Archive for October, 2014

Newspapers and Blindness

EXTRA EXTRA: Newspapers in The Plague vs. Present Day International Newspapers

What role do newspapers and social media play in regards to disease? Are they simply social informants or do they have another purpose? In several of the texts we have read so far (Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Ibsen’s Ghosts) newspapers have been the transmitters of social disease, as it is media publications that facilitate the spread of rumour throughout society with a rapidity similar to that of the contagious disease, and with implications that were detrimental in terms of the subsequent behaviour of the citizens. However, the newspapers in Albert Camus’ The Plague play somewhat of a different role, and this difference is highlighted when compared to some of the emotionally charged articles that have been recently published regarding the Ebola epidemic.

In The Plague, when the bubonic plague first infests the town of Oran, the newspapers function as social informants that document the death tallies of rats. They also seek to determine whether the civic authorities have any intention of intervening, or exercising their power, in what can been deemed as an emergency situation, in order to protect the public from this “disgusting infestation” (p.14). They can, in some way, be seen to represent the voice of society, and seem to stand alongside the citizens in regards to questioning to the response of authorities. They are very active during this period before the exact contagion that has infested the city has been identified. However, during the peak of the disease, when the death toll of civilians is increasing exponentially and when hysteria is slowly taking starting to rise, the newspapers fall silent.

This is a complete contrast to the behaviour of newspapers today, as it is during the peak of an epidemic that the journalists are most active. A primary example of this kind of fevered behaviour on the part of newspapers is the reporting on the current Ebola outbreak. Clicking on the following links will direct you to newspaper articles from various countries, which emphasises the absurdity of the silence of the newspapers in The Plague. 

Voice of America – USA

The Sydney Morning Herald – Australia

The Mirror – UK

The Daily Nation – Kenya

Daily News Egypt – Egypt

Daily Observer – Liberia

In The Plague, as the novel progresses, we see the newspapers slowly begin to increase their activity in regards to reporting about the infestation of the bubonic plague. The newspapers, more specifically The Courier of the Epidemic, aim to “inform…fellow citizens, in a spirit of total objectivity, about the advances or decline in the illness; to provide them with the most authoritative accounts of the future of the epidemic…to sustain the morale of the inhabitants “ (p.91). It is clear from the articles as posted above, that their intentions are not concerned with objectivity and they aim to alarm the public of the epidemic as opposed to being simply informative. The tone used in today’s newspapers seems to instil more panic than it does optimism or morale. It is interesting to note from these newspaper articles that they do not represent the concerns of the society, but instead inform in a way that is highly emotionally charged which elicit fear among the readers, as opposed to endeavouring to inform using facts, while also voicing the concerns of the society, as do the newspapers in novel.

Simi Roopra


The state of quarantine is seen visibly through the Plague. People get restless and try to escape, longing to see their loved ones and get away from the internal chaos of Oran.

Reading this, I was especially reminded of Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It is about a mass epidemic of unexplained white blindness in an unnamed town, and the social unrest and chaos that arises because of this. The infected are transferred to overcrowded asylums where they are kept in quarantine indefinitely. The government soon forgets about them, not providing food or personal hygiene products for long periods of time. Curiously, the main character, “the doctor’s wife”, as she is referred to in the text, never catches the blindness, despite the fact that she lies and says she does have it to take care of her husband during quarantine. She has close contact with all the infected, and never catches it, much like Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

Quarantine causes major social unrest in both books. There are scenes where people try to flee and are killed by the police force, huge fires and other chaotic situations.

“In fact, what with the heat and the plague, some of our fellow citizens were losing their heads; there had already been some scenes of violence and nightly attempts were made to elude the sentries and escape to the outside world.”

“As a result of the fighting at the gates, in the course of which the police had had to use their revolvers, a spirit of lawlessness was abroad. Some had certainly been wounded in these brushes with the police, but in the town, where, owing to the combined influences of heat and terror, everything was exaggerated, there was talk of deaths. One thing, anyhow, was certain; discontent was on the increase and, fearing worse to come, the local officials debated lengthily on the measures to be taken if the populace, goaded to frenzy by the epidemic, got completely out of hand. The newspapers published new regulations reiterating the orders against attempting to leave the town and warning those who infringed them that they were liable to long terms of imprisonment.”

