“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.


 Add your comment
  1. Hello,

    Previously you mention the important role of rats in the novel and that they can be thought of as symbolizing humans. I wonder, that if we continue our discourse along these lines, how do you interpret the radical increase in the number of rats towards the end of the novel (“Neighbors had informed him that the creatures were also reappearing in their houses…they showed a decline in disease”, p.204), which this time; interestingly, signals the disappearance of the plague? Perhaps their presence, just as the disease is in decline, symbolizes that in human society the plague is not the most devastating force by far, but rather ignorance, selfishness, and malevolence and the disappearance of the plague won’t change the fact that these exist? Or simply their over-abundance is in relation with the narrator’s final remarks that the plague, which represents a wide-range of underlying meanings in this particular passage (e.g.: the plague can be an ideology, or the flaws in human character), will never truly vanish from Oran (or society as a whole): “plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely…and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city”? What do you think?



    • Laura,

      I absolutely agree with you, quite clearly the novel suggests that the plague is far from being the worst aspect of the human condition; as our post suggests, it’s quite obvious that, in Rieux’s opinion, ignorance is the worst vice of all and it is responsible for the inadequate reaction of Oran’s population to the plague. I think there is a stark tension underlying the question of rats and their role in The Plague, namely their apparent connection to the normal condition of the town. Let me expand on that. When Oran is “ugly” and boring, people are simply unaware of the hundreds of thousands of rats living right beside them, just as they are completely oblivious to their own ignorance and unpreparedness. The disappearance of rats is the first stage of the catastrophe makes Oran face the harshness of life in the form of a devastating disease, and their return coincides with the return to normality. In other words, the steady-state equilibrium of Oran involves rats, which are conventionally regarded as dirty, filthy, undesirable part of human life. In this, perhaps, the rats come to symbolize the ignorance of society; just as Oran returns to its ‘dormant state,’ they go back to living with the filthiness of rats and, consequently, ignorance. In sum, the novel seems to suggest that Oran’s citizens were only truly alive with an awareness of reality during the plague, and as soon as the epidemic passes, the are able to settle back into their ignorance.


  2. Both comments pick up on an old pattern in the texts we’ve read: the survivors’ sense of guilt that, in some ways, life improved because of — or during — the plague. Is that what’s going on here?

    In any case, the ending here — settling back into ignorance — is a real shift from what we saw in the preface to Arthur Mervyn, which frames the yellow fever epidemic as reordering time (forming a distinct era in Philadelphia’s city). The ending here seems to reinforce the semi-timelessness of the “194-” in the opening lines. Right?

  3. Hi,

    Continuing on with the question of the role of rats, I wonder if we could extend the question to encompass the other animals that appear in the text. Earlier in the novel, the narrator cites Tarrou’s description of Oran, which includes an anecdote on a “rather interesting family in the hotel restaurant” (23). Here, Tarrou calls the father an owl, the mother a black mouse, and the two children are the poodles of the family – quite “peculiar”, wouldn’t you agree? Also, there are other brief comparisons of humans to animals, such as Cottard as a wild boar (42), and shopkeepers as snakes or toads (42, 43). Although animals are a common feature in many texts, I feel that they have a deeper significance in Camus’ “The Plague.” Do these animals represent aspects of human nature, and if so, what can we learn from them? What are their roles in the text?

    I think there are interesting parallels that can be drawn between animals and humans in “The Plague”. For one, the citizens of Oran are described as “creatures” (54) once the plague is officially identified, and as mentioned above, the appearance and reappearance of rats neatly foreshadows and summarizes the disease that affects the citizens – both the viral infection and our beloved term, the social disease.

    One more thing about animals. What is the significance of the white cats that appear daily until a certain point, upon which an old man spits everyday at noon (22)? And why are these cats killed once the plague begins to spread – killed not by disease, but by gunshot (88)? Perhaps the white cats represent innocence and purity, or other admirable aspects of human nature. Men can mock and spit upon such good values of character, but they always resurface. Ironically, humans themselves can destroy such pure aspects of humanity (which could be represented by the “splinters of lead” that kill or scare away the white cats). Does anyone else have a similar reading of the roles of animals in the text? I think it is a powerful form of symbolism in this allegorical novel, and it makes me wonder: what does it mean to be human? Or to be an animal?

    • I agree, the animals in these metaphors help us visualize human behaviour. It seems that the characteristic that the owl is meant to portray is that of a hunter, that prays over the mistakes of his wife and children and intimidates them into submissive obedience; that the mouse is the natural prey of the owl seems to reinforce this idea. Also, the fact that they’re from different species illustrates once again this lack of unity between the family members. If we take this family to be representative sample of Oran’s society, the arrival of the plague can be interpreted as an opportunity to change our decaying ways and realize the important things in our lives, as we have discussed in class previously. Although the behaviour of this father remains unchanged after his wife is put to quarantine, the novel suggests that this was not the norm and it usually did improve people’s concern and appreciation towards one another: “here, the plague was wasting its time” (pg 89). The reappearance of the rats symbolizes a return to the state before the plague (as you also mentioned above), but perhaps things aren’t completely as they were before.

      The reasoning behind killing animals (ie cats and dogs) during the plague was to prevent them from spreading the disease even further through their fleas; this measure was also seen in 1665 London as portrayed by Defoe. However, the efficiency of this policy can be brought into question, since the plague was described throughout the plague as being out of the doctors or civil servants’ control, especially through the comparison between disease and war and how the former has no human dimensions (pg 30). In other words, this measure was most likely a vain attempt to regain control over their lives. Moreover, it raises the following question: what gives us the moral authority to kill animals in favour of our own well-being, regardless of how helpful their demise actually is?

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