By now, we all recognize that the current pandemic is far from being a health emergency only. For starters, there have been economic reverberations, from supply chain disruptions to lost livelihoods. On a social level, the crisis has revealed deep distrust in government and government-mandated virus mitigation measures; it has led to the widespread questioning of science and rejection of expert advice; and it ignited an ongoing debate on the limits of personal freedom and collective responsibility.
In his 1947 novel, The Plague, Albert Camus offers a realistic description of how society reacts to a deadly epidemic: Starting with the authorities’ inevitable denial and followed by hastily convened containment measures, panic buying, shameless profiteering and public discontent. But the novel also shows how a health emergency can bring out the best in people, leading to extraordinary acts of human kindness and solidarity.
An epidemic of humanity is breaking out.
What It’s About
A Tale of Human Decency
What does it feel like to be suddenly cut off from nature and the world, beleaguered by an invisible bacillus and condemned to endless apathy? And, more importantly, what to do in such a nightmarish situation? Albert Camus, inspired by historical accounts of plague outbreaks and his experience during the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, answered that timeless question in The Plague: Get up and do something useful together! The novel tells of a group of men who don’t even try to make sense of a meaningless disease, but instead establish hygiene standards, isolate and care for the sick, develop a cure and hope for the best. Like all pestilences, the plague eventually runs its course. But Camus warned his readers of complacency: Pathogens like totalitarianism, racism or mindless opportunism won’t disappear for good. We must rise up in collective action and resist each recurring wave, over and over and over again.
- The Plague, published in 1947, was Albert Camus’ international breakthrough.
- First the rats are dying in the streets of the Algerian coastal city Oran, then the plague breaks out. At first, everyone is in denial. But after a complete lockdown is imposed and case numbers rise sharply, a medical doctor and his outsider friend decide to fight the disease by organizing volunteers in sanitary squads. After much death and despair, the plague is defeated, families and lovers are reunited and life begins anew.
- The novel can be read on several levels: As a realistic tale of an epidemic outbreak, an allegory of active resistance to totalitarianism, or a comment on the Absurd.
- Camus believed that the only way to confront the absurdity and pointlessness of life was to rebel against it and create meaning through action.
- He wrote large parts of the novel while working for the French Resistance paper Combat during World War II.
- The Plague was inspired by the belief that men are inherently decent.
- Camus’ message of responsibility and solidarity struck a chord with readers and made it his first commercial success.
- In 1957, at almost 44, the Algerian-born Camus became the second youngest Nobel Prize winner ever.
- At the start of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, demand was so high that The Plague even went out of stock at Amazon.
- “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue.”
The Rats Arrive
Oran is a bustling yet dull port town on the Algerian coast, populated by hardworking, business-minded people who seldom look beyond their mundane habits – a place to live peacefully and unperturbed by the world at large. So when Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a dead rat lying in the middle of his building’s landing, he doesn’t give it another thought. The concierge M. Michel flat out denies that there could be rats in the building. Yet soon enough, the town is invaded by a repulsive mass of dying rats, often spurting blood and giving off agonizing death-cries in their last moments. The doctor sees off his ailing wife on the night train, assuring her that everything will be all right. She will spend some time in a mountain sanatorium to get better. To keep house during her absence, his mother will join him soon.
When Raymond Rambert, a journalist working for a Paris daily, asks Rieux about the living conditions among the Arab population of the city, the doctor declines to comment, knowing full well that Rambert couldn’t publish the unqualified truth about it anyway. But the doctor suggests he look into this curious rat invasion. On the fourth day, the beasts come out in packs and city officials give orders to collect and burn them in the incinerator.
“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails.”
The townspeople are disgusted and alarmed. Only one of Rieux’s patients, an old asthmatic Spaniard who spends his days moving dried peas from one saucepan to another to keep track of time, seems to take pleasure in the situation: “They are coming out,” he exclaims blithely. Another former patient, the modest and underpaid municipal clerk Joseph Grand, calls him because of his neighbor’s failed suicide attempt: Cottard has rather ambivalently tried to hang himself. The man begs the doctor not to report the incident to the police, but Rieux says it’s his duty to do so. Meanwhile, the rats’ onslaught stops almost as abruptly as it has begun. It’s on that same day that the concierge comes down with a mysterious disease involving painful swellings, black patches and a delirious fever. Two days later the man is dead.
