The Plague

ISBN: 0394440617
ISBN 13: 9780394440613
By: Albert Camus Stuart Gilbert

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About this book

A parable of the highest order, The Plague tells the story of a terrible disease that descends upon Oran, Algiers, in a year unknown. After rats crawl from the sewer to die in the streets, people soon begin perishing from terrible afflictions. How the main characters in the book--a journalist, a doctor and a priest--face humanity in the wake of the plague presents one of the book's many lessons. The book deserves to be read on several levels, because the pandemic in The Plague represents any of a number of worldwide catastrophes--both past and future--and the difficult choices everyone must make to survive them.

Reader's Thoughts


The universe doesn't care about you. You will strive for human connection, but you will die alone. There is no sense in suffering; it is not rational. You have an expiration date.This is a great study of how different personalities respond to suffering. Some succumb, some fight, some detect the scent of divinity.See also: Suttree, The Book of Job.


THE PLAGUE is my favorite Camus in part because it treats its subject humanely. While I can appreciate this historical influence of THE STRANGER, I find that famous "writing degree zero" style a bit too stylized for my taste---not so much in Camus, perhaps, but by the many imitators who have latched onto it in an effort to exploit the emotional detachment it allows for. Besides becoming a cheap term that gets used all the time without any philosophical specificity whatsoever, 'existentialism' as a literary gesture strikes me as a bit too close to a pose meant to shock. The world is shocking enough---give me compassion.So without sentimentalizing humanism, THE PLAGUE is much more satisfying because it explores the range of reaction people are capable of in times of crises. The chief protagonist is a hero for nothing less than his belief in the need to persevere and not give in to despair; as much as any other moral quality except his professionalism, I find that one central to his character. Then there is the simple genius of writing a novel about the French occupation as an allegory. I've often thought lately that one reason 9-11 novels are generally dissatisfactory (from the Salingerisms of J.S. Foer to McInerney's middle-brow in THE GOOD LIFE to the arid philosophizing of DeLillo's THE FALLING MAN)is that in tackling that story, writers mine its meaning too literally. I wish someone would follow Camus's example and do something more metaphorical. In the meantime, however, I'll keep rereading this one.


