Cover of the first edition
|Original title||La Peste|
|Set in||Oran, French Algeria|
The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story from the point of view of an unknown narrator of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. The novel presents a snapshot of life in Oran as seen through the author's distinctive absurdist point of view.
Camus used as source material the cholera epidemic that killed a large proportion of Oran's population in 1899, but situated the novel in the 1940s. Oran and its surroundings were struck by disease several times before Camus published his novel. According to an academic study, Oran was decimated by the bubonic plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks (in 1921 - 185 cases, 1931 - 76 cases, and 1944 - 95 cases) were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.
The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The novel stresses the powerlessness of the individual characters to affect their destinies, the very pith of absurdism. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial, whose individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings; the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition. Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage.
The text of The Plague is divided into five parts.
In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially unnoticed by the populace, begin to die in the streets. Hysteria develops soon afterward, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.
The main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building's concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Dr. Castel, about the illness until they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic. Meanwhile, Rieux's wife has been sent to a sanatorium in another city, to be treated for an unrelated chronic illness.
Authorities, including the Prefect, are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A "special ward" is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined; corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is enough to treat only existing cases, and the country's emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed, and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.
The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to "urgent" calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.
One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his wife in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some underground criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God punishing the citizens' sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves but would not have done so under normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal remorseful enough to attempt suicide but fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Jean Tarrou, a vacationer; Joseph Grand, a civil engineer; and Dr. Rieux, exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.
Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that there are others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, who have loved ones outside the city whom they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and offers to help Rieux fight the epidemic until he leaves town.
In mid-August, the situation continues to worsen. People try to escape the town, but some are shot by armed sentries. Violence and looting break out on a small scale, and the authorities respond by declaring martial law and imposing a curfew. Funerals are conducted with more speed, no ceremony and little concern for the feelings of the families of the deceased. The inhabitants passively endure their increasing feelings of exile and separation. Despondent, they waste away emotionally as well as physically.
In September and October, the town remains at the mercy of the plague. Rieux hears from the sanatorium that his wife's condition is worsening. He also hardens his heart regarding the plague victims so that he can continue to do his work. Cottard, on the other hand, seems to flourish during the plague because it gives him a sense of being connected to others, since everybody faces the same danger. Cottard and Tarrou attend a performance of Gluck's opera Orpheus and Eurydice, but the actor portraying Orpheus collapses with plague symptoms during the performance.
After extended negotiations with guards, Rambert finally has a chance to escape, but he decides to stay, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he left.
Towards the end of October, Castel's new antiplague serum is tried for the first time, but it cannot save the life of Othon's young son, who suffers greatly, as Paneloux, Rieux, and Tarrou tend to his bedside in horror.
Paneloux, who has joined the group of volunteers fighting the plague, gives a second sermon. He addresses the problem of an innocent child's suffering and says it is a test of a Christian's faith since it requires him either to deny everything or believe everything. He urges the congregation not to give up the struggle but to do everything possible to fight the plague.
A few days after the sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. His symptoms do not conform to those of the plague, but the disease still proves fatal.
Tarrou and Rambert visit one of the isolation camps, where they meet Othon. When Othon's period of quarantine ends, he chooses to stay in the camp as a volunteer because this will make him feel less separated from his dead son. Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life and, to take their mind off the epidemic, the two men go swimming together in the sea. Grand catches the plague and instructs Rieux to burn all his papers. However, Grand makes an unexpected recovery, and deaths from the plague start to decline.
By late January the plague is in full retreat, and the townspeople begin to celebrate the imminent opening of the town gates. Othon, however, does not escape death from the disease. Cottard is distressed by the ending of the epidemic from which he has profited by shady dealings. Two government employees approach him, and he flees. Despite the epidemic's ending, Tarrou contracts the plague and dies after a heroic struggle. Rieux is later informed via telegram that his wife has also died.
In February, the town gates open and people are reunited with their loved ones from other cities. Rambert is reunited with his wife. Cottard goes mad and shoots at people from his home, and is soon arrested after a brief skirmish with the police. Grand begins working on his novel again. The narrator of the chronicle reveals his identity and states that he tried to present an objective view of the events. He reflects on the epidemic and declares he wrote the chronicle "to simply say what we learn in the midst of plagues : there are more things to admire in men than to despise".
Germaine Brée has characterised the struggle of the characters against the plague as "undramatic and stubborn", and in contrast to the ideology of "glorification of power" in the novels of André Malraux, whereas Camus' characters "are obscurely engaged in saving, not destroying, and this in the name of no ideology". Lulu Haroutunian has discussed Camus' own medical history, including a bout with tuberculosis, and how it informs the novel. Marina Warner has noted the lack of female characters and the total absence of Arab characters in the novel, but also notes its larger philosophical themes of "engagement", "paltriness and generosity", "small heroism and large cowardice", and "all kinds of profoundly humanist problems, such as love and goodness, happiness and mutual connection".
Thomas L Hanna and John Loose have separately discussed themes related to Christianity in the novel, with particular respect to Father Paneloux and Dr Rieux. Louis R Rossi briefly discusses the role of Tarrou in the novel, and the sense of philosophical guilt behind his character. Elwyn Sterling has analysed the role of Cottard and his final actions at the end of the novel.
As early as April 1941, Camus had been working on the novel, as evidenced in his diaries in which he wrote down a few ideas on "the redeeming plague". On March 13, 1942, he informed André Malraux that he was writing "a novel on the plague", adding "Said like that it might sound strange, […] but this subject seems so natural to me."