Albert Camus’ The Plague has widely been studied as an allegory for the invasion of Nazism in France during World War II. In the novel, set sometime during the 1940s, the bubonic plague invades the town of Oran in French Algeria, starting from a deluge of unexplained dead rats to the rapid upsurge of “inguinal-fever cases”. According to Steve Coll of the New Yorker, several writers have thus referred to The Plague as allegorical for “the virus of Fascism,” with characters such as Dr. Bernard Rieux— a Fauci-esque figure in the novel—as symbolic of the French resistance to Nazi occupation.
But while the text can be seen as this allegory for Nazi occupation in World War II, one thing that should perhaps be emphasized is the fact that this text is situated in French Algeria; and that, in the grand scheme of the course, The Plague is the first time we are encountering a pandemic in a postcolonial setting. Keep in mind, that Algeria as a colony contributed significantly to the French army in World War II, and that not too long after the war Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962. Therefore, in some ways, The Plague is situated within a colonial narrative. David Carroll writes the following in his essay “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran” in regard to The Plague and the postcolonial:
“[Camus] claims in fact that his choice to narrate history by means of an allegory of the plague has a decided historical and political advantage: that of suggesting a number of ‘historical referents’ or contexts for the plague and thus different forms of political oppression and injustice rather than just one (National Socialism). Camus clearly had in mind Stalinism as another form of political oppression that should be associated with the plague, but is it really possible to disassociate from the plague the forms of economic injustice and political oppression that were effects of colonialism and imply or assert that Camus intended such a disassociation?”
Carroll, David. “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 88–104. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26288456. Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.
One of the questions we could ask ourselves is to what extent The Plague engages with theories and matters of the postcolonial. One of the ways we can think about this question is through the novel’s emphasis on anonymity, and a refusal to name things and/or people. The prefect, for instance, refuses to publicly name the disease, despite the evidence that seems to classify it as the plague bacillus. Then, and perhaps most significantly, there is the refusal of the text itself—at least, in the starting chapters— to name the narrator, who the novel also refers to as a “historian” of sorts given their collection and documentation of plague-related “data.” Why is that so?
If for now, as readers, we assume that Dr. Rieux is our mystery narrator— who, we might further assume, is French— what implication does that have in regard to whose voice is being heard, or whose record of plague history we are reading? As a French physician part of the seemingly wealthier classes of Oran, what does it mean for someone like Dr. Rieux to narrate the events of the plague in colonial French Algeria? Another question also worth thinking about is how does Dr. Rieux’s form of documentation compare to mysterious newcomer Jean Tarrou’s, described by the novel as “observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope,” with “trivial details which yet have their importance”? And finally, whose voices as a result are being excluded in the novel? In thinking about the postcolonial, Camus in many ways becomes a work of plague literature that offers a lot to think about in terms of whose pandemic experiences are recorded, and whose are potentially overlooked.
Thanks for this, Leanne. Also worth remembering that Rambert is in Oran to write a report on the Arab population, which isn’t addressed much over the course of the novel. But we know that Rieux assumes Rambert’s report will be censored. There’s some unpacking to do here and in some of the other places you highlight. In some semesters I have tried to teach novel alongside a chapter from a book on colonial medical history in Morocco. It’s always proved to be too much to squeeze into discussion but I still recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of your post.
It’s interesting that you assumed that Rieux was French. I had automatically assumed that he was Algerian – privileged yes – but Algerian nonetheless. Actually – the fact that he was skeptical about Rambert solidified this assumption. However now that you bring this up it does give the book a new perspective. I do agree with you that that Rieux’ position in society has allowed him to view the plague in a specific way and that we may be receiving a skewed version of the text. Yet we are still left to question if the plague does not serve as an equalizer of voices. Is it in fact the privileged whose voices are heard or simply the voices of those who survive (or in the case of Tarrou – who’s written word survives). Of course these two are intertwined as the higher classes have access to better health care and education to document events. This is indeed quite a nuanced topic and I’m glad you brought it up