In the mid 1940's, Albert Camus, began to write the novel The Plague. The story has been read over and over again, yet it tells more than it seems to. It tells the story of a town gripped by a deadly disease, and of how the inhabitants thrive to overcome it. Many consider the inhabitants' fight against the plague to be an allegory to the German Occupation of France, however, as critic Albert Maquet says, "to simplify things Ã¢ÂÂ¦The Plague is an allegorical novel." 1 The true meaning of the story, however, is not an allegory. Albert Camus felt that life was a series of contradictions. He felt that humans sought to explain the world in "human terms," however, Camus says, "the world is thus not explicable." 2 Because of this condition, he referred to human life as "absurd." This absurdity amounts to an emptiness in our lives and makes our very existence meaningless.
However, Camus also believed we could find meaning through "purpose action," which means "revolting" against injustices and fighting the "against the plagues that enslave man." 3This belief runs throughout the novel; and the main characters all represent this belief.
Camus could not have created a better setting for the novel.The story takes place in the desert town of Oran, Algeria, in northern Africa.The city suffers from extremes of weather conditions; in the summer and the heat forces the inhabitants "to spend those days of fire indoors, behind closed shutters." The people much like the shutters are closed off from their neighbors, and usually devote themselves to "cultivating habits" 4 . For the most part everyone in Oran is an individual; they do not care their fellow man. However, the plague changes all of this. When the plague strikes, at first each person refuses to accept the inhumanity of the situation, and try to continue life as they always have, in their selfish pursuits. However, as the death toll rises the people realize that they cannot fight the plague on their own, and that they must unit together and do so something to fight the plague, or "revolt" against the "absurd."(Cruickshank 174) This reality is best seen in Raymond Rambert.
Rambert is a journalist, who finds himself trapped in the city of Oran. The women he loves lives beyond the walls of the city, and rather than remaining with the others, he believes himself to be an outsider, and tries to flee the city by any means. At one point, he tells Tarrou, " I don't believe in heroismÃ¢ÂÂ¦What interests me is living for what one loves."5 Later, when speaking with Rieux, Rambert concludes that he is no longer an individual, and that he is part of the town. He realizes that "'there's nothing shameful in preferring happinessÃ¢ÂÂ¦ but it may be shameful to be happy by oneself' ."6 Rambert awakens to the truth, which he had been facing all along. Rambert decides to drop his attempts to escape, and decides to join Tarrou's sanitary squads. Like the others, Rambert gave up his position as an individual; he realized that the "calamity was everybody's business."7Through Rambert, Camus conveys his belief that we must "fight" and "revolt" against the unfairness we find in our existence.
Another character who joins the "revolt" is the minor civil servant, Joseph Grand. Grand for the most part is engaged in his "literary work," which never progresses beyond the first sentence. However, this man eventually becomes referred to as the hero of the novel, though "he had nothing of the hero about."8. He joins the fight against the plague, acknowledging, "I can't say I really know him, but one's got to help a neighbor," 9by keeping statistics of all the "plagues activities." Although, his tasks are menial, Grand is to be admired because he joins the "revolt" and does what he can to contribute to the fight against "indifference." Camus has a respect for all of those who join in the "revolt" and it is clear that he has a fondness for Grand whom he refers to as the "the true embodiment Ã¢ÂÂ¦of courage" 10. Helping out the fellow man is also important to Tarrou. Of all the characters in The Plague, Tarrou most conveys Camus' ideals and beliefs that we must "revolt" against injustice. When the plague first strikes the town, it appears that Tarrou is not motivated to help the people of the town. However, this is not true. Tarrou not only works to end the suffering that exists, he also strives not to cause any; Tarrou simply hates to see human suffering. He tells Rieux that "Ã¢ÂÂ¦we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody." Camus through Tarrou conveys his belief that man must do good to bring out that "innate goodness" within him. Tarrou explains, "All I maintain is that there are on this earth pestilence and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilence"11. Tarrou's goal in life is not only to end suffering, but also to become a saint. However, ironically, Tarrou is an atheist, "can one be a saint without GodÃ¢ÂÂ¦that's the problem, in fact the only problem." 12The question is, therefore: What is it that makes a saint? First, a saint is a holy man who has attained peace in heaven and second a saint becomes an example to everyone of the goodness that is possible for a man to accomplish. Through Tarrou, Camus thus presents his belief: A man gives himself and his life meaning through the good deeds which he performs for the welfare of others. No man can attain peace in any other way. Good actions must replace the conscious and unconscious indifference, which plagues mankind.
The narrator of the story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, also personifies aspects of Camus' philosophy. When Father Paneloux, a steadfast Catholic priest, contends in his second sermon that suffering is a mystery that only God understands, and that "Ã¢ÂÂ¦we must hold fast, trusting divine goodnessÃ¢ÂÂ¦"13 Rieux does not comply. Dr. Rieux, an atheist, does not believe in God, he "sees no alternative but to turn from Him and create his own meaning, his own value." 14 Albert Camus, who also does not believe in God, through Rieux declares that "Ã¢ÂÂ¦since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?" 15. For Camus, and Rieux, religion is not the way to find meaning in our lives. Just as in Tarrou, Grand, and Rambert, Camus through Rieux reiterates his belief that we must "revolt" against the injustices in society, to find meaning.
Not only does Rieux, communicate Camus' belief that we must "revolt" against injustices, he also expresses Camus' love and compassion for man. Throughout the novel, Rieux tries to combat the disease, although he knows that it is a "never ending defeat. "16 Though he does not seem himself as a hero, there can be no doubt that Camus conveys some sort of heroism through him. He tells Tarrou that "heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to meÃ¢ÂÂ¦ what interests me is being a man" 17 . He gains our respect for his tireless, unselfish efforts to help others he fights the plague, as a physician. He tells Tarrou "there are sick peopleÃ¢ÂÂ¦[and] I defend them best I can." 18 Rieux is hero because he helps his fellow man at risk of becoming ill himself, but he is also a hero because, as critic James Woelfel says, "Ã¢ÂÂ¦actively struggling against the injustices of the human condition."19 Rieux will never quit trying to help, though he knows that the "plague bacillus never dies and that the day would come when 'it would raise up its rats again."20 Rieux reflects Camus' compassion for man, and his belief that man is inherently good.
Camus "stressed that The Plague was to be a more positive book than The Stranger."21 And, though the novel centers on a gruesome plague, it also tells the tale "of a final victory. " 22The characters fight against the 'absurd' and by doing so gain our admiration.