A True Classic of Human Suffering
The Plague by Albert Camus isn’t exactly short on company when it comes to stories that depict the spread of an infectious disease. There are countless books and movies that centre on deadly outbreaks and the beats of them tend to follow the same rhythm. Not unlike the real world, you can generally expect them to start out with a small number of people contracting an illness, this then comes to the attention of a little known expert who struggles to convince their government to take it seriously, until eventually, the threat of it is so overwhelming that they’re forced to implement extreme measures to combat it. Drama, of course, ensues. The obstacles can differ from version to version, but what makes them all so entertaining is that they allow us a chance to see how society responds when exposed to a serious threat and to ask ourselves how we might survive when it starts to crumble. Camus’s work sets itself apart though. Instead of focusing on the melodrama of the outbreak, he describes the existential crisis it prompts through the different reactions of a handful of characters.
Albert Camus is mostly known for his philosophy of The Absurd. To put it simply, The Absurd, as he defined it, is the contrast of humanity’s desire to seek meaning in an essentially meaningless universe. He outlined the idea in essays like The Myth of Sisyphus, but I’ve always found the concept a lot more compelling when he explored it in the form of fiction. The Stranger is the best known example of his work and probably one of the best novels of the 20th century, but The Plague is easily a close second and arguably explores his thoughts on the subject in a much more methodical manner.
The story of The Plague take’s place in the French Algerian city of Oran. At the beginning of the novel a doctor identifies some cases of bubonic plague among its citizens. The discovery of it is downright surreal. The doctor advises that appropriate precautions should be implemented, but it takes a while longer for the reality of the threat to sink in. When it does he recognises the oncoming catastrophe in all seriousness. From there, the machinations of how they combat the sickness actually do follow the usual kind of plot beats you’re already familiar with; The city has walls, so they’re able to quarantine the entire population within it, the government is indeed slow to react to the problem, and the procedural methods they use to fight it are interesting in their own right. But rather than become an intense, shut in drama, Camus treats the city like an incubator in which he’s able to study the people when they’re confronted with the possibility of their own demise.
For starters, the doctor of the novel doesn’t feel like he’s particularly heroic or working for some divine cause. As an atheist he’s merely fulfilling the practical needs of his job. But there are other heroes to consider too. Another atheist who’s a stranger to the city contrasts with the doctor in that though he doesn’t believe in a God, he thinks that you should still attempt to act as noble and saintly as possible. And yet another stranger to the city contrasts with the both of them in that he doesn’t feel obliged to help the local citizens at all. In fact, his prime objective to escape the place as soon as he can and return to his family.
There are a couple of other major characters who each embody a particular worldview, but I won’t bother to list them all here as it’s obviously a lot more interesting to experience them on your own terms. Suffice it to say, despite the fact that these short descriptions just sound like a cast of characters that could be found in any old b-movie, the point of them isn’t to drive the plot forward. Rather, it’s to put them in conversation with each other and provoke some genuine insight on the human condition.
As a minor example, if you were to take a character like the man who wants to pursue his own wellbeing over that of the group and put him in a show like The Walking Dead you can well imagine he’d be reduced to a conniving backstabber that would accidentally bring disaster down on everyone in a clumsy attempt to get what he needs. In The Plague, Albert Camus doesn’t dish out this kind of moral justice for the sake of a dramatic conclusion. Instead he takes you on a journey where everyone, from the heroes to the cowards, are looked at with an extremely sympathetic eye. The point, after all, is that it’s impossible to know how one should react to mortality. Though you may admire the heroics of some of the more admirable characters, that doesn’t mean you can condemn the people who fail to live up to those standards, and indeed even though they fall far short of them there’s hope that they’ll recognise the depth of their own humanity when they’re given enough time. Taken together this all contributes to Camus’ overarching message that though there might not be a point to our existence, there can still be reason to live, even if it is contrived and absurd.
That said, I might be making the mistake of imposing my own meaning on the book.
It’s possible to take The Plague as an allegory for the German invasion of France, which Camus suffered through and fought against with the underground resistance during World War II. During that time he presumably would have run into plenty of people who were only looking out for themselves, and yet many others who managed to make a defiant stand. As fascinating an interpretation this is, I think it would be limiting the books meaning to take it as a direct parallel with his wartime experience. Afterall, if Camus wanted to write about the occupation of France he could have just written about the occupation of France. The Plague gains a lot more scope by making the threat a completely natural one that can act a pure expression of just how apathetic and meaningless the universe can be. Moreover, the book is full of sentences and metaphors that can be interpreted any number of ways. No one character is able to answer the questions at hand. And indeed, much of the point seems to be that there is no single definitive response that should be undertaken.
All things considered, don’t let me put you off the book by making it sound too bleak. I kind of have a high tolerance for darker subject matter so I’m not necessarily the best judge, but I really don’t think you’ll walk away from The Plague feeling depressed. There are plenty of optimistic moments throughout and the friendships that develop between the characters are a genuine pleasure to read. There’s a phrase that one man in particular looks forward to hearing and it makes me smile whenever it comes to mind: ‘Hat’s off gentlemen’. It’s what he imagines an impressed publisher saying when he finally submits his novel for publication. Of course, he’ll probably never actually finish writing the novel. At the beginning of the story he’s already been working on the first sentence for about ten years. Still, you can’t help but feel a pang of joy when he says he’s going to begin work on the novel again. Because even if he never actually gets to the end, you know that half the pleasure for him is simply trying to get there.