Similar scenes can be observed in the movie of Blindness linked below:

See 1:22, a scene in which all the blind must escape the asylum because it has caught fire. Looking at the scene they even look like zombies. Once they get to the gates they realize even the guards have fled, leaving them to their own doom if it were not for their own escape.

Camila Viera

Rats and Plague

The action of the novel takes place in the city of Oran, beginning with the death of some rats, death which, even if initially didn’t seem to be something unusual, begins to create panic. The number of rats increases exponentially, especially towards the periphery of the city and, after so many dead animals, comes a dead man, event that alarms the doctor of the town. It seems obvious that rats are responsible for the spread of the disease and this was what people strongly believed over time.

Yet, some recent studies in London reached the conclusion that, after all, the plague was not spread by rats. As the archeologist Barney Sloane said, “the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn’t time for the rats to be spreading it.” A recent study on this topic can be found in this article from The Guardian. Also, the fact that plague killed people in Northern Europe refutes the theory that the disease was spread by fleas. These new understanding of the disease lead the scientist to the conclusion that Plague was caused by “a viral hemorrhagic fever pandemic similar to Ebola “ and a comparison between these two diseases can be found here.

“We Are a Plague on Earth”

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)

City of Oran


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.

War – romanticism vs reality?

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is set during the time of world war 1, playing a prominent role throughout the novel. Typically, war is romanticized; people see war as an opportunity to prove their worth, and to display their patriotism. The notion of fighting for one’s country is an ideal that is greatly upheld by young men in the country. The concept of war is glorified, and everyone unites in the effort to win. Distinct gender roles are defined during the period of war: women are said to nurse the wounded, whilst men are out fighting.

In Pale Hose, Pale Rider, we encounter varying perspectives on war. Miranda, the protagonist, displays her distaste for war ideals. She does not agree with the propaganda that is put forth, and calls the men “liars”, she further concludes that the “…skulking about, and the lying” are results of “what the war does to the mind and the heart”. Ironically, on the other hand, Adam feels the duty to go to war. This strong contrast in the mindsets displays the division of what people believed.

This presence of war throughout Pale Horse, Pale Rider is explored in the following book (page 218)


What (could have) happened to Adam?

Some of us in the process of reading the novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” couldn’t help, but wonder (and have expressed their inquiries during the class discussion as well) that what happened to Adam in the end of the story? His death is only explained in a rush with a couple of sentences “Adam had died of influenza in the camp hospital” (p.206), and Miranda merely refers to him once in her feverish dream or vision of his ghost “At one he was there beside her, invisible but urgently present, a ghost but more alive than she was.” (p.208)

Even though Adam is not the most significant character of the story, and Miranda only had a ‘whirlwind’ romance with the young soldier, I believe that by giving thought to his possible fate we can gain a valuable insight into the events of the influenza epidemic (as many refer to it the ‘Spanish Influenza’) of 1918.

Let’s just start this little ‘game’ by imagining how the telegraph that informed Adam’s family of his death could have looked like:

This telegraph is a copy of a real message sent by a squadron official regarding the death of a private in the October of 1918

And how the letter carrier, who brought the tragic news to Adam’s family, could have dressed up:

This man, who used a mask to protect hismelf against the influenza, was a letter carrier in New York in 1918 

And how Adam’s funeral could have been prohibited, due to the cancellation of public events in the US:

This is a real telegram from a county administrator in Oklahoma city regarding the cancellation of public meetings in the October of 1918

And how the police, who have made sure that the ‘mob’ behaved accordingly to the laws (e.g.: avoided public events), could have looked like:

This is a picture taken of the police of Seattle (1918)

I hope that this little time travelling, and exploration of the ‘ifs’ in Adam’s fate helped you to understand more about the historical context of Pale Horse, Pale Rider and the global cosnequences of the influenza epidemic of 1918. If you think that your knowledge of the era needs to be slightly updated, feel free to visit this website that I used to find these resources.

And remember: ‘avoid’ the seasonal flu at all costs!

Good night!


Demographics of Influenza

This BBC post takes a look at Spanish Flu, in the wake of WWI and its impact on the USA’s demography, spreading to one fifth of the global population. With many now fearing that Ebola is the modern retake of the 1918 H1N1 strain that killed so many, there are strong comparisons between the two: both shook the world. If we want to take a look at the deadliest outbreaks of Influenza, as well as the other forms of contagion that we will study, take a look at this blog post which allows you to trace the death rates and areas of contraction over time.

