‘The Wrong Side and Right Side‘ and ‘Nuptials‘. These dealt with man and death in relation to the oblivious universe, his defenselessness, isolation and the final exit of death.
Severely critical of the French colonial government, he had to leave Algeria in 1940. He lived in Paris where he worked as a journalist for a while before returning to Algeria when Germans invaded France. He started teaching in a school in Oran where the background ideas of his famous works, ‘The Stranger‘, ‘The Myth of Sysiphus‘, and ‘The Plague‘ were outlined and given shape. While in France, during the German occupation he became one of the intellectual leaders of the Resistance Movement and founded and edited the underground newspaper Combat. Handsome, charming, charismatic, exotic, and empathetic, he captured the hearts and minds of millions of French as an advocate of social and political change.
Internationally acclaimed after publishing ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Plague’, ‘The Just’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘The Myth of Sysiphus‘, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. The character Meursault in The Stranger, a literary paragon of honesty, a meritorious and murderous antihero, synonymous with Camus’s absurdity and irony, was absolutely novel to the readers who accepted him and the book with open arms. Meursault’s realization of loss of freedom after imprisonment and the isolation of the Oranian citizens in ‘The Plague‘ seems similar.
His masterpiece allegorical work, the most successful one ‘The Plague‘ was published in 1947 when Camus was thirty-three years old. Without the usual gimmicks and overripened plots, his somber narration captured the misery of isolation and death, that resonated with the postwar readers. The novel is hugely introspective and personal, his dislike for the materialistic town of Oran when compared to his home town of Algiers clearly evident. He was advised against swimming, something he loved the most, as a result of his worsening Tuberculosis while in Oran and was forced to spend his days and night in the stifling heat within the Oran walls. He is describing the heat that confined him as if in a prison, in The Plague. Similarly, exile, isolation, and illness are major themes of the novel, something he personally suffered after French Algeria was cut off when Allies landed in North Africa, the Germans having responded by occupying Southern France, then governed by the puppet government of the French Marshal, Philippe Petain, Camus thus separated from his wife and mother until after WW II was over. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages and many more, later on, and it has never been out of print.
Camus became quite ill during 1949 when he isolated himself and started publishing his political essays. ‘The Rebel‘, a work of revolt was published in 1951, which became controversial and broke his friendship with Jean Paul Sartre. ‘The Fall’ was published in 1956, different from his other novels on account of first-person narration (others are mostly narrated in third-person) and the setting in Amsterdam and not North Africa. The book deals with the confessions of guilt by a lawyer haunted by his guilty conscience, who refused to help a drowning woman during a suicide attempt. It is a mirror of contemporary society.
Camus was killed in a road accident in 1960, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize. His unfinished last novel, ‘The First Man‘ was posthumously published in 1994.
I had read this allegorical, philosophical fiction some time back. This is a re-read for me, but as in any Classic or any book for that matter, each re-read opens up a whole lot of different perspectives with the age and life experiences of the reader. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino( author of ‘Invisible Cities‘ and ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller‘) in his short essay, ‘Why read the Classics?’ delineates seven points as the reasons, of which the one that I love the most is, ‘ A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’.
While the whole world is reeling under the Corona pandemic, borders closed, neighbors and even our loved ones isolated and fighting an invisible enemy alone, this masterpiece of Camus seems so prescient in its literal elucidation of a city similarly under lockdown after a plague epidemic, the citizens condemned to an abyss of nonexistence. We, in today’s world, are far ahead of Camus’s citizens in ‘The Plague‘, technologically, socially, economically. Still, the meaninglessness and triviality of all the progress have never been more exposed as in epidemics and pandemics, not even during the war, when people contend with an invisible enemy that might kill us, even with an act as innocuous as a gentle touch or as existential as breathing in.
One cannot but reckon the absurdity and impotence of human lives in the vast Universe while going through the news reports from around the world of physicians having had to choose death for particular patients who could otherwise have been rescued, people who just a few days back were jovially enjoying lives, now dying lonely without their dear ones near the bed, saying their last goodbye through video chat, or coffins lined up head to toe in morgues for days awaiting a solitary burial without the attendance of loved ones. In Italy where many learn in school about the dreaded Monatti who, preceded by the ringing of a little bell, retrieved corpses on carts during the 17th-century Milan plague, the amassing of dead bodies seems out of another time.
