Does anyone remember that time when the government put us on semi house arrest for like a year because of a disease? And it sucked?
Well, that’s what The Plague by Albert Camus is about, and the similarities are striking– except that the plight of the characters in the book is way worse than coronavirus, because it’s the plague instead. The kind with the rats, yes.
About the Book
Title: The Plague
Author: Albert Camus
Genre: classics, philosophy
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):
“In Oran, a coastal town in North Africa, the plague begins as a series of portents, unheeded by the people. It gradually becomes an omnipresent reality, obliterating all traces of the past and driving its victims to almost unearthly extremes of suffering, madness, and compassion.“
Albert Camus’s The Plague takes place in a small town that suddenly experiences a plague outbreak and is placed in quarantine. The residents of the town are locked inside, separated from their loved ones, and consigned to a potential fate of painful disease and death with no end to the ordeal in sight.
The story is framed as an account written by an unnamed narrator intended to objectively relay the sequence of events, and we spend time following several different characters and their reactions to this senseless misfortune– their confrontations with the Absurd, so to speak.
Among these characters are Dr. Rieux, the doctor who resolves to do all in his power to fight the plague even when it seems impossible; Father Paneloux, the priest who maintains that the plague is nevertheless the divine will of God; Rambert, a journalist who wants to escape the town and reunite with his lover; Tarrou, an atheist who likens the plague to the evil in the world and resolves himself to the impossible task of causing no death through any choice of his own in the attempt to find peace and meaning; and Grand, an elderly man intent on writing a flawlessly “perfect” novel.
Though the book dragged a bit due to the cold, almost clinically detailed way in which it was written– I suppose to mimic the narrator’s intent at an impartial account– it was at the same time very interesting.
The main theme of the book, similar to much of Camus’s work, is the impossible confrontation between humans’ innate drive to find meaning and a world which offers none. The plague and the suffering it causes is senseless, despite the efforts of figures like Paneloux to rationalize it in some spiritual way.
“Do you believe in God, doctor?”
No – but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding that original.”
But even though there is a theme of humanity’s impotence in the face of the universe’s shrouded will, there is also a strong theme of hope— despite it all, the characters continue to work to save the lives of those they can and prevent further spread of the plague.
And throughout the course of the novel, we come to realize that the plague motif is being used to represent not just this specific disease, but the predicament of humanity in general. As the old man says towards the end of the book, quite plainly: “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”
The most memorable part of the book for me was Tarrou’s speech to Rieux about how he views humanity and his personal quest to “not be the mortal enemy of anyone”:
“I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can bring relief to men, and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes a little good.”
Overall I enjoyed this book and would recommend it– though I would probably advise you to read The Stranger first since this book makes more sense if you have a sense of Camus’s messaging first.
Have you read The Plague by Albert Camus? If so, what did you think of it? Feel free to leave a comment!
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