The Plague by Camus


Albert Camus (1913-1960) was born in Mondovi, Algeria. During World War II he went to Paris to join the resistance. It was there that he developed his philosophy of the absurd, the idea that life has no rational meaning. His fictional characters live in optimism within a hopeless universe. The absurd hero resists the illusion of a rational order, but also refuses to despair.

Though Camus does not recognise a moral order, he nevertheless concerned himself with human suffering in the apparently impassive universe. In The Plague alleviation of suffering seems to make little difference, but persistence when faced with tragedy is presented as noble. He expresses this concept in The Myth of Sisyphus. The plague disaster is also presented as testing the strain between selfish interest and social responsibility.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), through his concentration on human existence, as opposed to that of God's, influenced the existentialist movement. In his book The Concept of Anxiety he focused on the angst provoked by the unknown and death. Kafka had also evoked the anguished experience of being caught in a trap. Camus extended this idea by portraying a humanity in a futile search for meaning in a meaningless world. Kirkegaard retained the idea of a divinity in his concept of 'the leap of faith', but although Camus recognised the human desire for meaning, he claimed that it was absurd and destined to failure. Both authors agreed on embracing freedom and authenticity.

The philosophy of Camus draws many of its ideas from Existentialism which asserted that human existence has no rational or moral meaning. However, he believed in the human capacity for good and, though challenging accepted moral values, he viewed the human character as tending towards morality. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He died in an absurd car accident when the vehicle he was travelling in suddenly veered into a tree.


The story of The Plague (La Peste) (1947), told in 5 parts by a nameless narrator, is about how the Bubonic plague hits the port of Oran in the 1940s. 

Part 1: The main character is Doctor Rieux whose invalid wife is sent for treatment elsewhere and his mother who comes to look after him. Other characters introduced are: an elderly asthmatic Spaniard, a young reporter, Raymond Rambert and a wealthy visitor, Jean Tarrou, whose journal is introduced as a complementary narrative of events.

There occurs a sudden plague of dying rats in the town, but this stops later. However, panic really sets in when people then begin to die. Nevertheless, the authorities do not want to acknowledge the disease and more and more people die.

Two new characters appear: Cottard, who has tried to commit suicide and Grand who has saved him. Grand is a saviour, but a sorrowful figure whose wife has left him, who gets no promotion from his lowly administrative job and a woeful writer who cannot string two sentences together. 

Part 2: Rieux and two colleagues force the authorities to take action, but this is ineffective since the town is already quarantined. Grand starts to write a novel but can't get past the first sentence. Rambert, the visiting reporter, wants to escape from the town, but he is prevented. 

The local priest, Father Paneloux, delivers a sermon worthy of a Hebrew prophet where he interprets the plague as divine punishment for people's bad behaviour:

“If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.”

Deaths continue and the population is in panic.

Tarrou's journal introduces Othon, the magistrate, and more insight into the old Spaniard who stays in bed all day and joyfully wastes time. Tarrou then convinces Rieux to fight the plague.

Rambert decides to escape town, illegally, aided by the shady Cottard. This character is actually quite happy with the plague-ridden town because he is making money on the black market and is also not now a target for the police who are too busy with the pandemic. Rambert feels guilty about escaping so he joins Rieux's sanitary teams, but continues to plan an escape. 

Part 3: Cemeteries are full and large buildings have been converted to isolation encampments and hospitals. The plague has become more virulent and martial law is declared. An antidote is formulated and is tried out on Othon's son, but it is ineffective and he dies suffering. Father Paneloux gives another sermon where he struggles to reconcile his faith and the agonising death of an innocent child, but, like Job, he concludes that evil exceeds human understanding.

Part 4: Tarrou's background is presented and the reader learns that his father had been a prosecutor and had condemned a man to death. This turned him against the death penalty and magistrates.

Part 5: Grand falls victim to the plague but recovers and the vaccine begins to work. However some of the characters, such as Othon, Tarrou and Rieux's absent wife, die, but Rambert, the journalist is reunited with his wife in Paris.

