Albert Camus’ The Plague

The PlagueAlbert Camus’ The Plague is the fictional account of a coastal Algerian town’s battle against a plague epidemic in an unspecified year in the 1940s. There are early warnings of an outbreak – rats surfacing from the sewers to die and numerous citizens brought down by unusual fevers – but they are ignored in favor of not creating a panic and disrupting the summer tourist season so vital to the city’s economy. When the evidence becomes irrefutable, the only option available to the town leadership is containment, and the city is quickly quarantined, with no one allowed to leave or enter. Camus explores the townspeople’s various reactions to the catastrophe, which has separated many of them from loved ones and forced them to bend their attention from their usual mercantile pursuits to an existence shadowed by death and disease.

The central protagonist and narrator of the story is Dr. Bernard Rieux, whose wife has been ill for some time with an unspecified illness and has been sent to a sanatarium before the quarantine. It is Rieux who first diagnoses the sickness as plague, who doggedly insists on naming it, and who devotes himself tirelessly to combatting its spread. Other major characters include Cottard, who welcomes the plague because it distracts attention from his criminal past and profits off it by selling contraband liquors and cigarettes; Rambert, a journalist who happened to be visiting the town on business and is determined to escape; and Father Paneloux, a local preacher who delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon condemning the citizens of the town for their immorality and impiety.

The novel is often read as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France and, indeed, the plague is described in militaristic terms, something to be resisted, a “great Evil” that brings out the best and the worst in men, and Camus venerates those few citizens, like Rieux, who resist, who struggle against an increasingly hopeless situation. But the plague also provides a way for Camus to expound upon his theory of the absurd. For Rieux, the plague is a “never-ending defeat,” brought to horrible reality when he is forced to attend, in the company of Paneloux, the death throes of an infant child convulsing with fever, helpless to relieve his pain or respond to his cries of agony. Both Rieux and Paneloux are horror-stricken by the suffering of such an innocent, the former pledging his existence to combating it and the latter desperately seeking some way to reconcile God’s beneficence with the cruelty he has witnessed. Paneloux’s attempted theodicy culminates in a crisis of faith and the kind of honest ultimatum C.S. Lewis arrived at when he said that Christ was either a lunatic or the son of God: “We must believe everything or deny everything. And who, I ask, amongst you would dare to deny everything?” But even Panaloux cannot ultimately abide such casuistry, and he eventually succumbs to an as-yet-unseen strain of the disease while clutching his cross and ruminating over his faith, his body – in an obvious but nonetheless powerful bit of symbolism – tagged with a label: “Doubtful case.”

But is Rieux who best exemplies Camus’ absurdist hero, the one who struggles against impossible odds in full recognition of the hopelessness of his task, but who nonetheless manages to find meaning and purpose in the struggle. I quote from Camus’ excellent essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he first describes the absurd hero by reconfiguring the Sisyphus mythology, in which Sisyphus is punished by the gods to roll a large boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to have it roll back down once he reaches the top:

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

I continue to find this among the most affecting essays I have ever read. Camus’ Sisyphus transcends his punishment, the monotony of the eternal routine, by finding enjoyment in it: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Rieux’s boulder is the plague and his glory lies in his refusal to submit.