“The only way to bring people together is to send them the plague”; in his classic novel of human struggle and resistance, Camus reminds us of the incredible durability of mankind.
Set in the “boring” French-Algerian town of Oran, this novel follows the lives of some of its unfortunate inhabitants, trapped after the spreading pestilence forces the town’s gates to close. One such inhabitant is Dr Bernard Rieux, a rational, sensible, middle-aged doctor, one of the first to notice the rats.
They begin to appear – bloody, gruesome and dying – in small groups, then entire swarms, soon culminating in an uncontrollable and revolting infestation that the town authorities simply cannot cope with. Yet they suddenly disappear, and soon it is not the rats that are the problem: it’s the Plague.
As the epidemic begins to consume the town, daily life rapidly deteriorates. Jean Tarrou, a courageous and collected young man, soon begins to help Dr Rieux with his battles against the repulsive boils that grow and consume the plague’s victims. Keeping a separate, yet curiously observant account of the town’s daily goings-on, he remains a calming force amidst the rising hysteria. The same cannot be said for Raymond Rambert, a young journalist visiting Oran who is subsequently trapped by the ruthless quarantine laws. Frantically determined to break free of exile to return to his wife in Paris, he attempts at all instances to make his escape, indifferent to the oppressive moral denouncements of Father Paneloux.
Paneloux, the town’s priest, is convinced the plague is a message from God, a punishment for their sins; yet as the residents begin to die in their thousands, and the weeks draw ever on, religious tensions begin to surface that question the foundations of the town’s piety. There is also Joseph Grand, the tired, obsessive civil servant who strives to perfect every word of his precious novel, spending hours on his pages and wondering why his marriage was a failure.
All characters undergo considerable change during the events of the novel, most understanding themselves far better than before the plague forced them to consider their real identity. Yet perhaps the historical context of the novel would help to illuminate their (in some cases drastic) upheavals in character:
Published in 1947, ‘The Plague’ – originally ‘La Peste’ (written in French) – is thought to be an allegory of Nazi-occupied France, as its author, Albert Camus, found himself trapped in Algeria by the Nazi empire, wrenched from his wife and family. The novel certainly beautifully – and often tragically – encapsulates the sheer isolation and sense of exile he must have felt, exploring the different reactions humanity has to the disasters it often experiences.
Nonetheless, even without placing it in its historical context, The Plague is a revealing and intriguing examination of the hardiness of the human spirit, uncovering not just the devastation of such catastrophe but its ability to irrevocably change human identity – for better or worse.
I would recommend this novel – it’s an extremely interesting perspective of a situation few could ever imagine, providing a valuable reading experience. However, I can’t say it kept me gripped from page to page; I found the narration occasionally boring and tiresome, though perhaps some of Camus’ reputed greatness is inevitably lost in translation.
Ending on a particularly sombre note, it reminds us that we must always uphold resistance against great struggles:
“The Plague Bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely”.