The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus is narrated by an anonymous character who declares that the purpose of his narration is to provide an objective account of a historical event, the arrival of the plague in Oran. One prominent theme present in this novel is indifference and denial of the plague by not just the general public, but also the doctors and the state. In addition to indifference and denial, we will also look at the ways in which people respond to the epidemic. The main question we will ask is: is it ethical (for anyone, let alone a state) to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions? Is people’s indifference caused by the limited amount of information they have about the contagious disease? Should people be blamed for acting this way and for spreading a disease that they may not know existed? Whose fault is it in the end?
Before we begin, it is necessary to provide a little context which will help explain why people acted the way they did in the story. Oran is an “ugly” town with people who are mainly concerned about maximizing profit and business. Every day, they follow the same boring habitual routine, which consists of work, cinema, dining and trivial love affairs. The narrator describes Oran as a busy town where people are always occupied with activities that require good health and thus, illness is not the “norm” and the very few who become ill are unnoticeable. One important aspect of the town is that the citizens are “humanists: they did not believe in pestilence” (30). He calls Oran “a dry place” both physically (due to the horrible climate) and, most importantly, spiritually, meaning the “dryness” of its people, i.e. their lack of emotional concern about others.
The story starts with the unusual discoveries of dead rats covered in blood around the town both indoors and outdoors. The townspeople “had never thought that [their] little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses. From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas” [emphasis added] (20). For instance, a “boy was very excited by the business of the rats” but his father said, “we don’t talk about rats at table…From now on, I forbid you to mention the word” (24). Moreover, Castel, Dr. Rieux’s colleague mentioned that he has encountered something fairly similar to a situation of an epidemic in Paris but “no one dared put a name on it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic” (29). Do you think that because these people are stuck in their own paradigm, i.e. being optimistic or fatalistic (24), makes them deny the seriousness of this disease (note when Dr. Rieux started to contemplate: “He could not imagine how such obsessions fitted into the context of the plague, and so concluded that, in practical terms, the plague had no future among the people of our town” )? Do tradition and social pressure play a role in the spread of a disease?
The Plague is an account that provides a description of the various ways people react and respond to an epidemic. It is evident how the idea of denial, or at least indifference, is present throughout the book. In the beginning, Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a succumbed rat on the ground in his building but does not give much thought to it, only after the number of dead rats increased day by day. The public begins to feel anxious due to the rapid growth of the dead rats but little action is being taken to solve the problem. No one seems to want to deviate their attention from themselves and their reclusive routines to deal with the situation. Moreover, when Rieux meets his mother and tells her about the rats, she was “not surprised” and said that “things like that happen” (13). In addition, when the priest mentions that “it must be an epidemic,” there was a complete shift in scene and no attention or concern was given to what was said (16).
Furthermore, some people have acknowledged that this disease is “fatal” but they cannot bring themselves to explain that it is potentially a “plague” (25) and “the press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent” (29). In fact, doctors who are only aware of two or three cases did not think it was necessary to do anything (29). Dr. Rieux also predicts that the government will keep silent as well. We can also see how Dr. Richard chooses to “not give away to panic”; how him and some of his colleagues mentioned that it was dangerous to jump to conclusions in science; and how the Prefect chooses to keep quiet about the disease (38). Only later did the Prefect take some preventive measures.
On the other hand, Dr. Rieux says that “perhaps we should make up our minds to call this disease by its proper name” (34). He mentions that when a microbe is capable of increasing, “that is precisely when we should rush to do something…If the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months” (39) and “if we don’t acknowledge it…it still threatens to kill half the population of the town” (40). Do you think that because the state kept quiet about the disease (the papers do mention the rats with no reference to a disease), that this could have contributed to the spread of the plague? From the examples above, it is plausible to think that the more one keeps quiet about a disease, the more likely the disease will spread because people will not take safety precautions since they have no knowledge a plague exists. Do you think the state and the doctors kept quiet so that they would not occupy people’s minds with the possibility of the disease as the distress and acknowledgment could make them susceptible to the plague? As in, not scaring them with “unnecessary” information that could contribute to their overall well-being?
