Thanks to both Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations for choosing The Plague or La Peste in its original French, by Albert Camus as one of my Bah-Humbook holiday book selections. Though I have read this work several years ago, this is the kind of novel that bears rereading. I am very happy that they picked this work and I am very happy that I read it again.
I loved this book. The plot was riveting, and the ideas bubbled up like soup in a caldron. Camus’s writing style, at least in the translation by Stuart Gilbert that I read, is sparse but so much so that it is original. Though often a grim narrative, I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves ideas and who is intellectually adventurous.
The story takes place in Oran, then part of French Algeria. As the narrative unfolds, Bubonic Plague breaks out and spreads throughout the city. As the epidemic worsens, the authorities impose emergency measures. As part of the decrees, the city is sealed off and quarantined. Eventually, hundreds begin to die on a daily basis. The citizens of Oran experience enormous suffering and hardship. As it becomes imperative that the sick are cared for, the dead are disposed of and other remedial services are to be performed, many people decide to ban together, at great personal risk, as they attempt to fight the malady.
The tale is told from the point of view of an initially unknown narrator who is eventually revealed as one of the main characters. Several of the city’s inhabitants figure prominently in the narrative. Dr. Bernard Rieux fights against the plague and is involved with both Oran’s authorities as well as many of the stricken. Jean Tarrou, a man dedicated to fighting human suffering and cruelty, organizes the citizens of Oran to combat the malady. Joseph Grand is a government bureaucrat whose life is initially somewhat aimless, but he rises to the occasion when the time comes for sacrifice in battling the scourge. The mysterious Cottard is initially suicidal, but eventually comes to profit from the epidemic. Many additional characters figure prominently in the story.
Having read somewhat extensive commentary on both the novel and Camus’s life and philosophy subsequent to my first reading, I believe that the basic themes of the story are relatively transparent. Thus, in another post I want to come at this work from what I believe to be an unorthodox angle. I first must summarize what I think are the basic points of the book as well as express some opinions about Camus views.
Camus, through various writings, developed a somewhat extensive belief system. Though many classify him as an existentialist, he actually rejected that label. Nonetheless, many compare him and his ideas to existentialist thinkers and their theories. Instead of trying to analyze this book in direct context with existentialist thought systems, I think that one can extract some basic, easy to grasp ideas from this work. Eventually, in what will be my second entry on this novel, I do want to compare the thought system espoused in this book to those of another author.
Though there is a lot of complexity and nuance here, it seems that Camus was attempting to communicate three basic ideas. First, we live in a universe that is completely arbitrary. Very bad things happen to people with no rhyme or reason. There is no justice, no right, no wrong, no punishment or rewards built into reality. These terrible truths are absurd (okay, the entire “absurd” thing begins to get into existentialist thinking and theories, I just cannot avoid that term when summarizing these ideas).
The arbitrary and nasty nature of the universe is displayed throughout this work. There are many examples. The absolute injustice behind human suffering is brought to a head when a young boy, who everyone recognizes as innocent, experiences an extremely agonizing, terrible and meaningless death.
Secondly, at the bottom of it all, the thing that we most value in human life is our personal relationships. The greatest source of suffering in this world occurs when these relationships are damaged and broken, be it through death or just by interpersonal distance or turmoil. When the city of Oran is quarantined without warning, family, friends and loved ones are separated for long periods of time. Throughout the book, these separations are examined and shown to result in the greatest hardships and pain. The sufferings caused by these disunions almost seem more severe than the suffering caused by the plague itself.
In one of many passages exploring this issue, the narrator observes the effect of Oran as being cut off the rest of the world,
One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking— all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, Camus does offer a strong and unequivocal response to an uncaring, unjust and absurd universe that does terrible things to our human connections. Clearly, the most important and meaningful thing that people can do with their lives is to help other people in relieving pain and suffering and to oppose human cruelty. At times, the author seems to portray life as a battle between a capricious world and the acts of altruism by well-intentioned people. At its core, this book is a call to action against suffering and death.
And Tarrou, Rieux, and their friends might give one answer or another, but its conclusion was always the same, their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down. The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation.
The fight against these ills is portrayed as starkly unsentimental and based on rationality alone. Fighting against human misery is a non-absurd way to react to an absurd universe. The narrator goes on,
And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.
There is very little romanticism in this book. To combat human distress is simply the only logical thing to do.
These points seem to me to be the building blocks of the ideas that this novel is built upon. Over the course of the story, Camus plays upon and refines these ideas. There is a lot more than I can cover in my summary. For one thing, I am grossly oversimplifying the thought system presented here. There is also a lot that I have not touched upon, including ruminations upon the flawed nature of human relationships or Christianity in an absurd world, to just name a few.
I am with Camus on many of these issues. His view of the universe, that of a place where arbitrary and terrible things happen to the guilty and innocent alike, I think is accurate. His emphasis on human relationships seems to me obviously true. Finally, making the world better through the alleviation of suffering as the one primary reason for existence seems unarguable. His lack of sentimentality regarding such purpose does seem a bit odd to me and I intend to explore this further in my next post. These ideas are relatively well known, and they have been written and talked about extensively. Thus, I plan to come at Camus’s ideas from a slightly unconventional direction in my next entry on this novel.