1913–2013 A hundred years of Albert Camus, a writer. …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.Yes, Nazism influenced the writing of this story, Camus was living through it and resisting it, in his way; but it is not about it. This novel, published after The Myth of Sisyphus and written during the sometimes hostile response to the book, begins what became to be known as Camus’ ‘Cycle of Revolt’ (along with The Rebel and the plays L'état de siege and Les justes) It is of interest to note that one of the regular complaints regarding Camus’ series of essays (notice, I do not say ‘Book of Philosophy’, which he never did…) of The Myth of Sisyphus—by both Camus’ contemporaries and thinkers today—is that it is ‘too abstract’ to be taken as a serious philosophical tract. The journalist, Rambert, echoes them when he says to Doctor Rieux:”You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of … of abstractions.”To which he later muses to himself:Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still, when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.In this story, a city in North Africa, Oran, where Camus had lived for short amounts of time, becomes quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic and, later, pneumonic, plague. Lots of people are dying and everybody has to deal with it, in their way. We follow the responses most closely of a Doctor (Rieux), a journalist (Rambert), a writer (Grand), an intellectual … for want of a better word (Tarrou), a priest (Paneloux) and a criminal (Cottard). Also of note is ‘the asthma patient’ that Rieux treats at key points in the narrative (in particular, right at the starts of the plague and right at the end. Why? Because his lung condition is mirroring Camus’ own (tuberculosis)—he required frequent treatments from Doctors, like Rieux—and it’s important to note that Camus’ often considered himself on the verge of death due to his condition, mirroring the psychology of those living with the plague: to live with the knowledge of the threat of imminent and unavoidable death. ‘They’re coming out, they’re coming out..’ He says gleefully. And later, at the end, he poses an important rhetorical question that’s been foreshadowed throughout the story: ”But what does that mean—‘plague’? Just life, no more than that. And Tarrou, much later:”…I had plague already, long before I came to this town.”No, not Nazis, but life; but more specifically, life being brought into sharp focus, creating an awareness of it through an understanding that it ends. Being forced into exile by the plague, or not, the absurd conditions of life remain unaltered. It’s the awareness of the conditions that shifts through plague-caused exile: to be separated from the rest of the world, from love, from culture, etc; for it to be a part of your consciousness, and the consciousness of all the exiles around you, this is the plague. What does this do the people? It drives out Hope. It makes them live only in the past (through memories) and the present (through knowledge). The future no longer exists. Your illusions regarding your existence have flown. You have no peace.This is the Plague. The awareness of the absurd.The only option is revolt; even in the face of the unchangeable.And through this it’s possible, maybe not to be a saint, but to be a man.…it was only right that those whose desires are limited to man, and his humble yet formidable love, should enter, if only now and again, into their reward.How these characters come to terms with the plague and, thus, the Plague, forms the bulk of the story; and how they all, in different ways, follow Rieux’s lead and accept revolt, forms its chief intellectual interest. Without wanting to give away serious plot points, think about this when one of them contracts both varieties of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—the person ever to do so…[image error]Don’t get me wrong: this is also an aesthetic achievement of the highest order, even in translation: the scene with the dying boy reaches the aching terrible narrative beauty of one of Camus’ greatest literary heroes, Dostoevsky. But, indulge me in discussing some of these characters and how they played out in a kind of general sense, if you will…[image error]Tarrou and Rieux have the most special relationship: the moment of ‘respite’ they share swimming alone at night in the forbidden sea is memorable to both of them, and to the reader. Just before hand, in conversation with Rieux, Tarrou comes to his main point about his life:”It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually, “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.””But you don’t believe in God.””Exactly. Can one be a Saint without God?”A little later on, Rieux finally responds:”But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.””Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious."Seeking sainthood is its own variety of retreat from the plague, not revolt. It’s full acknowledgement that the plague is greater-than. While Tarrou obsesses over existential issues, and broad morality, in his efforts to not transmit the plague to others, he can’t help but do so anyway. Paneloux, the priest, and Rieux clash on the other side of the plague. When Paneloux is introduced into the story, it is early days in the plague: people are seeking the solace of the Church, and he delivers his First Sermon, which is your typical ‘this is God’s vengeance upon his misbehaving creation’ kind of fare. Rieux is unimpressed. However, he asks Paneloux to become involved in the Santization Groups and he accepts, throwing himself into the actions of the revolt against the plague. After the death of the boy scene, there is a shift in his beliefs, and his Second Sermon follows that event. For those who have read The Brothers Karamazov...(if you have not, what are you doing reading this rubbish review? Stop it and go out and read this book instead… No, wait, there’s time, as long as you don’t have plague: finish my review first…) ...this sermon could be read as how Aloysha should have responded to Ivan Karamazov when the death of innocents was put toward him as a reason to revolt against God (Book V, Ch. IV). Rieux summarises Ivan’s position nicely:”And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”Instead of Aloysha’s quiet wishy-washy acceptance (coupled with his refusing to face the outcome of this acceptance) … a little like modern Western Christianity generally … Paneloux responds:”Believe everything so as not to be forced to deny everything.””…they must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing.”He’s not saying that you’re either for God or against Him, but that you’re either with God or without Him. It’s no good being with Him when without plague, and without when you are. Because then you are without him anyway. Rambert is the lover who wants to run from the plague. But comes to his own absurd realization.Cottard finds the plague-stricken world better than the normal world.Grand, the writer, revolts with the rest of them, but his life remains disturbingly unaffected. He obsesses over his opening sentence, which he’s been working on for years, mirroring Camus’ obsession with his book, which took him longer to write than any other. When Rieux gets a look at the full manuscript Grand is working on he notices that:The bulk of the writing consisted of the same sentence written again and again with small variants. In the end, even during the victory celebrations, the plague’s there, laying dormant, never really gone, waiting, even on ‘the bookshelves.’Read this book. Get the plague.

Hemdan Ahmed

"ان كل مايستطيع الانسان ان يربحه في معركة الطاعون و الحياة هو المعرفة و التذكُّر"هو ألبير كامو بعبثيته بلامبالاته بتشكيكه و شكوكه في كل شئ ، في فرديته و رؤيته الانسانية الخاصة ( انها الوجودية الملحدة) في اوضح صورها على يد قطبها الكبير البير كامو ؛الطاعون يهاجم مدينة " قبيحة "_ هكذا وصفها كامو _ و هي مدينة وهران العربية الجزائرية ( كامو لا يراها هكذا )و تغلق المدينة و يُنفى اهلها ليس خارج المدينة و انما خارج وجودهم و تفردهم و انسانيتهم و ربما ايضا ايمانهم بكل شئ ؛في كتاب الوجودية مذهب انساني حاول سارتر جاهدا و مجتهدا في ان ينفي عن الوجودية بصفة عامه و الملحدة بصفة خاصة نظرتها و رؤيتها التشاؤمية و الفردية و العبثية للانسان و الوجود و حاول و ذكر كامو خلال دفاعه هذا و لكن هذه الرواية _ و اظن بقية اعمال كامو_تُثبت ما حاول سارتر جاهدا ان ينفيه او على الاقل ان يُعطيه تفسيرا خلاف ما هوا واضح جلي ..؛

Erik Simon

I first read this twenty years ago and liked it a great deal. I don't know why I wanted to reread it, but I did, and I liked the book even more. It's one of the most relevant books I've ever read. It speaks beautifully, deeply, lucidly to any awful thing that can happen in this world. Camus is sublime in his ability to talk about the large things, talk about the small. The deaths in this novel stir me perhaps more deeply than the deaths in any other book I've read. And Camus seems to have a higher, more accurate opinion of humans than Saramago, whose BLINDNESS offers almost no one redeeming. What "we learn in a time of pestilence," Camus notes, is "that there are more things to admire in men than despise." I think that must be about right.