One of the key questions that we should consider is whether Influenza is preventable, like Ebola now – with the US admitting it was a mistake that led to its transmission to a healthcare worker in Texas. How would Pale Horse, Pale Rider work without the threat of flu? Does the book require the idea of contagion, if we consider the idea of mental illness?

Fight the Flu – Influenza Rap


New Plague, New Playlist

Music always enhances situations; just imagine any movie without its soundtrack. It distracts, it expresses, it liberates, it comforts, it dramatizes – it lives. Unsurprisingly, music has played an important role in some of our previously studied novels (such as Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague), as well as in this week’s novel: Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Below, I’ve compiled the novella’s playlist of mentioned songs (as well as one poem) and their respective page numbers, ranging from war tunes to anthems, and spirituals to jazz music. 

When listening to the pieces, ask yourself: Why did Porter specifically mention this by name? What is its significance in the text? Does the song in any way reflect and/or parallel the themes and events in the novel? 

Many of the war songs listed above coincidentally (or perhaps intentionally?) mention themes and images that appear in the text. For instance, “Pack Up Your Troubles” is a military tune about “Private Perks… with a smile, a funny smile,” and the chorus tells soldiers (“boys”) to stop worrying and to just “smile, smile, smile”. This notion of smiling in the face of difficulty can be seen in the novel, as both the war and plague are described as funny (158, 161), and characters such as Miranda respond to war or disease by laughing and feeling hilarious about it (184). Thus, was this a sheer coincidence, or did Porter try to highlight this behaviour when she named this particular tune? If so, why?

Aside from the justifiable mention of military songs, Porter also specifically identifies certain pop/dance songs of the early 20th century. Although this may again seem superficial or meaningless, pay attention to the lyrics and the story behind these secular songs. The quoted verse from the Blues contains the phrase “heart disease,” which in both the song and the novel, refers to an emotional rather than a physical pain. In fact, Miranda speaks of the emotional impact of war and its damage on the heart and mind: “what [the war] does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” (177). Again, what is the significance of this parallelism? How does the song enhance our reading of the text?

Here’s the video for the Blues:

And here’s the video for La Madelon:

All these songs/poems were mentioned for a reason. Give a few of them a listen and see if you can determine why they were specifically identified, and how they enhance and reflect the text. Or better yet, just listen to them for the sake of music. After all, music is “A magic beyond all we do here!” according to Professor Dumbledore.

Dead War, Dead Survivors

Pale Horse, Pale Rider resonates strongly with the “living dead” theme we discussed throughout Ibsen’s Ghosts. Instead of being haunted by the incidents of the past, however, the characters in Pale Horse, Pale Rider are haunted by both the ongoing war and the lingering atmosphere of oncoming death. It is interesting to note that this sense of imminent death, however, is not limited to direct combat in war; rather, it is focused on the dreary lives of the “stay-at-homes”.

Miranda, the main protagonist, is a female reporter who feels as if her life is meaningless. She goes to work, she dates a man, she fulfills her expected duties, but is cynical of the entire process:

“So all the happy housewives hurry during the canning season to lay their baskets of peach pits on the altar of their country. It keeps them busy and makes them feel useful…So rows of young girls… roll cock-eyed bandages that will never reach a base hospital, and knit sweaters that will never warm a manly chest, their minds dwelling lovingly on all the blood and mud and the next dance at the Acanthus Club for the officers of the flying corps. Keeping still and quiet will win the war.” (171)

This social milieu of doing pointless activities for the sake of the war (without actually helping it) is presented as a disaster almost greater than the war itself. It is a contagion infesting itself into wartime society, and is eventually directly revealed in the form of a plague:

 “It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two- what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body.” (177)

“I tell you, this is a plague, a plague, my God, and I’ve got a houseful of people to think about!” (183)

Miranda seems to be the only character who is acutely aware of this influenza (of both the mind and body), “I hope I see you once more before I go under with whatever is the matter with me” (170). Nonetheless, the “living dead” is a recurring pattern represented in each of the characters throughout the story. How are each of the characters not quite living? Are there any characters that could be considered fully alive?  If so, how are they managing to do this?

