In a Plague-Time, Rereading Albert Camus’ “The Plague”
Eleventh in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child… What I was 13 or 14, a smart girl but in no way wise, I read Albert Camus’ canonic novel “The Plague.” It was not a regular class assignment; I read it on my own. No doubt I came to “The Plague” because I saw a kind of plague in my own household — my parents were estranged, I was their go-between. To compensate for the tension, I hoovered books, all kinds, including those best understood as an adult.
Thus my early under-interpretation: My main take-away from this parable of plague, apart from rats being the plague’s carrier, was that the central character, a medical doctor, despite tending plague-ridden patients all the way through and despite extreme exhaustion, somehow never gets sick himself. How could this be? My father was a doctor and I asked him. It was then I learned about “immunities.”
Yet I sensed in Camus the moral strength that I sought for myself in those early years; I was looking for courage, the elixir. Of course as an adult I have learned one must manufacture one’s moral courage oneself. But at the time I kept on reading Camus — actually, I read about Camus rather than more Camus (I read “The Stranger” in college and “got” it). And what I read about Camus was thrilling. As I understood him, he insisted that, most especially when a moral question was at stake, one must act, not just quiver in fear, and one must act no matter how “absurd” the circumstances. Thus I found the courage, as my parents’ go-between, to say to my mother, “Be nicer to Dad,” and weather her glare. I absorbed from Camus that life itself was absurd, full of impossible complexity, demands, tests, and that, despite the unending absurdity, one must never act in “bad faith.” I “got” that precept clearly: One knows the corners that cannot be cut, the lines that cannot be crossed. When I learned he had served in the French Resistance, during the absurdity of Occupied France, I fell in love with Camus — moral philosopher, writer engagé, and, now I learn, Nazi fighter! Camus was my first philosopher and one always remembers one’s first philosopher. I did not yet understand the colonial dimension (absurdity?) of Camus’ life — born in the French colony of Algeria but living, and engaging, much of his adult life in France itself, the metropole — but I would later.
I would also understand, much later — while living through a plague myself — Camus’ canonic novel. But when I became an adult, I put away childish things…
When our plague set in six months ago, reading lists for the inquiring and fearful minds “sheltering in place” appeared everywhere, with Camus’ novel on nearly every one, along with Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” and Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron.” I ordered them all, but then decided to set them aside, for later, when (I hoped) the fear would reduce and I would be more informed on our plague’s carrier — the coronavirus — and could track the fallout, make sense of it, thus be more able to take in Camus’ ultimate meaning.
For I also had learned that, in casting the plague as his metaphor, Camus meant to portray not only a biological event, but a political one as well. Working on the novel during World War II, then seeing it published in 1947, shortly after war’s end, Camus meant to show the insidious spread of a malignancy like fascism in a host body particularly receptive. With the novel’s opening line — “The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- in Oran” — the time-frame set is the war, though the war does not play a role; malignancy does. Opinion is mixed on Camus’ success with the political parable. But observing the fallout of our plague — both biological and political — I commend Camus as boon companion on this trek.
Even more valuable, and what escaped my teenaged comprehension: Camus is brilliant in limning the internal weather of his characters and then externalizing it as dialogue among them, as he charts their passage, during a plague deadlier than ours — death comes in 48 hours — to moral responsibility and action (or not). In showing humanity in mortal crisis — the story-line is simple: A plague sets in, people endure or die, the plague goes away — this ultimately is a deeply philosophical novel.
Camus set his story not in a fictional city but a real one, a commercial port on the coast of Algeria. He did not much like Oran, precisely because of its one-note commercial quality; he far preferred his beloved Algiers for its variety. But Oran suited Camus’ metaphoric purpose: He could portray Oran as monolithic, with its residents’ actions and reactions readily rendered. “Our citizens,” he writes, “work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business’” — materialism that Camus the humanist sends up as “completely modern.” Also “modern” are Oran’s “relaxed morals,” love as a thing “consumed,” inattention to God. Such superficiality would not likely withstand fascism’s appeal; in the novel the plague’s lessons are forgotten by Oran’s townspeople as soon as the “All clear” is sounded.
