Book Review: The Plague – Albert Camus
As an aspiring author I try to write as often as possible but always remember to have a book on the bedside table. I read for many reasons, mostly the sheer joy of the pastime, but I am constantly trying to improve myself as a writer, finding worthwhile lessons in my successful peers, whether they’re currently enjoying life in the bestsellers list or they have long since written their final words. As I continue my own writing journey (hopefully towards publication!) I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all my latest reads and maybe reveal who I find the most inspiring along the way.
Albert Camus – The Plague (1947)
I remember studying the Black Death at college and how it impacted on England, reducing the population of 6 million to less than 2 million during its relentless onslaught. Modern medicine has largely assuaged such calamities only for the likes of famine, war and poverty to take over as some of the main threats we face today. In Albert Camus’ The Plague we share the lives of the community of Oran in Algeria whose coastal town is hit by an epidemic and what follows is months of struggle for the people not just in fighting the disease but in looking closely at their own humanity.
The novel begins with dead rats being found throughout the town, even in a hotel, but the locals think nothing of this and simply gather up the corpses and discard them. When the first townspeople begin to fall ill the novel’s protagonist, Dr Bernard Rieux and his colleague, Castel, conclude it must be plague but their fears are initially dismissed given such isolated cases. Not heeding the doctors’ warnings proves costly and soon dozens in the town become ill with symptoms including fever and abscesses on the body that require lancing. Beginning with a small number of deaths, the plague soon leads to Dr Rieux designating space at a hospital for plague victims but when that can’t cope with the demand the town has to turn to quarantining the infected to try and stop the epidemic from spreading. Camus’ book is split into five parts and covers a period of many months from the arrival of the plague to its eventual passing, and a reflection on the consequences of the outbreak.
Though Camus denied being an existentialist, The Plague is often regarded as a product of this strand of philosophical thought which put emphasis on the individual being entirely responsible for bringing meaning to their life in the face of distractions such as boredom and despair. The individual is a focal point of the novel despite the plague taking much of the precedence. Over the months a group of characters each respond to the plague in their own way. Dr Rieux is a hero of sorts but his motivation in helping the unfortunate victims of the plague is him simply doing what any medical professional would do. Cottard, after a failed suicide attempt, takes advantage of the epidemic to sell contraband goods. Joseph Grand joins with Rieux in helping the sick in the town which offers a distraction from his problems as a failed writer. Father Paneloux seizes the opportunity to declare the plague as God’s judgement on the town and his preaching sees an ever growing congregation flock to his church looking for guidance. The other main protagonists are outsiders both trapped in Oran when the plague forces the town gates to be shut and the inhabitants forbidden from leaving. Raymond Rambert is a journalist doing research in the town who longs to escape and be with his wife. Finally, there is the mysterious Jean Tarrou who is eager to join with Rieux and Grand from the outset in helping victims of the plague, his actions all steered toward being something of a saint. Watching each of the characters unfold during the novel is always fascinating and not all of them live to see the end.
Camus’ depiction of a plague infested town is frightening and powerful. After the masses of dead rats there comes a time when families are being quarantined, the town is shut off from the outside world and even access to the ocean for swimming is forbidden, something Camus enjoyed in real life. One of the most striking images for me was of an old man that tears up paper in the streets and hurls it into the air to lure unsuspecting cats to him. Once the felines are in close proximity he spits at them! It’s a strange scenario but all the more poignant when the plague has hit and no cats or dogs are in sight leaving the old man to wait forlornly for them to return, his life seemingly having no purpose without this daily ritual. While many in the town succumb to an air of resignation there is a strong community spirit in other corners in fighting the plague. It’s unclear at times whether anyone will survive such is the ferocity of the plague once it has taken hold of Oran.
The Plague is partly an allegory of the German occupation of France (1940-44), of which Camus was all too familiar being based in the Massif Central in 1942 prior to the Germans occupying Southern France. Camus ended up being trapped there, cut off from his homeland of Algeria, as well as his wife and mother when the Germans finally did advance into the south. There is something of Camus in the character of Raymond Rambert who is also trapped and wanting to get home to his wife. Many strands of The Plague can be linked to France’s occupation by Germany. The plague in the novel is the equivalent of the Nazi threat, one that goes unheeded by the locals just as France were slow to react during the Second World War. Their swift defeat was unexpected just as the townspeople in Oran do not fear a serious threat from isolated outbreaks of the plague save Dr Rieux who tries to warn the town of the dangers they face. The isolation, despair and uncertainty about the future are brilliantly recreated by Camus who would have felt similar feelings living under German occupation in France. The end of Germany’s hold on France must have seemed as surprising as the waning of the plague in Camus’ book. There is something of disbelief in the novel that a force beyond the town’s control should suddenly wilt and gradually retreat. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that in describing the plague in the novel, Camus’ depiction could be argued as being akin to that of an advancing and later retreating army.
Not being brilliant at understanding philosophy I know for certain that I will not have garnered all the meanings from Camus’ The Plague but I think it’s one of those novels that you can read at different levels. On the surface it can be read simply as a story of a plague striking an Algerian town, incidentally one Camus was familiar with and despised, and how the community struggles to survive. Going deeper there is the allegory of France’s occupation by Germany during the Second World War, a depth I felt comfortable in exploring during my reading of the text. Deeper still is the novel’s place as a work of existentialism, a philosophical thought I understand to a degree and can see in The Plague despite Camus’ insistence that it is anything but. However deep you want to delve into the meanings I do think the novel is one that can be read by many and still enjoyed.
The first novel I’ve ever read by Albert Camus, I found myself initially intimidated by The Plague wondering if the work of such an intelligent man would be too complicated for me. The novel is thankfully accessible and can be enjoyed by a wide audience. The depiction of an epidemic, its symptoms, the scars it leaves on a coastal town, and finally the individuals in the community are all well conveyed here. It’s made me even more eager to try Camus’ other works.