Dancing with Death

Albert Camus’ The Plague is a recount of the horrific events taking place in the French Algerian city of Oran circa 1940. There is an unexpected mass exodus of rats emerging from the sewers to die; always dying in twos and threes. The number of deaths within the rat population increases exponentially until people, instead of rats, start dying – the first victim being M. Michel.

The book is told by an unknown narrator that takes us to the beginning where one of the characters – Dr. Bernard Rieux – starts noticing the first signs of what later becomes the plague. However, there is also a second character that Camus briefly includes – Jean Tarrou – a man of few habits, that is “an addict of all normal pleasures without being their slave” (24). Before introducing us to either character, Camus describes Oran as a city that survives off of habit, geared towards “the object of getting rich” (4). But how could a man like Tarrou survive in such a place without habits? It is not only the plague that Camus pays attention to, but also these habitual actions. What significance could this hold further down the line?

Another interesting aspect of the narrative style is the reluctance of the narrator to identify himself. He argues that “the narrator would have little claim to competence for a task like this, had not chance put him in the way of gathering much information, and had he not been, by the force of things, closely involved in all that he proposes to narrate” (6). The anonymity of the narrator, coupled with Tarrou’s accounts, brings up the question of the distinction between a historian and a novelist – who is the narrator, and where can we see Camus’ voice come in? Does he intend the account to be historical, or fictional?

The citizens of Oran are not living so much as they are collecting habits. Their main objective to accumulate as much wealth as possible is what motivates them to keep working. Camus often refers to the absurdity of life and the complete lack of purpose which is why towns such as Oran are so bizarre to him; people work frantically and without enjoyment towards a goal they can never reach: “treeless, glamorless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there” (6). Oran is a town haunted by its own ghosts – habits – their current system is peaceful and secure so they do not question it and “social unrest is quite unknown” (5).

Habit also plays a big role in determining Oran’s reaction to the plague. When rats begin dying out on the streets, we notice a concerted unwillingness to address the issue face to face. It certainly seems strange that hundreds of rodents are dying, but are people willing to dig deeper, to find the reason why? Not so. People are not willing to let minor disturbances get in the way of their daily routines. We notice people theorizing “rational” explanations. M. Michel, the concierge, says “some young scallywags…had dumped three rats in the hall” (9). The municipality is also unwilling to tackle the issue head-on. It is only when Rambert’s newspaper starts running the story that a meeting is convened to discuss the issue at hand.

The denial continues even when the victims of the plague transition from rats to people. M. Michel, with sores all over his body, says “It’s just swellings…I must have strained myself somehow” (17), to die soon after. The newspaper, once in a frenzy over the rats dying in the streets, “now had nothing to say. For rats died in the streets; men in their homes. And newspapers are concerned only with the street” (35). The citizens also deny the possibility that the issue could be anything more serious than an anomaly, a minor disturbance. As the narrator says, the “townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences” (37). So devoured by their daily routines, people are unwilling, even unable, to accept that anything as extraordinary as a plague could happen in their lives.

Fear also plays a central role in determining people and the government’s reaction to the plague. Interspersed within the unwillingness are traces of fear, of “what-ifs.” What if there is a plague? What if the signs all point to a disastrous consequence? Even entertaining the vague possibility of a plague prevents people from investigating the cause of the symptoms and devising potential solutions. The government, when faced with Dr. Rieux’s claims about the plague, is reluctant to put out a public proclamation, fearing the consequences and panic it could bring. At the doctor’s adamant requests, the government does take action, but in the form of “small official notices…in places where they would not attract much attention…it was hard to find in these notices any indication that the authorities were facing the situation squarely” (51). The situation brings a question to mind about the role of the government and how it should react to crises, as reflected in a previous post:

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?

(“The Moral Dilemma of the Plague”)

The amount of time which takes the government to identify and react to the plague brings to our attention an interesting contrast to Johnson’s argument. Johnson argues that central, urban planning is key to tackling city-wide problems, especially the plague. He argues that past progress is built up to influence the future, and presents a temporal spectrum. In The Plague, the government officials are aware of past incidents, to the point that they are able to recall specific cases from Paris and other locations. However, they are not as quick to jump to decisions or actions. They stall and stall until they receive a confirmation via telegraph. It is as if they’ve forgotten the severity of past situations, or deny the situation as if denial would prevent the plague from happening. The contrast between Oran and London raises an interesting question: are people’s reactions to plagues determined by societal structures, as Johnson says, or by people’s base natures, as Camus suggests?

