History: published in 1947, the novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonization, but the novel is placed in the 1940s. Oran and its environs were struck by disease multiple times before Camus published this novel. According to a research report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was decimated by the plague in 1556 and 1678, but outbreaks after European colonization, in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.
The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus' objection to the label. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka's, especially in The Trial, where individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition.
Plot: In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially going unnoticed by the populace, began to die in the streets. A hysteria develops soon after, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.
The main character, Dr. Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building's concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Castel, about the illness until they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory, but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more and more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic.
Authorities are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A "special ward" is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined, corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is only enough to treat existing cases and the country's emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.
The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to "urgent" calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.
One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his lover in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God for the citizens' sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves and who would not have done so in normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal remorseful enough to attempt suicide yet fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Dr. Rieux, a vacationer Jean Tarrou, and a civil servant Joseph Grand exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.
Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, also have loved ones outside the city that they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and changes his mind. He then decides to join Tarrou and Dr. Rieux to help fight the epidemic.
At the peak of the plague's destruction, the townspeople eventually give up on their personal concerns and band together to help each other. When a child dies from the plague, Dr. Rieux criticizes Father Paneloux's first sermon about God's vengeance for sinful behaviour, citing the innocence of children. This inspires Father Paneloux to deliver a second sermon, however not to directly address the innocence, but to suggest that death was, in Paneloux's opinion, an expression of God's will. Therefore, the child's death is a "test" for Christians who have to choose between following God wholly or not at all. Paneloux also implies that all those who died from the plague were sinful. Eventually Paneloux too is stricken with illness.
When the plague ends, the townspeople return to their daily routine becoming self-absorbed and ignorant again. Rambert reunites with his wife; Cottard, not being able to make a living outside of the plague, is captured by the police; Tarrou dies just before the plague ends. Dr. Rieux learns that his wife died from illness though she was outside the city. In the final scene he stands watching the fireworks of celebration, leaving a reminder that the plague is not dead, merely subdued
Review: Although Camus's approach in the book is severe, his narrator emphasizes the ideas that we ultimately have no control, irrationality of life is inevitable, and he further illustrates the human reaction towards the ‘absurd’. The Plague represents how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd, a theory which Camus himself helped to define.
Opening Line: “The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”
Closing Line: “He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books; that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears or good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Quotes: "No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all."