As to the biological event: The first truth to strike one new to experiencing plague is to understand that, as Camus puts it, “This calamity was everybody’s business.” But this understanding of inexorability, even of plague’s existence, comes slowly. Even the doctor, Bernard Rieux, does not discern at first the significance of the dead rat he steps on when we first meet him. When the evidence becomes clear — mysterious deaths mounting — and he convenes the municipal Health Committee, his do-something is countered by Dr. Richard’s wait-and-see. At the mention of “plague,” the Prefect “hurriedly glanced toward the door to make sure it had prevented this outrageous remark from being overheard in the corridor.” But this power-that-be listens to science: He announces an epidemic and has the city’s gates shut. The doctor knows the score, though: With not enough serum and the bacillus mutating, “The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death.”
Another truth conferred by plague: people’s feeling of “exile” — “that sensation of a void within,” being stuck in one’s “prison-house”: “At such moments the collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance was so abrupt that they felt they could never drag themselves out of the pit of despond into which they had fallen.” Exile is made sharper if married couples and lovers are caught separated: “Always a moment came when we had to face the fact that no trains were coming in.” (Doctor Rieux’ wife is away at a sanatorium.) Generally, during this plague-time, Oran’s citizens “drifted through life rather than lived”: “They forced themselves never to think about the problematic day of escape, to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet.” As Camus famously writes, “Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” The townspeople themselves maintain “a saving indifference, which one was tempted to take for composure. Their despair saved them from panic.”
As the plague continues, composure gives way; on certain minds plague has “an incendiary effect” — heavy drinking, madness, suicide. Soon, “the whole town was running a temperature.” Their worst imaginings make goners of some while, strangely, saving others. In this febrile state, Doctor Rieux realizes, soon the whole town will be a “madhouse.” This is when the internal drama is engaged: As the doctor recognizes, “It’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.” When he is reproached for “abstraction,” not having the heart to sign a certificate enabling a husband to rejoin his wife in Paris, he thinks: “When abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.”
The doctor’s saving sense of duty is his counter to the plague; his therapy is work — all played out in a sublime chapter with him at the window, just after acknowledging the plague’s existence. He thinks: “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.” He thinks: “No one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” He recalls reading that “some thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million deaths.” Then he pulls himself up, sharply: These “extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason… It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done.” Opening the window, he hears a machine-saw and thinks: “There lay certitude; there, in the daily round. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done.” This character-sketch-cum-credo reminds us why we love novels. Later, as the plague grows, he has a revelation: “Finally, he realized that he was afraid!” Back to work.
Other key characters come into focus through their own similar thinking. Upon introduction, these characters strike one as archetypal — the Traveler, the Journalist, the Bureaucrat, the Priest — but they gain individuality and depth in their struggle; fear, as Camus writes, enables “serious reflection,” the anteroom to action. Jean Tarrou, the traveler, reveals himself in an exchange with the hotel manager: When the latter reports a chambermaid has come down with a “queer kind of fever,” Tarrou says it was all the same to him, to which the manager says, “You’re like me, you’re a fatalist,” to which Tarrou clarifies: “I said nothing of the kind and — what’s more — am not a fatalist.” It is not all the same to Tarrou. Raymond Rambert, the journalist and the one begging the doctor for permission to return to his wife in Paris, confronts him angrily: What do we live for — love or duty? Bent on escape, Rambert noses around for a smuggler. Joseph Grand, the bureaucrat, is a lowly clerk in the Municipal Office who, evenings, works on the manuscript — of what: a novel? — that will bring back his wife who left him (he hasn’t gotten past the first sentence). This man “of no significance” Camus hails for his quiet humanity and decency.
Earlier, Rambert and the doctor have a revealing exchange about truth. When Rambert asks if he can interview Rieux about the living conditions of the town’s Arab population, Rieux asks if he will print “an unqualified condemnation of the present state of things.” When Rambert equivocates, he declines. The doctor, Camus writes, was “a man 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.”
Of course in a plague, debate about God arises — Does He exist? If He exists, how could He allow this pestilence, all this death? Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest, is a moralist of the punishing kind. In his first sermon — well-attended by the secular townspeople (“It can’t do any harm”) — disgusted at their “moral laxity,” he lashes into them, thundering: “Calamity has come to you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.” Later, after standing vigil for a child dying of plague, he atones. In a second sermon, he confesses his earlier words “lacked in charity”; he urges the congregation (smaller this time) to “try to do what good lay in our power.” Earlier, though, after the child had died despite Doctor Rieux’ efforts, they argue. Paneloux urges him to “love what we cannot understand”; Rieux fires back, “Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Father tries to allay: “You too are working for man’s salvation,” to which the doctor replies: “Salvation’s much too big a word for me.” In parting, the doctor, a gentler moralist, says: “What does it matter? What I hate is death and disease. And whether you wish it or not, we’re allies... God Himself can’t part us now.”
