‘The Plague’ and Our Dance With Death

The French philosopher, Albert Camus, wrote one of the defining novels of our time. His novel, The Plague, not only captured the shock of succumbing to an epidemic, but it also captured the grief, isolation, theorising, and the subsequent aftermath of an outbreak.

Camus published The Plague in 1947, but it is when reading his novel today that makes his novel seem more relevant and alive than in any other time in history.

Plot Overview

The Plague is a story about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran during the late 1940s. The protagonist of the novel, Dr. Bernard Rieux, first notices something amiss when rats begin to die on the streets of Oran. Over the course of a week the city is overrun with the mysterious deaths of thousands upon thousands of rats.

The horror builds as tensions and  the subsequent speculations rise amongst the public.  After days of inaction the government steps in and begins burning the bodies of the rats and begins putting the city’s inhabitants at ease.

After the rat epidemic has seemingly disappeared, the concierge of Dr. Rieux’s office building falls ill with a strange fever and dies. Throughout Oran, more and more cases begin to appear and rumours and panic begin to rise once again. Both Dr. Rieux and his colleague Dr. Castel believe the recent deaths to be some form of a bubonic plague.

They both send dispatches to the government to take actions to stop the outbreak – but the government at first appears reluctant to take action. It is only when the death toll begins to rise at an alarming rate that the government makes changes. Overnight and with little warning, the authorities finally step into action and quarantine the city by sealing it off from the rest of the world.

It is how the inhabitants of Oran react to the quarantine that is most interesting. Whereas at the start of the novel people do nothing but talk about the plague and what it all means, but as the epidemic wears on, they begin to grow more and more silent. The inhabitants begin to feel isolated and alone and unable to express what it is they are feeling.

Who Are The Characters?

Camus shows the response to the plague through the eyes of the citizens. A Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, delivers a sermon declaring that the plague was God’s punishment for their own depravity. Another character – this time the foreign journalist, Raymond Rambert – tries to flee from the quarantine zone to rejoin his wife in Paris.

Yet he is thwarted at every attempt by bureaucracy and the unreliability of the smuggler who attempts to aid him. His accomplice, Cottard, a man who is said to have committed a crime in his youth and has been living a life in hiding ever since. It is Cottard who is the one of the only ones among the city’s inhabitants to revel in the plague as it reduces the public to his level of anxiety and loneliness.

Through these characters, Camus allows us to see how we may all share the same crisis – yet our response and feelings towards it can never be universal. Each person carries their own weight and worries and each one of them experiences the plague in a different way.

Camus always believed that we’re living through a metaphoric plague at all times. He explained it is our own mortality that is the plague of life. Only in the time of an epidemic does death become so concentrated that our own mortality is seemingly thrust upon us. Camus believed that this sense of mortality and the awareness of the fragility of our own lives that led us to the absurdity of it all.

What ‘The Plague’ Says About Our Relationship With Life

However, this absurdity is never meant to cause despair.

People often have this feeling of immortality, that they will somehow and against all odds, continue to live forever. Because of this people often fail to make use of the time they have by living unobserved and unfulfilled lives. The Plague was used by Camus to force its readers to consider death and their own mortality. The fragility and temporary nature of life makes it more vital and prompts us to live a more enriched life.

The beauty in the novel is not in the suffering of the inhabitants of Oran. The beauty is in how many of them begin to find purpose and joy in a difficult world. The characters show how we must steal moments of pleasure: perhaps the smell of a flower, a conversation with a friend, or a moonlit swim in the ocean. Camus wrote that, ‘a loveless world is a dead world’ and that if we cannot find joy and decency in the small things then we are all completely lost.

It was Camus who tragically lost his life early, twelve years after writing The Plague in a motorcar accident. His death at the age of forty-four  embodied everything that he wrote about the fragility of life. The Plague is seen as one of Camus’s most seminal novels as it allows us to confront our own mortality head on. Instead of shielding from it we are prompted to instead find joy and appreciation of the moments that we have today.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so we can support and work with more writers from underrepresented backgrounds, who cannot afford to write for free. Thank you for reading!

Published by Leigh Doughty

Leigh Doughty is a writer and language tutor. He is currently based in Saigon, Vietnam

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