Camus’s The Plague is different from what we have previously read in the sense that it relays the story of an isolated town. Unlike Defoe’s London, Oran is completely shut off from the outside world during the epidemic and its citizens quite literally become “the prisoners of the plague” (Camus 129); thus, the quarantine causes great turmoil in the city. An outstanding example is the burning of the houses by the townsfolk:
“…there was an increased number of fires, especially in the leisure districts around the west gates of the town. Investigation showed that these were due to people who had come back from quarantine and, driven mad by grief and misfortune, set light to their houses under the illusion that this would kill the plague.” (Camus 130)
Moreover Camus tells us, in what could arguably be called one of the most important passages of the novel, that the greatest vice of humanity is ignorance:
“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill.” (Camus 100-101)
What can we say about the self-destructiveness of humans under the threat of death in Camus’s novel? Can we relate such irrational, violent, and most importantly ignorant behavior with the attitudes of “merrymakers” in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Pushkin’s A Feast in Time of Plague and other characters in Camus’s novel? How does this expand on our previous discussions of the appropriate reactions to imminent death?
Speaking of irrationality, Rieux’s contemplation of war and plague deserves our attention. Citizens of Oran are “humanists” and therefore cannot accept that the visitation will last: it is “too stupid,” too “unreal” (Camus 30). However, what they fail to realize is that disease, just like death, is irrational and it does not follow human expectations. In addition, the fact that disease is beyond our control addresses the subject of it being a form of punishment (also seen in Defoe).
Thus, the expectation of meaning in the face of a disease becomes irrational, as demonstrated by the initial denial of the disease by Oran’s citizens. The manager of Tarrou’s hotel is perhaps the embodiment of the citizens’ refusal to acknowledge their shared fate, when there are rats found in the elevator he is unable to accept that his hotel is leveled with everyone else:
‘“But everybody has the same thing.”
“Exactly,” he [the manager] replied. “Now we are like everybody.”’ (Camus 24)
The citizens’ inaction and the medical community’s neglect, although seemingly irrational in retrospect, is attributed to the general belief (mentioned above) that a plague was something unreal, a ghost from the past. Rieux and Tarrou are perhaps the most prominent characters that realize the necessity of alleviating the suffering of the sick, defying the bystander effect, despite the futility of their struggle. This situation resembles the futility of our everyday struggle against death, and the apparent meaninglessness of life in the face of death.
Is Rieux’s struggle truly futile? What is the novel’s stance on the meaning of everyday life in the face of death? What is the appropriate reaction to irrational catastrophes like wars and epidemics? Is there any meaning to a fight without any chance of winning?
Furthermore, newspapers also seem to occupy an important place in the story. Interestingly, we have already discussed their role previously during our analyses of Defoe, Brockden Brown and Ibsen, in which they promote societal approved values and spread rumors. By contrast, in Camus they first act as tools and leverage to make the authorities face the problem of rats; yet, when the human death toll starts rising, they are strangely silent and later become the space for advertisement for potions and “cures”.
What is the role of media in the novel? Can we tie the hypocrisy of Oran’s media outlets to our previous discussion of rumors and news?
On a side note, the rats depicted in the novel can be seen to symbolize the citizens because they die in droves, much like the people do when the plague strikes. At the beginning of the play thousands of dead rats begin turning up in public places. Their sudden deaths foreshadow the effect of the plague on the human population later on. Furthermore the disposal of human corpses is very similar to that of the rats. They are collected and deposited in mass graves, undermining society’s traditions, underscoring the meaninglessness of life and highlighting the senselessness of death.
What other role are the rats playing in the novel ? What other similarities are there between the humans and the rats? Why do the newspapers report the rat problem but ignore the epidemic at first?
We hope that these questions will help us kick off our discussion of this outstanding piece of literature.
Vlad, Rafa and Liam
Ps.: Title is a quote from David Attenborough.