Dabbling with Disease
Similar cases of fever and inflamed lymph nodes start multiplying at a worrying clip across town. Rieux agrees with his much older colleague Dr. Castel that it can be nothing other than plague. Yet they have a hard time processing that information. Wasn’t plague a thing of the past, something that befell only the poor and underdeveloped? Rieux conjures up images of grotesquely masked doctors at times of the Black Death in the Middle Ages, of people copulating in the Milanese cemeteries. With the right precautions and modern medicine, they should be able to control an outbreak, shouldn’t they?
“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 next day a health committee convenes. The Prefect and most of the doctors in town are wary of calling the thing by its name. But Rieux grows increasingly impatient: The name is irrelevant, he says. What matters is that people are dying from a highly infectious disease, and a wait-and-see policy could have deadly consequences. From now on small notices go up in inconspicuous parts of town, asking citizens to follow decent hygiene rules as well as to report the occurrence of fleas and unusual fevers to the authorities. The intention is clear: Don’t raise unwarranted alarm. Soon things get much worse, though. The numbers of daily deaths is rising exponentially, and the anti-plague serum from Paris is late in arriving. The hospital ward is filling up, so that the authorities are constrained to requisition a school to open an auxiliary hospital. Finally, the Prefect receives an order to proclaim a state of emergency and close the town.
Imprisoned in Oran
The move takes everybody by surprise. Family members, friends and lovers are separated for an unforeseeable future, and all communication with the outside world, except for telegrams, is forbidden. The locked-in townspeople become dull and passive; cars seem to be going around in circles, the port lies idle, and commerce dwindles. Some shrewd pub-owners advertise: “The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine.” Yet the most miserable, it seems, are individuals like the journalist Rambert: He has left behind the woman he loves in Paris, finding himself exiled in a place full of strangers. Nobody, not even Rieux, is willing to help him bend the rules and skip town.
“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.”
After the first month of plague, the church authorities organize a week of prayer. To conclude, the Jesuit Father Paneloux preaches a fierce sermon opening with a bang: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.” Spiking his words with Old Testament quotes, somber premonitions and harrowing comparisons, he literally puts the fear of God into people – only to commend that they see the light, change their ways and embrace the love of God to atone for their sins.
Despair sets in along with the merciless summer heat. Isolated riots are breaking out, and a special brigade shoots cats and dogs as possible carriers of the disease. In the streetcars, people are twisting their backs to avoid contact and thereby contagion. Then, as if the bubonic plague wasn’t enough, it’s turning pneumonic, forcing the Prefect to issue new regulations against passing it from mouth-to-mouth. One night, Grand invites Rieux into his small apartment and shows him what he’s been working on. It is but one sentence about a horsewoman riding down the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne – the opening line of a novel that the clerk has been laboring over with much pain and trepidation. Grand goes through many variations of that phrase, explains the pros and cons of a particular word and concludes by saying that, if only he could get that one sentence right, the rest would all fall into place.
The Sanitary Squads
Finally, Rieux’s friend Tarrou, a nonlocal of private means, organizes a group of volunteers to help the doctors, who are already teetering at the brink of collapse. Rieux warns his friend that his chances of surviving this adventure are one in three. But Tarrou ignores this and enrolls his first team of voluntary “sanitary squads,” which are soon followed by others. Castel starts to develop a vaccine based on the local variety of the plague bacillus, Grand acts as a general secretary to the squads, keeping the statistics of the disease, and even Father Paneloux ends up joining the effort.
“On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue;”
The only person who seems perfectly at ease – in fact, doing better than ever before – is Cottard. Since he is already dealing with contraband goods and knows the right people, he puts Rambert in touch with some of his partners. They agree on smuggling the journalist past the bribed sentries out of the locked town. Everybody gets ready, Rambert agrees to pay a hefty fee for the service – but somehow the escape plan keeps falling through. Eventually he resolves to give in and join Tarrou’s relief effort for the time being.
Thick Smoke in the East
In August, tensions edge up a notch, since the plague is moving from the crowded outskirts to the center of town. There are shootouts at the gates, and some people escape. The authorities declare martial law. Plague victims are dying alone, away from their families, and then buried without church services. When coffins start running out, the corpses are flung into death pits and covered with layers of quicklime. And although the death rate among burial workers is high, the list of applicants is long – at this point many fear hunger more than plague. Eventually, though, the number of dead exceeds the capacity of the cemetery, so they utilize the old crematorium outside the gates, east of the town, employing an unused streetcar line to transport the dead to their final burning place. An oily, awful-smelling odor descends on that part of town.
