“It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth — in other words, to silence.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague
In the same weeks as the inception of the global pandemic, it was the 60th anniversary of Albert Camus’ death.
Albert Camus’ The Plague was written during World War II, and published in the years following. The Plague is the most mature in Camus’ line of absurdist fiction. It’s rare for so many of the world’s illnesses to be in a single piece. The human experience is laid bare in the seaside town of Oran.
Camus’ perennial story alludes to relevant details that parallel today’s current climate involving the Coronavirus. In the book, the plague is not only an actual plague, but it’s also a metaphor for Capitalism, Fascism, the erosion of the soul, and the absurd fragility of man. With the Coronavirus being such a severe issue, although not on par with plague, it should be taken just as seriously.
The town of Oran is a modern and materialistic landscape that lacks trees, seagulls, and inspiration. The townsfolk are industrious and only that.
“Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich.” and “the commercial character of the town, whose aspect, activities, and even pleasures all seemed to be dictated by considerations of business.”
In an earlier essay titled The Desert, Camus describes a “repugnant materialism” that has become a plague itself.
With this as the backdrop for the town, we see Rieux send his wife off to a sanitarium. Rats are dying in the street. A man Cottard attempts suicide and fails. Then Rieux’s doorman M. Michel dies from a suspicious fever.
All considered, no one is that worried, not even Rieux. Throughout the following chapters, we are introduced to great characters, who all have their own arcs as they navigate the plague with Rieux.
Cottard, as mentioned before, attempted suicide because he’s a felon, and until the outbreak, he was waiting to be imprisoned. Unlike the others, Cottard blossoms and enjoys the plague. Then there’s Grand, a reserved municipal clerk who works for little pay. Grand spends his nights writing a novel as an apology to his estranged ex-wife.
Rambert, who reminds me of Garcon from No Exit, is a journalist from Paris who gets stuck in Oran after the quarantine. Rambert tries everything to escape the town and to get back to his wife in Paris.
Father Paneloux, a priest who sees the plague as punishment for the town’s depravity, is in stark contrast to the protagonist. As the epidemic worsens, he doubles down in his faith, making bold statements about why. Lastly is Tarrou, an odd wine salesman whose diary observations compromise a large portion of the narrative.
The people of the town start with the gripping sense of uncertainty for the future as they continue their daily routines in mechanical fashion. The disease worsens and the townsfolk enter a state of shared apathy and exile. They all begin to know the pain of separation from loved ones and from the rest of the world.
Denial follows as people think they have the power of choice, but Camus tells us the reader:
“the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.”
The Oranians, defeated, and do nothing but count the days that pass through the Mist heat exhaustion and plague. When the bacillus finally recedes, the town cautiously rejoices as life before this austerity slowly restores itself.
The efforts to fight the plague are revealed to be entropic, solely attrition warfare tactics. There are small moments of relief as Father Paneloux and Rambert join the cause, but these do little. Rieux suffers a breaking point when the failed trial run of an anti-plague serum kills a child. The boy’s screams pierce the hearts of all present and Rieux has to leave.
Rieux, hopeless and fatigued, finds a spark of renewal when he and Tarrou swim in the ocean that night. It is their only hour of consolation during the plague. The death of the child is so abominable that it leads Father Paneloux to declare in a second sermon that God demands the town to accept his judgment entirely, death of children and all, or reject him wholly. Panaloux believes that this is God’s will.
Panaloux soon falls ill and refuses treatment or the comfort of friends. He dies gently, clutching a crucifix. When the body is examined, they determined the cause of death was not from plague.
As the disease winds down and the opening of the gates are announced, Rieux’s confidant Tarrou contracts both forms of plague and dies after a heroic fight against it. After Tarrou’s death, Rieux receives a telegram stating his wife died a week ago.
When the gates open, Rambert is reunited with his wife. Rieux realizes that he’s lost two significant chances for love since both his wife and Tarrou were lost to death.
In the last few pages, Rieux is apathetic as he returns to his regular duties. Progression is halted as Cottard’s mind snaps due to the pressures of normalcy and he starts shooting people in the street. After killing and wounding a few civilians, he’s arrested. Grand and Rieux are witnesses to the entire spectacle.
Rieux then reflects on the past months and realizes they may have stopped this interlude of the disease, but it’s no final victory. Camus ends his novel with this chilling remark:
“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 bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
We have a lot in common with the people of Oran. During the first talks of the Corona, we all continued with our lives as they did. Unlike the leaders of the coastal town, ours didn’t take the virus seriously. Our President called the virus a hoax created by the Democrats instead of engaging it as a legitimate threat.
Camus’ fictional Oran takes a massive hit to its economy. Businesses didn’t close but had to keep their lights off to save energy. Despite many businesses being open, people were still left without work. The Coronavirus is nowhere near the potency of the bubonic or pneumonic plague.