Thus, we can see that during an epidemic, the narrator believes that not only is the disease contagious but also the way people react to it or rather how they react to the authority’s procedures: “once the gates were closed….a quite individual feeling such as being separated from a loved one suddenly became, in the very first weeks, a feeling of a whole people” (53). What is the reason behind this “contagious feeling” of fear between the people of Oran? Is it because they do not trust, or they are beginning not to trust, the administration? Is it because the people of Oran are thinking on an individual basis rather than a collective one, i.e. thinking of the greater good for them and the outside world?
The plague has changed the way people react in their day to day life. There is a very interesting relationship change between individuals during an epidemic. It is even more fascinating in our case given the previous description of the town of Oran. When the city gates were open for people who already left before the time of the epidemic and wished to be reunited with their loved ones, the city saw “only one case where human feelings proved stronger than horrible death” (55). One might expect that since the people of Oran were so disconnected from one another, the silver lining of the plague may be the rebirth of a sense of unity and belonging to the people of Oran. Still, it seems that people did prioritize their own health over their unification with their loved ones. Are they to be blamed? Did this disconnect happen to avoid empathy, or is it because they cared only for their well-being?
As an endnote, we would like to link this to one of our previous readings: The Plague relates to Pushkin’s piece A Feast During the Plague (1830). In this play, the revelers choose to isolate themselves from the raging epidemic and continue living their lives normally, as if there was nothing going on that concerns them. They could have also been in a state of denial, just like the people of Oran, where they did not want to drown themselves in the sufferings of others. As we learn from the narrator’s descriptions, most of the people in Oran are obsessed with maintaining their “peace of mind” and this caused their indifference to traumas such as the plague. Is Walsingham perhaps similarly indifferent or in denial like the people of Oran by calling for a celebration? What about the rest of the revelers? In fact, can their feast that was organized as a society possibly represent a place like Oran and its reaction to this epidemic?
Mahra, Aysha, and Ali
I liked how you particularly distinguished the doctors out and questioned the reasons why didn’t they announce the possibility of an epidemic. The public, usually, perceives the doctors to be compassionate and honest. Although, Dr. Rieux suspects a plague, he remains quiet and doesn’t warn the people. Dr. Rieux is a very sensible and rational character who (unlike the other doctors we have encountered) is in a position of authority and has gained the respect of the community.
Yes, of course, he does not want the people to panic but most importantly he needs to have a plan. While he was wondering by the window, he does not only mention statistics about the number of deaths caused by plagues, but he describes how different communities used specific techniques (Camus 32). He notes how in Marseille, people piled “dripping” bodies in holes, how doctors wore masks during the Black Death and how Athenians burned the bodies on the shore. He contemplates these ideas to come up with a satisfying plan to control the plague. He attempts to learn from humanity’s past experiences of plagues.
Dr. Rieux also compares the plague to a war (30). Before a politician announces war, he must have a plan, just like a doctor in control would need a strategy to restrain the spread of the disease.
We thought it was plausible to distinguish the different reactions on how the doctors reacted to the epidemic and the reasons they had for doing so. This is in order to show that there is not only a contrast between the doctors’ decisions but also an inner conflict Dr. Rieux is battling; whether or not to let people know about the epidemic which will spread awareness but cause panic, or to not publicly state it to not cause panic but people will not take safety measures which could spread the disease ever more. This is not unusual as doctors choose not to, in certain circumstances, tell patients about their diagnosis as it can cause mental trauma contributing to their physical health. In this novel, publicly stating that there is an epidemic is a difficult decision for the doctors and the state especially since people rely on the state and doctors for their health and safety. This is also difficult because, as you stated, Dr. Rieux has earned a respectable reputation and he would not want to do anything to tarnish that. It is a burden to hold, especially knowing that you are responsible for other people’s lives. It is almost as if one would want to be in the position of the general public who are not aware of the disease and not responsible for the lives of many people. We see Dr. Rieux contemplating and, as you mentioned, trying to make a plan. Like you said, “he attempts to learn from humanity’s past experiences of plagues” in order to know what to expect and to, possibly, avoid the mistakes of the past. However, this may not always work. In my opinion, the best way to predict the future is to look at the past. As they say, “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Therefore, it is significant to think about why he compared the plague to the war because wars still happen even with the chance to negotiate, and the plague does not give us the opportunity to do that.
