The Moral Dilemma of the Plague

Camus contracted tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease, in 1930 at the age of 17. He was forced to abandon his ambitions in football (he was a goalkeeper at the prominent Algerian  University team then). He was long confined to bed, and thus only able to study part-time. One feature worth noticing is that even though Camus was once a patient, he chose to narrate the story from a doctor’s perspective rather than the ill one. Shouldn’t he had more experience as a patient? Why did he choose to do so? Is there anything Camus hopes to convey that would be abortive if presented from a patient’s point of view? By far we have read about the plague from various perspectives, and these lead us to the broader question: How does the perspective of narration influence the reader’s conception towards an idea or an event?

Having the experience of being the infected one, Camus is concerned about the sufferings of the patient and how people should treat and react to them. Yet, he started the setting with citizens concerned solely about themselves, about doing business and earning money. Inundated with individualism, the town is a place where “discomfort attends death” [5]. People were so concerned about commercials and profits that they behave extremely indifferently toward each other. They were so obsessed with business that they were completely unprepared when the plague struck by surprise. Is the plague a punishment from some divine power for the sin of greed?

The reaction of the government and the measures taken have significant influences on the spread of the plague. What is the moral dilemma that falls upon the government when a plague hits their people/city? Do they tell them and risk panic that will cause them to attempt to leave and further spread the disease? Or do they risk their community and population completely dying?

Reading Camus, made us think of Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’. The story revolves around the threat a new world plague created by a deranged lunatic. The protagonist Robert Langdon and other government institutions are on the race to find the threat and eliminate it before it destroys the world. The fear arises from the fact that no one really knows what the ‘plague’ actually is. This is the same in Camus’s ‘The Plague’. The fear arises from the unknown factors at play in a plague. The unknown cause, the fear of waiting for one’s own possible demise. In the ‘Inferno’, the creator of the plague claims that the plague is nature’s way of purging the earth. Is it a natural response for over population of the earth?

Who is responsible during a plague? Is it the authorities? The patient himself? Or medical practitioners? Whose responsibility is it make sure that the plague is curbed?  Who does the responsibility fall onto if the “Global Health Organization” can not find a cure for an epidemic, does it fall back to the individuals that carry these diseases?

Furthermore we found an interesting Reddit post about a guy who, through his words, had the responsibility of letting the world know of an upcoming plague or pandemic. Despite the government forbidding him from leaking the information. He took the burden of releasing the information although he has no way of finding a cure.

In the situation of a plague, is one solely responsible for oneself or do we have some duty towards protecting others as well?


–Lateefa, Kai-Wen, Neha


 Add your comment
  1. Great post Lateefa, Kai-Wen, and Neha!

    I want to respond to your questions of responsibility during a plague and the idea of duty, specifically with Dr. Rieux.

    Rieux continues to fight the plague every day despite the fact that his efforts make little difference and the risk for his own infection. Furthermore, he is not as desperate to leave Oran and reunite with his wife like Rambert is. He truly understands his obligation to remain in the city and do everything he can to help, in what seems like an act of heroism. What I find interesting is that although Rieux’s characters does appear heroic and selfless, the narrator (who we now know is Rieux himself!) asserts multiple times throughout the novel that he is not a hero, just a ‘decent man doing his job’.

    Is his job to be a doctor or to be a decent human being, a responsible citizen of Oran?

    Among those responsible for dealing with a plague are certainly the doctors, however in this novel we see it cannot and should not fall only on their shoulders. Tarrou, Rambert, and Grand are not doctors but help to flight the plague as well. Here we see the plague as a unifying force, a common enemy, that enlists the help of not only the qualified but also the ordinary citizen. Rieux contemplates this question of duty and obligation throughout the novel. Where does his obligation lie? With the sick citizens of Oran or with his dying wife? His job or his love? His duty as a doctor or as a man?

    Interested in hearing your thoughts!


  2. It’s interesting that you point out that “fear arises from the fact that no one really knows what the plague is”. This element of uncertainty generates its own infectious fear, apart from the illness itself. In part it is caused by a kind of blindness and failure by the modern preoccupied people of Oran to see the larger picture and pay attention to the signs of infection. The characters in the Plague respond to this uncertainty in their own imaginative ways, sometimes seeking comfort in the false certainties presented by religious and superstitious beliefs. When no one knows what the plague is or where it’s coming from exactly, Camus suggests constant vigilance is the answer.

  3. Sara, this is really a great point to raise! I believe that Dr. Rieux’s job lies both in the responsibility of the doctor and as a decent citizen of Oran. As a doctor, he bore the promise of the Hippocratic Oath, an oath vowed before becoming a physician.

    “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” (Excerpted from Hippocratic Oath)

    Thus, when he encountered a plague which inflicted everyone, in reality, he had the responsibility to do his job, to keep his promise.

    On the other hand, with his own inward human sympathy, he couldn’t bear standing aside while seeing other people suffering. This force is stronger than the outer promise, and is what also motivates Tarrou, Rambert, and Grand to contribute and risk their own well-being.


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