Michael Austin

In every literary and artistic movement, I believe, there is one work that stands out as 1) a representative of everything that the movement stands for; and 2) a work of art that can be enjoyed on its own merits by people who do not like, or agree with, the movement that it represents. For me, "I Will Survive" fills this role for disco music; "Spirited Away" fills it for Japanese Anime, and THE PLAGUE does it for French existentialism. THE PLAGUE makes largely the same argument as THE STRANGER and NO EXIT, but I think that it is more successful on the larger level because it makes the argument positively (by showing us people who do it right) rather than negatively (by showing us how people get it wrong). It is much easier to criticize the bad than it is to model the good. Camus should be given all due praise for attempting the latter--and succeeding. THE PLAGUE would be a great novel even if there were no such thing as existentialism--or, for that matter, France.

Eman salem

يروي البير كامو قصة مدينة مع الطاعون بدايةً من ظهوره وحتى انحساره القصة التي يرويها طبيب عاصر الاحداث من بدايتها الى نهايتها ، مع ان الرواية مشهورة ويوجد بها الكثير من الافكار فيما يتعلق بالقدر والايمان والموت والحياة وآراء متعددة حول كل من هذه المواضيع ومع ورود بعض الجمل التي تستحق الاقتباس الا انها مملة ، لم استطع ايجاد عيب فيها ، لكنها ليست ممتعة .. عموماً لا بأس من قراءتها . فكرة اخيرة طرحها الكاتب وهي الطاعون كرمز مقارباً بين مرض الطاعون الحقيقي بعوارضه المعروفة و الطاعون كفكرة موجودة في البشرية منذ الازل ، احببت خاتمته وتصويره لاختباء الطاعون ثم ظهوره ليلتهم ( مدينة سعيدة ) ..


