The Plague

The Plague (1947) is a philosophical novel by French-Algerian author Albert Camus (1913-1960). The book follows a city's struggle to maintain order and civility during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. As the citizens lose hope, a small band of volunteers valiantly attempts to hold the line by helping others. The Plague is Albert Camus' exploration of his absurdist belief and an allegory for the occupation of France during WWII. 

The Plague The Plague

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Contents
Table of contents

    The Plague Albert Camus StudySmarterAlbert Camus is known for his contributions to both literature and philosophy. Wikicommons

    The Plague: Summary

    Set in the coastal city of Oran, Algeria, The Plague chronicles the city's response to an outbreak of bubonic disease during the 1940s. The anonymous narrator focuses on the action of Dr. Bernard Rieux and his small band of volunteers as they attempt to help their fellow citizens.

    Part One

    In April, thousands of rats suddenly surface from the city's sewers and die on the streets. As the mountains of dead rats build up, the inhabitants and city leaders turn a blind eye. Dr. Rieux notices this phenomenon and fears the long dormant bubonic plague may have returned. The city finally clears the streets and cremates the rats. A few days later, several citizens fall ill and begin to die from a mysterious illness. The reluctant city officials are hesitant to react, fearing hysteria. They open a special ward in the city hospital, which is soon overflowing. As the death toll rises, city leaders are forced to lock down the entire city and declare a curfew.

    The Plague Rats StudySmarterAs mountains of dead rats appear on the streets of Oran, city leaders are slow to react. Pixabay

    Part Two

    As the summer begins, the citizens of Oran face a strict lockdown. All travel to and from the city is suspended, making inhabitants feel isolated from their loved ones. Forbidden from making phone calls, they can only communicate with the outside world through telegraphs. As the loneliness and seclusion set in, the people become desperate to see their families. Raymond Rambert, a journalist from Paris, attempts to bribe city officials to escape and return to his wife. When this fails, he turns to a criminal named Cottard with the idea of being smuggled out. As people turn towards religion, Father Paneloux tells them the plague is God's punishment for the town's lack of faith. Meanwhile, Rieux works tirelessly to help diagnose and treat sick citizens. He is assisted by a small band of volunteers, including a mysterious man named Jean Tarrou.

    Is Raymond Rambert's attempt to escape the plague-ridden city and rejoin his wife justified? Why or why not?

    Part Three

    By the middle of August, conditions in the city have deteriorated. The daily death toll reaches its height at 100 citizens per day. Quarantined houses are burned by their owners in an attempt to kill the disease. Looters ransack the remnants for resources, and citizens are arrested for acts of arson and robbery. Authorities are forced to shoot several citizens as they attempt to escape. With a shortage of coffins, the city is forced to bury the dead in mass graves. A deep depression falls over the city as people forget their loved ones on the outside.

    In desperate times, only Cottard flourishes, making a small fortune in smuggling contraband into the city. As the citizens lose connections with their neighbors, Rieux continues to help others. When Rambert finalizes his escape plan, Tarrou tells him that Rieux also has a wife waiting for him outside the city. Rambert sees that abandoning people in need would be cowardly and decides to stay and help the volunteers.

    Part Four

    As the plague rolls into September and October, the citizens realize the epidemic is a collective problem. Despite the extra help, Rieux feels stretched to breaking point. When he is informed that his wife's condition has deteriorated, he momentarily finds himself less sympathetic to the needs of the citizens in Oran. The number of volunteers soon grows as people unite against despair. Even Father Paneloux stops preaching about God's wrath and urges everyone to help to fight the plague. A few days later, he falls ill and dies.

    Does Camus present Father Paneloux as a sympathetic character, or is he used to criticize organized religion?

    Part Five

    The daily death toll drops significantly by late January. Despite all signs that the plague has retreated, the townspeople still fear it may return. Having thrived during the lockdown, Cottard grows increasingly paranoid that he will face arrest for his illicit activities. Tarrou catches the plague, but instead of sending him to the hospital, Rieux and his mother look after the dying man. After many days of painful struggle against the disease, Tarrou succumbs. The next morning Rieux receives a telegraph informing him of his wife's death.

    The town's gates are opened in February, and the citizens are reunited with their relatives. Rambert embraces his wife but can barely contain the months of trauma he has sustained. The plague's cloud slowly lifts off the city, and life slowly returns to normal. An unhinged Cottard barricades himself into his apartment and begins to shoot indiscriminately at passersby. Police soon arrest him.

    The novel ends with Dr. Rieux revealing himself as the narrator. Stating that he wanted the journal to be as objective as possible, Rieux sums up his account not as the story of heroes but as an example of what humans must do to stand against such a foe. He concludes by warning the reader that the plague microbe has retreated and was not defeated.