“The plague had already entered Milan,” Alessandro Manzoni writes in “The Betrothed,” the 19th century Italian literary classic renowned for its vivid descriptions of the 1630 pestilence that gutted Milan, written almost 200 years ago. He describes how the plague arrived in Lombardy from outside, how the Spanish kingdom that ruled over them failed to react at first and how the people first ignored and then panicked ( Exactly as what has happened here during the Corona pandemic). In the novel, people become suspicious of foreigners, authorities squabble among one another, scarcity of necessities arise and a health emergency takes shape.
The novel picturizes the dreaded cart men (hooded Monatti) winding their way through Milan’s streets and “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” Manzoni writes that “the city, already tumultuously inclined, was now turned upside down.”
( This haunting watercolor is by the Italian artist, Gaetano Previati, his most ambitious undertaking as a draftsman: a set of innovative illustrations for a deluxe 1900 edition of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel The Betrothed. Part of the story takes place in Milan during the plague of 1630. Here, Previati illustrates a passage in which Manzoni describes the grim role of the hooded monatti, or corpse carriers, who bore plague victims to the isolated hospital or an open grave. Previati’s watercolor features two ghostlike monatti (corpse carriers) descending a flight of stairs in a constricted alleyway, their frames weighed down by the naked body, which casts a foreboding shadow. )(https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/52856)
‘The Plague‘ brings to light Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism. The novel answers some questions in detail. What would it feel like if your town, state or country is shut off from the world, it’s citizens quarantined and isolated as a contagion spreads, disrupting daily lives, people dropping dead like falling autumn leaves? The book chronicles the abrupt arrival and slow departure of a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague to the Algerian coastal town of Oran in the month of April, sometime in the 1940s. Once it has settled in, the epidemic lingers, roiling the lives and minds of the town’s inhabitants until the following February, when it leaves as quickly and unaccountably as it came, “slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.”
Camus studied in detail the history of plagues before writing the book(probably he used the same narrative method as Daniel Defoe‘s 1722 fiction ‘A Journal of The Plague Year‘ about the London plague of 17 th century). He read about the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century, the Italian plague of 1630 that killed 280,000 across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 14th century, the bubonic plague, also known as the “Black Death” killed almost a third of the people on the continent of Europe. When it rampaged through London in 1656 and 1657, it killed nearly a quarter of the population. The bubonic plague still exists today, not only in pockets of Asia and Africa but in the American Southwest. It’s transmitted by fleas from infected rodents and causes high fever, vomiting and painful swellings called “buboes” (hence the name “bubonic). Even when treated with antibiotics it had a death rate of 10 percent; and if untreated, up to 90 percent. Coronavirus is nothing compared to this.
The plague had decimated the city of Oran in the 16 th and the 17 th centuries. Though Camus relays the clinical progression and aftermath of the disease literally, he is allegorically picturing it in sociological and philosophical terms. His true subject is not so much clinical as metaphorical. He uses the contagion as something that subdues a population to any corrosive ideology like Fascism or Totalitarianism, man-made disasters, calamities, war- the list could be very long. Camus had seen the Nazis overrun Paris in 1940 during World War II. While he was writing The Plague, he was the editor in chief of Combat, the underground magazine of the French Resistance, whose contributors included André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Raymond Aron.
What is quite surprising is that, in the novel, exactly as it has happened in many countries during the current Corona spread, Oran’s bureaucrats minimize the threat of plague as a false alarm and dismiss it as ‘a special kind of fever‘ until the evidence becomes undeniable and underreaction is more dangerous than overreaction. We could catch sight of how some world leaders just dismissed the corona pandemic as an ‘absurdity’ giving sway to the economy than health or life. In Camus’s words ” When abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.” He writes: it’s universal human frailty: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.” The catastrophe erases ‘the uniqueness of each man’s life‘ and the isolation and powerlessness become a collective emotion.
Another pandemic of misinformation and disinformation, one that is much difficult to treat, let alone cure, has been wreaking havoc since the advent of new technologies that came handy to the public. There is constant friction between facts, alternative facts, faith, lies, and fables. Those who shout out objective facts are slammed by naysayers who get themselves trapped in these media bubbles. The current situation of denial was pictured by Plato in his famous “Allegory of the cave“. He speculated a lightless cave with eternal spectators buckled to their seats watching projections of what they would believe as limits of reality (This was way before the modern cinema halls!). Those of them who escaped the cave witnessed the rays of the sun( reality), but they got ridiculed and killed while they tried to spread the information( truth). The anti-scientism naysayers and deniers are not unlike these shackled crowd who never escape the bubbles of misinformation and disinformation, spreading them via the bubble blowers of new technology. Remember, this had been the norm for ages back, since the time of cavemen. The father of handwashing, Ignaz Semmelweis, who hypothesized the connection between unwashed hands of doctors and puerperal sepsis( sepsis after childbirth) and professed handwashing with chlorinated lime before assisting childbirth, in 1847, was criticized, ridiculed and attacked by his peers and he died as an insane man in an asylum, later.