More than seven years have passed since last I read this book, and it was now time for a revisit. I’m glad I reread it. A book that can be read on several levels, it invites the reader to ponder below the surface story of a biological plague in northern Algeria and see Camus’ vision as a means of exploring the response of individuals and community to the horrible and unexpected in any form. Camus himself surely meant on one level to let the plague represent Nazism, and we are invited to let it represent whatever terrifying crises we are and may be facing in our own time – terrorism? climate change? economic collapse? uncontrollable infectious diseases?Important to Camus’ theme is his setting his tale in the most ordinary of places, Oran, ordinary, ugly, placid, boring and thoroughly negative. The story we are about to hear could happen anywhere, there being nothing special about this place; indeed, it could happen just where we, the readers, are. The narrator is a citizen of the town, speaking in the first person. His tone is conversational, speaking directly to the reader. The society he sketches, on of banality and commercialism, describes our own. The town has no interest in or inkling of anything different, “in other words, completely modern.” It is, in two words, habitual and somnambulant. This is why the inhabitants did not recognize premonitory signs of the crisis about to engulf them.The first named character in the story is Dr. Rieux, a physician sending his wife to a sanatorium in the mountains. He notices an unusual number of rats dying in the town but has no explanation, not yet even thinking seriously about it. Rieux is world-weary, fond of humankind but not of cant, determined to resist injustices and compromises with truth. As more and more rats die, the populace responds with an esthetic revulsion that only gradually builds to a disquieting alarm, for as yet only rats have died. Suddenly dying rats disappear, and people begin falling ill. A second major figure is introduced, Father Paneloux, a “militant Jesuit.” So now the voice of religion is added to the perspective of scientific rationalism. And next is Monsieur Cottard, the survivor of a suicide attempt. With the onset of a peculiar fever, usually fatal, that more citizens begin to manifest, a period of fear and serious reflection begins. The narrator, in describing this time, acknowledges his debt to the observations and journals of Jean Tarrou, a somewhat mysterious person who has come to Oran just before the onset of events and who stays once difficulties develop. The town’s doctors begin to recognize that the illness is plague, but as yet there is denial that an epidemic is beginning to occur. Dr. Rieux’s approach, as he ruminates on events, is simply “to do your job as it should be done.” Assisted by the meek civil functionary Joseph Grand who provides him with mortality data, Rieux insists that the municipal Prefect put into place the required measures for dealing with plague, despite the latter’s wish to avoid the responsibility to stating that a plague epidemic is occurring. Other physicians waffle, attempting to avoid the same responsibility. Critical time passes, and more people become ill. Only a few preventative measures are taken until at last no denial is possible and the whole town is quarantined, shut off from the outside world.Now a new phase has begun. Now there is no possibility of anyone’s leaving the town, and, since all communication except for occasional brief telegrams into and out of Oran is prohibited, essentially all interactions with those separated is impossible; those having left town for only a few days are gone for the duration of the plague, and there is no way of knowing how long that separation might last. Yet at first in this phase it was the distress of separation, the sense of isolation, and the consequence disruption of daily activities related to commerce and the like that were most noticeable. As yet few people contemplated the significance of the plague itself in terms of potential personal death or permanent loss of loved ones. Rationing begins to occur. Death rates rise. Rambert, a journalist not resident in the town but trapped there by circumstance, appeals to Rieux to give him a certificate of health that will permit him to leave. Knowing that such a certificate is impossible, Rieux is accused of being uncaring, “a rationalist,” without human feeling of any kind, an accusation with which Rieux realizes he must in some sense accept as correct if he is to function in caring for the sick and dying. He becomes conscious of a progressive “bleak indifference” that is necessary for him to continue; he “grows out of pity when its useless.” And yet he goes on caring for the victims. The intensification of the plague precipitates a Week of Prayer culminating in Father Paneloux’s sermon asserting that the people suffer because their sinfulness has led God to withdraw his protection from them. Yet Paneloux also offers encouragement. Camus’ metaphors are sometimes striking; here is an example: “The sun stalked our townsfolk along every byway, into every nook; and when they paused, it struck.”Rieux, an atheist, is motivated by duty and by determination to relieve suffering when he sees it. Tarrou is motivated by his desire to understand, to comprehend. Each person reacts and responds to events in his own way, for his own reasons.Midway though the book the narrator (who has still not been identified) makes a few parenthetical comments about evil, comments that make more sense in the context of talking about manmade rather than natural evils, thus reinforcing the interpretation that on some level Camus’ point has to do with Nazism more than or as much as biological plague. The narrator says, “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. Men…are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”What happens over time is a general numbing of emotions, a constricting of interests, an inability to live in anything but the moment since no future can be envisioned. The plague no longer seems memorable, only monotonous. All one can do is one’s job, mindlessly, not even hopelessly but without feeling altogether. One’s life becomes impersonal, and a “blind endurance…ousted love from all our hearts.” Yet out of this flatness there occasionally bursts forth anguish, rage, and despair, evidenced most obviously in the responses of Camus’ main characters, of whom Rieux seems always the most sympathetic. Father Paneloux preaches two sermons during the course of the plague, the second showing his evolving understanding of its “meaning,” if the word “meaning” has any validity. His interpretation of a Christian message, or at least a Christian response to events, may have been convincing or comforting to some of his hearers. It is not to me. A long disquisition by Tarrou near the end of the novel reinforces the position that Camus is really discussing human evil more than natural evil, using the plague only as a metaphor. Tarrou relates his own history to Rieux, reinforcing his own conviction that each of us is complicit in the cruelty and injustice in the world. Camus ends this section with these lines:“It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually; “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”“But you don’t believe in God.”“Exactly! Can one be a saint without God? – that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.”“Perhaps,” the doctor answered. “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interest me is being a man.”“Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.”Finally, of course, the plague departs. Life can never be the same, on the one hand, and on the other, life resumes, the past pushed out of awareness. The narrator finishes his story. But “the tale could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers…[The joy of release] is always impermanent…The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and then 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.”This is a book to be read again and again as a reader grows and ages, each reading providing deeper insights into the world and himself.


A great novel, one of the best I have read. The Plague tells story of a small town in Algeria that is nearly destroyed by an epidemic of bubonic plague. The people of the town are only dimly aware of the plague as it begins, and once it takes hold, most are too apathetic or weak or confused to fight it. The events are viewed through the eyes of a doctor, and we see all humanity, at its best and worst: loving, killing, sharing, stealing, embracing and suffering.Written in 1948, It is a parable for the moral and political plagues that nearly destroyed Europe in World War II. The lesson: There is more to admire than to despise in the character of man, but only eternal vigilance against the forces of evil can prevent the worst crimes from happening again.

