The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by the Nobel Prize winning French author Albert Camus. An immediate success when it was published in 1947, it remains one of the most popular works by the author.
Set in the 1940s in Oran, a coastal town in what was then French Algeria, the story chronicles the struggles of the town during a plague outbreak. The central character, Bernard Rieux, is a physician who dedicates himself to the battle against the disease. When the town is placed under quarantine, most residents at first suffer through their private fears and hardships in isolation. Some, however, risk their own lives and join Dr. Rieux in the fight. As the quarantine drags on, more and more people begin to recognize the epidemic as a collective disaster and join the communal anti-plague campaign.
The Plague is generally read as an allegory of German occupation of France during World War II. Dr. Rieux and his friends who selflessly battle the disease are thought to represent the Resistance. The changing moods and attitudes of the townspeople reflect those of the French population, and Cottard, a fugitive who flourishes during the plague, plays the role of a war profiteer or a Nazi collaborator. There is also a scene which takes place at a "quarantine camp" resembling a concentration camp. Many such similarities and parallels are found throughout the novel.
Much of Camus' philosophy, a combination of existentialism and humanism, is expressed through the characters of Rieux and his closest friend, Jean Tarrou. Rieux, an atheist who does not believe in a rational explanation or meaning behind the suffering, sees the plague as a random terror. He instead sees meaning in the fight against the disease and death, and he recognizes "more things to admire in men than to despise." In contrast, the character of the preacher, Father Paneloux, interprets the plague as God's judgment and sees a town full of sinners. Tarrou, a former agitator disillusioned by bloodshed, sees in human nature the inclination to "kill or let others kill" and condemns all violence. Yet, searching for inner peace, he chooses to fight on the side of the victims. The Plague, in this context, is a story of noble struggle by men against the absurdity of life and death which gives meaning to their otherwise meaningless existence.
The first and only film adaptation to date of The Plague, updated and relocated to South America, was released in France in 1992. The film was a disappointment and never saw theatrical release in the United States.
On April 16, 194—, in the coastal town of Oran, French Algeria, Dr. Bernard Rieux steps on a dead rat in the middle of the landing. The following morning, the concierge reports three dead rats in the hall, all bleeding profusely. After sending his ailing wife off to the sanatorium, Rieux sees a box full of dead rats being carried off at the train station. The situation worsens in the following days. By April 28, with 8,000 rats collected in one day, the town is beginning to panic. The next day, however, the phenomenon abruptly ends and rats disappear.
The same day, the concierge becomes ill with fever accompanied by pain and swelling in the neck, armpits, and groin. Rieux sends him to bed before being called away by Joseph Grand, a municipal clerk. Grand's neighbor, a reclusive man named Cottard, had hung himself, and Grand got him down just in time to save him. Returning later, Rieux finds the concierge vomiting, with black patches developing in his thighs. In the morning, the patient is feeling better. But his condition suddenly deteriorates at noon, and he dies on the way to the hospital.
Calling up his colleagues, Rieux discovers similar cases. With number of cases growing, he persuades the authorities to convene a meeting. Dr. Castel, a colleague with experiences abroad, bluntly calls it a plague. Others, not wanting to cause panic, want to wait till they know more before making any decisions. Rieux advocates prompt action given the rapidity with which the disease, plague or not, is spreading. After much discussion, they decide to recommend acting "as though the epidemic were plague" so the Prefect can issue orders to put containment measures in place.
At first, official notices announce only precautionary measures such as extermination of rats and voluntary reporting of new cases. However, with the hospital quickly becoming full, they are soon forced to order mandatory isolation for the sick and quarantine for their families. When the death toll reaches 30 in a single day, the Prefect is ordered by the central colony administration to close the town.
The town is cut off and many are separated from their loved ones. With mail service suspended and telephone calls reserved for emergencies, telegram becomes the only connection to the outside world. Death rate grows steadily, reaching 345 in one week. With food and gas controlled and only necessities being brought in, shops begin to close. The feeling of exile settles over the town. Only Cottard, previously suicidal, is cheerful, seeking company and spending money to buy people's good will.
Raymond Rambert, a reporter from Paris now stuck in town, visits Rieux to ask if he can be given a certificate of health. He is eager to be reunited with his wife and wants officials to grant him an exception. When Rieux explains why he cannot help, Rambert accuses him of talking logic, thinking in abstractions, and not caring for each person's welfare.
At the end of the first month, a Week of Prayer is organized, concluding with High Mass on Sunday. With Father Paneloux, a learned Jesuit, preaching, a huge congregation overflows into the street. In the dramatic sermon, Paneloux calls the plague "the flail of God" spreading suffering over the town full of sinners and deserving of the calamity.
Soon after the sermon, hot weather sets in. Weekly death toll at nearly 700, discontent grows. At the same time, the plague turns pneumonic and anti-plague serum from Paris becomes less effective. An out-of-towner named Jean Tarrou, whose background no one knows, visits Rieux with a proposal to organize volunteers in fighting the plague. Shrugging off the potential dangers, Tarrou asks Rieux what he thought of the sermon. Rieux replies he does not believe in an all-powerful God and thinks it better if they all put up a struggle against death rather than look to Him.
Once the volunteer "sanitary squads" are formed, people begin to see the plague as everyone's concern. Dr. Castel is working on a new serum using locally obtained cultures. Grand is acting as secretary to the volunteers, and the unassuming clerk is developing friendships with Rieux and Tarrou. He even shares with them his secret hobby of writing a novel, discussing its opening line which has been causing him trouble for years.
