I have a (slight) problem with going on book-buying binges. When I feel anxious, sometimes I buy a book. I’ve reined in this annoying tendency recently to cut expenses. But when the pandemic hit in early March, I saw an essay about Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, and knew I immediately had to read it.
This was only the second work I’ve read by Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus is one of my favorite books, which is Camus’ treatise on his absurdist philosophy. I wasn’t disappointed by The Plague, either. The Plague is one of Camus’ novels.
I loved The Plague because it gave a glimpse of what it’s like to live through an infectious disease epidemic from an existentialist point of view. The characters display some heroism, but some characters also show a stunning amount of cowardice.
In true Camus fashion, there’s also no seeming rhyme or reason to the suffering wrought by the plague. Some characters who I thought would survive and rise above simply died with a whimper.
Powerless against nature
The novel is set in the 1940s in the French Algerian town of Oran. Rats begin dying in the streets in droves, and the people of the town are confused at first as to what’s happening. Soon it becomes clear the deaths are being caused by bubonic plague, and the disease is transmitted to humans.
The narrator of the novel is unnamed, but the main character is Dr. Bernard Rieux. The doctor begins seeing patients with symptoms of bubonic plague and urges the town’s authorities to act. The authorities are slow to respond (sound familiar?), and the disease soon spreads like wildfire.
Eventually, the town seals itself off and people are unable to leave. What’s great about the novel is it deals specifically with the emotional and psychological toll the plague plays on the citizens. Many people in the town become restless, resort to merrymaking like there’s no tomorrow, and fall into deep depressions.
One character who interested me was Raymond Rambert. He’s a journalist visiting the town who becomes stuck there when the plague strikes. Raymond spends a good deal of time trying to escape the town, even though it’s prohibited by the authorities.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I’ll talk in general terms about what I liked. Reading it during this pandemic was enlightening because it gave a glimpse of human psychology during disease outbreaks. Many of the things that happened in the novel are happening in the world today.
The Plague deals specifically with a disease outbreak isolated to one town – and not a global pandemic. Camus does include a good bit of medical information about bubonic plague and its symptoms and spread. But the book is more so about how the characters react under immense stress.
The Plague shows that we are mostly powerless against the brute force of nature. Some of the characters talk of God and religion, but most of them try their best to summon their own human resolve to deal with the disease’s terrors.
A fickle mistress
There’s a Jesuit priest in the novel – Father Paneloux – who gives stirring sermons during the outbreak. The priest seems to have a deep faith, but the plague presents a challenge to his beliefs that, inevitably, cannot be overcome.
As the suffering mounts, the priest tries to present a case for Christianity. The argument is torn apart, though, by the irrational logic and bare-faced brutality of the disease. The priest says the plague has been sent by God because of the town’s sins. When children start dying, he says it’s God’s will and must be accepted. Neither of these arguments hold much weight in the end, as the plague kills randomly, and the town loses interest in attending church.
Reviewers have said The Plague is a bleak book, and perhaps it is. But I felt it contained truths about the human condition and predicament that are important to confront. Mainly, the truth that we’re all mortal beings and vulnerable to suffering and death – no matter how much we try to push it out of our consciousness.
As our current pandemic continues, I’ve been thinking of that often. The public and government reaction have been chaotic, and maybe that’s because of the competing life philosophies of different people surrounding death and dying are clashing against each other.
The characters in The Plague cannot do much to stop the suffering. The men of science try to mitigate the damage, the men of God submit to the pain, and the everyday people do their best to retain hope. All of them can only wait out the disease until it passes, and life returns to normal. That’s the essential powerlessness the novel conveys.
We’re in a similar situation with the pandemic today. The wonders of science are helping us to slow the spread and discover its exact causes. Hopefully, we’ll be able to develop a vaccine that’ll protect us from COVID-19. But there’s a limit to what we can do with our human powers. The pandemic is a force of nature, and nature is a fickle mistress.