It is Tarrou, the traveler and non-fatalist, who comes up with an action plan to fight the plague: to organize volunteer sanitary squads to assist the overworked medical workers, by carting away bodies, cleaning up infected areas, etc. “Officialdom,” he argues to Rieux, “can never cope with something really catastrophic.” When Rieux tells him officialdom is thinking of using prisoners for that purpose,” Tarrou replies, “I’d rather free men were employed.”
Thence to the novel’s moral heart: Tarrou asks what the doctor thought of Father Paneloux’ sermon; Rieux says he does not believe in collective punishment. They agree, though, that plague has its good side: “It opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought” (Tarrou) and “It helps men to rise above themselves” (Rieux). “All the same,” says Rieux, “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.” Tarrou then asks: “Do you believe in God?” No, Rieux says, “I’m fumbling in the dark.” Then why, Tarrou presses him, “do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God? I suspect your answer may help me.” Rieux says he’s fighting against creation as he found it; he became a doctor because “it was particularly difficult for a workman’s son, like myself.” Tarrou notes that, “since the order of the world is shaped by death,” then “your victories will never be lasting,” to which Rieux replies, “Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.” “No reason, I agree,” says Tarrou, “only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.” “Yes. A never-ending defeat.” Tarrou asks, “Who taught you all this, Doctor?” “Suffering.” As they wrap up, Rieux says: “Out with it, Tarrou! What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?” “My code of morals, perhaps,” says Tarrou. “Your code of morals? What code?” Says Tarrou, “Comprehension.” If this kind of writing is your tasse de thé, this passage rivets. Riveted, I could connect Tarrou’s need to enact his moral code to something he expressed earlier, that “The only thing I’m interested in is acquiring peace of mind.” Peace of mind is acquired in moral action.
Meanwhile, Joseph Grand the bureaucrat becomes “a sort of general secretary to the sanitary squads,” running the statistics. (In the margin I wrote, “Reader feeling much better now that sanitary squads are at work!”) And when Rambert, the journalist who’s trying to escape has a change of heart… I shall reveal no more, and this is only the first half of the novel. (Per the late Tony Judt, the characters Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert all reflect some aspect of Camus himself.)
One should beware of instrumentalizing a canonic work, lest its elegance be damaged. But six months into our own plague, this reader cannot refrain from comparing and contrasting “The Plague” to our American experience of plague. As in our pandemic, in the novel the medical authorities speak of “flattening the curve” of infection, although the doctor who exulted “The graph’s good today” — Dr. Richard of “wait-and-see” — was soon carried off by the plague. Sadly, in our plague at this point, over 200,000 Americans have been carried off.
By now we know the feeling of exile in our prison-houses; by now some of us have discovered the salvation of work to fend off fear (Camus refers to work’s “doping” effect). As for a population’s capacity to withstand plague, Americans will note how Camus’ introduction of Oran as materialistic (“doing business”) and modern (“moral laxity”) chimes with our own qualities. But straight-line compare-and-contrast soon breaks down, because, compared to a monolithic Oran, America is far more multifarious and dynamic; our tale cannot be told in the unitary voice of “our citizens.” Add to this, unlike the novel’s Prefect who listens to science in handling the plague, our imperfect Prefect in the White House denies science, fobs off responsibility, lies about his “successes,” causing unnecessary suffering and death; bungles reopening the economy, causing unnecessary ruination; and in thrall to his proto-autocratic ego, knocks off more democratic guardrails, just when we need them most, and now even threatens violence to stay in office.
Thus, on top of plague, Americans are dealing with economic collapse, racial reckoning, and salvaging our very democracy. And none too intelligently, sadly: The battle of “ideas” between our Prefect’s fevered base and anyone outside that base is so polarized and inflamed as to be self-destructive and, well, stupid. About which Dr. Rieux says, “Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.” Or wrapped up in the “bad faith” of conspiracy theory (Camus writes of superstition’s “mental pabulum”). The worst of bad faith is seeing our imperfect Prefect’s base and party falling for his oceanic and dangerous lying, a plague in and of itself.
Our tragedy lies here: that our extreme polarization is preventing us from seeing a truth that Tarrou, advocating for decency, voices: “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” (italics mine). Have we joined with the pestilence? Much in our politics and culture, and current presidential campaign, indicates yes.
