Camus wrap-up

Greetings from death’s door. Apologies for the loss of a day’s discussion, but my hope is that putting some of your thoughts down here will allow us to still get some closure on this novel.

Last time we finished by reading several paragraphs surrounding the death of M. Othon’s son. Our first task today was going to be a close examination of the language of that scene. You’re welcome to offer your thoughts about that specifically, but I’m also interested in posing some questions that would situate this as one in a series of death scenes, including Paneloux’s and Tarrou’s, and some off-stage deaths, including Rieux’s wife and M. Othon. Why does each of these characters die? (“We’re all going to die” isn’t an adequate answer, at least not without some elaboration.)

I also intended for us to discuss two further sections in detail: the swimming scene near the close of Part Four, and the conclusion, beginning with Rieux’s confession of authorship on p. 301. These two moments are linked by the ghost of Tarrou, we could say. How do you read the swimming scene (consider specific details)? And how do you read Rieux’s confession. Earlier in our discussion I referred to the “problem of the narrator” and Kefa suggested we might actually think of it as a solution instead. Either way, how do you read Camus’ choice here to to have the narrator wait until the last minute to disclose his identity? Or to draw, for so much of his narrative, on another character’s plague diaries?

Finally, I want to return to an issue Diana raised in class last time — the question of relativism. Is that a fair description of this novel’s ethics? If not, how else would you describe the kind of living this text seems to advocate? Are all the characters’ responses to the plague equally valid? I’d like to hear what you make of Grand’s closing comments, especially this: “But what does that mean — ‘plague’? Just life, no more that that.”

[Illustration via]


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  1. Some of you may enjoy this short clip from a film about Camus and Sartre. It’s abt 10 minutes long.

  2. I think one of the most powerful revelations in the last quarter or so of the novel revolves around Tarrou’s conversation with Dr. Rieux and their swimming together off of the pier. Tarrou admits that he has always had the plague. After Tarrou observed his father’s snake-like tongue in the court, he was disgusted how human beings could wish murder and destruction on another. From then on, Tarrou dedicated his life towards the pursuit of combatting pain and suffering in the human species.

    Rieux and Tarrou, while atheists, view the nature of man “as they find it.” Human beings are flawed creatures, possessing in them the capacity for good and evil. For the both of them, common sense invokes the necessity to fight unrelentingly for the good of humanity. Tarrou always takes the side of the victims, and Rieux simply performs his duty by tending to the sick. When both Rieux and Tarrou find their sentiments mutual, on a crystalline night, the pair decides to go for a swim. They forget just momentarily Oran’s suffering, instead basking in beauty we can all share together.

    As for the death of several main characters, I believe this makes the story more believable and powerful as an allegory. In times of pestilence, genocide, or unfathomable destruction, few are spared and only exile, separation, and love can unite a population. Tarrou and M. Othon’s death serve as natural reminders that not even the just and brave will be spared the inevitable. One can only fight to one’s capacity, and everything else is left to fate and to the absurd.

    Finally, on the issue of Dr. Rieux’s confession. Dr. Rieux validates his position by narrating anonymously. By offering too many personal details, Rieux would bias the mutual sufferings of an entire town. Instead, by devoting his narrative to the community, The Plague is a portrait of an entire people living under a common tragedy, accurately portraying the sentiments common to every individual.

  3. Wow Allen, thats deep. Human beings are flawed, but religion never said that humans were perfect, in fact, that’s one of the fundamental tenets of many world religions – that we are all sinners. So that’s not an “atheistic” argument.
    Left to fate and to the absurd? What’s that supposed to mean?
    The idea of common tragedy and attempting to be unbiased through his anonimity is certainly worthwhile; I think it works quite well.

  4. I agree with Allen’s view of the moment between Tarrou and Rieux as a rare, brief respite from the suffering in Oran. Finally the two men swim together – an activity that friends would do under typical circumstances. Until this point, their friendship has centered around the plague, but this event shows that they can cleanse themselves (literally by swimming the ocean, yet also by giving a break to their plague stressed minds) of the plague framework and still find genuine camaraderie underneath it all.

    In addition to what Allen said regarding Tarrou and M. Othon’s deaths as natural reminders of the brave succumbing to the inevitable, I believe that the death of Rieux’s wife serves to cement his connection to the strife of his many patients on a more personal level.

    To Kefa’s question of what Allen means by “left to the fate and to the absurd” – I think he is trying to say that the plague, and whatever it is used to represent allegorically, is unpredictable and out of our hands. I’m not sure if Allen was labeling Rieux and Tarrou’s beliefs as atheistic. What did you mean, Allen? And Kefa, how would you describe Rieux and Tarrou’s outlook on humans?

  5. I definitely agree with the idea that conceiving the plague is not dependent on who you are or what you do. Rather, kind of touching upon the idea of equality again, everybody is equally able to fall sick with the plague. The plague strips individuals off their clothes and leaves the collective society nakedly exposed to the plague.

    Even if they fight for the good of humanity, like Tarrou, there is a chance to fall sick.
    Tarrou’s death is particularly interesting, because he dies when the impression is given, that the plague is cooling off. Why does Tarrou die then?
    I would say it is to underline the fact that, people are not only equally exposed to the plague, but to death generally. Death is the faith shared by each and every person and so Tarrou’s death could suggest a warning for people not to become irresponsible.