Rakhi Dalal

I read “The Plague” right after reading “Swann’s Way”. Of course it wasn’t a deliberate move. But as I moved on, I realized that reading of ‘The Plague’ had rendered something quite remarkable in the way I realized and appreciated both works. Both works embody a reality. ‘Swann’s Way’ speaks of the reality that is long gone by and one wish to remember and cherish, whereas, ‘The Plague’ makes one more acutely aware of the bleakness of actual reality when imposed through an epidemic such as plague. This book speaks of the things that are, rather than things that were. Swann’s way had left me completely mesmerized, longing for the bygones. But The Plague left me assessing the actual approach which governs human beings when faced with discomforts in life.The first thing that strikes in the work is the avoidance of acceptance of pestilence on the part of people of the town of Oran. Albert says, “Pestilence is in fact very common, but we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us. There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared”. He further adds that because pestilence doesn’t have human dimensions, people refuse to believe it, thinking of it as a bad dream which would end soon. Perhaps people do not wish to accept its onset, for the reason that they have far greater faith in life itself. But when they have to, it results in utter misery on their part. The beauty of the work lies in the depiction of different approaches adopted by different individuals during plague. Whereas some people engage in serving the disease ridden, some try to make more money by smuggling liquor and other desired goods. Some people are melancholic, whereas some try to find happiness in between. What I found further intriguing, were the words Camus employed to express the thoughts conveyed by the Priest, as regarding religion and God during Plague. Consider these two addresses delivered by Father Paneloux; one, at the beginning of the epidemic and the other, after months of suffering.First one starts as:“My brethren, a calamity has befallen you; my brethren, you have deserved it……Since the beginning of history, the scourge of God has brought down the proud and the blind beneath His feet. Think of this and fall on your knees.”Second one ends as:“My brethren, the love of God is a difficult love. It assumes a total abandonment of oneself and contempt for one’s person. But it alone can wipe away the suffering and death of children, it alone makes them necessary because it is impossible to understand such things, so we have no alternative except to desire them. This is the faith- cruel in the eyes of man, decisive in the eyes of God-which we must try to reach. We must try to make ourselves equal to this awful image”In the first address, the Priest is so certain about the ways of God, but the second address clearly depicts the vagueness, as the consequence of severe sufferings due to pestilence. How little does religion/God matters when humanity faces such pandemic! Camus has skilfully captured the inner tumult which the Priest went through while coming to terms with the harsh reality. The reading was quite overpowering. It was further augmented by the reference to Bois de Boulogne at some places during the narration. Grand, an aid to Rieux, read the first line of his writing to Rieux. What was beautiful was the effect it created, producing in mind the consequence of anxiety and the desperation to escape.Rieux was listening at the same time to a sort of vague humming sound in the town, as if replying to the whistling flail of the Plague. At this particular moment he had an extraordinary acute perception of the town spread out at his feet, the enclosed world that it formed and the dreadful cries stifled in its night. He heard Grand’s muffled voice: ‘On a fine morning in the month of May, an elegant woman was riding a magnificent sorrel mare through the flowered avenues of the Bois de Boulogne’I think that Camus, who is touted as an absurdist for his writings on the subject, has very profoundly articulated the idea of absurd through this writing as well. The idea that he presented in The Myth of Sisyphus, that of the need to seek clarity and meaning within a world which offers neither, has been expressed in these lines for me.“All that a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory. Perhaps that was what Tarrou called winning the game!...But if that is what it meant to win the game, how hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, and deprived of what one hopes.”

Henry Martin

Albert Camus is a fairly new author to me, and I must begin by saying that I'm not too familiar with his work. Last year I read his The First Man, The Stranger, and American Journals. All of these books were amazing, so when I reached for the highly acclaimed The Plague, I was expecting yet another fascinating read. The Plague started great. The writing is what I had grown to expect from Camus - intelligent and thought provoking. From the initial scene setting, I was effortlessly pulled into the story and had no trouble visualizing the plaque-stricken city of Oran. Yet, as the novel progressed, I started to care less and less for the plight of Oran and its people. Perhaps I'm more hardened than the readers from the fifties were; or, perhaps, I have grown to expect more. The premise of the novel is definitely interesting, and Camus' writing leaves little to be desired. Nevertheless, the novel (for me) lacked the depth of thought I found in The Stranger, or the intimacy I experienced in The First Man. About a third into it, I found myself pondering other books, which is something that has not happened before while reading Camus. Half way through I contemplated giving up, yet I continued hoping it would get better. And it did, but not until later in the book, once the plague was no longer the main story. In one moment, the moment when Tarrou and Rieux take a break from the thankless work and devote an hour to their friendship. From that point onward, the novel changes tone, and become deeply personal. Here, I found the Camus I was longing for—the Camus whose philosophy clashes with the establishment at large, where human stories are woven into the fictional settings. Would I read The Plague again? Probably, some day in the future. Nevertheless, there is one thought that stayed with me long after I read these lines: "It comes to this," Tarrou said almost casually; "what interests me is learning how to become a saint.""But you don't believe in God.""Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?—that's the problem, in fact the only problem, I'm up against today."and a few lines later, Rieux answers:"But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.""Yes, we're both after the same thing, but I'm less ambitious." Tarrou's response and Rieux's comment alone are what makes this book worth reading.

