Philosophical matters, fear and confidence in Camus’s The Plague

A video on Camus’ philosophies, especially Absurdism

In true existentialist fashion, the themes of mortality, fear and the passage of time are most overtly expressed in Albert Camus’s, The Plague. The novel confronts the reader with the notion of the Absurd and finding meaning in an inherently meaningless world. The Plague argues that the fear ingrained in the citizens of Oran isn’t much so derived from the sheer number of deaths, but instead, because the idea of death becomes tangible rather than something abstract. it doesn’t raise the question of how we should spend time? or what we should do with our time? but, rather tells us that there is meaning to be found as long as we are aware of our time is spent. For instance, Tarrou’s curious habit of taking the time in the day to sit out on his terrace and spit at cats passing by. The narrator acknowledges that the act is incredibly tedious and, frankly, a waste of time by anyone’s standards. However, it is an excellent reflection of how Camus navigated his philosophies. In The Plague, Tarrou’s actions are not seen as a waste of time because he is completely aware of how much of a waste of time it is. Camus did not believe in the trivial idea of finding a sole true purpose or meaning in life, in order to escape or have a moral meaning in death. If one were to imagine that Tarrou was completely happy in his choices to waste his time when in reality, he has found enough meaning in his tedious hobby to not be a waste of time and actually personally satisfy him. His satisfaction is all that should matter.

Moreover, it is also important to consider the role of fear in the novel. Halfway into the chapter (36), the book diverts from the narration and goes into a short reflection about how people respond to pestilences with “conflicting fears and confidence.” (37) At this point in the chapter, the reflection sums up the picture of what happened before with the situation of dead rats and foreshadows what comes after when the plague starts. There is a pattern in these two scenarios where people have a sense of what will happen but try to deny it and let it escalate beyond control. This brings a new idea into our discussion about how people respond to outbreaks. We usually see how people protect themselves against diseases (quarantines, fortune-telling, etc.). However, here in this part of the chapter, Camus explains how the way we respond to pestilences, and wars, turns us into victims. The conflict between fears and confidence is best exemplified by the authorities in this chapter. It was their denial of the plague and the reluctance to alarm people earlier that let the plague go out of control. In addition, the bureaucracy behind their decisions, such as the doctors waiting for the Prefect to issue orders or the committee arguing about how to phrase the epidemic, also aggravates the situation.

In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat? What are the effects of the plague on the idea of mortality? How do religion and fate tie in with it? To what extent is mankind’s pride culpable in its downfall?


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  1. The emphasis on “object accounts” is followed through in the narrative of this novel. From the onset, the narrator, who has hidden his/her identity, lays out cautionary remarks of “historians’” due duties and categorizes the different “data” he/she would rely on. This uncommon opening, combined with later reference to Tarrou’s journal entries, could all be seen as efforts to build an impression of objectivity. I am prompted to ask, however, why is the narrator obsessed with being objective or at least to be seen as objective? Last time we saw similar efforts was in Defoe’s, where extensive statistics are employed to persuade readers to believe that the exact same things happened in reality. Since Oran is an imaginary city, this clearly is not the intent of the narrator.

    Ironically, despite explicit efforts to build an objective narrative, the narrator gives out plentiful subjective passages and descriptions, including by calling the town simply ugly and suspecting Tarrou’s observations as possibly derived from the wrong end of a telescope (24).

    Furthermore, Rieux is also portrayed as being persistent on objective narratives when he turned down the interview with the journalist (12). Nevertheless, in later plot, we see that he is more interested in implementation of practical precautions than identification of accurate facts, when he tries hard to persuade the Prefect. Additionally, Rieux, when lost in his thoughts, even suggests that the plague is stoppable depending on men’s opinions of it (40). In other words, the way people view reality can change it, which stands in stark contrast to objective narratives.

    It seems more fair to say that the characters choose to believe in what they want to believe as objective reality. Reluctant to take up extra responsibilities, governors choose to question severity of the ongoing situations and the validity of the doctors’ “radical” requests. Citizens of the town, despite perturbing signs of massive deaths of rats, choose to believe in baseless hope that everything will turn out fine, so that they could continue with their daily business in commerce.

    • I think your question about the relationship between belief and action will really come to take on importance for us as the narrative progresses. One point of clarification: Oran is a real city, but the events depicted here are fictional.

  2. You highlight two important themes in the book, which we have seen extend in our conversation to later parts of the book: time and fear. It would be interesting to think of the intersection between time and fear in how people react. It is to say that I think that their relationship with time is very heavily affected by fear, and fear’s role in making time seem shorter and more urgent. However, it is interesting to compare this with later on, when people realize they kind of have all the time in the world (until they die), so their response to the plague is different. And I think a part of this change in response is because of moving on from the fear and giving into the inevitability of situations, which makes the characters’ relationship with time different.

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