📚 The Plague (Albert Camus)

Read The Plague

The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus. Published in 1947, it tells the story from the point of view of a narrator of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. The narrator remains unknown until the start of the last chapter, chapter 5 of part 5. The novel presents a snapshot of life in Oran as seen through the author’s distinctive absurdist point of view.[1]

Camus used as source material the cholera epidemic that killed a large proportion of Oran’s population in 1849, but situated the novel in the 1940s.[2] Oran and its surroundings were struck by disease several times before Camus published his novel. According to an academic study, Oran was decimated by the bubonic plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks (in 1921: 185 cases; 1931: 76 cases; and 1944: 95 cases) were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.[3]

The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus’ objection to the label.[4][5] The novel stresses the powerlessness of the individual characters to affect their destinies. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka’s, especially in The Trial, whose individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings; the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition.

I finally got around to reading (or listening to) Albert Camus’ The Plague. What stood out to me about Camus’ account was the way in which he captures the everyday. As Matthew Sharpe captures:

Camus became increasingly sceptical about glorious ideals of superhumanity, heroism or sainthood. It is the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things that The Plague lauds.

Another interesting point was the idea that ‘the plague’ is as much about a disease as it is about politics and life itself. As Tarrou asserts, “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.” This reminds me of Norman Swan’s discussion of COVID-19 being a political pandemic.

I am glad that I waited to read this as it was interesting to reflect and consider everything that has occurred.

Marginalia

“The plague.” “Ah!” Rieux exclaimed. “No, you haven’t understood that it means exactly that—the same thing over and over and over again.” (Page 151)

“To make things simpler, Rieux, let me begin by saying I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here. Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else. Only there are some people who don’t know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know and want to get out of it. Personally, I’ve always wanted to get out of it. (Page 226)

I know positively—yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see—that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death. (Page 233)

“Oh, for no particular reason. Only—well, he never talked just for talking’s sake. I’d rather cottoned to him. But there you are! All those folks are saying: ‘It was plague. We’ve had the plague here.’ You’d almost think they expected to be given medals for it. But what does that mean—‘plague’? Just life, no more than that.” (Page 282)

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city. (Page 283)

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