Jason Pettus

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "classics," then write essays on whether or not they deserve the labelEssay #42: The Plague (1948), by Albert CamusThe story in a nutshell / The argument for it being a classic*:(*I found the storyline of this book and the arguments for reading it to be complexly linked in this case, which is why I'm combining the two sections in today's essay.)At first glance, Albert Camus' 1948 The Plague may not seem like much of a political novel, but instead more like a simple post-apocalyptic thriller: its ostensible storyline, after all, is about a case of the bubonic plague hitting the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s (when it was still under French control), and how it wipes out a significant proportion of the population no matter what people do to try to stop it. Ah, but realize that Camus meant for this to be his metaphorical memoir of his time in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris a few years previously, and suddenly you have a very different book indeed; substitute the word "fascism" for "plague" every time you see it, and you suddenly have one of the most political novels ever written. When you take this attitude form page one, then, you can see all the ways the similes neatly match up throughout all the major events of the plot:--How at first the populace refuses to even believe it's the bubonic plague, which they had been assured could never again affect such a modern city as theirs with such a modern sewage system (or in other words, "How dare those cartoonish German fascists invade The Most Sophisticated City In Human History!");--How the first sign of the plague turns out to be the dying rats (French Jews) who secretly scurry about the edges of the city, promptly ignored by the general populace until they literally start dying by the thousands right in the middle of the street;--How it eventually spreads to the human population (French Christians), and quickly becomes so overwhelming that entire sports stadiums have to be converted into walled-off quarantine zones (think concentration camps), where thousands of the sickly emaciated sit around in morose silence waiting to die;--How the collective mood of the town becomes worse and worse as the plague continues from spring into summer and then fall, with eventually even holiday celebrations becoming joyless shams, and virtually all attempts at romance among its citizens coming to a halt;--How the endless random death gradually erodes many people's very belief in even the basic rule of law, with petty crimes and minor riots rising exponentially the longer the plague continues, which the police generally ignore because of having their hands full with the tens of thousands of dead bodies;--How the only way to handle the endless pile of dead and dying is to eventually create a vast bureaucracy to keep track of it all, which ironically makes the situation better because of people finally having something to concentrate on besides all the death going on around them, something understandable like government forms that make sense in relation to how the world usually works;--How the only character of our cast with a previous criminal record is actually overjoyed by the plague, because of it turning the rest of the population into amoral sociopathic hoarders "just like him;"--How eventually a group of citizens decide to band together to try to fight the plague, serving a variety of functions from ad-hoc security to serum development to temporary medics (so the French Resistance, in other words, of which Camus was a major leader in real life, serving as editor-in-chief of the movement's largest news organization);--And how one day, the plague simply starts disappearing as quickly and as randomly as it had appeared, leading a shocked but grateful populace to start holding grandiose "victory" parades in the streets, and start immediately putting up plaques and memorials to the "fallen heroes."But at the same time, though, this novel is also a book of philosophy, examining a school of thought commonly called "Absurdism," although with Camus himself having continual problems with this term throughout his career; it essentially argues that life is full of bizarre random events that have no causes and make no sense (the so-called "absurdity of life itself"), and that instead of driving ourselves crazy thing to come up with an explanation for these absurd events that doesn't actually exist, we should simply accept that they're there and get on with trying to live our own lives in as good a way as possible. Because that's the thing about this dialogue-heavy, action-light novel, is that much of it is devoted simply to looking at the various ways the characters try to find "meaning" in this random plague that has hit them, and how in nearly every case it leads to the situation getting even worse than before -- how some see it as a punishment from God for being so wicked, while some see it as a challenge from God to become more righteous, while others see it as a sign that we still have a lot to learn about science and medicine, and that we should devote ourselves to rationality even more than we have been, while yet others see it as proof that the universe is in fact a giant bottomless black pit, and that there's no point in even trying to act like a decent human being within such a meaningless void, because what's the freaking point?By the way, this last attitude is known in philosophical circles as "Nihilism," which Camus once remarked that he had devoted his entire adult life to fighting against; he instead argued that the process of acting like a decent human being was simple justification unto itself, that just because bad things happen in the universe doesn't give us an excuse to be bad ourselves, that there is profound value inherent in the mere act of existing, which is why his work so often gets lumped in with the philosophy known as "Existentialism," although he himself hated being called such a thing. That's the ultimate lesson that Camus wants you to walk away with in this book, that the inherent absurdity of life doesn't give you the right to stop trying to be the best person you can be, that sometimes there simply is no explanation for why millions of otherwise decent humans decide one day to become inhumanly cruel fascists (or at least to silently support the inhuman cruelty going on around them), but that politeness and civility are still worth yearning for even in such an environment; and it's no coincidence at all, I think, that Camus' work was so eagerly eaten up by a mainstream general audience in the emotionally numb years following World War Two, a shellshocked audience who had just become aware of the horrific details behind the Holocaust a mere three years before this book first