    The Plague: Characters

    Here is a look at the most important characters from Albert Camus' The Plague.

    Dr. Bernard Rieux

    The novel's protagonist is a 35-year-old surgeon who struggles to maintain a sense of decency in a rapidly deteriorating situation. Rieux's sick wife has been in a sanatorium outside the city for over a year. In the early stages of the outbreak, he has the chance to leave the city and be by her side but insists on staying to help the people of Oran. Though Rieux displays bravery and self-sacrifice, he does not consider himself a hero; he argues that his actions are something that every decent human should do without hesitation. In Part Five, Rieux reveals himself as the narrator and says he wanted to produce an objective and fair account of the city's struggle.

    Jean Tarrou

    Tarrou is a mysterious man who arrived in Oran weeks before the bubonic outbreak. He keeps a daily journal of his observations and thoughts on the plague, which the narrator uses as a reference. For years, Tarrou had been an activist in a revolutionary movement but left after the group murdered a politician. Disgusted by all forms of violence and murder, Tarrou sees it as his duty to help others. He is the first to organize a volunteer force to help the citizens of Oran. Even when he contracts the plague and becomes its last victim, he valiantly fights it to the death.

    Raymond Rambert

    Rambert is a French journalist visiting the city of Oran who finds himself trapped by the lockdown. Feeling disconnected from this strange city, Rambert attempts to bribe city officials to escape and rejoin his wife in Paris. When this fails, he turns to the criminal, Cottard, to be smuggled out. As the escape approaches, Rambert suddenly realizes he has a role to play in helping others and decides to stay in Oran. His experience of the plague permanently alters him.

    Cottard

    Cottard is a low-level criminal who lives in fear of being captured and charged with his crimes. At the novel's beginning, Cottard's dread of capture becomes overwhelming, and he attempts to commit suicide. However, as the lockdown wears on, he finds himself more comfortable and normal now that the rest of the city is living in a state of constant fear. With police attention on other matters, Cottard can grow rich by selling goods on the black market. Cottard enjoys a close friendship with Tarrou, an unjudging listener to the criminal's problems.

    During Cottard's visit to the tobacconist, he overhears a customer talking about a recent murder on the beach. This is a reference to Camus' novel The Stranger (1942).

    The Plague: Themes

    Albert Camus uses The Plague to explore people's approach to death and his philosophy of absurdism.

    Death

    Before the plague arrived, the citizens of Oran lived a comfortable and safe life inside the city's walls. Camus uses the epidemic to symbolize how comfort can often result in complacency. The citizens are entirely unprepared to deal with the disease or death. When they are forced to admit the plague has taken over their town, each individual must also face the possibility of their death.

    In the face of this grim reality, the town collectively suffers bouts of despair and helplessness. Camus uses this deep depression to show how unhealthy denial or avoidance of death is. Because the city is unaccustomed to death, the citizens initially attempt to escape reality. Still, as the novel progresses, they begin to understand the inevitability of death and realize that life must be lived in the face of death.

    Absurdism

    Albert Camus uses his writing to explore an important philosophical idea. The Plague investigates Camus's philosophy of absurdism and the need to keep living in the face of overwhelming odds.

    Absurdism is the philosophical concept that sees the search for meaning in a meaningless and uncaring universe as fundamentally absurd. Absurdists view any attempt to create meaning as a coping mechanism and that people should embrace life's absurdity.

    As an absurdist, Camus uses The Plague to address the challenge of living in a meaningless universe. The citizens of Oran face a hopeless situation; they must endure immense suffering that seems to have little meaning.

    In his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," Camus posits that in the face of a meaningless life, humans have three choices; create meaning to cope, commit suicide, or embrace the absurdity of life and continue to live despite it. In the novel, characters embody each of these approaches. Father Paneloux tries to attach religious meaning to the plagueit is God's punishment for the town's lax worship. Cottard attempts to kill himself to escape life but fails. Finally, Rieux, Ramber, and Tarrou represent Camus' belief that in the face of life's absurdity, people must fight on even in a hopeless situation.

    Everyday Heroism

    Traditionally, heroes are presented as brave figures who commit extraordinary acts. However, the members of Riuex's volunteer squad carry out everyday tasks to help others. They are not shown as special or unique, nor are not engaged in an epic struggle to overcome an enemy. They are simply trying to maintain social order and sacrifice their safety and time to uphold some sense of solidarity in the city. In the face of death and hopelessness, Camus argues that the noblest thing for ordinary people to do is keep going and living and helping others. Rieux sums up his fight as one, not for some grand reward or outcome, but as a defense of common decency.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of The Plague skyrocketed internationally. As most of the world's population faced a prolonged lockdown, readers turned to Camus's classic work for solace. Seventy years after its publication, the work suddenly gained new relevance as people struggled to make sense of the uncertain times.