Death is accepted but largely ignored in daily life which is made evident by the fact that Oran’s inhabitants rarely go to the beach, and “very sensibly they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons” (4). Thus, the two types of human existence in Oran are either death or a sleep-like life. One exception to this rule is Tarrou who lacks the rigid structure of work as he relies on other funds and disregards social norms that dictate limits on pleasure. Tarrou often goes to the beach – he is living. The plague is a mindfulness exercise that reminds people that their time is not guaranteed. Under the plague, Oran exists in the in-between, where planning for the future is naive, and every moment alive is scarce, which sanctifies time. Death and Life become conflated into one. As a result, a third state of being forms in the lives of those living in Oran. Individuals are put into place where not only the town but their everyday lives are also in limbo. This is Death’s dance.

There is a movement to it, the Dance of Death, that wraps itself around the living as they are side by side with the dead. The reader is first introduced to Death through its initial gradual move into the city using rats: “When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it further thought, continued on his way downstairs” (7). Camus meets movement with movement, constructing a rhythmic relationship between Death and Life. Who is to be our protagonist? The dead or the living? Death’s dance continues through the observation of Dr. Rieux who “remarked it was rather odd, the way all these rats were coming out of their holes to die” (13). Not only does Camus establish the movement of death through a network of rats, but he identifies the contagion’s spatial movement: “From the outer suburbs to the center of the town…From basements, cellars, and sewers they emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of pirouette and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers” (15). Death’s infiltration into the city disrupts habitual practice, causing a cyclical process of confusion. Thus, death becomes a transformative power, altering the identity of the collective and individual within Oran. Citizens are forced to decide what to do, having never experienced a dilemma of this caliber. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes of this experience:

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? This is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture (8).

The first movement for citizens in Oran can also be their final movement. With the wrong choice, they become victims of the plague. But, Kundera’s quote also raises the question of eternal return, which he addresses in his book:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing…Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia (3-4).

If Camus treats Life and Death as subjects, perhaps individuals rehearse for death: we live a double-life. Are we to criticize the actions of the living in the books we have read? Reverend Whitehead and Snow were certainly able to make the correct choice, but what if they had not, would any of it mattered? An old commentator’s post begins to grapple with this conundrum:

In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat?

(“Philosophical matters, fear and confidence in Camus’s The Plague”)

Camus’ novel addresses the issue of action – what is our responsibility to our surrounding community? Whether explicitly or implicitly, Jonhson, Defoe, and Porter have dealt with action in times of conflict. However, all such responsibility has been placed on the living, Kundera’s dilemma causes us to return our focus back to dead. We have so far, in the texts we have read, regarded with great focus our attention on the living and not the dead. In doing so, what have we missed out on?


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  1. Whoa… so much packed into the convener’s posts, and I can see why – Camus’ /The Plague/ is a well-written distillation of many ideas we have talked about in our classes. From the narrator’s voice, historical accuracy, societal structures, organization of a city, etc… But as the conveners have rightfully pointed out, the novel is pointedly examining the absurdity of life – life of habits, which cannot be fully be ‘awake’, and the inevitability of death. Especially, as the conveners have put it, the Death’s Dance, which is something we must all be aware of but will attempt our best to ignore. The author, through the use of the vague narrator as well as the constructed plague outbreak, attempts to highlight and bring forth the awareness of death to forward consciousness. In that sense, Tarrou may be the hero of Camus’ story – someone who is able to truly live, someone who is not concerned with finding purpose to life. Someone who has overcome the Absurd, even in a minor degree – and hence others in turn consider him to be absurd.

    Also, has anyone noticed the references to other novels in the story? A shooting at the beach of an Algerian man is certainly an homage to Camus “The Outsider”, and the detective story being read by Cottard is almost certainly “The Trial” by Kafka. It’s almost as if this book has similar tones and themes with those two works!

  2. Yes, there’s a lot packed in here. I think we should be able to return to some of the specific areas — the narrator, the question of habit/sleepwalking vs being awake, the life & death dynamics — as we go. I like the connections being made to other work as well. Re: the Kafka connection: they do both hate bureaucracy, don’t they? But I think you’re on to something about this novel feeling like it has a trial structure. Certain ideas will be put to the test, weighed against each other. How do we know when we’ve found a good answer/way forward in this novel? Is there one character (the doctor maybe? or Tarrou, as you suggest) whose worldview is idealized in the end? Something to keep an eye on.

  3. What really interested me in this blog was questioning the lack of focus on the dead in comparison to the living. As mentioned, the narrators voice in each of the readings delved into the outcomes of plague on the living. Only in Ghosts did we really get to read more about the dead and how they continue to leave a mark on the living world. Often are these two universes divided in a way, but in The plague, they are connected through Camus’ own existential philosophy. This might seem controversial to say with regards to this post mentioning that the “two types of human existence in Oran are either death or a sleep-like life”. Reading this from the perspective of another readers perspective (bare with me), it seems that Camus purposefully wanted the reader to have this feeling of distinction between people living in such a black and white community. This feeling is then made to have the reader connect to the initial idea of death, as it gets one to start thinking, and eventually ask “what is the meaning of anything?”. There’s two ways to live, but it all leads to the same thing; death.

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