Lowenthal Walsh, a senior at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis, had hoped for something less weighty during the forced break. Mostly, he wanted to play hockey on the backyard trampoline, a game he and his younger brother devised to battle housebound boredom. Philosophical musings on viruses and death and what it all means? No thanks.
“It was just the last thing I wanted to read,” said Lowenthal Walsh. “I thought it was a bad idea.”
His classmate Grace Pereira had a similar reaction. “I was hoping online school would be a reprieve from the real world,” she said. “My first thought was, ‘People are not going to like this.’ ”
But Pereira, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is an epidemiologist, was also intrigued by the assignment. And despite their initial reluctance, so were many of the other students assigned the book by Forstner, who teaches English in the school’s International Baccalaureate program. Soon the students were reading it in their bedrooms or at the kitchen table, or listening on runs, immersing themselves in Camus’ bleak tale of what happens to inhabitants of a city afflicted by an invisible virus that respects no walls man puts in its path. The novel was published in 1947, but its content and mood felt very 2020.
“The government’s response to the plague in the book and to COVID-19 wasn’t much different,” Khuong Nguyen, a student in the class, said in an email. “It was nothing more than ‘just the flu’ and it would go away over the summer. The delayed action in our society and in ‘The Plague’ pretty much mirrors each other.”
Nguyen found that Camus’s descriptions of the besieged town and its people — “the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town,” Camus writes — bore a startling resemblance to a modern world facing down covid-19, the disease the virus causes.
In the novel, the town doctor is the first to notice that the otherwise inexplicable and gruesome deaths — first of rats, then of residents — are related. City authorities are slow to call the death a plague because they worry about fomenting panic. No one wants to acknowledge the plague is spreading even as the evidence surrounds them. Denial seems to be the only strategy.
As Maia King read the book for class, she thought: Wow, we never learn. “This French philosopher wrote this book a hundred years ago and we still respond the same way.”
King is planning to study biology in college and is considering a career as an epidemiologist. The book, she said, reminded her of the reaction to the current pandemic.
“It’s very instinctual to respond with fear and to try and reason with the unreasonable,” she said. “That’s a very human response.”
Something else that resonated is the way Camus’ characters don’t believe the plague is real or that it will ever reach them: “How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views,” he writes. “They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
Forstner, 55, admitted it was a “bit of a leap of faith” to assign the reading to his homebound students. He hadn’t read the book since college, but he was inspired by a recent essay about “The Plague” and covid-19 written by the philosopher Alain de Botton in the New York Times.
“Plague or no plague,” de Botton writes, “there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by that is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.” It’s absurd, he writes, and its absurdity “should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.”
Forstner hoped his students would find something of that joy and gratitude in a story that mirrored their difficult time. And in the book’s affirmation of love and using your time to do better.
“If we don’t focus on or hope for things beyond that, we can be in pretty good shape,” Forstner said. “If we love and allow ourselves to be loved, we can find satisfaction in this life.”
Nathaniel Mersy listened to the book on walks in the woods near his house. One day, he listened as snow fell, adding a fresh layer of winter to the ground around him. The contrast between the unrelentingly grim story in his ears and the peaceful beauty along his path has lingered, Mersy said. He had been reluctant to read the book, but he found in it the sort of inspiration Forstner hoped would reach the students.
“Camus talks about how there’s more to admire in men than to despise, and that makes me think of the health-care workers, the doctors and nurses, who have put themselves on the line,” Mersy said. “Even though there is so much sadness and loss that has come with covid-19, it is also showing the resiliency of humans, and the good in them as well.”
Forstner and Teran Pederson-Linn, another IB English teacher at the school, have been leading online discussions about the book with their five senior classes. In them, the students have debated whether the novel is a story of hope or despair — or whether the two are inextricably wound.
A computer screen filled with 30 faces trying to ascertain the philosophical truth of an existential novel lent its own element of absurdity to the discussion. But the students were engaged, Forstner said, and many of those conversations continued outside of class.
Emma Kaveckis read the book on her computer in her bedroom, often staring blankly at the screen as she tried to wrest its meaning. She remembers the hope-or-despair discussion and coming to her own understanding.
“The story is about the truth of life,” Kaveckis said. “That truth being that life is made of both hope and despair, and that there will never be hope without suffering or suffering without hope.”
She cried when she finished the book but took comfort from another conclusion she drew from Camus’ words: “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.”
“It is the idea that everyone is united by one great experience,” Kaveckis said. “The human experience. An experience both random and uncontrolled and, of course, peppered with pestilence, but it is something we all share.”
For Forstner, a significant moment in the novel is the speculation that the self-isolation will become the new normal and that people will stop missing personal connections and relationships. He knows the stereotype of young people: that their attachment to electronic devices has stunted their social and communal growth. That doesn’t square with his experience.
“More than prom and graduation, what seniors seem to be missing right now is each other,” he said. “My hope for them, and me, is that this extended time at home does not negatively change how we interact with others after this pandemic is over.”
Lowenthal Walsh, one of the students who initially opposed reading “The Plague,” said his objections gradually faded away. It left him feeling hopeful and introspective.
“There are definitely themes in the book that are a little more uplifting,” he said. “Man is good and worth fighting for, even though irrational things happen. That’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
There would still be time for hockey on the trampoline.