All this said: When in the novel the citizens of Oran allow themselves to think ahead, beyond plague (“the illusion” of a future), they merely want a return to normalcy. And when the plague begins to ebb, there is sporadic talk of turning their suffering to account with “a new order of things” — which talk however is soon forgotten in celebrating their return to the old life. Like Oran’s citizens, Americans have “gone to school with suffering”; will we make of our suffering a new order of things? Will we vote for it? That hope is there. America once manufactured its hope. Camus writes, “Once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.” We need every conscientious volunteer we can muster fighting our political plague. Combatting racism, white supremacy, untruth, our Prefect’s moves to dismantle American democracy are major acts of “good faith.”
Discussion of a masterpiece must end with the masterpiece. For its portrait of humanity mustering in crisis, “The Plague” joins my pantheon of humanist novels that include “Moby-Dick” (a favorite of Camus) and “Middlemarch.” For this and other novels, and his powerful essays and journalism, Camus was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1957. His untimely death in 1960, in an auto accident, robbed the world of a signal moral voice.
There are criticisms to be made of “The Plague,” notably the lack of Arab characters, despite its Arab setting. But Camus’ defenders note that, with his political parable, his target was Vichy France, the regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany. His point was to show the ease with which that infection took place. Camus finished the novel in the early post-war years, when French forgetting was already underway.
For my part, I missed the presence of any woman taking the fight to the plague. The women who do figure in the novel do so self-effacingly, as men’s backstop. Inwardly I crafted a communiqué: Monsieur Camus, there are some women who formulate their moral credo and fight for it every day, valiantly. In some women, there beats a lion’s heart.
A last criticism: Sometimes Camus shows himself too much the tragedian, notably in his portrait of the ineluctability of the plague and its universal impact on humans. (Or perhaps this is my vestigial American resistance to the tragic scheme of things.) For example, he intones that, under the plague’s dominion, “The town was peopled with sleepwalkers,” who “lost every trace of a critical spirit.” From my shelter, I see the critical spirit alive and thinking; I also see a new seriousness among my fellow Americans, which again Camus writes is enabled by fear. He also pronounces, in the plague’s crush, the death of love and friendship. But I do not find that so, instead discovering new depths in old friendships, new depths in my marriage. Camus belies his own pronouncement with the rich, and new, friendship between the doctor and Tarrou. At the plague’s worst, there is a lovely moment when, breaking from their taxing work, they take an hour “for friendship’s sake” and go for a swim.
But: Camus’ sense of tragedy is not so total as to deny to the human being all agency, all room for maneuver. One can always act, he insists, and one must. And in the most important measure — the moral, bearing on the rightness and wrongness of things — action begins with taking responsibility, no matter the countervailing pressure, be it foreign occupation, plague, chaos, or the moral vacuum of modern life. For Camus, tragedy lies in moral collapse. (Judt made the distinction that “Camus was a moraliste but he was no moralizer.” His genius lay in his finesse.)
Such action need not be dramatic, as when I as a girl admonished my mother to be nicer to Dad; it was right to do, but led to our decades-long estrangement. (I later led the way to our jointly turning tragedy into peace.) Moral action also inheres in simple decency — the kind word or gesture, thinking of others. Camus is emphatic on the power of decency during plague. As the doctor, who might be thought heroic, tells Rambert: “There’s one thing I must tell you: there is no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”
If we despair the absence of conscientious actors in this struggle, Camus assures us there is ample supply. He salutes those who, “refusing to bow down to pestilence, strive their utmost to be healers.” Of the volunteer sanitary squads that Tarrou organized, while “sooner or later contagion did its work,” still, “when all is said and done, the really amazing thing is that, so long as the epidemic lasted, there was never any lack of men for these duties”; volunteers “never failed to appear when summoned.” And further assurance: “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” (Women, too, Monsieur Camus, women, too.) This last truth, from “my” philosopher, has served as a credo over my lifetime. I had to wait until the last page to find it again.
Famously, the novel’s last paragraph warns of plagues to come. While Oran’s citizens celebrate victory over the pestilence and, starting to forget, resume their old way of life, Camus writes that “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” Epidemiologists now tell us the same; we must mind the biological event basically forever going forward. Honoring Camus’ original intent with his novel, we must also continue minding the malignancy of political plague. Finally, there is the existential plague of death. Death is “everybody’s business.”
Camus would have us remember this: Plague of any kind — whether biological, political, existential — presents both “bane and enlightenment.” It’s our choice.