The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus is narrated by an anonymous character who declares that the purpose of his narration is to provide an objective account of a historical event, the arrival of the plague in Oran. One prominent theme present in this novel is indifference and denial of the plague by not just the general public, but also the doctors and the state. In addition to indifference and denial, we will also look at the ways in which people respond to the epidemic. The main question we will ask is: is it ethical (for anyone, let alone a state) to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions? Is people’s indifference caused by the limited amount of information they have about the contagious disease? Should people be blamed for acting this way and for spreading a disease that they may not know existed? Whose fault is it in the end?
Before we begin, it is necessary to provide a little context which will help explain why people acted the way they did in the story. Oran is an “ugly” town with people who are mainly concerned about maximizing profit and business. Every day, they follow the same boring habitual routine, which consists of work, cinema, dining and trivial love affairs. The narrator describes Oran as a busy town where people are always occupied with activities that require good health and thus, illness is not the “norm” and the very few who become ill are unnoticeable. One important aspect of the town is that the citizens are “humanists: they did not believe in pestilence” (30). He calls Oran “a dry place” both physically (due to the horrible climate) and, most importantly, spiritually, meaning the “dryness” of its people, i.e. their lack of emotional concern about others.
The story starts with the unusual discoveries of dead rats covered in blood around the town both indoors and outdoors. The townspeople “had never thought that [their] little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses. From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas” [emphasis added] (20). For instance, a “boy was very excited by the business of the rats” but his father said, “we don’t talk about rats at table…From now on, I forbid you to mention the word” (24). Moreover, Castel, Dr. Rieux’s colleague mentioned that he has encountered something fairly similar to a situation of an epidemic in Paris but “no one dared put a name on it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic” (29). Do you think that because these people are stuck in their own paradigm, i.e. being optimistic or fatalistic (24), makes them deny the seriousness of this disease (note when Dr. Rieux started to contemplate: “He could not imagine how such obsessions fitted into the context of the plague, and so concluded that, in practical terms, the plague had no future among the people of our town” )? Do tradition and social pressure play a role in the spread of a disease?
The Plague is an account that provides a description of the various ways people react and respond to an epidemic. It is evident how the idea of denial, or at least indifference, is present throughout the book. In the beginning, Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a succumbed rat on the ground in his building but does not give much thought to it, only after the number of dead rats increased day by day. The public begins to feel anxious due to the rapid growth of the dead rats but little action is being taken to solve the problem. No one seems to want to deviate their attention from themselves and their reclusive routines to deal with the situation. Moreover, when Rieux meets his mother and tells her about the rats, she was “not surprised” and said that “things like that happen” (13). In addition, when the priest mentions that “it must be an epidemic,” there was a complete shift in scene and no attention or concern was given to what was said (16).
Furthermore, some people have acknowledged that this disease is “fatal” but they cannot bring themselves to explain that it is potentially a “plague” (25) and “the press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent” (29). In fact, doctors who are only aware of two or three cases did not think it was necessary to do anything (29). Dr. Rieux also predicts that the government will keep silent as well. We can also see how Dr. Richard chooses to “not give away to panic”; how him and some of his colleagues mentioned that it was dangerous to jump to conclusions in science; and how the Prefect chooses to keep quiet about the disease (38). Only later did the Prefect take some preventive measures.
On the other hand, Dr. Rieux says that “perhaps we should make up our minds to call this disease by its proper name” (34). He mentions that when a microbe is capable of increasing, “that is precisely when we should rush to do something…If the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months” (39) and “if we don’t acknowledge it…it still threatens to kill half the population of the town” (40). Do you think that because the state kept quiet about the disease (the papers do mention the rats with no reference to a disease), that this could have contributed to the spread of the plague? From the examples above, it is plausible to think that the more one keeps quiet about a disease, the more likely the disease will spread because people will not take safety precautions since they have no knowledge a plague exists. Do you think the state and the doctors kept quiet so that they would not occupy people’s minds with the possibility of the disease as the distress and acknowledgment could make them susceptible to the plague? As in, not scaring them with “unnecessary” information that could contribute to their overall well-being?
Thus, we can see that during an epidemic, the narrator believes that not only is the disease contagious but also the way people react to it or rather how they react to the authority’s procedures: “once the gates were closed….a quite individual feeling such as being separated from a loved one suddenly became, in the very first weeks, a feeling of a whole people” (53). What is the reason behind this “contagious feeling” of fear between the people of Oran? Is it because they do not trust, or they are beginning not to trust, the administration? Is it because the people of Oran are thinking on an individual basis rather than a collective one, i.e. thinking of the greater good for them and the outside world?
The plague has changed the way people react in their day to day life. There is a very interesting relationship change between individuals during an epidemic. It is even more fascinating in our case given the previous description of the town of Oran. When the city gates were open for people who already left before the time of the epidemic and wished to be reunited with their loved ones, the city saw “only one case where human feelings proved stronger than horrible death” (55). One might expect that since the people of Oran were so disconnected from one another, the silver lining of the plague may be the rebirth of a sense of unity and belonging to the people of Oran. Still, it seems that people did prioritize their own health over their unification with their loved ones. Are they to be blamed? Did this disconnect happen to avoid empathy, or is it because they cared only for their well-being?
As an endnote, we would like to link this to one of our previous readings: The Plague relates to Pushkin’s piece A Feast During the Plague (1830). In this play, the revelers choose to isolate themselves from the raging epidemic and continue living their lives normally, as if there was nothing going on that concerns them. They could have also been in a state of denial, just like the people of Oran, where they did not want to drown themselves in the sufferings of others. As we learn from the narrator’s descriptions, most of the people in Oran are obsessed with maintaining their “peace of mind” and this caused their indifference to traumas such as the plague. Is Walsingham perhaps similarly indifferent or in denial like the people of Oran by calling for a celebration? What about the rest of the revelers? In fact, can their feast that was organized as a society possibly represent a place like Oran and its reaction to this epidemic?
Mahra, Aysha, and Ali