42 pages 1 hour read

Albert Camus

The Plague

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1947

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Plague, a philosophical novel by French author Albert Camus, was first published in 1947 and immediately won the prix des Critiques, a literary prize awarded to Francophone authors by the French publishing industry. Having also published The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Fall, Camus, an absurdist writer who wrote extensively in support of the French Resistance against Nazi Germany’s occupation of France, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. In crafting his works Camus took inspiration from French Algeria, where he was born and spent his youth. This study guide refers to the English translation by Stuart Gilbert.

The Plague, whose linear chronological narrative is presented by an initially unidentified, omniscient third-person narrator, unfurls in five parts, following the structure of a Greek tragedy. This consideration, coupled with the work’s straightforward, somber title, foreshadows a tale of tragic proportions. The narrator—who by the book’s close reveals himself to be Bernard Rieux, the novel’s protagonist—justifies his anonymity by his vow to maintain objectivity throughout this “chronicle” of Oran’s plague and its effects on the city’s populace.

Plot Summary

The narrator opens by painting the novel’s setting: Oran in the spring of an unspecified year in the 1940s. The city, an unattractive and unremarkable place on the Mediterranean coast of French colonial Algeria, is known for its rapid shifts in temperature. Populated by bored, money-obsessed people entrenched in their habits, Oran and its people resist believing that something is amiss as plague-infected rats suddenly appear around town, parading their imminent death. Rieux, a local doctor, also initially fails to give the dying rats a second thought as he makes his daily rounds and prepares to send his ailing wife to a local sanatorium. Eventually, however, the proliferation of dying animals can no longer be ignored, especially when people begin to fall ill and die. Rieux quickly snaps into reality and, in studying the disease’s symptoms and patterns, determines that a plague has hit Oran. The doctor confers with colleagues and local officials, presenting his findings and pushing the latter to close Oran before the disease decimates the city’s populace.

After a heady altercation over semantics, the authorities agree to place Oran under quarantine. After quarantine is declared, blindsided locals suffer through various stages of grief as they are deprived of basic forms of communication with the outside world. Unable to linguistically qualify their despair, they grow paranoid and distrustful of others. Rieux works around the clock tending to patients while members of his cohort experience varieties of quarantine-induced exile. Jean Tarrou, a mysterious visitor, records odd minutiae of the city’s goings-on in his notebooks, which serve as a primary source for Rieux’s chronicle. Raymond Rambert, a journalist from Paris, laments being stuck in Oran and separated from his wife. Joseph Grand, a humble civil servant, endlessly reworks the first sentence of a novel he aspires to write. His neighbor Cottard, a criminal of instable temperament and who has previously attempted suicide, enjoys quarantine life with the police temporarily off his trail. He profits from Oran’s calamity by peddling contraband substances on the black market. Father Paneloux, a learned Jesuit priest, attempts to rouse public faith by delivering a fiery sermon in which he blames the plague on Oranians’ apathy toward God.

As the death toll soars—the disease striking Oranians of every social class and walk of life—Tarrou forms a volunteer corps—a sanitary squad—to support Rieux’s efforts and to provide an alternative to officials’ suggestion of utilizing prison labor to perform the “heavy work” necessitated by circumstances: hauling corpses, sanitizing spaces, and digging graves. Over time, all the novel’s primary characters—except Cottard—join the squad.

As summer drags on, conditions grow increasingly dire, with intolerable heat, surging numbers of cadavers, and scarce space in the cemetery. Unemployed businessmen, pleased to earn high rates, accept the horrific task of digging mass graves into which the dead are tossed like animals. Eventually, as the burial pits overflow, bodies are exhumed and carted to the local incinerator. Desperately awaiting normalcy, Oranians wait out the unrelenting monotony.

Their despair devolves into indifference as autumn arrives. The sanitary squad redoubles its efforts, while Rieux continues treating patients, notably the son of M. Othon, a strict local magistrate. The young boy’s miserable, drawn-out death prompts Paneloux’s second sermon, in which the priest begs congregants to accept the child’s meaningless passing as a demonstration of God’s will. With the novel’s main characters subsequently exchanging their various perspectives on life, death, and religion, Paneloux dies, and Grand contracts the plague but makes an unexpected recovery. Gradually, plague deaths begin to decline.

The new year brings cautious optimism to Oran as the pestilence wanes. The scourge does take more victims—notably Othon, who turned a new leaf after the death of his son, and Tarrou, whose friendship with Rieux end as the plague-fighter puts up an admirable though futile struggle against death. Rieux’s wife also passes away. Amid locals’ boisterous public displays of joy at the city’s reopening, Rieux doesn’t relent even for a moment in carrying out his medical duties. As his evening’s final house call wraps up, Rieux decides to write an account of the past 10 months. This chronicle will serve as a testimony to Oran’s recent ordeal and as a historical document for posterity. Rieux hopes future generations will consult his text and learn from Oran’s experience with the plague, such that they stand prepared at its next inevitable resurgence.

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