Thanks & Regards
Mahra Al Suwaidi
Thank you for your comment. Dr. Rieux is definitely a prominent character in this novel and yes it seems like he does have the authority to make decisions and he is respected by many. However, I believe that he is in denial himself. Although he has the responsibility to warn the people of his town about this dangerous epidemic, he did not want to because he did not want it to be true. While he was staring out the window after being confronted by Castel as he asks him twice to admit that this was the plague, Dr. Rieux observes his hope being destroyed as he realizes the truth. So maybe he does not want to create chaos and panic but he also does not want to trouble himself with the burden of this threat. It is also interesting how he compares the plague to war and the idea of having the plan. People are usually prepared for war, even though they understand the absurdity of war, but not for a fatal pestilence like the plague. The people of Oran, Dr. Rieux asserts, only thought about themselves, “they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence” as if he was not one of them. However, judging from how he responded to the possibility that this was a plague like turning a blind eye on the signs while hoping this was not happening, Dr. Rieux does seem to conform to his people.
Hey Mahra, Aysha, and Ali! Thank you for the great ideas to discuss!
I would like to first begin by answering your first main set of questions, “Is it ethical (for anyone, let alone a state) to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions? Is people’s indifference caused by the limited amount of information they have about the contagious disease? Should people be blamed for acting this way and for spreading a disease that they may not know existed? Whose fault is it in the end?”
I believe that it is not ethical to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions because this will cause more chaos in the society since the disease will spread quietly. While it seems that they, the citizens and especially, the government, first not talked about the disease because they did not want to confront reality, the plague being spread. Furthermore, while the government tried to hide the truth to maintain order and prevent chaos from being created due to the spread of the plague, such action of the government was wrong because it accelerated the spread of the plague. While I think that to some extent people’s indifference was caused by the limited amount of information, I also believe that their nonchalance was also caused by their human nature of being selfish. Many people tend to not react to something that does not occur directly to them. They only react and do something about the problem when the problem strikes them eventually, but then, it is too late to fix the problem. So, I think both the government and people are responsible for spreading the disease.
I found the following question and idea very interesting:
What is the reason behind this “contagious feeling” of fear between the people of Oran? Is it because they do not trust, or they are beginning not to trust, the administration? Is it because the people of Oran are thinking on an individual basis rather than a collective one, i.e. thinking of the greater good for them and the outside world?
I didn’t really think of the feeling being “contagious.” This really makes sense. While the plague itself is contagious, I agree that the fear they are feeling is also contagious. And the reason behind is probably that they do not trust and are selfish.
And in relation to Pushkin’s play, I don’t think Walsingham and others were indifferent. It is just that they wanted to escape from reality due to too much pain. I think the word, indifferent, to describe them is too strong. Instead, we can say that they felt the pain and were aware of the situation but got tired from the agony. Maybe, to some extent, it can be indifference, but I don’t think it is exactly indifference. They didn’t avoid reality because they didn’t care about the dead ones; they escaped from the reality to make them feel better.
When you say “I believe that it is not ethical to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions because this will cause more chaos in the society since the disease will spread quietly,” won’t publicly stating that there is a plague also cause chaos? Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is morally correct to refrain from telling people about a disease. Even if the doctors and the state are not sure, they should at least warn people that there is some sort of “illness” spreading and not just acknowledge that rats are dying on the streets. That way, people can take some safety precautions which could have prevented the disease from spreading at the rate that it had. As a result, this will not only limit the number of people dying but it will also not alarm them by immediately mentioning that there is a “plague” which could cause panic and mental distress, further spreading the plague. Again, the spread of this disease could also be due to the fact that the state and the doctors did not want to confront reality, like you said; it could be due to some sort of economic reason as well; and it could be due to the fact that it will cause a disturbance to their everyday routines. Moreover, some people’s indifference may be due to the limited information they had, as mentioned in the post, or, as you said, the selfishness of human nature and caring for their own wellbeing. I also do agree with you that some people are concerned with what affects them directly and this can influence other people as well since feelings can be contagious too. Overall, I think it is plausible when you state that both the people and the state were responsible for the spread of this disease. I also, to some extent, agree that Walsingham escaped because the pain of losing a loved one was too much to handle. However, it seemed as though he dealt with that pain before the feast. When the feast started, Walsingham already seemed indifferent but only until after the priest showed up and reminded him of his loved ones did his feelings of pain and suffering resurface again.
Thanks & Regards
Mahra Al Suwaidi