The Plague: Civilization at death’s door

Albert Camus's masterpiece celebrates the human spirit, but if it offers any optimism, it is of a very bleak variety

No one will deny that the late French author Albert Camus was one of the greatest writer-philosophers of the 20th century. Many will also agree that, among his novels, The Plague is possibly the deepest and most profound. Camus’ first novel, The Outsider, may be more famous, a searing portrayal of alienation in modern society, but The Plague is his masterpiece, bringing together most of the themes and undercurrents of his body of work in matchless fashion.

Bubonic plague breaks out in the Algerian town of Oran (Camus was born and grew up in Algeria), and the town is quarantined—isolated from the rest of the world. A group of people, led by the doctor Bernard Rieux, come together to provide what succour they can to the townspeople. There is no cure for the disease, which is almost invariably fatal. All that Rieux and his compatriots can do is try to make the deaths as painless as possible, and most of the time they fail.

Traditionally, The Plague has been seen as an allegory about the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. But it is much more than that. As Princeton University professor David Bellos writes in his introduction to the edition of The Plague that I possess: “It shows what it means to resist, not just a foreign invader, but incomprehensible evil in whatever form it may manifest itself. And it says: good men—just men—do what they can, and they can do a great deal."

Rieux often feels despair and wonders what god wants from him, by giving him a gigantic problem that he would never be able to solve. Should he give up? He does not, and this theme would later be built upon by Camus in his magnificent philosophical treatise, The Myth of Sisyphus.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the cleverest man on Earth and had even duped Thanatos, the god of death, and Zeus, the king of gods. Zeus punishes him by cursing him to push a huge boulder up a steep mountain for eternity. Every time Sisyphus manages to reach the peak of the mountain with the boulder, it rolls down to the bottom, and Sisyphus has to push it up again.

The Myth of Sisyphus is based on a disquieting assumption, that all of existence is absurd—that there is no other conclusion that can be reached if we look around us. So, the only important question that Man could ask himself is why he should not commit suicide.

Camus then points out that every time Sisyphus reaches the top of the mountain, the gods have to use unfair means and roll the boulder down. And on each such occasion, Sisyphus wins, by coercing the gods to weigh the dice against him. This triumph of Man answers the question: He should not commit suicide.

So too with Rieux. He fights on, knowing he has no chance of success, but by doing so, he maintains human dignity and an inalienable moral courage.

The Plague teems with memorable characters, major and minor. I mention only three here. Tarrou is an emotionless man who becomes Rieux’s ally in the battle against plague. He says that he understands everyone, so does not judge anyone. Interestingly, this is exactly what Camus said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in December 1957: “... true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge."

Grand is a timid clerk who discovers his innate heroism when faced with the plague. He has been trying to write an absolutely flawless novel for years. It is later discovered that for all this time, he has been labouring over creating the perfect first sentence of his book, about a slim young woman riding a horse on a flowered avenue one morning.

Father Paneloux, the town’s most prominent priest, gives a fiery sermon a few weeks into the epidemic. God has sent the plague to Oran to test the townspeople’s faith, he says. This is god’s scourge that will separate the wheat from the chaff, and there will be much more chaff than wheat, and the people should accept God’s judgement humbly.

But as the pestilence drags on for months, and innocent children die painful deaths, Paneloux’s faith wavers. “... he might have easily assured (the townsfolk) that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when, to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering?"

In The Plague, God is as much a character as Rieux or Grand. Or every human being ever born. As Tarrou tells Rieux: “... each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in someone’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it requires tremendous will power, a never-ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses."

Finally, one day, the epidemic disappears as suddenly as it had struck Oran, and it is revealed that Rieux is the till now anonymous narrator of the tale. As the plague abates, the gods play another vicious trick on him, revealing again the absurdity of all existence, but he remains unbowed.

As he watches his townspeople cathartically burst firecrackers, “Dr Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favour of these plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of this injustice and outrage done them might endure; 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."

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Camus said: “By definition (the writer) cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it."

The Plague celebrates the human spirit, but if it offers any optimism, it is of a very bleak variety. Here is the last paragraph of the novel: “And indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what these jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and book-shelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city."

Have any truer words ever been written about human nature, history and civilization?

As Tarrou told Rieux, our vigilance must never falter.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable.

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