The Plague (Originally called: La Peste) was written by Albert Camus (1913-1960) and originally published in 1947. The story, written as a chronicle by a (temporarily) anonymous author, describes the lives of a motley cast of characters and the people of their city (Oran, Algeria) during an epidemic.
Camus used The Plague to illustrate much of his philosophy of Absurdism and Existentialism (Thiemann, 2013, p. 158). He described The Plague as a story with three layered meanings: a literal tale of an epidemic, an allegory of Nazi occupation and a representation of metaphysical evil (Thiemann, 2013, p. 158). This essay will be suggesting a fourth interpretation: that of individual isolation. This theme will be combined with that of metaphysical evil.
This paper will be discussing how the inability to communicate within the novel contrasts with the human inability to truly empathise; how the concept of evil is represented in the novel, how evil leads to perseverance and solidarity and how humans relate with others through memory.
Ultimately, The Plague symbolises the existential and isolated nature of humanity when faced with evil and collective suffering.
The limited communication within Oran, as a result of epidemic, contrasts with the characters inability to truly express their innermost consciousness. Upon escalation of the plague, physical communications such as letters become prohibited, at which point the narrator notes that, “Even the small satisfaction of writing letters was denied us” (Camus, 1960, p. 58). Letter writing is typically taken for granted, but the sudden prohibition of it caused a ravenous urge to contact loved ones. The under-appreciated film, The Postman, focused upon the importance of human relations contained in the humble letter (The Postman, 1997). Camus was expressing this but there may be a deeper meaning regarding human communication itself. We are so intent on communication and relationships that we seemingly never get tired of it – but perhaps this is due to our inability to properly communicate.
The people of Oran had to rely on telegrams once letters and phones were prohibited. The technology proved insufficient to carry forth the experience and feelings of their users (Gray, 2007, p. 167).
“…the phrases one can use in a telegram are quickly exhausted, long lives passed side by side, or passionate yearnings, soon declined on the exchange of such trite formulas…” (Camus, 1960, p. 58).
The telegram users desperately tried to share their experience and feelings with those close to them, but the insufficiency of the telegram inhibited them, as they were limited to, “…dead phrases” (Camus, 1960, p. 58).
In a way, our ability to communicate realistically is also prohibited in such a way. Camus is showing the inadequacy of words to express our innermost thoughts.
In many ways, The Plague is a tale of individuals united by experience but separated by the unassailable divisions of our own consciousness. Rieux found this with his mother, possibly the person closest to him:
“…he knew what his mother was thinking, and that she loved him. But he knew, too, that to love someone means relatively little; or, rather, that love is never strong enough to find words befitting it. Thus he and his mother would always love each other silently. And one day she – or he – would die, without ever, all their lives long, having gone farther than this by the way of making their affection known.” (Camus, 1960, p. 236)
Despite their kinship, Rieux knows that his mother cannot truly understand him or his feelings for her – and so too for her of him. They can understand only so much that the other expresses themselves, but even then they will never be engaged in the unique sentience of the other.
In this way, the characters of The Plague are alone, but the novel shows us, despite our unassailable individuality, we can still find solidarity in shared suffering.
The plague can stand for an epidemic or a symbol of evil and suffering. With regard to both, it succeeds. People from all walks of life are affected by the plague, to the point where:
“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.” (Camus, 1960, p. 138)
Despite Camus’ insistence on the unassailable individuality of his characters, this is a tale more of universal struggle overcoming individual boundaries, thus causing solidarity to form.
As is the case with sudden shock, people struggled to comprehend the meaning of plague: “… we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.” (Camus, 1960, p. 34).
They continued to live their lives, for “They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences” (Camus, 1960, p. 34).
