“I can almost hear them
saying: ‘Our dear departed...’
And then they’ll go off and
have a good snack.”
The Plague by Albert Camus
“Unusual,” if not
“extraordinary!” So begins the chronicle of events that
transpired during the spring of 19--, in the French port of Oran. How
does an eyewitness write about what happened? That somewhat would
serve as an “historian,” since privy to certain documents
and even diaries. Then there are the day-to-day conversations with
The narrator, preferring to reveal
his identity later in the narration, decides he should stick with
what happens rather than add “social commentary or offer an
analysis.” At least, not at the beginning. At the beginning of
this narrative, there should be a description of Oran—what the
town and its people were like before the event took place.
Who and why this mass of humanity?
Well, we are told, Oran, one of many
business centers of the world, is different in that it’s a town
without pigeons, trees, or gardens. There are flowers, only in the
suburbs. You have to look up at the sky to tell what season you are
in, and even then, the sky is, most of the time, as gray as the
“grayish dust” that lands on walls during the summer.
During the autumn, there’s mud. Winter is the better time of
year, for weather then is actually “pleasant.”
Otherwise, life and work, love and
death writes the narrator, is lived on a line; that is, it’s
best represented as the same level line everywhere. Everyone’s
interest is “commerce” with the aim of “doing
business.” The “pleasures of life” are sacrificed
during the weekday because “making money” is prioritized.
Business over life is the norm and thinking otherwise is the
It’s not extraordinary then
that human activities in Oran are not only predictable but also
robotic and that includes lovemaking, since the townspeople, so the
narrative goes, “have to love one another without knowing much
about it.” That is, about love!
Dying, then, is just as peculiar to
the people in Oran. It happens, but it’s a “discomfort”
experienced by an “invalid” since the weather and “the
exigencies of business” make illness seem an inconvenience to
For someone dying, of course, it’s
worse. Behind the home walls, in the heat, the dying are dying, while
in nearby cafes, sit fellow humans sipping coffee and talking on
phones about “shipments” and “bills of lading.”
That’s Oran, writes the narrator. “But, you can get
through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits.”
Oran encourages such adjustments, he
continues. Social unrest isn’t to be expected when folks,
mimicking the behavior of others as a means of getting along, just
temper their resistance. After all, Oran, “treeless,
glamourless, soulless,” is “restful.” After a
while, you go complacently to sleep there.” It’s normal
life in Oran!
So the events that occurred in the
spring almost seemed “quite natural” to some; but
“incredible” to others…
Bernard Rieux’s first patient, suffering from the worse case of
asthma and wheezing uncontrollably, is informed that all will be
well. But, there are the rats, more and more of them, rats making
themselves visible, dying before everyone’s eyes. The concierge
in the apartment complex where the doctor lives, points to the rats,
even appearing in the building’s vestibule.
Rieux focuses on the rats. Everywhere, the rats. And just when Rieux
is trying to answer the question, why; trying to discover why rats
have vacated the dark spaces to die in the light of day—among
humans; trying to answer the question, what is the problem—Rieux
notices the blood spurts and hears that the concierge is dead!
don’t forget. The “rats” could be a stand-in for
the Nazis’ fascism or Stalin’s Communism. Or colonialism,
too. Enslavement. Already complacent with the normalization of a
market-driven system that requires them to work for commerce, the
citizens of Oran make money for wealthiest who are never satisfied,
for next quarter, next year, more money must be accumulated in order
to rank as the successful organization of people on the planet.
does this organizing of work benefit to the well-being of humanity?
recalls his ill wife, who he has to send to a sanitarium, after being
ill for a year. The blood and now the news of the concierge’s
death. Did anyone notice—it’s “a warm” day
with “a gentle breeze blowing.” From the suburbs comes
the smell of flowers.
