The Plague by Albert Camus – Reviewed by Guy Portman
In the Algerian coastal town of Oran, an explosion in the rat population has not gone unnoticed. The infestation soon comes to an abrupt halt with the mysterious demise of the rats. When the townsfolk begin to fall ill, culminating in their deaths, the authorities realise that the town is afflicted with the plague. As the death toll mounts, the population is quarantined to prevent the disease from spreading, resulting in privations for the populace.
The narrator of the story is the increasingly fatigued town doctor, Bernard Rieux. Through Rieux’s interactions with the various characters we observe the populace’s reaction to the epidemic, including the journalist, Raymond Rambert, who longs to return to his wife, and the unfortunate Jean Tarrou, who wandered into Oran during the epidemic. The town’s priest, Father Paneloux, initially insists the plague is an act of God to punish the citizens, only to have his attitudes challenged by the death of the young, innocent Jacques Othon. There is great variation in the plague sufferers’ reaction to their forthcoming demise, with some resigned to their fates, whilst others seek blame, or even refuse to acknowledge it.
Utilising a narrative tone and poetic style of prose, The Plague is an existentialist classic that evaluates morality, ethics, religion, the role of God and how we react to death. There are no heroes to be found, merely people who accept responsibility, such as Dr Rieux and Raymond Rambert.
When viewed in the context of Camus’s lifelong opposition to totalitarianism, The Plague can be understood as a story about resistance, in which the disease itself is an allegory for fascism and totalitarianism. This is a philosophical work that explores destiny, the human condition, and absurdism, namely the human tendency to try and find meaning in life, but failing to find any.