Cottard, now involved in smuggling rationed goods, introduces Rambert to smugglers helping people get out of town. After several meetings and delays, Rambert is waiting for another appointment when Rieux and Tarrou visit him. Rambert says he does not join their campaign because he believes in living and dying for love, not ideas. He assumes Rieux and Tarrou have nothing to lose, making it easier for them. After Rieux leaves, Tarrou tells Rambert about Rieux's wife who is away at the sanatorium. Next morning, Rambert calls the doctor volunteering his services until he finds his way out.
In mid-August, the plague spreads into the business center of town. Authorities begin segregating heavily affected areas, and residents returning from quarantine start setting fire to their own houses believing it will help kill off the plague. Food and supplies are running low, and martial law is declared due to looting. By late summer, out of room even for mass graves, they begin using the street car to transport remains to the crematorium. No longer capable of powerful emotions, people settle into their despair.
By September, everyone is growing indifferent, too exhausted to care even about the weekly statistics. Only Cottard remains in good humor. He had been hiding from police for a crime he committed many years ago. Having lived in constant fear, he is happy to no longer be alone in his misery. He takes Tarrou to the opera one evening when, in the middle of the performance, a singer collapses causing the audience to stampede for the exits.
Rambert, with his escape plan finally set, visits Rieux at the hospital. He tells the doctor he wants to stay. Having seen what he has seen lately, he no longer feels a stranger in town. He would be ashamed if he were to run away.
At the end of October, the magistrate's young son is taken into isolation. His condition quickly becoming critical, Rieux decides to test Castel's serum. Unfortunately the serum only prolongs the struggle, and the boy dies screaming in agony. Father Paneloux stops Rieux as he walks out. Rieux shouts at the priest that the child, at least, was innocent. He later apologizes but tells Paneloux that he refuses to believe in a scheme in which children are tortured.
Paneloux is also shaken by the boy's death. In his second sermon, he speaks in gentler tone and addresses the difficulty in looking at a child's agony. He declares a time of testing has come when they must either believe or deny everything, and urges the congregation to yield wholly to divine will - for only the love of God can reconcile something so far beyond human understanding as the suffering and death of children.
Soon after the sermon, Paneloux takes ill. He initially refuses to see a doctor, but is soon compelled to report himself, although he has no plague symptoms, to comply with regulations. He submits to treatment at the hospital but never lets go of his crucifix, and his eyes keep serenity. He dies after weeks of suffering, his illness never diagnosed.
In early November, plague hits a plateau, with death rate remaining constant. Tarrou and Rambert visit a quarantine camp located in the municipal stadium. Looking around, they see hundreds of tents in the field and people crowding the stands. The people, forgotten by their friends on the outside, sit or stroll about in quiet suffering with fear and suspicion in their eyes.
After visiting a patient at home one night, Rieux and Tarrou sit on the terrace for a brief rest. Finding a rare opportunity to speak as friends, Tarrou talks about his youth and how he became an agitator after watching his father, a prosecuting attorney, demand the death sentence at a trial. Convinced that capital punishment was the worst form of murder, Tarrou spent years fighting the established order till, one day, he witnessed a man executed by a firing squad. Realizing he had played a part in numerous deaths, he lost his peace - he has been trying to find it ever since. Having told his story, Tarrou suggests a swim, forbidden since the outbreak, to cement their friendship. They swim side by side in silent harmony and return ready to go back to battle.
At Christmas, Grand becomes ill. Getting sicker by the hour, he hands Rieux his manuscript; 50 pages of the same opening sentence in many variations. On the last page, Rieux sees the beginning of a letter Grand has been trying to write to his estranged wife. At Grand's insistence, Rieux burns the manuscript. The next day, Grand makes an unexpected recovery. More such cases are reported, and mortality figures begin to decrease.
On January 25, authorities announce the reopening of town in two weeks. The whole town rejoices, except for Cottard who goes through severe mood changes. As he speaks to Tarrou on the street, two government employees approach. Cottard dashes off and disappears.
Next day, Tarrou falls ill. By the evening, he shows signs of both varieties of plague at once. Rieux tends to his friend overnight and watches him battle with courage. After the usual remission in the morning, the fever surges back and Tarrou starts to cough up blood. Rieux watches helplessly as the end comes. Sitting in vigil and feeling defeated, Rieux knows that he has now lost his peace forever. The next morning, he receives the news of his wife's death with stoic composure - the suffering no longer being new to him.
The gate-opening ceremony in February is accompanied by festivities all day and night. Rambert is finally reunited with his wife. Rieux watches people dancing in the streets and recognizes what they had all shared; exile and the longing for reunion. Though individual circumstances differed, most had longed for absent ones or for the life they had been used to. But some, like Tarrou, had desired reunion with something more. Those whose desires were limited to human love got their answer. But for those who longed for more, there was no answer.
At this point in the story, Rieux identifies himself as the narrator of this chronicle. With the exception of Cottard, who was taken into custody after a shootout with the police, people were ready to move on. Even Grand was happier, having finally written to his wife and restarted his novel. It was while watching fireworks from the same terrace where he and Tarrou had sat that Rieux resolved to compile the chronicle as a memorial, and also as a testament to the good in men he had witnessed. In closing, however, he cautions that the tale does not end in a final victory - for the plague bacillus never dies. It just lies dormant, biding its time till the day when it would send out its rats again.
- ↑ Camus himself worked for the French Resistance during the occupation.