First published in 1947, La Peste (The Plague) is a classic novel of French literature in which Albert Camus describes the effects an outbreak of the bubonic plague has on an otherwise thoroughly ordinary city in (what was then) French Algeria. Aside from this straightforward summary, however, the novel has been interpreted as an allegorical or metaphoric depiction of life for ordinary French people under the Nazi occupation of 1940-45, and it has also resonated with a new generation of readers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Plague: Plot Summary
Told over five distinct sections (echoing the five acts of a Greek tragedy), The Plague is set in Oran, Algeria, which, at the time, was a French colony. In what Camus’ narrator stresses is a thoroughly ordinary town, rats begin to die in the streets of Oran, with Dr. Bernard Rieux finding a dead rat on the landing outside his consulting room. As the number of rats dying increases, panic ensues among the people, and the papers report on this strange turn of events. Eventually, the town’s authorities order a collection of the rat carcasses, unwittingly helping to spread the bubonic plague that was carried by the fleas on the rats and caused the rats’ deaths.
When the concierge of Dr. Rieux’s apartment building dies following a short illness which manifested as a fever, vomiting, and painfully swollen lymph nodes, he and his colleagues discuss the possibility that they are dealing with an outbreak of the bubonic plague. As more deaths of a similar nature follow, pressure mounts for the medical authorities to take decisive action. Local authorities, however, including Oran’s Prefect, are slow to take action and, not wanting to cause a panic, downplay the seriousness of the disease.
But the death toll continues to rise, the 80 extra emergency beds installed at the hospital are filled within the space of three days, and the country’s emergency reserves of plague serum are exhausted. An outbreak of plague is officially declared at the end of the novel’s first part, and the town is cut off from the outside world. Under these new conditions, mail is no longer delivered to or out of the town, and the telephone lines are only to be used in the event of an emergency, leaving Oran largely dependent on the city’s telegram system.
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This, in turn, affects the morale within the town, with one character, Raymond Rambert, desperate to leave. Not being from Oran, he is keen to leave and rejoin his wife in Paris, asking for Rieux’s help by granting him a clean bill of health, which Rieux refuses.
Father Paneloux, a Jesuit preacher, tells the people of Oran that the plague is the scourge of God, sent to punish them for their wicked and ungodly ways. This leads many townspeople to turn to religion. And just as Paneloux turns the plague outbreak to his advantage, Cottard (who, at the novel’s start, attempted suicide) amasses great wealth through smuggling goods while the town is supposed to be cut off from the outside world.
Rambert, meanwhile, is still determined to leave and tells Jean Tarrou, a wealthy holidaymaker, of his plans to escape. Tarrou, however, points out that Rambert is not the only person in the town to be separated from loved ones due to the plague, as Rieux’s wife is also away from him, staying at a sanatorium. Rambert then resolves to stay and assist Rieux in fighting the plague.
By the middle of August, however, many others besides Rambert are just as eager to escape. However, those who try to flee are shot down by armed guards. After violence and theft break out, martial law is declared and a curfew imposed. Meanwhile, funeral services become brief, cursory affairs, and the town’s mood continues to suffer even more.
By the autumn, the plague is still ravaging Oran. Rieux receives word from the sanatorium that his wife’s health is declining. In order to continue in the relentless task of treating plague victims, however, he must close himself off emotionally.
Cottard, however, feels more connected than ever to the other people of the town, as they now all face a common danger, and Rambert turns down an offer to escape, claiming that if he were to do so, he would feel ashamed of himself.
Meanwhile, the death of M. Othon’s infant son from the plague makes Paneloux modify his more fire-and-brimstone style of sermonizing. He preaches a second sermon addressing the issue of the suffering of the innocent, especially the suffering of an innocent child. He portrays this issue as a test of one’s faith in God, as it asks us to either believe wholeheartedly or deny the existence of an omnibenevolent God. He implores the congregation not to waver in their faith or their commitment to combating the disease and its spread but to continue to do their utmost in the fight against the plague.
This is precisely what Othon, Oran’s conservative magistrate, decides to do once his time in quarantine comes to an end. He chooses to remain in the isolation camp as a volunteer as a means of giving his life purpose and occupying him while he grieves the death of his son.
Joseph Grand, a dreary civil servant, catches the plague and, fearing it will prove fatal, instructs Rieux to burn all his papers, including the masterwork he has been toiling away over for many years. The plague, however, goes into remission, and Grand recovers.
By the end of January, the people of Oran look forward to the imminent reopening of the gates. Cottard, on the other hand, is less enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to normality, and many other characters featured in the novel do not live to see freedom return once more to the town.
Set in the 1940s and first published in 1947, it is possible that Camus took inspiration from the 1944 outbreak of the plague in Oran. During this outbreak, however, there were only 95 cases, whereas the outbreak described in The Plague is far more widespread. Therefore, Camus was likely largely inspired by the cholera epidemic that devastated Oran in 1849.
Camus’ decision to set the novel in the 1940s has further significance, however. From 1940 to the end of the war in 1945, France was under Nazi occupation and had only been recently liberated at the time when Camus wrote the novel. In its depiction of the resistance and bravery of ordinary people against a seemingly indomitable evil, The Plague has therefore been interpreted as an allegorical portrayal of life under Nazi occupation.
It is also worth noting that Camus himself was a prominent member of the French Resistance movement. As Camus himself states: “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
More recently, however, The Plague has seemed to resonate with readers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, such was the demand for Camus’ absurdist novel that, in 2020, Penguin reported that they were struggling to keep up with sales of the English translation, which had increased by 150% compared with the previous year. Meanwhile, the novel became a top-ten bestseller in Italy, and in France, sales increased by a staggering 300% relative to the sales of the year before.
Camus is a Nobel Prize laureate, and The Plague is widely hailed as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. While it has been typically viewed as an allegorical or metaphorical treatment of French life under the Third Reich, John Cruikshank argues that The Plague is also a meditation on “man’s metaphysical dereliction in the world.” While this is very much in keeping with Camus’ absurdist view on the world and humanity’s place within it, Cruikshank’s interpretation suggests that (as is typical of great literature) The Plague is simultaneously a timely response to contemporary society and a timeless meditation on broader human themes.
Despite Camus’ avowed absurdism (he preferred absurdism over existentialism), The Plague is also a deeply humanist novel. As Marina Warner has observed, far from demonstrating “how all pieties stink,” the novel “is about courage, about engagement, about paltriness and generosity, about small heroism and large cowardice, and about all kinds of profoundly humanist problems, such as love and goodness, happiness and mutual connection.”
Warner also notes that, although the novel is set in Oran, none of the characters are Arabs – an oversight not especially mitigated by the fact that Oran is meant to stand in for France during the Nazi occupation. She also observes that women are largely absent from the novel, or, as she puts it, they “are achingly always elsewhere.”
While The Plague has been interpreted as an allegory of life in Nazi-occupied France and has found new pertinence with the COVID-19 pandemic, as a cautionary tale, it also carries a wider, more timeless significance. It warns against putting oneself before the good of the community and celebrates courage through adversity. For these reasons, The Plague will likely continue to speak to readers for many more generations to come.