It is revealed that the hidden narrator is actually Rieux who has chronicled the plague as a record for the future and as a lesson of the struggle to heal in the face of an uncaring universe.


The Absurd

Camus' philosophy maintains that the universe is absurd with no global order or divinity. Humanity's destiny is suffering and death and humans have three options: suicide, a kirkegaardian leap of faith or acceptance of the absurd and creation of personal meaning. The author rejected suicide as cowardice and faith as an illusion. He embraces absurdism as his chosen philosophy. This means that humans are alone responsible and their challenge is to do the work previously attributed to God. This extends to trying to make sense of meaninglessness, even in a practical way, through chronicling the plague or combating it through medicine like Rieux. Perhaps Grand, through his inability to express himself in writing, actually represents the human attempt to impose meaning on that which has no meaning:

"Grand went on talking, but Rieux failed to follow all the worthy man was saying. All he gathered was that the work he was engaged on ran to a great many pages, and he was at almost excruciating pains to bring it to perfection. “Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction!”

In The Plague, Oran represents the universe and the characters are the ways humans deal with the Absurd, symbolised by the disease. Cottard tries suicide, due to a plague of guilt, but then profits from others' sufferings through black market dealings. Paneloux, the priest, interprets the plague as a divine order of punishment, but falters in his faith when he sees a child die of the disease. On the other hand Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou accept the absurdity of the situation, struggle against the plague and find meaning in healing others.

Suffering and Death

The characters in the novel undergo an apparently meaningless suffering and have to deal with it in several ways. At the outset they try to ignore it or interpret it, like Rieux and Rambert, as an enemy separating them from their loved ones, or like Paneloux as a divine punishment or like Cottard as a way to financial gain. However, suffering and death are underlined as absurd in the death of the child Jacques, which undermines even the religious faith and hope of Paneloux. It is a reminder of the horrors of the human condition and the necessity of confronting them:

"After all," the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, “it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?”

Tarrou nodded.

“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”

Rieux’s face darkened.

“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”


The hero in Camus' fiction is the person who performs his duty in spite of the absurdity of the situation. Faced with the plague, defeat is inevitable, nevertheless the hero continues his struggle against the disease. He accepts the absurd and simultaneously fights against it. 

Rieux, the central character, has no religious or philosophical reasons to fight the plague, but he struggles against it anyway:

"Those who enrolled in the “sanitary squads,” as they were called, had, indeed, no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it."

Grand is held up as heroic by the narrator, despite being a failed writer unable to compose a proper sentence, perhaps because he labours on to make sense of his world through writing, like Camus.


At the end of the novel the reader discovers who is telling the story: Rieux. The hidden narrator is part of the writer's attempt to present a detached view of the fight against the plague. The heroics and suffering caused by the disease are not romanticised or used as a morality tale by Rieux, unlike Father Paneloux. The aim of the doctor's narrative is to present a hopeless, but dignified battle against a senseless evil, expecting nothing in return.

The expression of mutual feelings in the narrative is also repressed by the objectivity of the narrator. Rieux and his mother cannot find a way to communicate their affection for each other, neither can the main character express his friendship with Tarrou. The dialogue between characters is scanty. 

Grand appears as a slightly exaggerated character who is incapable of composing not only his book, but even a letter to his wife. He soldiers on in an absurd attempt to create the perfect sentence. Communication between people is a struggle but, given the meaninglessness of the universe, we must continue to make connections, imperfect though they may be:

"Grand went on talking, but Rieux failed to follow all the worthy man was saying. All he gathered was that the work he was engaged on ran to a great many pages, and he was at almost excruciating pains to bring it to perfection. “Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction!”


The plague quarantine separates many characters from their family members. The journalist, Rambert, cannot return home and neither can Rieux's wife come back to the city. Escape from the pandemic's imprisonment is Rambert's first impulse; others live in fantasies. Tarrou's exile is mental. It is from his idea of happiness.

Oran is occupied by the plague just as France was during World War II. However the disease does not unite the citizens who all suffer alone. Freedom can only be found, not in attempting a cowardly escape from the meaningless plague, like Rambert, but in combating it, as he decides to do.

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