came out.The argument against:Ironically, the biggest complaints about The Plague come from those who never quite catch on that it's a metaphorical tale -- because yes, if you do a straight reading of it, as a genre thriller it leaves a lot to be desired, with there sometimes being these entire action-free sections that plotwise consist of not much more than, "And then they all sat around talking for another week and watching yet more people die." And along those lines, there are some who complain about the characters being not much more than cardboard cutouts of various societal archetypes, not quite realizing that in a metaphorical story, that's the entire point, to make the characters essentially personifications of the various schools of thought that exist about that particular subject. And as far as that's concerned, there also seems to be quite a lot of people who never really come to understand that absurdism is ultimately a positive and optimistic philosophy, that the whole point is to be constantly seeking the good in a world of crap; based on their angry rants online, these people seem to get overwhelmed quickly with the pure bleakness on display in The Plague, and tend to give up on it altogether before getting to the remarkable monologue near the end by the autobiographical Camus stand-in character Jean Tarrou, who basically lays out the entire concept of absurdism during a confessional drunken rant one night during the absolute worst of the plague.Then there are the people who, even when recognizing the metaphorical nature of the book, see the entire thing as a self-serving glorification of Camus' role in the French Resistance, with his "Sanitation Squad" being a thinly-veiled attempt to overstate his importance during the war, when in fact all he really did was sit around a dark room writing snotty little essays, leaving the actual fighting and dying to others. (But then again, Camus actually kind of answers this charge in the book itself -- look at how he specifically says that the sanitation volunteers should in fact not be seen as heroes, but simply as fellow bored citizens who almost randomly choose to fill their time in positive rather than negative ways; and also look at the scorn the characters have at the end for those who wish to run around erecting statues to the "glory" of the lucky citizens who randomly managed to outlive the plague.) And then finally, there are those who simply disagree with the validity of Camus' entire philosophy; they instead argue that the only choice available to humans is to be either a pessimistic nihilist or to believe in God and be a decent human being, that there is no such thing as the "spiritual atheist" at the heart of existentialism. (And in fact this is something else that Camus directly addresses in the autobiographical climax of the book -- look at how Tarrou since a child had always wanted to grow up to be a saint, not for pious reasons but because he admires saints' ability to remain calm and wise in a crisis, but how the older he gets, the more he questions whether it's even possible to "act saintly" if you don't ultimately believe in God. If that's not existentialism boiled down to its most basic essence, I don't know what is.)My verdict:So as you can imagine with an essay series about literary classics, with a few exceptions I generally have not been too terribly surprised by any of the books so far in the CCLaP 100, with my reactions to them being in general not far from how I was expecting them to be before starting; and so that's what makes my overwhelming enjoyment of The Plague an even more unexpected delight than normal, in that I had been fully expecting the kind of obtuse, tiring, highly symbolic literary experiment that you see in the work of, say, Camus' Modernist peer Franz Kafka, or his other peer TS Eliot in his epic poem The Wasteland. Instead, I found a plain-spoken and legitimately thrilling genre exercise, which like I said you can actually see in some ways as a precursor to the post-apocalyptic actioners that would only become truly popular for the first time with the general public ten years later, a symbolic story to be sure but one that is clear and emotionally moving, not the intellectual parlor game that so much Mid-Century Modernist philosophical fiction is (I'm looking at you, Ayn Freaking Rand...and you too, BF Freaking Skinner). As mentioned, I think it no surprise that a story like this was so eagerly devoured by a general public after World War Two, because in many ways this is about the only philosophy concerning a horror like the Holocaust that a sane person can embrace -- that there ultimately is no explanation for it, either religious or rational in nature, that the only thing one can do in the face of life's absurdities is just go on trying to at least be a decent human being yourself.In this, then, you can see a direct correlation between The Plague and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, only with the latter addressing the Bush atrocities of the early 2000s; and in fact there are many of us Americans right now who are in the exact same position as most Europeans in the years following World War Two, in that we watched with our own eyes the unspeakable cruelty that so many of our fellow Americans gleefully committed in the name of ideological purity, the torturing and the raping and the puppy-killing and the secret prisons and everything else, and now we're asking ourselves how we'll ever be able to go back to how things were before, how we'll ever be able to look at our neighbors with anything other than horrified disgust. Camus' answer in The Plague is that you simply go on trying to be a decent person yourself, that you don't assign blame to your neighbor's capacity for evil but simply acknowledge it as a constant temptation in all our souls, something else he directly addresses in this book's autobiographical climax -- how Tarrou (like Camus) used to be an avid Communist until (like Camus) he attends his first actual execution of an "enemy of the state," at which point he realizes (like Camus) that his beliefs too are capable of being exploited towards cruel and violent ends, at which point he (like Camus) quits the Communist Party. I suspect that all of this is going to make the ideas behind existentialism a suddenly hot topic again here in the US in the coming years, even if it ends up being called by a different name; you should do yourself a big favor and read what the master had to say about it all over half a century ago, and see for yourself what a remarkable book this actually is. Today I find The Plague not only an undeniable classic, but also give it one of the strongest recommendations of any book in this series I've so far read.Is it a classic? Yes(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)