During my first read, I had paid more attention to the clinical manifestations of plague, the physical suffering of people, the lime pits more than the psychological, philosophical and sociological dimensions of Camus’s dispassionate, but visceral narration. The “hectic exaltation” of the people caught up in the epidemic bubble of isolation when they decide to dress up and stroll aimlessly in “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity” would burn into the heart, after reading it, the import of community life for any individual. While practicing the art of ‘social distancing’, dutifully following hand washing and other measures, we might well wonder, for how long? We do not know and Camus did not know the answer either.
Reading between the lines, this masterpiece seems like a prophetic warning of many more epidemics of war, contagions, totalitarian governments, man-made disasters, and more so, the moral bankruptcy at the core of a society faced with any of these. According to Camus, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
The story is set in the Algerian city of Oran, where thousands of rats stagger into the open and die mysteriously. The population is gripped by hysteria and newspapers shouts out for action, forcing the authorities to dispose of the carcass of rats. When Michael, the concierge of the hospital where Dr. Rieux works, dies of fever, and a cluster of similar cases appear, he and his colleague Castel realizes that the fever and deaths are due to bubonic plague. The authorities and other doctors are in denial and they refuse to acknowledge or take decisive steps to stop the spread until it becomes impossible to deny the facts. Now, the whole city is placed under quarantine and authorities enforce strict sanitation measures.
The isolation creates an intense longing for their loved ones, separated from them, some of them in other cities and countries.“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” the narrator notes. Convinced that the plague is a punishment to Oran’s sins, Father Paneloux delivers a sermon. Each individual thinks that their pain is unique compared to others. Raymond Rambert, a journalist, tries to escape Oran to rejoin his wife in Paris, but the bureaucrats prevent him. Dr. Rieux struggles to surmount the pestilence. Rambert tries to flee with the help of Cottard’s criminal associates. Finally, he is ashamed to flee after coming to know that Dr. Rieux, despite being separated from his wife is battling the plague. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” Dr. Rieux says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies. The character, Cottard greets the plague with open arms. He had committed some crime before and he feels happy that he is not alone in fearful suffering. He utilizes the epidemic to amass wealth.
After the exile lasts for months, the residents of Oran learn that theirs is collective suffering and decide to fight it together. Dr. Rieux shouts at a shaken Father Paneloux, after Othon’s son suffer an excruciating death, that the boy was an innocent victim and delivers a second sermon, modified from the first. He exhorts Christians to choose between believing everything or believing nothing about God. Father Paneloux dies clutching the crucifix and refusing treatment and the doctor identifies his case as doubtful.
Finally, the epidemic comes to a halt and the lives of the citizens change for good. But, Cottard couldn’t cope, he fires his gun randomly and is arrested by the police. Rambert’s wife joins him in Oran, Dr. Rieux’s wife dies of prolonged illness. The novel ends with the public soon forgetting everything and returning to their normal lives except Dr. Rieux who keeps in mind that the war against plague is not over as the bacillus remains dormant before reappearing again.
Dr. Rieux “knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory,” Camus writes. “It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror.” The plague, he continues, “never dies”; it “waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers” for the day when it will once again “rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
The narrator point of view of The Plague is third-person limited. The perspective of the narrator is limited and he knows only what is going on inside the heart and mind of one person. Only in the last chapter does the narrator reveal his identity. Tarrou’s journal entries throw some light on experiences outside the narrator’s description. This is a plot device used by Camus to provide the readers with additional information. There are collaborators, deniers and sympathizers of the plague. Some like Cottard think health teams are a waste of time and use the scourge to make money. Tarrou is sympathetic and tries to overcome his past by action and words. Father Paneloux is the voice of fatalism, that the scourge is the result of one’s sins. Grand, the clerk is the symbol of unheroic resistance.
The epigraph is meaningful and we run into the allegory over and over again during the entire novel. It is taken from the preface of volume III of Robinson Crusoe.
” 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
Daniel Defoe’s 1722 fiction ‘A Journal of The Plague Year‘ about the London plague of 17 th century is similarly narrated in third-person limited narration.