“Many of the gravediggers, stretcher-bearers, and the like, public servants to begin with, and later volunteers, died of plague.”
Cottard’s shady business partners get back to Rambert and tell him that this time they have organized his escape for good. Everything is ready to go. But then the journalist visits the overworked Tarrou and Rieux in the plague ward and tells them that he decided to stay: Leaving his friends alone now would be cowardly, and as a coward he won’t be able to look his lover in the eyes.
A Pointless Death
In October, Rieux tries out Castel’s new anti-plague serum on a little boy who appears to be a hopeless case. At first the child seems to be coming out of the illness, but then succumbs to it in horrible, prolonged agony, emitting a fierce cry followed by endless wailing. After this ghastly ordeal, Rieux turns to Father Paneloux in anger: How about this innocent child, did it also deserve to die? In a subsequent sermon, Paneloux speaks of “we” instead of “you,” and mentions that nothing in the world could ever justify a child’s suffering. Yet in the end, we just have to trust in God, because the alternative would be worse.
“We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you, I ask, would dare to deny everything?” (Father Paneloux)”
Not long after that sermon, Paneloux dies of plague. In November, thanks in part to Castel’s serum, the curve begins to flatten, but the poor don’t have enough to eat, and the mood is turning ugly. A quarantine camp is set up in the former municipal stadium, with hundreds of tents in the playing field and shower-baths installed under the stands.
One night, after a tiring day, Tarrou opens up to Rieux, telling him his life story: He grew up in an upper-middle class family, his father being a prosecuting attorney. But one day he visited his father in court, and that day changed his life: Tarrou became an ardent opponent of capital punishment. He began to dedicate his life to what he considered – and still considers – state-sanctioned murder. Soon he rose in the ranks of activists fighting the same cause, until he discovered that they, too, were sanctioning death, claiming that they were only doing this to build a new system devoid of murder. Tarrou quit the day he witnessed an execution by firing squad in Hungary. He realized that he’d had the plague all along. And he resolved to abdicate any cause that claimed human lives in some bogus pursuit of justice. The path to attain peace, he says, is that of sympathy. Then he suggests to his friend to go out for a swim in the sea. For both of them, it is a rare and refreshing moment of complete happiness and friendship, a taste of the overwhelming beauty of life and nature.
“For some minutes they swam side by side, with the same zest, in the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.”
Just before Christmas, Rieux catches Grand in front of a shop window with tears in his eyes: The old clerk remembers his early and happy days with his young wife, who left him after a few years of unfulfilled hopes. He’s feverish, and that same night he asks Rieux to burn his 50-page manuscript, containing the same opening sentence over and over again, in all conceivable variations. Grand shows all the symptoms of plague, but against the doctor’s expectations he recovers. Around the same time the first living rats are seen in town again. And indeed: For the first time since the beginning of the epidemic, the weekly number of deaths is decreasing.
Free at Last
From now on things improve rapidly. It seems as if the plague has been cornered and has suddenly lost its force. At first, most restrictions remain in place. But by the end of January it is announced that, should things continue on this path, the gates could open in two weeks’ time. That night people go out celebrating in the streets. Even Rieux and his friends briefly join the crowds. But a few days later Tarrou comes down with the disease. Rieux and his mother decide to skirt the rules, let him stay at their house and keep vigil until the end.
“Tarrou had ‘lost the match,’, as he put it. 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.”
The next day Rieux receives the news of his wife’s passing. Then, on a morning in February, the gates are officially reopened with great pomp. Ships and trains are coming in from the outer world; families and lovers are about to be reunited again. Like everybody else, Rambert is awaiting his love with nervous foreboding, fearing that the long plague months have changed him to a point where it would be hard to rejoin his past. Rieux, meanwhile, walks alone through the celebrating crowds to the outskirts of town, seeing couples passionately embracing each other and their joy. They have yearned for and attained love, he thinks, at least for the moment. What more could they ask for?
The Menace Will Return
Only one person won’t join in the festive mood: Cottard has barricaded himself in his apartment and is shooting at people from his house. When a bedraggled looking dog comes out onto the street – the first Rieux has seen in months – he shoots the poor animal, too. The police end up machine-gunning Cottard’s windows, storming the building and dragging the screaming man out of the building.
“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.”
Finally, Rieux visits the old asthma patient again. The man is still moving peas back and forth from his saucepans, predicting that people will soon forget what’s happened and go about their lives. Rieux agrees. Plague didn’t change anyone. Still, to him it has proven that, when all is said and done, there are more reasons to admire his fellow human beings than to despise them.
