Plagued with Midterms

What happens periodically and causes panic, pain, suffering, and alienation?

Of course, the answer is — Midterms!

Much as midterms or exams in general have us, students, panicking about the upcoming testing, feeling the pain and suffering from the social pressure and holing up in our rooms in hopes to survive the dreadful epidemic, the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague plays a similar role.

The novel takes places in Oran, Algeria, where the bubonic plague has stricken the populace. At first, the people ignore the imminent danger of the plague, but not long after they realize its destructive force which ultimately results in putting the city under quarantine.

Oran, Algeria in the 1940s

In Ibsen’s Ghosts,  Mrs. Alving’s unfortunate predicament was the result of her fear of society’s judgement and public opinion. In her struggle to fit herself and her family into the existing societal norms, she sacrificed her mental and physical well-being and with that ended up completely alienated.

Similarly, alienation manifested itself in The Plague with the influence of societal norms. The norms in Oran seemed to be the “habits [that were encouraged] by our town” (Camus 3), a standard of behavior for everyone. (While reading the book we came to a mutual agreement that the notions of standardizing behavior was reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.) When the plague first hit, its impact was suppressed and denied in the minds of Oran’s citizens. Those in power consciously tried to downplay the effects of the bubonic plague in order to keep population under control, and they complied without hesitation:

“People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,” Dr. Richard admitted. “And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.” (Camus 46)

This town, even before the plague struck, was described as a place where it was “difficult to die”. According to the narrator, a dying person would be faced with a lack of support and acknowledgement of their suffering and imminent death:

“Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.” (Camus 3)

Unfortunately for the townsfolk of Oran, however, the alienation doesn’t stop there. The situation in town worsens when the actual quarantine is put into effect by Dr. Rieux. The alienation brought about by the societal norms and habits of that community was of a moral, less tangible nature. In fact, the people of Oran were virtually unaware of the alienation they experienced in this respect. With the quarantine, however, the more physical and concrete boundary served to amplify their dormant feelings of loneliness and estrangement. The town is sealed off from the outside world, with many unable to reach their loved ones, as in the cases of both Dr. Rieux and Raymond Rambert.

Quarantine in Sydney, 1900

The dynamics of these types of alienation are cardinal in defining not only the main characters of the novel, but also the many citizens of Oran, and consequently the town as a whole. The novel ends on a hopeful note: In struggling to overcome the plague and their crushing alienation, they gave themselves purpose. The citizens of Oran, illuminated by the recent plight, come to see themselves as a community, rather than as self-interested individuals.

How else might these notions of loneliness and alienation help us understand the complex characters of Camus’ novel? And how, if at all, do they help us understand the connection between survival and memory?

On a slightly different but interesting note, we would like to raise a question about narration: In The Plague, the narrator claims to be objectively describing the situation that took place in Oran while keeping his own identity hidden from the readers. He promises to reveal who he is at some point in the novel. This raises some questions about the credibility of the narrator himself. With our experıence of readıng Arthur Mervyn, that is, being faced by a questıonable narrator, we can draw the conclusion that we cannot fully trust the narrator to give the reader a fully objective account of what has happened. Does this lack of confidence in the credibility of the narrator change or influence our reading of The Plague by Camus, the way it did in Arthur Mervyn?
We hope you don’t put yourself under a “study quarantine” in the wake of the upcoming midterms.

Stay healthy,

Batu, Sarah, Victoria


 Add your comment
  1. I think it would be useful, as well, to compare Camus’ narrator to Porter’s. And just as you’re comparing this narrator to Arthur Mervyn (or to that novel’s Dr. Stevens, for that matter), try to think back to Defoe’s HF as well. How do these narrators line up in relation to the events they describe, the remedies they recommend, and the forms their narration take?

  2. This is related to Bryan’s comment about the narrations of the other novels we read.

    One of the biggest advances humanity experienced with regard to the plague was the understanding of the disease and therefore the correct treatment of it. This advance was reflected in the different narrations we had about the plague starting from the first book we read, Oedipus the King. In this book the spread and cause of disease was not well understood and was thought to be the caused by divine punishment. This was reflected in the narration which emphasized heavily on god and prophet. Then during the 17th century the western world experienced the scientific revolution in which religion and superstition were replaced by reason and logic. This conflict between science and religion was also demonstrated in Defoe’s book, Journal of Plague year written in 1722. The narrator in this book was contemplating largely about the reason and logic of the spread of disease through polluted air while often feel that the spread was through divine means. This contradiction reflects the general society at that that which was torn between this scientific view of the world versus the religious one. Then we have The Plague by Camus, setted in the 20th century. By now the mechanism of transmission and cause of plague was much better understood, with the discovery that plague was carried by rats and transmitted to human through fleas. This idea was reflected heavily in Camus’ narrative with the big emphasize on dead rodents at the beginning of the novel. However, this raised some question regarding Camus’ narrative, why should there be a quarantine? As professor Stearns told us, the bubonic plague was not contagious from person to person and fleas usually did not carry disease between human. This brought into the question then why must there be a quarantine of the citizen when a simple fumigation of the carrying possession would kill off must of the contagious sources. In fact, wouldn’t it be much better if the city officials sprayed insecticides around the town then shutting the town?