Though Camus intends objectivity of narration, his atheistic, social and philosophical beliefs are scattered everywhere in the novel. He was fed up with questions that presumed to be given definite conclusions as to the answer. He mentions this in the novel to Rambert who muses – ‘The language that he used was that of a person who was sick and tired of the world he lived in-though he had much liking for his fellow men- and had resolved for his part to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth‘.
Similarly, Camus’s view against the judicial death penalty is reflected in Tarrou’s confession to Rieux, ‘ I thought I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them’. Camus might be reflecting on his Communist years here when Tarrou says, “We are all in the plague…. All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim…. And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.” The novel exposes his positions against some of the Communist ideologies, political/ judicial murder, that led to the end of his friendship with the other postwar intellectuals in France. The style of narration reminds us of a journalistic one, probably from years of Camus’ journalistic experience. The readers should not expect the typical impressionistic devices of a novel in this book.
The setting of the novel is in the Mediterranean North African city of Oran. Apart from the specific geographic location, his description of the people tend to border on the satirization of the Western people as a bored crowd with armchair attitude and cultivated habits and whose main purpose was “doing business”, those who fritter away what time is left for living.
Camus stresses his philosophical ideas of absurdism through the argumentative dialogues of the characters giving importance to these than the plot. It is not the disease plague that he is talking about, but only using it as an allegory. It is important to get an idea of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd in the core of the novel. It is basically a mix of existentialism (a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will)and humanism (a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.)
The philosophy of absurd is a realization and recognition of the fact of one’s own death. Camus, an atheist never believed that human suffering, existence or death has any rational meaning in an irrational universe. He exhorts to choose to fight until the end against death and suffering. Camus announces the death of different people in the novel until the fact hits home for everyone, according to him one begins to live only when he realizes this fact. The announcement of death is paramount in Camus’ philosophy and in his novels. Camus believes in fighting and rebelling against death and not fleeing from it. He explains death as discomfort. The mention of a “normal” dying man, “trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat,” suggests the mazes of Dante’s hell, mazes which must be traversed before the plague’s thousands of deaths are tolled.
Camus intends a didactic approach and he stresses the moralistic points very often. This has a touch of irony in that, though the narrator professes to be objective we could clearly find the shadows of Camus’s atheistic beliefs and philosophical views on the narrator. Though, the moralistic tone is carefully delivered by Camus, not in a preachy manner. Such a rebellion is considered noble by him. He defines heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. out of simple decency. He repeatedly stresses to be optimistic at times of hopelessness. The citizens of Oran realizes the collective suffering and understand that death will strike whether they do nothing or act in defiance. They choose between the two and decides to act together. This is exemplified through the character, Rambert, the journalist, who realizes his moral bankruptcy of giving importance to personal needs, and afterward blending with the collective conscience and participating to eliminate the scourge.
Camus has treated the concept of freedom in an ironic way. Exile and isolation are important themes in the novel, something close to his heart. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says, “the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow citizens was exile,” and that “being separated from a loved one…[was] the greatest agony of that long period of exile.” He makes use of the same themes in his other works too, thus emphasizing the absurdity of life when anything like these could strike anytime from anywhere. In ‘The Stranger‘, the same absurdity comes to play when Mersault murders the Arab randomly. The irony with interpreting freedom in The Plague is that, even before the quarantine, their freedom was questionable, as they were enslaved to habits. The people love mechanically, robotically without desire or intelligence. The love gone wrong in Oran is a symptom of disease even before the plague strikes. The vital living is suppressed by the habits cultivated by the soulless people. For instance, in Oran love-making is relegated to weekends. Camus tries to explain the strangling of natural responses by habits that simplify a person to simplemindedness. Recognizing the bottomless death in its horrible form and confrontation with death creates new values in the living. Things change after the plague and the people learn to love in the absence of their loved ones whom they had taken for granted before the plague.
” It is impossible to see the sea“, the narrator tells. The sea here is a symbol of life. One could swim nakedly and boldly in the sea, but in social waters, swimming is done blindly against the hypocritic, jealous people.
As a Godless Christian, Camus expounds the Christian virtues in terms of sacred love for man and not to God. Another notable feature is Camus’s use of contrast. He contrasts the ordinary and extraordinary, for example, the ordinariness of Oran is contrasted with the extraordinariness of the plague. ( We can see the use of contrast in The Myth of Sysiphus too- the natural and extraordinary, the Universe and the individual, the tragic and ordinary). For Camus, the Universe is full of paradoxes and contrasts- man lives, yet is condemned to die.
The rats are symbolic of the plague and the people. They drop dead as the people would, later on, the indifference to their death from the people symbolic to the indifference of the Universe to the deaths of people. There is a contrast in Camus’s adjectives too. Dr. Rieux feels something soft under his foot, but in contrast to something pleasant that could have been associated with the adjective’soft’, he encounters the bloated corpse of a dead rat. Similarly, when a rat comes out of the sewer it spins on itself with a squeal, a miniature ballet before death. Camus says later that the rats were coming out in long swaying lines and doing “a sort of pirouette.” He describes the blood puddles around their noses as looking like red flowers. Again, as in Chapter 1, he uses an extreme contrast — here, to point to the absurdity of the symptoms: rats can’t be seeping out of houses and sewers for a reason — rats’ deaths can’t be beautiful. Yet both are. The blood seeping from the mouth of the rats reminds him of the blood spurting from his wife’s mouth in the sanatorium. His early indifference with the dead rats changes to a kind of civic duty while he phones the sanitation department to deal with it.
Rieux’s mother exemplifies the attitude of the nonchalance of Oran residents. She is blase, she has seen war, gone through depression, a seen- much, lived- through- much person who survives. The journalist Rambert is a foil for Dr. Rieux, whose compromises with truth contrasts sharply with the honest Dr. Rieux.
Dr, Rieux’s fight to overcome the red-tape of bureaucracy, his colleague’s insistence that there is no definite proof that the disease is infectious, isolation of the doctor by the others- all seem to replicate in the present scenario of Corona pandemic. The progression of the novel is akin to the unfolding of a Greek tragedy, the scenes playing out the familiar fate and agony of Oedipus or Creon.
Camus exhorts each of us, wallowing in the comforts of life, to prioritize moral responsibility. All through the novel, he sympathetically parses good and evil, sympathizers and doubters, believers and nonbelievers through his allegory of a moral contagion sweeping through the society. The character of Cottard, an enabler in spreading the plague, and the numerous citizens who were sleepwalking and dutifully oblivious to the situation on the ground, are lucid references to the pre and postwar French citizenry similarly complacent of the puppet Vichy regime of German occupiers and their studied postwar amnesia. We would be able to appreciate Camus’s views of moral responsibility, humanism, judgment ( cleaved of its divine part), and empathy through the characters. The citizens beating Cottard at the end reminds us of the punishments meted out to collaborators after the Liberation by French men and women forgetful of their wartime sufferings, who gave color to their compromises and guilt in the form of revenge. He repeats the importance of doing something or taking responsibility during a crisis as goodness and not as heroism. He writes, that joining the health team during the plague in itself was not of any significance, but not joining must have been incredible. Rieux remarks, ‘ when you see the suffering it brings one must be mad, blind, or a coward to resign oneself to the plague‘. Thus his narrative is not a eulogy to heroism. Though many men and women had given their lives during the French Resistance, Camus was overtly uncomfortable with attaching heroism to deeds deemed as a responsibility by him. He abhorred the smugness and moral superiority with which many resistors (including many of his intellectual friends) looked down at those who didn’t do anything.
‘The Plague’ was criticized by his intellectual contemporaries who dismissed its tone, ambiguities, and moderation as politically incorrect. Simone de Beauvoir criticized its use of disease as an allegory of Fascism. She thought people who read the work would never take history or political responsibilities seriously. Roland Barthes, literary critic, in 1955 accused Camus of offering the readers ‘an anti historic ethic‘. Another barb aimed at him is vis a vis the ambiguities in the metaphors and judgments. Though it could simply be analyzed that Camus was using plague as an analogy for Fascism, the conclusions about good and evil, guilt and innocence, reside in a gray zone. Tony Judt, in his recent analysis of The Plague in his introduction in the new translation of The Plague by Robin Buss(Penguin Books), mentions Hannah Arendt with her notion of “banality of evil”, the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable men with clear consciences. ‘ Like Hannah Arendt, he saw that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.”
The Plague, originally written in French is highly allegorical, steeped in philosophy, a war allegory with a commentary on WWII. The Nobel Committee regarding his combined work declared them as “illuminating the problems of the human conscience in our times.” It is a philosophical heavyweight work, is a masterpiece that gets you thinking of the absurd, even if you do not belong to the particular camp. He was a moralist, who tried to define good in all, who understood human frailties and his narrative does not breed political polemics. But, it is sure to make you a Camus fan with each re-read, and an admirer of his philosophy, the absurdity of human life and the knowledge that the plague lies dormant within human nature and no one is immune to its ravage.