A reading of Camus’ The Plague
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
To discuss from the standpoint of form Albert Camus’ novels exclusive of his ideas is next to impossible. This is so because Camus is in his element as a writer of what is called as the novel of ideas. His characters though are not mere embodiment of abstract notions even if it is true that his characters are what they are because of what they think. In other words, ideas are lived through; and by their ideas, they are defined and take on identity. This way Camus’ meaning is better understood and appreciated because felt and experienced by the reader. “What decides the world view of a writer,” says Arnold Hauser, “is not so much whose side he supports as through whose eyes he looks at the world.”
Camus has given us Clamence (The Fall), Meursault (The Stranger) and Dr. Rieux (The Plague), to mention some of his characters, through whose eyes we have enlarged our own vision. It is for this reason that Camus engaged generations of readers. Had he relied solely on the essay to give expression to his thoughts, it is doubtful if he could soar, as he did, to the heights he reached. His philosophizing however witty would have mattered little, if at all, considering that his colleague Jean-Paul Sartre, a comparatively profound thinker, would have easily outshone him in this respect.
Of late, Camus has become a literary god among the “Now” generation at a loss to find the fundamental values that have relevance to the problems of living. This is borne out by Eric Oatman who says in “Restless Youth” in one of the issues of the Free World: “If you haven’t read The Plague, you haven’t read anything.” This statement is evidently an exaggeration. The Plague is not everything if we consider that its author has written to his credit other relatively fine books. If anything, Oatman’s assertion is indicative of burgeoning awareness of the pertinence of Camus’ works to the modern times.
In The Plague we are presented with a miniature world in turmoil so well wrought that it assumes an air of reality all its own. The rendition of the whole story is convincing enough for one to confuse it easily with a historical event which it is not. This he achieves through the use of an impartial observer for his point of view. The narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, gives a faithful account of the events in the form of a chronicle with the result that the author’s hand is deftly detached from the makeup of the narrative. This reportorial method lends an objective tone like that of a news story. To offset the limitations inherent in this kind of point of view, Rieux is made to avail of other documents such as Tarrou’s diary notes which throw light on the personality of other characters particularly Cottard. Through Tarrou’s recorded observations, too, other aspects of the phenomenon are brought to the fore. The opinions or feelings included are either his own or expressly conveyed to him or his interpretation of the looks on the faces of the other characters.
The trouble in the city of Oran begins with the all too sudden appearance of rats that die out in the open. Local authorities are slow to recognize the danger in their midst, but as victims increase in number daily, the place is proclaimed in a state of plague. It is cut off from the outside world. The exile brought about by the epidemic creates varied reactions on the part of the populace. Parted lovers impatiently long for the absent partner. Couples who take each other for granted suddenly realize that they cannot really live apart. Others take to vice and drinking as escape mechanism of sorts. A number of the populace are merely indifferent. Some of them take advantage of the crisis situation to promote their personal agenda. And there is the group who puts up a fight against the public enemy. The Black Death lasts for a long period, from April, the month it set in, till the first days of February the following year. In the course of these months many have suffered and countless have died. Those lucky enough to survive the ordeal have cause for revelry afterwards, while for them whose friends and loved ones have succumbed to the bubonic plague, the nightmarish experience is scarcely over. Interwoven with those incidents are the individual stories of Dr. Rieux and his wife, Rambert’s efforts to get away, Cottard’s opportunism and the episode of his arrest, Grand’s disillusionment and eventual happiness, Tarrou’s account of his personal life, and Fr. Paneloux’s role in the general crisis.
All this is expressed in a language (at least in translation) that is a happy mean between the extremes of the high-strung and the all too simple. His selective details fulfill definite novelistic purpose and his descriptions serve to produce the tension that permeates the gripping mood of black gloom.
The “plague” is an integrating symbol. It is the “absurd,” an “abstraction” as inevitable as two and two make four. The plague is the irrational element in the universal order. The plague forces upon humans their unwanted privation and imprisonment. In many scenes, the dominant image of prison recurs. The city of Oran is a virtual “madhouse” or a “prison house” peopled with exiles of the pestilence. Isolated and unable to get in touch with the outside, the townsfolk are doomed to put up with “silence, sunlight, dust”—things one with the tropical disease. They like to regard the state of affairs to be temporary, hoping for a return to the normal order. The pestilence however goes on with its ravages, making the plague-bound townspeople feel abandoned “under the vast indifference of the sky.” Hence, they live only for the present moment and lose a sense of time. Time is at a standstill. The watch or clock has become a “silly-gadget.” “Hostile to the past, impatient of the present moment, and cheated of the future, they were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars.” This is the picture of man under sentence of death. This is the fundamental problem posed by Camus around which his philosophical speculations center.
