What Makes a Plague a Plague?

Albert Camus’ The Plague tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran, told from the point of view of a first-person narrator.

A central theme in Part 1 of Albert Camus’s The Plague is the significance of the naming of a plague as a “plague.” Labels hold a lot of weight, and the labeling of widespread disease and death as a plague is no exception. The narrator notes that plagues, like wars, have always existed amongst humans, but there is still a sense of shock and denial every time a new one arises. The people of Oran witness firsthand the disease’s spread throughout the rats, and then the transference of the disease to humans. The rats’ example can be taken as a clear instance of foreshadowing what fate awaited the people, yet they showed nowhere near as much concern for the disease spreading to humans–Dr. Castel tells Dr. Rieux that the government will avoid publishing anything about how rapidly the disease is spreading to humans to avoid inciting fear within the people. However, leaving the plague nameless poses an issue arguably worse than fear of the disease: a lack of concern for it. Despite seeing what happened to the rats, the people of Oran continue to go about their daily business. This is due largely to the fact that the plague is not being referred to as a plague at all, and the implications of the word are not getting through the peoples’ heads. A relevant example in today’s day and age would be the naming of the pandemic as a “pandemic.” While the word plague was not used, the heaviness associated with a term like “plague” is present in the term pandemic. People did not take COVID-19 as seriously until it began being labeled as a pandemic because the word provided larger and stronger implications than the word “coronavirus.” The peoples’ refusal to acknowledge the plague as a plague in The Plague says much about the significance of labeling and the avoidant tendencies humans utilize to reduce the seriousness of an issue in their minds, no matter how many signs say otherwise.

The motif of suffering is quite prevalent throughout Part 1 as well. In particular, we find that this work differs greatly from the other contagion works we’ve read in this class, in that Camus incorporates merciless gore-like details of the plague’s effects on both the rats and the humans. The motif of suffering in The Plague applies to both the infected rats and the infected humans, yet the difference is that with humans, there is the ability to divide the struggle amongst themselves. This is exemplified in the way doctors such as Rieux are selfless and work themselves to the bone in an attempt to save patients and minimize the struggle a human body has with the plague. Furthermore, the comparison “rats died in the streets, men in their homes” (Ch. 4), shows us that the only difference in how the plague affected men and rats was the place that each died. This leads us to consider the question of is there a dignified way to die if infected by the plague? Moreover, what does it mean to have a dignified death in a pandemic?

Part one of The Plague takes readers through the stages societies go through when dealing with the widespread and oftentimes unexplainable diseases. The first stage – initial observations – is marked by preliminary inspections of abnormalities around the community. In one peaceful evening, Dr Reiux noticed “a big rat … [with] its mouth slightly open and blood spurting from it” (5). The second stage, denial, takes place when different members in a society gather together to discuss these abnormalities. In most cases, if not all, they would deny these deviations, trusting that this phenomenon “is certainly queer…but it’ll pass” (8). As much as a society wants to maintain the status quo, however, these abnormal phenomenons continue to increase and intensify, taking us to the third stage – the spread of the plague (and rumors). The narrator noted that the number of rats that died on the streets of Oran has increased at an exponential rate. The situation has gotten so out of hand “it was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours — thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails” (13). This leads to the fourth stage – realization – in which members of the society slowly begin to acknowledge the existence of a widespread disease, but still try to carry out their daily activities. The fifth and final stage comes when the plague eventually escalates to a tipping point, often characterized by some form of government response. Thus, the end of part one marks the beginning of the fifth stage with a telegram announcement: “Proclaim a state of plague Stop close the town” (61).

The first chapter we’ve read tries to examine the way plague is perceived by different people. We have the views of the doctors, the authority, the common people of various occupations, etc. At this point, an attentive reader might wonder about the veracity of the novel – it is, after all, a work of fiction. We learn that Camus has done a remarkable job researching the epidemic of cholera in the city of Oran in 1849. But how much of the novel is true, or might have been true, if the plague really had visited Oran in the 194-? Fortunately (or maybe not really), we have an event to compare it to, and the striking similarities occur when we dive into the details.

