Have you read The Stranger? Please, read that first and then come back to this novel. The themes inherent in Albert Camus’s The Plaugue amplify the simple story of The Stranger, and it was a pleasure to see those themes through a story containing characters one can admire.
The Plague follows Dr. Rieux and his colleagues, as their town is attacked by a resurgence of the plague. The town is described as mercantile, drab, and lacking in passion before the plague. As the sickness escalates and the town is quarantined, cut off from the world, the novel’s nameless (until the last chapter) narrator describes the plague’s effects on the town’s denizens.
Camus–or, perhaps, the narrator*–repeatedly cautions the reader against viewing any of the characters as heroes. However, in the face of mass suffering, many of these characters fight a losing battle for the sake of their fellow humans. How can we not view these men as heores?
It may not come as a surprise to learn that this novel deals with existentialism. Camus, existentialism? Shocker, I know.
With hundreds dying each day, and with their own fates in question, the citizens of Oran face the prospect of death and the meaning, or lack thereof, of human existence. Rieux argues that he seeks to heal the physical body, regardless of whatever afterlife religious doctrine suggests. (The eventual death of a priest, who refused to see a doctor, is a little obvious, but still striking in regards to this theme.)
Characters discuss their reasons for fighting the plague. Are they doing it to help others? Are they doing it for themselves? Or, are they doing it because, in a time of plague, what other recourse is there but for reasonable men to fight it?
I can not answer these questions. I doubt Camus meant for there to be definite answers. However, the novel is an enjoyable read. Camus makes the reader slowly digest the information he presents, and form his or her own opinion in regards to what is true and what is right, if either exist in this world.
The pacing of the novel is slow, as most philosophical works tend to be, but picks up as the tension escalates in Oran. A few touching scenes near the end bring the plague from the public sphere to the private. Emotion is there, but subdued, perhaps to the intent of the writer.
Plague, after all, dulls the senses. Can we cry over the death of one person, when hundreds are dying each day?
Isn’t this what our lives are today?
*What is a narrator? Is the narrator merely the mouthpiece of the author? If so, then why specifically write lines that alert the reader to the presence of a narrator, in this case, a narrator who was present during the plague of Oran? Spoiler: As the narrator is Rieux, what is the meaning of the triple author situation (Camus, “the narrator,” Rieux)? Who is the real author of this novel? What perspective are we seeing, and why does this matter? What place does the reader have in this conversation among the three authors? Go at it, book clubs and English majors.