The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Camus’ ‘The Plague,’ lessons about fear, quarantine and the human spirit

Albert Camus wrote about a sense of exile in a city facing a contagion — exile from those outside the gates, and from a past that suddenly seems alien.
Albert Camus wrote about a sense of exile in a city facing a contagion — exile from those outside the gates, and from a past that suddenly seems alien. (Loomis Dean/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)
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In his novel “The Plague,” published in 1947, Albert Camus did not extend his imagined pestilence to the entire globe, like the coronavirus that is threatening the planet now. Camus had just lived through the worldwide terror of the Third Reich and Japanese aggression. In “The Plague,” he confined his scourge to Oran, a “treeless,” “soulless” port city “ringed with luminous hills,” in his native Algeria.

Yet the book deeply evokes the adaptations imposed on us today. Camus focused less on the ambulances and body counts in stricken Oran than on how the plague affected the citizenry, who, like us, had to realign priorities, schedules, in some cases relationships and modes of living.

Like us, they had no intimation of disaster. Throughout history, plague had been as frequent as war, the book’s narrator observes — yet each outbreak takes people “equally by surprise.” Yet it is not so much the shock of the plague, but its innocent-seeming, almost innocuous beginnings, that clamp a dreadful foreboding on the novel’s opening pages.

The hero, Bernard Rieux, a young doctor with dark, steady eyes, is exiting a routine surgery on an April morning when he feels underfoot an unpleasant softness: a dead rat. The rats emerge in force; soon they are piled in garbage cans and carted off in batches, not before emitting “a gout of blood” accompanied by “shrill little death-cries.” The mysterious human fever immediately follows.

Doctors hesitate to give it a name, though Rieux recognizes the disease as plague from the swollen ganglia forming at the neck and limbs of its victims. The local prefect, and the chair of the local medical association, are concerned with avoiding alarm — even, as one terms it, “false alarm.”

Oran has no supply of plague serum. The newspapers publish only brief, discreet notices. Meanwhile, use of disinfectant is required, people living with victims are to be quarantined, schools are refashioned to house the overflow of stricken patients from hospital wards. Yet normal life goes on, save that the death toll rises from several a day to more than 10, more than 20. When it doubles to 40, the fateful telegram arrives: “Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.”

It is at this point that the novel really begins, and it is the moment, to varying degrees, that Americans and people in scores of other afflicted countries are living in now. Camus likened it to a state of “exile,” a familiar theme to the writer, for whom metropolitan France, where he spent his adult life, was never more than an adoptive home. In “The Plague,” exile is partly geographic, describing the painful isolation from those outside the city gates — but it refers, more powerfully, to exile in time.

The plague separates people from their former lives. Despite their fervent longings to go back, the past is suddenly alien — a detached memory. As the cranes on the wharves go silent and the death toll mounts, seemingly in time with the oppressive heat, people become fixed on “the ground at their feet.” The narrator — whose identify is long kept secret — stoically observes, “Each of us had to be content to live only for the day.”

Camus was preoccupied with the absurd — with Sisyphus condemned, like mankind, to pushing a stone up a hillside. In “The Plague” he found a lens for projecting life at once suspended and more vivid. Though Oran had become but a vast “railway waiting-room,” with all the boredom and indifference the metaphor implies, people were, at least, living in the present. The urgency of volunteering in sanitary squads replaces the yearning for a vaccine or the outside world. The present replaces the future. A mysterious observer trapped in Oran, to whose diary the narrator gains access, posits that only this — being “fully aware” of time — guarantees that it won’t be wasted.

As with the virus today, the citizens crave a return to normalcy yet are visited by doubt that they could — or should — again be the same. There is a hint of self-condemnation.

The local priest sermonizes to his beleaguered flock, “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.” He does not mean those flouting the plague rules, trafficking in forbidden goods, but the sinfulness of Oran before its crisis. Today one reads of supposed contributory evils — globalism, political failings, world capitalism. Even Camus’ finally revealed narrator seems to invoke a judgment, after the plague has lifted: The fight against “terror,” as he now styles it, is “assuredly” ongoing. The plague bacillus, as if it were some uncleansable stain on the human character, “never dies or disappears for good.”

Yet the satisfying surprise for me, rereading “The Plague” a half-century after my first encounter with it, is that Camus, who died at 46 in an automobile accident, fashioned from this morbid allegory a theme of human goodness. It is a redemptive book, one that wills the reader to believe, even in a time of despair. Rieux and the priest cannot resolve the eternal question of whether a God could allow such a blight, but to Rieux, the answer is simple: In the absence of an all-responsive deity, he must make his rounds, cure whom he might. As with all evils, he says, “It helps men to rise above themselves.”

This is true for Rieux, and for some of the lesser townsfolk, who overcome their selfish desires and lend a hand, only to discover that if happiness is shameful by oneself, fear is more bearable when it is shared. To this, the veiled narrator has chosen to bear witness. His mission, he ultimately declares, is to state what we learn in a time of pestilence: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

By Albert Camus. Vintage. 320 pp. $15