Camus tells the story of a devastating plague that sweeps through a French port town on the Algerian coast of Africa in the 1940’s. In reality, the town of Oran was hit by the plague several times centuries earlier, which may have inspired Camus’ dreadful tale of massive death and meaningless pain and suffering. Narrated by Doctor Bernard Rieux who describes his personal observations, and accompanied by the journals of his friend Jean Tarrou, The Plague reads as a documentary from the day the first dead rat appears in Dr. Rieux’s apartment house stairway until nine months later when a tenth of the population is dead and the town is finally cleared of the epidemic.
Although the plot is interesting, it is not the primary focus of the novel. Albert Camus had a much deeper agenda than simply telling the story of a city besieged by the plague. He embraced a philosophy of Absurdism. Akin to Existentialism, Absurdism is a theory that it is up to each individual to find some kind of meaning in a life that is irrational and meaningless, and those dreadful rats not only served as the host to the fleas that carried the plague, they also illustrated the epitome of absurdity in life.
As random individuals start getting sick and dying, escalating to 100 victims a day and the entire town is quarantined, the townspeople go through a whole range of emotions and actions: disbelief, complacency, fear, anger, panic and rebellion. The first time I read The Plague many years ago, I was oblivious of the essence of Absurdism and found the plot dry and some of the characters ludicrous; a seventy-five year old asthmatic man who stays in bed all day shifting dried peas one by one, back and forth, from one pan to another, and another simple delusional man with no writing skills who is determined to write a novel… but after pages and pages of attempts, he just can’t get past the first sentence. Silly me. I had no idea these characters were merely trying to find some shred of meaning in Camus’ “absurd” world. Or was the pea counter just a hopeless nihilist?
Nevertheless, be prepared to confront some exaggerated personalities amongst Camus’ characters. But not all characters are that outrageous. While the priest uses religion to define life’s meaning, the atheist Dr. Rieux finds healing and easing the suffering of others brings purpose to his life. There are several profound conversations between Dr. Rieux, the priest, and Jean Tarrou, and many wonderful quotes by Camus.
If you find this novel stimulating, and you haven’t yet read Jean-Paul Sarte’s Nausea, (which endorses Existentialism as The Plague endorses Absurdism), I highly recommend it. Check out my review on that book as well.
One final note: The Plague is also an allegory. The disease is a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Many of the characters actions and ensuing events have double meanings and are symbolic of conditions during the war; the initial shock and disbelief, the random death of innocent people, the mass graves as the dead bodies accumulate, the shortages of food, gas and electric, the isolation and the “aimless days and sterile memories” (page 66). As monotonous days turn to weeks and months with no future in sight, knowing that if and when it finally does end, life will never be the same after losing loved ones, watching friends and neighbors meaningless suffering, and witnessing the tragic evil of an unexplainable absurd disaster… always knowing that “a plague” can rear it’s ugly head again some day at another time, in another place.
Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, for his outstanding contribution in novels, non-fiction, plays, essays, and short stories.
Rated 4 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.