About the Text
Structure and Style
The novel consists of five acts resembling the trajectory of a classic Greek tragedy. In the first, the rats come out, creating a sense of ominous foreboding. Then, plague breaks out and continues to worsen until it reaches its climax in part four. Finally, the town’s gates are opened again in the fifth part, lovers are reunited at last, and the unnamed narrator sums up his observations. Only at this point does he reveal his identity: The chronicler is Dr. Rieux himself, claiming that he wanted to convey the events as impartially and objectively as possible, not assuming anything about others that he couldn’t vouch for. He often intersperses his sober narration with quotes from a diary written by Tarrou, thus introducing another detached perspective to underline the unbiased nature of the account. Still, the chronicle of the plague outbreak is only the first of many narrative layers and multiple meanings in this novel. Camus himself suggested reading the novel at “several levels,” having woven his philosophic ideas about the human condition and the Absurd between the lines, for example when Rieux explains to Rambert why he can’t help him sneak out of town to reunite with the love of his life: “Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.”
- On the surface, The Plague is a realistic description of how society reacts to a deadly epidemic: Starting with the authorities’ inevitable denial and followed by hastily convened containment measures, panic buying, shameless profiteering and public discontent, the disease also brings out the very best in people, leading to extraordinary acts of human kindness and solidarity.
- A little deeper, it is an allegory of Nazi-occupied France during World War II – or any place on Earth that gets infected by the disease of a totalitarian ideology. The biggest mistake, according to Camus, is to believe that it can be rooted out for good. Rather than giving in to a false sense of security, we should always be on watch for another wave.
- Moreover, it is a philosophical treatise of the Absurd: We are challenged by the paradox that we want to give meaning to our lives, while knowing that all of our struggles ultimately amount to nothing. So, what to do? We have to defy the meaningless by creating meaning through action and resistance. For Dr. Rieux, that’s not a question of heroism, but simply of “doing my job”.
- Camus was a cautiously optimistic humanist and moralist: He believed that, for all their colossal failings, people are inherently decent – when given a chance. A staunch anti-Stalinist and opponent of capital punishment, he maintained that no end, however glorious, ever justified unethical means to achieve it. His convictions gained him a pariah status within the French Left in the last decade of his life.
- The novel reflects three aspects of the author’s personality: Dr. Rieux stands for the detached and dutiful healer, who fights on and continues to do the good work; Rambert is someone who lives for love, knowing full well that passion is fleeting and sustained marital bliss an illusion; and Tarrou is a disillusioned idealist, who searches for true meaning and dies before attaining it.
French Resistance under Nazi occupation
After France’s crushing defeat by Nazi-Germany in 1940, the nation was in shock: Huge swastika flags were flown at the City Hall and Eiffel Tower in Paris, the ultimate symbol of humiliation. On June 18, General Charles de Gaulle took to the microphone in a London BBC studio and called on the French people to resist Nazi Germany and the soon-to-be established collaborationist Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain in the south. At first, few heeded his call – the majority were convinced that Germany would win the war, and they supported Pétain’s authoritarian and anti-Semitic regime. Still, some took the stance of “refus absurde” (Jean Cassou) – refusing to accept the inevitable. The resisters’ initial focus lay on supplying the Allies with vital intelligence and publishing underground newspapers.
In 1941, armed resistance began, with many young Frenchmen joining in disgust: One of their motives was the much-hated “horizontal collaboration,” a euphemism for sexual relationships between German men and French women desperate to feed themselves and their families. Resisters laid bombs, assassinated enemies, derailed trains and sabotaged factories. Yet for every German killed, about 50 to 100 French hostages were executed in retaliation. The Gestapo also captured a great number of activists and “turned” them into informants, often under severe torture. After German troops occupied all of France in November 1942, the Resistance eventually united behind de Gaulle. However, fearing an eventual left-wing revolutionary takeover, he carefully kept the Communists at arms’ length and orchestrated the liberation of Paris in August 1944 to take sole credit for it.
After 1945, both Gaullists and Communists maintained that the majority of French people had been active resisters. In truth, the estimated number lies somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 – out of a population of then almost 40 million.