The latter part of the past quote is telling, as it not only points to the omnipresent nature of evil but also how we do not truly possess real freedom. The plague leads to the suffering of many and the rage of Riuex. The doctor, Rieux, feels an insecurity in being unable to deal with the plague, but also a resentment of Pameloux, the priest, who he feels does not understand suffering:
“But every country priest who visits his parishioners, and has heard a man gasping for breath on his death bed, thinks as I do. He will try relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence” (Camus, 1960, p. 106)
Rieux was commenting on Pameloux’s insistence on calling on the virtues of suffering. This created a contrast between the two men and an example of Camus’ unshakeable view on Christianity. Upon the death of a child, Rieux rejects Pameloux’s (what is in his view) errant faith, by calling into question God’s apparent benevolence: “I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (Camus, 1960, p. 178).
Rieux and, in all probability, Camus, saw evil as the system which oppresses us. It is what holds people back and prevents them from reaching their peak. Our inability to communicate links to our fear of the world (as letters were banned for fear of infection) and our actions shaped to survive in this harsh world perpetuate the evil. As Tarrou said: “I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace” (Camus, 1960, p. 206). Tarrou was asserting that we are all complicit in a system which perpetuated evil. Plague, to him, was just another form of that concept which we call evil.
As a symbol of evil, the plague exists as an omnipresent and veritably unbeatable force of nature. Through perseverance, as this essay will address next, the epidemic is thwarted, but as Rieux ominously explains: “…the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good” (Camus, 1960, p. 251)
Evil and suffering provides an experience in which the characters of The Plague can truly empathise.
Despite the assertion of Tarrou that all humans are complicit in “plague” and thus, evil, Rieux is pertinent in stating that a sense of collective suffering does not force humans into individual struggles. Rather, it pushes them to help others as a whole – for these aren’t personal pains, but societal ills and evils of nature:
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague” (Camus, 1960, p. 106).
Tarrou may have been right in his claim that all humans are complicit in evil, but as he pointed out, people have the possibility of minimising their evil (Camus, 1960, p. 207). Through being faced with a greater evil, people such as Grand, Rambert and Tarrou worked together with Rieux to put a stop to plague. Of course, there were men like Cottard who profited from plague, but we will always find bad men in bad times. What is important is: “that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (Camus, 1960, p. 251).
Despite the collective identity of surviving plague, the characters are still alone. Gray (2007) asserted that isolation is a central theme in the novel (Gray, 2007, p. 166). As much as it is a tale of solidarity and overcoming evil, Camus still emphasised the separation between each character.
Tarrou and Rieux’s relationship is one such example of solidarity found in plague, but limited only to their own consciousness:
“But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it” (Camus, 1960, p. 236).
In this quote, Rieux shows the extent of human interaction on our consciousness. We are held back by the closed nature of our mind, to the extent where do we truly know anyone, but what we do know is the importance of that person to us. Tarrou was a portion of Rieux’s life and shared in Rieux’s experience. In this way, Rieux will carry forth the idea of Tarrou.
Upon reflection, this theme connects with the closing line of a TV series called Cowboy Bebop where, after the credits have rolled, white text illustrated the line: “You’re gonna carry that weight” (Cowboy Bebop, 1999).
The experience of living through an epidemic such as plague, but also every experience that we have privilege or sufferance of being party to, accumulates into who we are. We may not be able to truly be a part of someone, but their memory becomes a part of our identity and our life. We will carry them with us for ever after.
This essay has shown how the symbol of communication within the novel can be equated to humanity’s inability to truly communicate the consciousness of the individual; how evil has been portrayed as an omnipresent concept that we are all complicit to; how suffering unites us and allows us to overcome our complicities with evil and how, ultimately, our only true relationship with others is in how we remember them.
Camus has succeeded in crafting a novel which explores the depths of human relationships and existential identity. It creates a bleak image of initial suffering, but ultimately puts forward a more positive view of human existence.
Camus, A., 1960. The Plague. Aylesbury: Penguin Books.
Gray, M. E., 2007. Layers of Meaning in La Peste. In: E. J. Hughes, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Camus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 165-177.
The Postman. 1997. [Film] Directed by Kevin Costner. United States: Tig Productions.
Thiemann, R. F., 2013. The Humble Sublime: Secularity and the Politics of Belief. London: I. B. Tauris.
Watanabe, S., 1999. [TV] The Real Folk Blues (Part 2). Cowboy Bebop.