For Rambert, the journalist from Paris, who happens to be cut off from the woman he loves, the pestilence is a stumbling block which he can turn his back on so as to be with his love. He feels he does not belong to the place. On the eve of his getaway, however, he comes to realize that it is shameful for one to be happy while others suffer. He changes his mind and joins the group committed to stemming the curse. The plague has become his own business as it is everybody’s.
Cottard, the criminal, is abnormally jubilant over the epidemic. He looks upon it as a chance whereby he can stay safe from the police and enrich himself through questionable activities like smuggling. He doesn’t want the plague stopped since it suits well his self-interests.
Jean Tarrou, another witness of the event, relentlessly fights the plague by organizing the sanitary squad. He nurtures a hate of all forms of injustice and always takes the side of the victim. He disapproves of murder and maintains that we are all murderers in approving of acts and principles that lead to murder, including legalized killing. He wants peace through sympathy, but asks if there could be a saint without God. He doesn’t believe in one.
Father Paneloux tells the townsfolk in a sermon that the plague is the flail of God. The people have forsaken the Lord so that He abandons them in the grip of the pestilence as a reminder that man should repent and turn to God.
Radically opposed to Fr. Paneloux’s is Dr. Rieux’s stand. Like Tarrou, he spares no effort in putting up resistance against the plague. But his struggle is one of revolt. He hates death and cannot get used to seeing people die, especially those who refuse to die. Unlike Paneloux, he has no trust in God, otherwise he would abandon curing patients and leave the business entirely to Him. He says: “…since the order of the world is shaped by the death, might it not be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward heaven where he sits in silence.”
Rieux’s defiance has a metaphysical dimension. His non-acceptance of God’s creation is premised upon the unjust cruelty perpetrated around him. For instance, after witnessing the final death-throes of M. Othon’s son, Rieux tells Paneloux: “…until my dying day I shall refuse to accept a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” He finds no justification for the sufferings of innocent children and a God who allows these things to happen is a sadist, pure and simple. (It will be recalled that Ivan Karamazov's atheism is premised on the same ground as Rieux's.) Thus, Rieux cannot simply come to terms with Paneloux’s position of all-out resignation to the Divine will. Paneloux’s views that “we should love what we cannot understand” and that “we should make God’s will our will” cannot have a place in the doctor’s thinking since for him, it devolves on man to put up a struggle against forces that threaten his dignity and happiness. We are doomed after the manner of Sisyphus to contend with the absurdity of our condition. And even if we lose the match as does Tarrou, even then it does not matter. The thing is to have fought well.
There can be no mistake that Rieux is speaking the mind of Camus. We see the shift of Camus’ position here, that is, from Meursault’s indifference to Rieux’s commitment. The former remains a helpless stranger, the latter stands involved. Meursault loves life for its own sake; Rieux loves human life and man in the general sense. Both of them deny God in order to affirm man—and this is their common denominator. In championing the human cause, Rieux has chosen to assert his will. He believes man, condemned to die as he is, can yet be free up to a certain point. Man can still choose whether to smash his head against the wall or not. For all the odds, man can somehow decide his destiny and at least be for a moment independent of nature and pestilence and what not.
It is interesting to note that through the efforts of the group led by Tarrou and Rieux the plague is finally averted so that Oran is free at last. But their triumph is not conclusive, for the plague could come back. One thing important though is demonstrated by it: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Camus humanistic philosophy is nowhere given more forceful expression than in this novel. His world view is man-centered to the point of deifying man. The clarion call he makes is the rediscovery of man dehumanized by things that get the better of him—social codes, disease, death and war. This is the reason why scholars read existentialism in his works even if he himself refused to be categorized under any school of thought.
There is no denying that as a literary artist Camus has rendered a penetrating depiction of the pathological condition of our times, small wonder the present-day youth claim him as their kind of novelist. The Nobel Prize citation makes mention of “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problem of the human conscience of our time.” All told, herein lies his significance as man and writer.