The relationship between the living and the dead is another recurring theme worthy of discussion. The suffering of the living is explicitly mentioned when Miranda introduces the song that begins with “Pale horse, pale rider…” (189). In this song the death, represented by “pale horse, pale rider”, takes away not only lover but also the whole family, leaving “one singer to mourn” (190). And Miranda, in her nightmare, experiences this devastating pain. She sees Adam continuously struck by arrows in his heart and dies, while she cannot help but live and endure everything. Miranda believes that the pain of the living is no less than that of the dead, as we can assume from “It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die?” (191). She would rather die than become the lone one who has to suffer from the loss.

In another of Miranda’s dreams, we learn how she handles the memory of the dead.

…something, somebody, was missing, she had lost something, she had left something valuable in another country, oh, what could it be? There are no trees, no trees here, she said in fright, I have left something unfinished. A thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they? (201)

In her dream, Miranda enjoys the company of “all the living she had known” in a serene scene of sea and sky, until the pain returns with the memory of the dead. She could live in joy and peace if she would forget everything, but it seems that she cannot let go of her memories of the dead—she feels that “something valuable” is missing. She chooses to bear the remembrance, although it entails severe pain.

How is Miranda’s attitude toward the dead similar with or different from that of other characters we’ve encountered in our readings so far? How can we apply Anderson’s argument regarding the relation of the living and the dead to Miranda’s situation? Does Porter explicitly or implicitly suggest how we should act in response to the loss of beloved ones?

Finally, this novel also offers a much more intimate perspective on disease. The prose transitions fluidly from third person to first person. The reader becomes both an omniscient observer and a part of Miranda’s consciousness, privy to her inner dialogue.

This is especially important when Miranda is delirious and on the brink of death:

 “I shall not know when it happens, I shall not feel or remember, why can’t I consent now, I am lost, there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall…” (199)

When Miranda identifies her own survival instinct, it is described as “a hard unwinking angry point of light” that speaks to her, and yet the light uses the personal pronoun “I”. Miranda is within and without herself, and she recognizes her instinct for survival as an external force pushing her towards life and as a part of herself, intent on self-preservation.

The novel focuses on Miranda – the things that happen around her, her reactions, her observations, her thoughts, even her dreams. The disease itself doesn’t have a strong presence at first, only in the many funeral processions that intersect with Miranda and Adam’s walk. Then, when Miranda contracts the disease and confronts it directly, the disease consumes the pages as it consumes Miranda. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts in that the portrait of the disease is very personal and intimate, perhaps making for a more disturbing effect on the reader/viewer. 


Plague Year redux

Shades of Defoe in this Ebola story out of Dallas:

The four family members who are living there are among a handful who have been directed by the authorities to remain in isolation, following what officials said was a failure to comply with an order to stay home. Texas health officials hand-delivered orders to residents of the apartment requiring them not to leave their home and not to allow any visitors inside until their roughly three-week incubation periods have passed.

Bowing to the Greeks: “the Dead are killing the Living”

During our discussion in class we have briefly touched upon some of the apparent parallels that can be found between Ibsen’s Ghosts and Oedipus Rex. Pursuing this line of thought, I delved into the bowels of the internet and found some fascinating articles about Ibsen here.

 In Sophokles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus defies the warning of his priest, Tiresias, and embarks on a quest for truth that ends in the devastating knowledge that he is the criminal he seeks, the unintentionally guilty destroyer of his own family.

In Ghosts Helene Alving defies her priest, Pastor Manders and embarks on a journey towards the truth that ends in the devastating knowledge that she is the unintentionally guilty destroyer of her family.

Another interesting issue brought by these essays is the temporal sequence of the play: how can it be that the play begins in the morning, is only interrupted by lunch, and yet somehow ends morning next day? This is

…a passage of at least sixteen hours. Yet the action of the play…is just two hours.  Even in the most laid-back Norwegian households, lunches don’t go on for fourteen hours.

How can this inform our reading of the play? What is Ibsen trying to convey with this impossibility? How is this similar to Oedipus’s journey of discovery that unfolds in a matter of a few hours? What are some of the deterministic elements present in Oedipus Rex and how do these translate to 19th century Norway?

On a different note, perhaps one of the most intriguing metamorphoses that a text can undergo is its adaptation through the movements of the human body, i.e. dance. Here is a trailer for Cathy Marston’s dance adaptation, filmed at the Royal Opera House, London.

Finally, here you can find a beautifully haunting interpretation of ghosts by a contemporary Italian sculptor, Livio Scapella.

Ps.: The quote of the title is from Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers.