Camus, The Plague

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Camus, The Plague

Part I

Consider Oran, a French town on the Algerian coast, before the plague: described by the narrator as “ugly,” “smug,” “placid” (3). “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits”; “in other words, completely modern” (4). The “banality” of commerce is valued (5).

Consider the narrator’s self-consciously concealed identity (6), being ill-at-ease with the role of historian, and his concern with marking “periods” (e.g., 21-22).

Notice all the rat reactions and denials (7-8) (9) (12) (14) (16) (20-21?) (23) (27) (32) (33) (36) (45) (58).

Rieux’s reaction to Rambert’s Arab article is important (11-12):”Would you be allowed to publish an unqualified condemnation of the present state of things?”
“Unqualified? Well, no, I couldn’t go that far. But surely things aren’t quite so bad as that?”
“No,” Rieux said quietly…. “I’ve no use for statements in which something is kept back” (11). He “had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth” (12).

“Actually the municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all, but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation” (14).

“Hitherto people had merely grumbled at a stupid, rather obnoxious visitation; now they realized that this strange phenomenon, whose scope could not be measured and whose origins escaped detection, had something strangely menacing about it” (15).

“the sanitary service had collected only a trifling number of rats. Everyone breathed more freely” (16).

M. Michel dies in agony.

Consider Tarrou’s contribution (22). Rieux says, “‘But, you know, everybody’s in the same boat.’ ‘That’s just it,’ he replied. ‘Now we’re like everybody else…. But I feel sure it’s not contagious,’ he hastened to assure me” (27).

“It must be the weather” (32).
“The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all” (33).

“When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though a war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way” (34).

“Rieux remembered having read somewhere that the plague spared weak constitutions and chose its victims chiefly among the robust” (40).

“in medical science, as in daily life, it was unwise to jump to conclusions”; “this justified a policy of wait-and-see” (45).

“The measure enjoined were far from Draconian and one had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public”; “the townspeople were advised to practice extreme cleanliness” (48).

“Why, because an author has more rights than ordinary people, as everybody knows. People will stand much more from him” (52).

“On two occasions he entered crowded cafes. Like Cottard he felt a need for friendly contacts, human warmth. A stupid instinct, Rieux told himself” (53).

“That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear…. The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised” (56).

“The local population, who so far had made a point of masking their anxiety by facetious comments, now seemed tongue-tied and went their ways with gloomy faces” (58).

Rieux is irked by the Prefect’s indecisiveness and ineffectuality.

Part II

“Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future…” (61).

“words like ‘special arrangements,’ ‘favor,’ and ‘priority’ had lost all effective meaning” (62).

The narrator discusses the odd state of “communications” — really the void in communicating with the world outside the town: “since, in practice, the phrases one can use in a telegram are quickly exhausted, long lives passed side by side, or passionate yearnings, soon declined to the exchange of such trite formulas as: ‘Am well. Always thinking of you. Love'” (63).

“For weeks on end we were reduced to starting the same letter over and over again recopying the same scraps of news and the same personal appeals, with the result that after a certain time the living words, into which we had as it were transfused our hearts’ blood, were drained of any meaning” (63).

“It also incited us to create our own suffering and thus to accept frustration as a natural state. This was one of the tricks the pestilence had of diverting attention and confounding issues” (68).

“Thus in the very heart of the epidemic they maintained a saving indifference, which one was tempted to take for composure. Their despair saved them from panic” (70).

People persist “in the idea that what was happening was a sort of accident, disagreeable enough, but certainly of a temporary order” (72).

“Naturally the picture-houses [Netflix] benefited by the situation…. And, to tell the truth, there was much heavy drinking” (73).

Grand agonizes over the nuances of subtle wording choices for his first sentence. Rambert insists his is a special case and he pursues all avenues of potential escape: “The really remarkable thing, and Rambert was greatly struck by this, was the way in which, in the very midst of catastrophe, offices could go on functioning serenely and take initiatives of no immediate relevance, and often unknown to the highest authority, purely and simply because they had been created originally for this purpose” (100).

Oh, no: tRump was wrong: “this first onslaught of the heat synchronized with a startling increase in the number of victims” (102). “As a result of the fighting at the gates, in the course of which the police had had to use their revolvers, a spirit of lawlessness was abroad. Some had certainly been wounded in these brushes with the police, but in the town, where, owing to the combined influences of heat and terror, everything was exaggerated, there was talk of deaths” (103).

“But this summer, for all its nearness, the sea was out of bounds” (104).

“But he also noted that peppermint lozenges had vanished from the drugstores, because there was a popular belief that when sucking them you were proof against contagion” (105).

Revisionist tRump: “They say … that cold weather stamps out diseases of this type” (106). “This epidemic spelt the ruin of the tourist trade” (106).

“If the epidemic spreads, morals too will broaden, and we may see again the saturnalia of Milan, men and women dancing round the graves” (110).

“Not long ago some restaurants put up notices: Our plates, knives, and forks guaranteed sterilized. But gradually they discontinued publicity of this order, since their customers came in any case” (111).

The question of the existence of God is addressed.

The plague is “A never ending defeat” (118).

Issues of ignorance and inappropriate notions of heroism are addressed. Grand goes through another agony of sentence revision. Rambert: “all this time he’d practically forgotten the woman he loved, so absorbed had he been in trying to find a rift in the walls that cut him off from her” (143).

“Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves” (149).

Rambert, initially defiant, decides to join the sanitary squads.

Part III

Prison is now a death sentence. Funerals become rapid minimalist rites, and then “men and women were flung into the death-pits indiscriminately” (159).

“the disorganization of the town’s economic life threw a great number of persons out of work” (160).

More related to the Nazis and Decatur, Illinois, than Covid: “During the first few days an oily, foul-smelling cloud of smoke hung low upon the eastern districts of the town. These effluvia, all the doctors agreed, though unpleasant, were not in the least harmful…. Thereafter only when a strong wind was blowing did a faint, sickly odor coming from the east remind them that they were living under a new order and that the plague fires were taking their nightly toll” (162).

“In this respect they had adapted themselves to the very condition of the plague, all the more potent for its mediocrity” (164).

“Indeed, to some, Šthis precisely was the most disheartening thing: that the habit of despair is worse than despair itself” (164).

Part IV

Gluck’s opera, Orpheus, runs weekly since the touring company had gotten stuck in Oran. One week the lead seems wobbly and eventually drops dead on stage, prompting a panicked stampede of audience members (180).

Rambert challenges Rieux: “Then why don’t you stop my going? You could easily manage it.”
Rieux shook his head with his usual deliberateness. It was none of his business, he said (183).

“Rambert said he’d thought it over very carefully, and his views hadn’t changed, but if he went away, he would feel ashamed of himself, and that would embarrass his relations with the woman he loved” (188).

An experimental serum is tested on a dying boy, who suffers and dies anyway.

“in the spring, when the epidemic was expected to end abruptly at any moment, no one troubled to take another’s opinion as to its probable duration, since everyone had persuaded himself that it woulf have none” (199).

“Finding that the public appetite for this type of literature was still unsated, they had researches made in the municipal libraries for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles, memoirs, and the like. And when this source ran dry, they commissioned journalists to write up forecasts” (199).

“Indeed, the one thing these prophecies had in common was that, ultimately, all were reassuring. Unfortunately, though, the plague was not” (200).

The priest Paneloux gives a more thoughtful sermon this time. A “noteworthy change was that instead of saying ‘you’ he now said ‘we'” (200).

“At these moments he seemed to be vainly struggling to force up from his lungs a clot of some semi-solid substance that was choking him” (209). This man cannot be confirmed to have the plague, but “‘I must isolate you.’ The Father smiled queerly, as if for politeness’ sake, but said nothing” (210). “Against his name the index card recorded: ‘Doubtful case'” (211).

“The fact that the graph after its long rising curve had flattened out seemed to many … reassuring” (212).

“The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts” (214).

“The newspapers, needles to say, complied with the instructions given them: optimism at all costs” (214).

“sports fields had been requisitioned” (215).

“And since they could not be thinking of their death all the time, they thought of nothing” (217).

“And those they love have forgotten them because all their energies are devoted to making schemes and taking steps to get them out of the camp. . . . In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity” (217).

“We’re great believers in efficiency at this camp” (219). “‘Poor Monsieur Othon! … One would like to do something to help him. But how can you help a judge?'” (219).

“the mere existence of these camps, the smell of crowded humanity coming from them, the baying of the loud-speakers in the dusk, the air of mystery than clung about them, and the dread these forbidden places inspired told seriously on our fellow citizens’ morale and added to the general nervousness” (219).

Tarrou discourses on the death penalty, believing that most people are complicit in “what would be better called murder in its most despicable form” (225).

“I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way” (227).

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences” (229).

“Can one be a saint without God?” (230).

“Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (231).

Grand is stricken with plague, it seems, and demands that his novel (really just many pages of the reworked first sentence) be burned. But he recovers and other cases begin to occur similarly. Rats are seen again at last.

Part V

With a very tentative hope, “All agreed that the amenities of the past couldn’t be restored at once; destruction is an easier, speedier process than reconstruction” (241).

“all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto” (242) — [except the ass doesn’t know what “hitherto” means].

“Tarrou replied that obviously a mere official announcement couldn’t stop an epidemic” (250), despite the fat bald moron of 2020.

While the city slowly emerges, Tarrou suffers and dies. Rieux “had a feeling that no peace was possible to him henceforth, any more than there can be an armistice for a mother bereaved of her son or for a man who buries his friend” (261).

“But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories” (262).

Rieux receives word of his wife’s death.

As for the populace, “Calmly they denied, in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies, or that precise savagery, that calculated frenzy of the plague, which instilled an odious freedom as to all that was not the here and now; or those charnel-house stenches which stupefied whom they did not kill. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily flames, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn” (268).

“They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.But for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer” (271).

“This chronicle is drawing to an end, and this seems to be the moment for Dr. Bernard Rieux to confess that he is the narrator” (271). He justifies his objectivity while continuing to refer to himself in the third person.

Cottard goes berserk, shooting wildly from his apartment and killing an officer and a dog. The stand-off ends with him being taken, raving, into custody and being brutalized.

Grand thrives. “Also he’d made a fresh start with his phrase. ‘I’ve cut out all the adjectives'” (276).

“All those folks are saying: ‘It was plague. We’ve had the plague here.’ You’d almost think they expected to be given medals for it. But what does that mean — ‘plague’? Just life, no more than that” (276-277).

“Is it a fact they’re going to put up a memorial to the people who died of the plague? … And there’ll be speeches.” He chuckled throatily. “I can almost hear them saying: ‘Our dear departed…’ And then they’ll go off and have a good snack” (277).

“Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who held their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence; that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (278).

“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” (278).

Works Consulted

Camus, Albert. The Plague. 1947. NY: McGraw Hill, 1965.

Stoner, Jonathan. “The Plague, by Albert Camus.” (28 January 2003).