  6. Caroline’s point on irresponsibility can be linked to the bit in Part Four that leads into the swimming scene. As Tarrou and Rieux are sitting and talking, there are gunshots and the roar of an angry crowd in the background. As well as plague providing an equality among people, it also causes society to fracture and a sense of disarray – even with all the administration we discussed previously.
    With the other points made here, though religion is a theme, I don’t think the idea of God is the most important. It is the philosophies of each character that is more interesting, as it gives reason to why they are staying and helping the suffering. Tarrou says his path for attaining peace is “the path of sympathy” (254), hence he wishes to care for others… and following this there is mention of “the breeze freshened and a gust coming from the sea filled the air” (254). This ‘freshening’ seems to be connected to the caring nature Tarrou expresses. Again, the plague may relate to society and morals, with this moment being a positive contrast.
    I like the swimming scene as a moment of separation from the plague. Diana made a good point about the friendship between the two men. Though no words are said, “this night would be cherished by them both”. Previously, we talked about the separation of the characters from loved ones, but here we see the value of friends during this terrible time – “being perfectly at one”. I think this makes Tarrou’s death even more poignant. Rieux initially doesn’t tell Tarrou it’s the plague: “nothing definite as yet” (282), and Tarrou was meant to have had inoculations and be safe. The idea of peace is repeated again and Rieux says he will never find peace, like “a man who buries his friend” (290). I think that Rieux being the narrator then allows the reader to look back and understand the (real, honest) emotions during these moments.

  7. For the question of relativism, I think that the novel tries to argue that absurdism necessarily leads to relativism. When the plague strikes the city, there is no one proper way to react. An absolutist (i.e. “not-relativist”) view would argue that there is a moral and responsible scale of reactions to the plague, and we would see this through the actions and consequences of the residents of Oran. However, what we actually find is that people become tolerant of each other and each other’s actions in the end, even despite the moments of great tension and anticipation. Absurdism dictates each character find his or her own happiness, and it follows that one should then allow others to do the same.

  8. I agree with Sam that Rieux as a narrator helps us understand the emotions of the moment. Back to the question of his identity as a narrator, however, I don’t think it would make a big difference had he revealed his identity from the beginning of the novel. The intention behind this hidden identity was to give objectivity to the readers. The narrative of the novel, along with Tarrou’s journal, succeeds in offering multiplicity of perspectives but remains fairly subjective. Whether a narrative can remain truly objective remains as question.

  9. In my opinion, the most interesting scene in the novel is that in which the narrator describes the suffering that Mr. Othon’s son goes through. I believe that the optimal point of view that would detail such a scene is that of the third person omniscient, which is the case in this section of the book because it offers an objective and hence relatively reliable description of the pain that a person with the plague goes through, using both physical responses and internal feelings and thoughts. These details allow us, the readers, to empathize with the diseased as these illustrations seem extremely authentic. The portrayal of such a suffering through a little boy makes us empathize even more since the boy represents complete innocence as Panneloux later mentions. It also depicts the extreme evilness of the plague, which is indiscriminate in its victims. The narrator mentions that the child “lay flat […] in a grotesque parody of crucifixion” (215). This could be alluded to the Christians’ beliefs that include the crucifixion of the most innocent, pure, and sinless messiah, in order to stress on the innocence of the child.

  10. I totally agree with Kefa’s point about the atheistic argument, as well explained, human beings are not perfect at all, and we are not even supposed to be perfect. I also agree that the idea of common tragedy and the attempt to be unbiased via anonymity is a great explanation. Conceiving the plague does not depend on who you are at all, and thus it somehow makes people become equal. When, some say, everybody is in danger, then no one is in danger. It is like one is not more or less likely to get infected than the other, so equality becomes substantial. I really liked Connor’s point on absurdism necessarily leading to relativism. The idea of finding happiness and allowing others to do the same, according to absurdism, are also very convincing.

  11. I want to return to the original question, on ‘the plague’ and the microcosm of life that it embodies. I think it is remisicicent of the conversation earlier between the doctors, where Rieux is hesitant, or rather indifferent about whether the disease is termed a plague or not meanwhile the other doctors are obsessed with the terminology of the disease.

    I think this question speaks to the fact that the plague is far more than a plague, it is a test of human character and speaks to political undertones – as adressed in the film. What can be observed in our reaction to a plague on an enclosed, self-sufficient community of equality (shout out to the Soviet Union that Camus seemingly appreciated in theory but was repelled by in practice). But there are ultimately, “more things to admire in men than to despair” (308).

    (with the video in mind) Is it possible (and admittedly, too simplistic a reading maybe) to understand Rieux as Camus, a man who loses, one by one, his friends in Communist struggles?

  12. Coming back right away to Tom’s presumption about ‘Camus and friends’ theory – communist struggles simply don’t match implicit-throughout-the-whole-novel imperialistic realism. On the other hand, atheistic argument sounds more socialist to me; semantics aside – but it is important to differentiate between the ‘geiserous behaviour’ of faith in people, in face of danger of the plague and at the same time, the plague as the common denominator, in a sense, natural, universal and perpetually periodic ‘equilizer’ among the population. Dovetailing the concept of the disastrous plague with the concept of state-implemented mass repressions gives us with the outrageous similarities in between: in fact, both of them casualty-wise act similarly, the only real difference being the absence/existence of someone in particular to blame – after all, you can’t make the Plague (and its direct collaborators being rats) go through the Nuremberg trials, can you?

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