Dear Book,It was tough. We met. You talked (a lot). I listened (not a lot a lot).You said things like:"Comprehension is the only code of morals."I said through a yawn:"Now, why can't you talk like a normal book."Then you said:"It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth - in other words, to silence."I said:"Hmmm any idea where I can find a thick calamity?"You told me a story where there are no heroes. You said extrapolating basic humanity into pedestals and epaulettes was inhuman. I wanted heroes. I craved them.You said people were better than their sermons. You have to give them chances.I sat there sputtering with my battered judge's wig on my head.You said love, distress, every emotion loses it's poignancy. That one can't love for long, hate for long, weep for long. I didn't want to listen. I thought you were too long.You spoke of the lie of exalted emotions. Of trite monotonous feelings.I sputtered some more. I live in hope of exalted emotions.You spoke of kindness, acceptance, brotherhood.I thought this was too much wisdom for one book.But then, even I am capable of bursts of earnestness. So Book, it's me, not you. Someday, we'll meet again and I might "get" you the way you deserve to be.Shruti


It's difficult to review a book like this. There is no denying the brilliance of Camus as a writer and philosopher. He wrote with conviction, eloquence, and passion. His characters arouse sympathy and compassion as they struggle through tragic circumstances in a meaningless world. Herein, though, lies the problem. He presupposes a life of meaninglessness in a chance existence, and constructs his philosophy around that presupposition. He understands at least some of the consequences of his position, and his stories and novels are suffused with the resulting despair. The medium for communicating the absurdity and despair of a meaningless world in The Plague is a mediocre city by the name of Orun. There is nothing remarkable about it or its inhabitants. They represent a cross-section of humanity, people in different stages of life, the eccentrics, the mundane, the winners, the losers, the healthy, the sick, the rich, the poor. Regardless of their stage or station in life, however, there is a sense of plodding dully through their lives that exists beneath whatever veneer they are able to construct for themselves. This veneer is peeled back by an outbreak of bubonic plague, which quickly isolates the people of the city in a state of quarantine. The plague begins slowly, infecting only a few people at first. As time passes, more and more people are infected and the death toll rises. The plague strips the veneer from the citizens and exposes the one thing that all mankind has in common; we are all destined to die. Concern becomes fear, but never gives way to panic. Part of the genius and attractiveness of the novel can be found at this point. The people of the city, cut off from the outside world and faced with an epidemic that reveals their mortality do not descend into despair. They pull together in various acts of solidarity. They do not so much try to find meaning in the plague as they decide to fight against it despite the meaninglessness of it. There is a heroism in this decision that inspires sympathy for the characters. As the plague wears on for months on end with no respite, they continue to fight for their lives as individuals and as a community. One cannot help but admire them as they endure terrible random suffering. This is not the only theme that Camus explores in the novel. Far from it. He ponders the cruelty of pain inflicted on the innocent, the inability of religion to answer the questions of existence, and much more. The Plague functions well on many levels simultaneously. So why only three stars? The reason lies in Camus’ pre-supposition that life is absurd and meaningless. A marvelous statue built on a flawed foundation is compromised by that foundation. The same goes for Camus’ writing. As eloquent, articulate, intelligent and passionate as he was, he was also wrong, and could not truly follow his pre-supposition to its conclusion. If existence is meaningless and all is absurdity, then there is no reason to find dignity in the fight against death. This search for dignity is a thread that runs through much of Camus’ work, but why bother? Dignity is meaningless in an absurd world. Reason and logic have no place and cannot even be said to exist. If all is absurdity, then the very word “reason” is empty and devoid of anything. It may trigger an emotional reaction based on reminiscing about a time when there was meaning, but reason itself cannot exist. Based on his presupposition, then, The Plague can ultimately have no meaning and can offer us nothing. I reject that premise. As such, though I recognize the artistic merits of the novel, those merits are compromised by a profound misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

Azar Hoseininejad

وقتی به اعمال درخشان اهمیت بیش از حد بدهیم، در نتیجه تجلیل مهم و غیر مستقیمی از بدی به عمل آورده ایم. زیرا در آن صورت فرض کرده ایم که این اعمال درخشان فقط به این علت ارزش پیدا کرده اند که کمیابند و و شرارت و بی اعتنایی محرکین اصلی در اعمال بشری هستند و این عقیده ای است که راوی داستان قبولش ندارد.شر و بدی که در دنیا وجود دارد پیوسته از نادانی می زاید و حسن نیت نیز اگر از روی اطلاع نباشد ممکن است به اندازه ی شرارت تولید خسارت کند. مردم بیشتر خوبند تا بد و در حقیقت، مسئله این نیست. بلکه آنها کم یا زیاد نادانند و همین است که فضیلت با ننگ شمرده می شود. نومید کننده ترین ننگ ها، ننگ آن نادانی است که گمان می کند همه چیز را می داند و در نتیجه به خودش اجازه ی آدم کشی می دهد: روح قاتل کور است و هرگز نیکی حقیقی یا عشق زیبا بدون روشن بینی کافی وجود ندارد.

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