Review: Albert Camus’s “The Plague”

by Miles Raymer

The Plague

Every great novel has a time, or times, when it is needed most. For Albert Camus’s The Plague, that time is now. As I write these words, 24,127 lives have been lost to SARS-CoV-2, and this is just the beginning. Locked in mortal combat with an enemy we will certainly vanquish––either by wit, endurance, or some combination of both––we wonder what sacrifices will be necessary and how we will bear the hardships ahead. The Plague renders our asking of these questions more sophisticated as well as poignant.

The scene is Oran, a real city on the Algerian coast that experiences a fictional outbreak of the Black Death during the 1940s. Once the plague is identified as such, the city undergoes a lengthy and brutal quarantine, during which time a large number of its citizens die and the rest struggle with various traumas caused by their unchosen isolation. The Plague is a dark, sad story––one that might feel hopeless had Camus failed to imbue it with compassionate humanism and resounding courage.

The Plague‘s protagonist is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a man whose extraordinary nature derives from a simple but unyielding commitment to the alleviation of human suffering. “The language he used,” Camus writes of Rieux, “was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in––though he had much liking for his fellow men––and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth” (12). As pestilence ravages Oran with increasing intensity, Rieux and his companions repeatedly display a subtle heroism born of method and duty.

Beyond its vivid and captivating characters, The Plague takes the reader on an unnerving tour through the collective psychology of disease. Camus relishes the nuances of love, denial, anticipation, disappointment, ecstasy, and grief, demonstrating how mass death has the power to completely recast certain qualities of experience while leaving others unblemished. One would search in vain to find a superior examination of “the frantic desire for life that thrives at the heart of every calamity” (113-4).

In other moments, it might make sense to understand The Plague as a parable, one designed to interrogate so much more than the superficial fate of the flesh. But, in this moment, a literal reading is enough. We find ourselves cast into a chasm of disconnection; the best thing we can do is stay home, and yet we long to be out in the world––communing, supporting, loving our fellow humans. For many of us, empathy at a distance is the best we can do, the socially-responsible choice. And even in the digital age, a good book may still prove our most effective empathic mechanism.

Despite its grim and gritty subject matter––because of it, in fact––The Plague is a salutary narrative that helps us enter the lives of the brave people now fighting to protect everything we hold dear. It is also an analeptic reminder that, no matter how high the death count or bottomless the nadir of sorrow, all plagues come to an end:

Yes, they had suffered together, in body no less than in soul, from a cruel leisure, exile without redress, thirst that was never slaked. Among the heaps of corpses, the clanging bells of ambulances, the warnings of what goes by the name of fate, among unremitting waves of fear and agonized revolt, the horror that such things could be, always a great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn, panicked people, a voice calling them back to the land of their desire, a homeland. It lay outside the walls of the stifled, strangled town, in the fragrant brushwood of the hills, in the waves of the sea, under free skies, and in the custody of love. And it was to this, their lost home, toward happiness, they longed to return. (278)

Rating: 10/10