What is Albert Camus’ The Plague About? An Introduction

Top­ping lists of plague nov­els cir­cu­lat­ing these days, Albert Camus’ 1947 The Plague (La Peste), as many have been quick to point out, is about more than its blunt title would sug­gest. The book incor­po­rates Camus’ expe­ri­ence as edi­tor-in-chief of Com­bat, a French Resis­tance news­pa­per, and serves as an alle­go­ry for the spread of fas­cism and the Nazi occu­pa­tion of France. It also illus­trates the evo­lu­tion of his philo­soph­i­cal thought: a grad­ual turn toward the pri­ma­cy of the absurd, and away from asso­ci­a­tions with Sartre’s Exis­ten­tial­ism.

But The Plague’s pri­ma­ry sub­ject is, of course, a plague—a fic­tion­al out­break in the Alger­ian “French pre­fec­ture” of Oran. Here, Camus relo­cates a 19th cen­tu­ry cholera out­break to some­time in the 1940s and turns it into the rat-borne epi­dem­ic that killed tens of mil­lions in cen­turies past. As Daniel Defoe had done 175 years before in A Jour­nal of the Plague Yeardraw­ing on his own expe­ri­ences as a journalist—Camus “immersed him­self in the his­to­ry of plagues,” notes the School of Life. Camus even quotes Defoe in the nov­el­’s epi­graph: “It is as rea­son­able to rep­re­sent one kind of impris­on­ment by anoth­er, as it is to rep­re­sent any­thing that real­ly exists by that which exists not.”

Camus “read books on the Black Death that killed 50 mil­lion peo­ple in Europe in the 14th cen­tu­ry; the Ital­ian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000 peo­ple across the plains of Lom­bardy and the Vene­to, the great plague of Lon­don of 1665 as well as plagues that rav­aged cities on China’s east­ern seaboard dur­ing the 18th and 19th cen­turies.” Per­haps more time­ly now than in its time, The Plague puts Camus’ his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge in the mind of its pro­tag­o­nist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who remem­bers in his grow­ing alarm “the plague at Con­stan­tino­ple that, accord­ing to Pro­copius, caused ten thou­sand deaths in a sin­gle day.”

Rieux embod­ies anoth­er theme in the novel—the seem­ing­ly end­less human capac­i­ty for denial, even among well-mean­ing, knowl­edge­able experts. Despite his read­ing of his­to­ry and up-close obser­va­tion of the out­break, Rieux fails—or refuses—to acknowl­edge the dis­ease for what it is. That is, until an old­er col­league says to him, “Nat­u­ral­ly, you know what this is.” Forced to say the word “plague” aloud, Rieux allows the spread­ing epi­dem­ic to become real for the first time.

[L]ike our fel­low cit­i­zens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should under­stand his hes­i­ta­tions in the light of this fact; and sim­i­lar­ly under­stand how he was torn between con­flict­ing fears and con­fi­dence. When a war breaks out, peo­ple say: “It’s too stu­pid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stu­pid,” that does­n’t pre­vent its last­ing. Stu­pid­i­ty has a knack of get­ting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in our­selves.

In this respect our towns­folk were like every­body else, wrapped up in them­selves; in oth­er words they were human­ists: they dis­be­lieved in pesti­lences.

Per­pet­u­al­ly busy with mer­can­tile projects and ideas about progress, the town, like “human­ists,” ignores the reap­pear­ance of his­to­ry and believe plagues to belong to the dis­tant past. Camus writes that such peo­ple “pass away… first of all, because they haven’t tak­en their pre­cau­tions.”

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.

Whether we are pre­pared for them or not, plagues and wars will come upon us, aid­ed by the brute force of human idio­cy and irra­tional­i­ty. This ter­ri­ble truth flies in the face of the unteth­ered free­dom of Sartre­an exis­ten­tial­ism. “They fan­cied them­selves free,” Camus’ nar­ra­tor says of Oran’s towns­peo­ple, “and no one will ever be free so long as there are pesti­lences.” The nov­el pro­ceeds to illus­trate just how dev­as­tat­ing a dead­ly epi­dem­ic can be to our most cher­ished notions.

In Camus’ phi­los­o­phy, “our lives,” the School of Life points out, “are fun­da­men­tal­ly on the edge of what he termed ‘the absurd.’” But this “should not lead us to despair pure and sim­ple,” though the feel­ing may be a stage along the way to “a redemp­tive tra­gi-com­ic per­spec­tive.” The recog­ni­tion of fini­tude, of fail­ure, igno­rance, and repetition—what philoso­pher Miguel de Una­muno called “the trag­ic sense of life”—can instead cure us of the “behav­iors Camus abhorred: a hard­ness of heart, an obses­sion with sta­tus, a refusal of joy and grat­i­tude, a ten­den­cy to mor­al­ize and judge.” What­ev­er else The Plague is about, Camus shows that in a strug­gle for sur­vival, these atti­tudes can prove worse than use­less and can be the first to go.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Nov­el the Coro­n­avirus Has Made a Best­seller Again

Pan­dem­ic Lit­er­a­ture: A Meta-List of the Books You Should Read in Coro­n­avirus Quar­an­tine

Sartre Writes a Trib­ute to Camus After His Friend-Turned-Rival Dies in a Trag­ic Car Crash: “There Is an Unbear­able Absur­di­ty in His Death”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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