It all starts with the wordings used during the Plague, such as “… a spirit of prudence that all would appreciate,…” (Ch. 5) in the book, which cognates the legendary phrase of an “abundance of caution,” that the NYUAD administration had used quite regularly. But it evidently goes beyond that – Camus analyzes the human ability to understand the Plague, and we come to the conclusion that it is simply incomprehensible when we stumble upon Rieux’s thoughts throughout the first chapter: “…what man knows ten thousand faces?…” or “… he couldn’t picture such eccentricities existing in a plague-stricken community…” (38).

But most importantly, we get to read about the counterintuitive nature of the Plague. In many human thoughts, Camus notes, “stupidity has a knack of getting its way” (37), and that the Plague is contrary to the life itself as we know it: “… everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.” This rigid duality of our world was indeed observed during our time of the pandemic. I (and, I hope, many others in our class) remember clearly when the school said that it was “impossible” for them to quarantine people since NYUAD is not a hospital or any other kind of medical institution. But in a matter of days, A1 became a quarantining building on campus. And then, all of a sudden, every room on campus could be used for the quarantine measures. The plague destroys our notion of what is possible and impossible, because our systems of possibility rely on the simple, yet dangerous assumption that the plague is impossible.

Jenn, Afraah, Meera, Adi


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  1. I like how you classify the reaction in five stages — sort of like the five stages of grief (I’m guessing that’s the parallel you were going for). These early stages of inaction are responsible for the plague being unchecked and allowed to gradually take hold. When the plague isn’t bad enough to be worried about, citizens neglect to take precautions as they want to maintain their sense of normalcy, and as you mentioned, the idea of a plague is unthinkable to them. And when they realize that they do need to take action, that they can’t live a life of normalcy, it is too late. The plague has already taken hold.

    Your last point connects very smoothly back to your first point. It is because our systems rely on what we think will and will not happen, and it is because we think that a plague is impossible, that it is so hard for the word plague to be used to describe the situation in this case (and in our case, as we mentioned, rather than plague, the discussion was around calling COVID-19 a pandemic before it could get taken seriously).

    Disease alters many things in our lives, especially when a pandemic strikes. What we consider to be normal changes. Disease changes the world around us, and like you mention, alters our idea of what is possible or not (among other things).

  2. Rieux’s observation about the incomprehensibility of the plague stood out to me, too — the inability to imagine ten thousand faces. (I think it’s harder for us to realize this nowadays, when it feels like we know so many people through the internet.) There seem to be ways in which plague destroys impossibilities and possibilities all at once. In the text, we see how forms of modern connectivity (signs of man’s “progress” and ability) are disrupted; systems like trains and telephones that previously facilitated enormous possibilities are suddenly impotent. It isn’t just that unthinkable things are happening, but also that our illusions of our own capabilities are shattered, and this post does a nice job of pointing that out.

    • I also keep coming back to this idea of our inability to fully comprehend the gravity of a situation, both in the book and in the convener’s post. In our modern covid context, it feels especially relevant with ‘death’ and ‘case count’ tracking boards updated daily on the internet, giving us unprecedented access to the ‘facts’ of the pandemic, but still desensitising us to the scale of what was happening. I remember when cases were peaking and there was a big divide between how seriously people took the pandemic in certain countries, some commentators were begging people to watch videos recorded within hospital wards, to see how patients were responding and to make people take the pandemic seriously. There was this sense that you have to ‘see it to believe it’, and a hope that this would change behaviours.

  3. I’m really intrigued by the point you’ve made about labels and the weight they carry. More specifically, when you noted that people didn’t take COVID19 seriously till it was labeled a pandemic, contrasting that with the case in Oran and how people avoided the word plague. You highlight the importance of the terminology we use when we refer to an issue or a disease and its implications on how people feel towards it. What I kept thinking is that the opposite is also true.

    Terms are coined and labels are given after things develop and take on larger forms. For instance, COVID19 didn’t start off as a pandemic. It was a novel virus affecting a handful of people somewhere in China, and people learned about it from Twitter or the news. It was a far away thing. Rapidly, it spread and grew into an epidemic and then a pandemic. I’m not sure about the detailed timeline and when the WHO made the classifications. But it’s interesting to think about how differently we reacted to the same virus when it took on a larger form (affecting larger quantities, and spreading rapidly across nations), and the role the changing labels played in that.

    It’s an interesting place to explore: the relationship between language, disease, and our different reactions to them.

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