Albert Camus was working for the daily newspaper Paris-Soir when the Germans marched on Paris. He fled to Lyon, where he married one of his many concurrent girlfriends – the pianist and mathematician Francine Faure – and moved to the Algerian coastal city of Oran with her. In early 1941, he began to immerse himself in the history of plagues to gather material for his next project: The Plague or The Prisoners, as he preferred to name it at first. In 1942, he went to the small French mountain village Le Panelier, in order to cure one of his recurring bouts of tuberculosis. In the nearby village of Le Chambon, the Protestant pastor couple Magda and André Trocmé were engaged in saving thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Vichy government, and when confronted by the authorities, Trocmé’s answer was: “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.” Although Camus never explicitly said so, he was likely inspired by their humanity – tellingly, the village doctor in Chambon was a man named Rioux.
Camus realized that his original ideas on the Absurd, conceived as “tender indifference” towards a meaningless life, “teaches nothing.” In Letters to a German Friend, published between 1943 and 1944, he instead called for collective action against the pointlessness of our existence: “If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has a meaning.” That something, among other things, is to resist injustice, help your community and alleviate human suffering. Having moved to Paris in 1943, he joined the Resistance as chief editor of the influential clandestine newspaper Combat. Between his day job as an editor at Gallimard and his underground activities, he struggled to finish the novel. Tormented by his usual self-doubt, on the eve of its publication in 1947, he complained to a friend that it was a “livre manqué” – a waste of a book.
Reviews and Legacy
The public begged to differ: With 100,000 copies sold by the end of the year, The Plague made his fortune. It’s been translated into more than 30 languages and remains one of Gallimard’s best-selling books of all times. Still, this wasn’t enough to lighten Camus’ often somber mood: “My book is selling like a sob story for young girls,” he griped. “What makes my books a success is the same that makes them a lie for me.” A number of reviewers agreed, criticizing it as grey, heavy and dull. Some found it cloyingly moralistic, while others, like Roland Barthes, worried that the metaphorical use of plague risked turning the historic horrors of the Nazis into an ahistorical happening. Yet according to Camus’ friend, the novelist Nicola Chiaromonte, most critics were simply missing the point: “The general public have apparently found in it an answer to their yearning for ordinary humanity and good sense.”
A yearning that resurfaced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020: Copies of The Plague were flying off the shelves like no other pestilence fiction – even Amazon went out of stock – and many dug out their old dog-eared high school editions. Rereading it during lockdown made people realize what the author had claimed all along: Far from being a narrow tale of Nazi-occupied France, it speaks universal truths about the things that afflict human beings in perpetuity and their inherent ability to rise above them. His daughter Catherine Camus, when asked about the book’s newfound popularity, said that its core message was now more pressing than ever: “We are not responsible for the coronavirus, but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.”
About the Author
Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, on November 7, 1913, into a family of French-Algerian Pieds-Noirs. His father died in World War I when he was an infant. His mother, who was half-deaf, worked as a cleaning woman. A teacher discovered his talent and convinced the reluctant family that Albert should apply for a scholarship to pursue higher education. Having grown up in a narrow world of limited words, he relished the intellectual universe that opened up before him. At 20, he married a young bourgeois woman addicted to morphine, but the marriage failed miserably. Throughout the 1930s, he worked odd jobs, tried his luck as a teacher, journalist and playwright. He finished a Master’s degree in Philosophy, joined and left the Communist Party. The complicated liaison would later turn into outright hostility, as Camus was an anti-Stalinist at a time when it was not yet cool to be one. An obsessive and guilt-ridden womanizer, he married again in 1940, only to feel trapped soon afterwards, suggesting to his wife that they maintain a fraternal relationship (five years later she would give birth to twins). In 1942, his first two works on the Absurd were published to great acclaim: L’Étranger (The Stranger) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), followed by the enormous commercial success La Peste (The Plague) in 1947. Camus joined the French Resistance as chief editor of the underground newspaper Combat in 1943 and became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet after a furious ideological row over his essay collection L’Homme Révolté (The Rebel) in 1951, their paths split for good and Camus’ fame declined. Today he is acknowledged as one of the most important postwar French intellectuals, but during his lifetime he suffered from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety attacks, conditions that got worse when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. At almost 44 he was the second-youngest author ever to receive the award, and the pressure to perform weighed on him. At the same time, he got caught between the ideological fronts of the Algerian War, with opponents attacking his pacifist, non-committed approach as hopelessly naive. Having spent Christmas 1959 with his wife and children in Provence, he set off for Paris driving a friend’s luxurious Facel Vega HK500. On January 4, 1960, he died in a car crash en route to the capital.