Analysis of Albert Camus’s The Plague

The Plague was written by Albert Camus (1913–60), one of the most gifted and influential writers and philosophers in the French language of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria. The Plague, written during the German occupation of France in World War II, examines how an outbreak of the bubonic plague grips the Algerian city of Oran. The town on the seacoast of North Africa is mysteriously overrun by thousands of rats that bring a deadly pestilence to the citizenry. The story is Camus’s modernist version of Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century A Journal of the Plague Year. The Plague is also Camus’s allegorical treatment of the German forces invading Europe.

The central concern of the novel falls on the response by the public to the deadly disease rather than on the ravages of the plague. At first many of the town’s doctors and leaders deny the existence of the plague. They rely on the false hope that the human deaths might have a source other than bubonic plague. But as the number of dead begins to mount, the citizenry begins to realize that an epidemic has become their enemy. The disease creates hysteria and fear. People shun one another and become isolated within their homes. Soon the newspapers clamor for action. The ravages of the plague finally force the town’s bureaucrats to order a strict quarantine of Oran, leaving the citizenry imprisoned within the city’s gates and isolated from the rest of the world.

The Plague addresses a social response to the absurd condition of existence, rather than one individual’s response, as addressed in Camus’s earlier novel, The Stranger. Camus defines the absurd as life, devoid of God and constantly faced with evil forces, with no ultimate rational meaning. The denizens of Oran eventually find that they cannot fight against the plague or stem its deadly consequences, except for measures such as burning bodies and enforcing strict sanitation practices. Despite these minor human responses, the plague continues its devastating course. Dr. Rieux, the novel’s protagonist, fights against a disease for which there is no cure, as well as an apathetic society, and he quickly realizes that human intervention brings only a modicum of relief.

The townspeople of Oran are left in a state of anguish and alienation. But Camus’s story explores both the town’s collective response and that of the individual, evidenced through Dr. Rieux, to such daunting and irrational forces as a widespread plague. The only response possible, according to Camus’s philosophy of the absurd, comes through Dr. Rieux. Camus’s absurd hero achieves the ultimate rebellion against an indifferent universe by denying the illusion of a rational order while also resisting total despair. He turns away from religion and other social props and seeks a way, designed by the human will, to strengthen the community.

The town’s collective response becomes therapeutic, albeit only in an ennobling manner, as the unity of action does not curtail the physical manifestations of the plague. After the quarantine persists for several months, many of Oran’s denizens abandon their selfish obsession with personal suffering. The plague is seen as a collective enemy that concerns everyone. They recognize their social responsibility and take up efforts against the plague.

The ending of The Plague reaffirms Camus’s contention that the only response to an absurd existence, whether collective or individual, is a conscious rebellion against irrationalism. The individual may never defeat such overwhelming forces because a rational response is incongruent with irrational forces; even so, an individual’s rebellion creates in that moment of resistance a worthy human condition.

Dr. Rieux’s existential response also exemplifies in novel form Camus’s retelling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus in his highly anthologized essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Greek gods have condemned Sisyphus for his transgressions to endlessly rolling a boulder up a mountainside. As the condemned man nears the summit, the rock tumbles back down the slope of its own weight, only to have Sisyphus again taking up his inexorable burden. But Camus thinks that Sisyphus must be considered happy because he has rebelled against the irrational forces in the universe. Camus imagines the absurd hero, despite his tragic fate, to be defiant in spirit and unbroken by the gods. From using the abstract forces of the Greek gods in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus adopts the more specific, although allegorical, use of rats infested with the pestilence for the German forces occupying much of Europe in The Plague.

In The Plague Camus argues that rebellion against suffering and death ultimately ends in futility. Even in ordinary life, death eventually wins out. The novel also underscores the position that human defiance of the absurd world sounds a noble note despite the inevitable defeat of this resistance. The Plague outlines Camus’s humanistic optimism in moments of deepest despair and meaninglessness. In existential terms, this fraternal solidarity alone defines the individual instead of innate or spiritual essences.

The Plague is part of a group of three literary works Camus termed The Absurds. The other two works are the companion pieces The Stranger, a short novel, and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” a philosophical essay. The Plague is the longest and most developed of the three works.

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Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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