The Plague, by Albert Camus. Originally published in 1947. 320 pages.
Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. The Plague, Albert Camus
It might seem as if The Plague is the last thing any sane person would want to read right now, but I beg to differ. It’s a great novel exploring the nuances of human nature during times such as these. Our current crisis, to date, is not as severe as the plague described in the novel, but Camus still speaks to the spirit of this age.
That Camus, in 1947 no less, described his French Algerian city of Oran in ways that easily parallel any American city in 2020 was pretty striking. As our story begins, the plague has not yet struck. Camus describes it this way:
Certainly, nothing is common nowadays than to see people working from morning till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card tables, in cafes, and in small talk what time is left for living. Nevertheless, there still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general, it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern. Hence I see no need to dwell on the manner of loving in our town. The men and women consume one another rapidly in what is called “the act of love”, or else settle down to a mild habit of conjugality. We seldom find a mean between these two extremes. That too is not exceptional. At Oran, as elsewhere, for lack of time and thinking, people have to love one another without knowing much about it. p. 4-5
With this description of the busy city of roughly a quarter-million residents, Camus begins their story. It begins when they’re faced with the unsettling but manageable proliferation of rats dying in the streets, then the slow but emerging realization that whatever is killing the rats is also beginning to plague the city’s human population. It’s a nasty disease, and its victims experience painful buboes and die gruesome deaths.
At first, the people are in denial, while the authorities resist drastic measures for economic reasons. Before long, the reality of what they are facing becomes apparent and the town is locked down. The city gates are secured and no one is allowed in or out of the town. The residents still move freely, as there are no other restrictions in place, but there are many non-residents trapped inside the city, and residents who can’t get back in.
In the midst of all of this is the story’s hero, Dr. Rieux who is treating a significant number of plague patients. Most of what we see, we see through his eyes as the town slowly descends into a place quite unlike anything its citizens are accustomed to.
There are included the stories of people who are in various levels of despair and desperation because of the separation from the ones they love. There is the priest with his fiery sermon calling the people to repentance. After the initial pause for fearful reflection, he is largely ignored:
With regard to religion- as to many other problems- plague had induced in them a curious frame of mind, as remote from indifference as from fervor; the best name to give it, perhaps, might be “objectivity”. Many of those who took part in the Week of Prayer would have echoed a remark made by one of the churchgoers in Dr. Rieux’s hearing: “Anyhow, it can’t do any harm.”
I’ll not give away every aspect of the plot, but this quote is an apt description of the paradox of human behavior in crisis, which Camus captures quite well:
But we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation…But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolmaster is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.
This novel is definitely worth the read. Y’all should check it out.
4 out of 5 stars