After a record high of over 10 million people filing for unemployment in March, we have to ask some hard questions. Are unemployment benefits and a single stimulus check the only actions that can be taken to see us to the end of this pandemic? And what will be done in the future to ensure a more serious event would be handled better?
The plague has been her marked as an allegory for Nazi occupation in France. From the language Camus uses we can see that clearly. With excerpts such as, “The plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone.” One could point to Panaloux’s remarks in his second sermon as a nod to the classic Us vs Them dichotomy that is present fascist propaganda.
Fascism is more incorporated in the atmosphere of the town in undertones more than as an outright antagonist. However, there is the image of Lucifer looming over the shingled houses striking down residents with his spear of pestilence. That’s pretty cool.
The plague is fascistic in that it’s an unyielding, all-consuming entity, one that “ceased to believe in anything but success.” It’s an enemy that cannot be reasoned with, it has an inherent necessity for violence. People who try to leave the town are shot by sentries, and those who do escape can only do so through illegal means to avoid certain death.
For those who stay, their view of death shifts to it being commonplace. A group of looters are shot at by authorities resulting in two deaths and there’s little effect on the onlooking crowd. Camus explains here:
“With so many deaths taking place every day, these two executions went unheeded — a mere drop in the ocean.”
Unlike the novel, today, we face a negligent attitude by right-wing media outlets. Irresponsible talks about returning to work and saving the economy are perverse at best. These political actors advocate for our sacrifice to the state from their sheltered studios.
To these ‘diehards’, the economic machine comes first and you as a cog in that machine should be happy to give your life, and the lives of your family and friends, in service of that glorious machine. The conservatives that advocate for such measures would never do it themselves or have to deal with the consequences of it.
They’ll never be on the front lines.
They will never work in unity with working people.
At no point should anyone have to die just to make the economy look a little better.
We’ve discussed how the horror that Rieux and his friends fight against is not only a literal disease but a metaphorical representation of fascism. However, the infection is most accurately the Absurd. Like all things with Albert Camus, the Absurd is front and center in The Plague.
The Absurd can be defined as the friction that lies between man’s search for meaning and the indifferent nature of our universe. It is the cohabitation of burning passion and silent death.
The plague isn’t concerned with the cries of agony that it produces in its victims. Camus’ alludes to favorite characters, Sisyphus, a king who must repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill just to watch it tumble down the mountain. He does this for all eternity. A circular system for someone who’s immortal.
But Dr. Rieux and friends are not immortal, and their war against the unwavering plague is clearly futile. Each of these men represents a different response to massive cataclysm, they are powerless to this force. They can only watch and fumble as it destroys everything around them.
Camus tells us this is a virtue, but that the greatest virtue that comes from such tragedies is action. These men act and never give any ground and after a year of fighting the plague finally withdraws.
Camus ascribes many anecdotes to deal with symptoms of the Absurd and gives each of his characters a different route. Devotion to God, escape in love, work towards self-actualization, moral codes based on universality. But what strikes me most is the reprieve they all find in each other through brotherhood and comradery.
Reflections of the Absurd can be seen in our current epidemic. Two prominent right-wing media figures told their followers to take a drug called Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, to cure themselves of Coronavirus. This drug had been proven not to help with Corona and is known to cause cardiac arrhythmia, which is fatal to people with heart conditions. That misinformation killed people.
Another amazing grievance is that if you have Corona but no insurance, hospitals can deny you. One uninsured teen has already died, and many more are ticking time-bombs of either dejection or medical bankruptcy, oh joy.
To add to the list, President Trump let pillow company CEO, Mike Lindell, talk at a COVID19 press conference. In the speech, Lindell tells us, much like Panaloux, that this epidemic is because we as a nation have turned our backs on God. Lindell further explains:
“God had been taken out of our schools and lives. A nation had turned its back on God. I encourage you to use this time at home to get back in the Word, read our Bibles, and spend time with our families.”
In the story, Tarrou tells Rieux that he wants to become a saint, and Rieux then replies that he just wants things to go back to normal. At the end of the conversation, Tarrou concludes, “Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.” With all the unemployment, deaths, debt, and anger, can things really return to “normal” after this is over?
It’s highly debatable, but for most people, the answer will be no. Despite this many will try to waive away this period as if it was nothing.
This novel is a timeless story, it’s relevant to all epidemics from flu to AIDS. Before now, discussions on The Plague resurged during the Ebola outbreak. That’s when I read it, there was a bunch of fake news about plastic coffins outside of Atlanta, and I wanted to know what it’s going to be like.
The pertinence of the novel comes from its ability to transcend past what it was originally intended to represent. The prose is anything but prosaic, it is ephemeral and haunting. It is far from any kind of felo-de-se. Camus shows us the sway of love and suffering in the dance that is the earthly existence.
Its message is clear. There will always be a plague, we only move from one form to another in a never-ending fight against it.
“Everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune.”
Read the book, it speaks to so much more than what I’ve mentioned. It’s existential. It’s absurd. It will not disappoint.