    The Plague COVID StudySmarterIn the lockdown of 2020, many readers were drawn to the novel's hopeful message. Pixabay

    Like the characters in the fictional city of Oran, people around the world anxiously stayed at home and could not live their everyday lives as the disease's death tolls rose. As well as capturing the fear and insecurity of the situation, The Plague tells the story of ordinary people who manage to keep going in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

    As Rieux and his band of helpers fought against overwhelming odds, so did doctors and nurses around the world during COVID 19. The novel's message of hope and helping others imbues the work with a timelessness. This timelessness is also evidence in Rieux's warning that plagues are rarely defeated and often reemerge when the world is least prepared.

    The Plague: Analysis

    Albert Camus was renowned as both a novelist and a philosopher; it is important to place The Plague in a historical and philosophical context.

    Context

    Published shortly after the end of WWII, the book is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France. When the Nazis invaded in 1940, Albert Camus worked as a newspaper editor in Paris. Unable to continue fighting the Nazis in traditional warfare, many people joined the French Resistance, an underground organization that committed guerilla acts and spread resistance propaganda.

    Albert Camus became a journalist and editor for the Resistance's publication, Combat. While he was reluctant to commit or condone acts of violence, he saw the importance of resisting Fascism and occupation. Just as the people of France faced an overwhelming and unstoppable force, so do the citizens of Oran. Like French leadership during the invasion, the city leaders of Oran are slow to react and become impotent as the plague occupies their town. Against the plague's strength, Rieux and his small band of volunteers represent the French Resistance's struggle against the Nazis.

    Literary Devices

    The Plague is a philosophical novel that deals with absurdist ideas.

    Philosophical novels, or works of philosophical fiction, are literary works that use characters and actions to illustrate deeper philosophical ideas and comment on how to live life.

    The disease serves as the background for the narrator (Rieux) to explore his thoughts and feelings on death, struggle, and the search for meaning. Rieux's commitment to helping others embodies Camus' absurdist beliefs.

    Camus uses a five-part story structure in reference to classic Greek Tragedies, many of which deal with humans at the mercy of a natural force. The disease serves as Camus' symbol of more significant power, whether natural or man-made, which threatens civility and social solidarity. The citizens disregarding the mounting bodies of rats represents people's desire to ignore a serious problem until it's too late. Camus warns that the consequences worsen as the citizens and leaders delay their reactions.

    The Plague: Quotes

    The Plague is written in a straightforward, objective tone that reflects Rieux's approach to the outbreak in Oran. While people around him panic or become hopeless, he commits to remaining logical and reflective.

    "A hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination." - (Part 1, Ch. 5)

    Rieux observes that people have failed to learn from the past. History is full of countless pandemics and diseases, yet people do not think it will ever happen in their generation. Early on, Rieux tries to warn the city leaders that the sick have symptoms of the bubonic plague; however, he is dismissed as the last recorded incidence of the plague occurred in the 19th century.

    "... there's 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." (Part 2, ch. 9)

    While the enemy is often a clear, definable entity in times of war, times of plague are often more uncertain. There are no grand battles or epic victories for Rieux and his volunteers to claim. Instead, they must continue to live normally in the face of great danger. To Rieux, this is not an act of bravery but something every person should do in times of distress.

    The Plague - Key takeaways

    • The Plague is a philosophical novel by French-Algerian writer Albert Camus.
    • The book chronicles an outbreak of bubonic plague in the coastal city of Oran.
    • Camus uses the diseases and the city's reaction to quarantine as an allegory for the occupation of France during WII.
    • The novel's themes revolve around everyday heroism and Camus's absurdist beliefs.
    • The novel's protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, is revealed to be the narrator in the final section.

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Plague

    What is the theme of The Plague by Albert Camus?

    In The Plague, Albert Camus explores the theme of death and the absurdist philosophy. 

    Is The Plague by Albert Camus fiction?

    The Plague is a work of fiction set in the real coastal city of Oran.

    How many pages is The Plague by Albert Camus?

    The Vintage edition of The Plague contains 320 pages. 

    What is The Plague by Albert Camus about?

    The Plague is set in the coastal city of Oran, Algeria. When an outbreak of the bubonic plague forces the city into lockdown indefinitely, a small group of volunteers tries to help others and maintain civility.

    How many people died in The Plague by Albert Camus?

    While Rieux never provides a total for the number of citizens who died from the plague, he does mention that at the disease's height, 100 died each day. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Plague takes place in the city of Oran. In which country is Oran located? 

    Who wrote The Plague? 

    The Plague covers an outbreak of which disease during the 1940s? 

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