    • Lots of great points Ting Che!

      I do agree that medical and scientific advancement is evident when we consider the time periods of the novels we have read so far. And yes, there is definitely an ever-present conflict between science and religion when it comes to the plague. This can be seen in Camus’ novel in several instances, and in my opinion is well represented when a young man explains what Paneloux meant in his sermon by saying, “If a priest consults a doctor, there is a contradiction” (177). His second sermon, unlike his first, was shaken with doubt. However, the priest refused medical treatment, clung to whatever remained of his faith and “did not let go of the crucifix” (180). There is little reconciliation between the two themes in literary representations of plagued societies.
      In response to the second part of your comment on the quarantine itself: I don’t believe that the quarantine was ineffective or useless. To my knowledge (and with some quick Internet research), it seems that while the primary form of bubonic plague isn’t traditionally communicable, its more advanced forms are. Non-contagious diseases aren’t necessarily non-transferrable. A secondary form of the plague occurs when the disease spreads to the lungs, called pneumonic plague, and is very contagious. In fact, I suspect that Paneloux suffered from this form of plague, as his symptoms weren’t typical of the bubonic form. Instead, he suffered from a raging fever, bloody respiratory discharge, a terrible cough and shortness of breath – all typical symptoms of pneumonic plague. People could even become infected if they touched an infected person’s swollen lymph nodes (yeesh), or animals and humans who died from the disease.(As a side note, I think that Dr. Rieux’s comment on Paneloux’s case is quite ironic. The priest’s “doubtful case” represents his increased doubts in religion). The quarantine also limited the transfer of goods, since exported goods could be infested with fleas that carried the bacteria that causes the plague.
      So if I understand the mechanism of the plague well enough, I think the quarantine did play a role in containing the disease within the city. And well, without the quarantine, The Plague would be a very different book, wouldn’t it?

  3. The question of survival and memory definitely presents itself throughout the novel. However, survival seems to be exactly equated with love, so the saying goes love and memory. I say this because one of the most memorable parts of the novel for me thus far was when the narrator talks about the stages of memory the people of Oran were going through. He explains, ” At the start of the plague they remembered the person whom they had lost very well and they were sorry to be without them. But though they could clearly recall the face and the laugh of the loved one…they found it very hard to imagine what the other person might be doing at the moment when they recalled her or him, in places which were now so far away” (139). Without a genuine love, the imagination of the people of Oran fades. Without imagination, the people start to have these “banal feelings” that say so much but lack substance. How can one survive with such hallow circumstances?

    • You’ve chosen a very interesting passage, Nafi.

      Indeed, the description of stages of people’s attachment to their loved ones is very attracting. The author writes that after time the imagination, memory and even feelings towards a loved one disappears…And you ask: how can one live with that?
      Personally, I think there is no exact aswer.
      However, it seems the author has a suggestion of a solution, a way that makes it easier to survive. The author mentions how people, after that last stage “accepted it as a part of the whole”( 140) and with that realized the situation they are in and spoke about it, related to other people going through the same trial. “Love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now” (140), the author writes, pointing out that love wasn’t part of the peoples lives anymore and once they realize that, they can accept the truth, share it and live at a slighter ease.

  4. From the introduction of the Camus’s novel we know that the Plague epidemic in Oran is a historical allegory, in which the disease signifies the German occupation of France (the city of Oran is equivalent to France) during the World War II. The different attitudes of the characters reflect different attitudes by citizens of France during the occupation. For example, in the novel Tarreau describes the Plague as the “death adjudication”, “shooting”, “the death of innocent child in the hospital”, “bigotry of political parties”… It is obvious that the aftermath of the Plague invasion is parallel to the events that happened during German invasion. So I am wondering, why didn’t then the author simply write about the war itself and its victims? Why did he use the allegory to describe the horrific times of Fascism?

    • It is common for novels to be written using an overarching allegory if the novel itself is extremely critical of a situation or a government. My first interaction with a novel of this kind was The Animal Farm, which basically takes the Soviet Union and presents its many aspects characterized by different animals. I feel the case with The Plague is somewhat similar.
      Maybe Camus intended for the novel to reach Germany at some point, becoming a reflection for the German population to see the other side of the war. Without the allegory the novel would be intercepted by the authorities.
      Another reasoning might be that he wants people to try and see beyond the obvious and to read between the lines to create connections with the hopes of better understanding the suffering of France.
      Sadly my answers can’t go further than educated guesses but this will be an interesting topic to discuss in class!

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