Camus, a conscientious writer himself, when the time came, made
himself available to the French resistance. He was the editor of
Combat. His dispatches
and essays served notice to whatever stood in the way of justice and
truth. It’s not surprising that when the journalist from a
Paris daily, Raymond Rambert, met with Rieux, and coming “straight
to the point,” informs the doctor of his interests in reporting
about the “living-conditions prevailing among the Arab
population”--oh, here we go!--especially
when it comes to “sanitary conditions.” You know, it’s
just things he’s heard—before
the appearance of “rats” in the streets.
tell the truth, says Rieux. Just tell the truth. Go see and report
what you see, not what you heard before. I’m
tired of a world, Rieux adds, in which “injustice and
compromises with truth” exist. State the “facts without
paltering with the truth.” If you want a story, he tells
Rambert, why not write about the rats. That’s extraordinary,
huh? The rats. Why are
they here in the open, dying in the streets and in vestibules? Why?
What’s the problem?
promises to get on, and thanks the doctor.
in a hotel, is a young man, an “outsider” to Oran. And
Jean Tarrou isn’t interested in business! A man of independent
means, thinks the narrator. He, too, is keeping a diary, documenting
the “unusual” events, but with a twist. For Tarrou, less
focus is on the rats, dying in “batches” now. Tarrou’s
interests is in “observing events and people through the wrong
end of a telescope,” that is, recording what the “normal”
historian “passes over”: the response of those living at
the bottom rung of the social ladder. Not so different from Rieux.
chronicler of this narrative takes a moment to pause and recall a
town once so “tranquil,” that now, “out of the
blue,” has been “shaken to its core.”
are Oran’s citizens suppose to make sense of the announcement
that some 8,000 rats had been collected! 8,000 rats in their streets!
And the death of neighbors and rats are mounting.
then, equally, out of the blue, a Monsieur Cottard attempts to hang
himself in his apartment. He’s discovered and pulled down by a
neighbor, Joseph Grand.
announced his death, or attempted to, by leaving a note scrawled on
the wall leading to his apartment. Grand reads it. By the time Dr.
Rieux, Cottard is well enough to continue living. But he must rest,
the doctor tells him. By the way, the police must be notified. It’s
terrorized, begs Rieux not to notify the police.
okay. Maybe later, says Rieux.
the concierge's death and Cottard’s suicide attempt, so ends,
notes Dr. Rieux, the first period of the unusual
baffled it’s been “chosen out for, the scene of such
grotesque happenings as the wholesale death of rats in broad daylight
or the deceased of the concierge through exotic maladies,”
believes this couldn’t possibly have occurred in history
before. But the narrator recalls, this isn’t true. The town’s
people were wrong—if for no other reason than there is history!
Make of it what you will, but history has recorded such
totalitarian-like events that seem to overwhelm all other forms of
yet, as the narrator writes, humans died at home, rats in the
streets, but the newspapers only concerned themselves with the
“rats”--until someone finally utters the word, peste.
knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet
somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our
heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in
history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by
not that the plague wouldn’t have come, it’s just that
human organize the world to put certain humans first, second, third,
and last. There are humans at the top and others at the bottom. A
bunch in between, depending on how the production of profits flows
through the world.
at first, the town’s people went on with business as usual.
Given their “normal” lives before the appearance of the
rats, how would they have expected to “rule out any future,
cancel journeys, silence the exchange of views.” These are a
people, writes the narrator, who, after all, have been programmed to
fancy themselves free.
Despite what might seem difficult for “outsiders” to
comprehend, Oran’s townspeople thought of themselves as freer
than any other people in the world.
offers this: “no one will ever be free so long as there are
has a record of “plagues,” so someone must have been
eyewitness to the “nearly a hundred million” dead human
beings in the past. Athens, towns in China, Constantinople,
Marseilles, Milan, London… human beings once lived and died.
for all the historical evidence of the hundreds of millions dead, the
preparation necessary for confronting this devastation is nonexistent
pulls himself together. Okay, think of what is certain among the
uncertainty. What needs to be done… People are suffering;
people are ill; people are dying. He has his job in which to
contribute to the struggle, “as it should be done.” The
“indifference” observed in some townspeople did nothing
to save humans from suffering and dying. There’s nothing
compassionate about indifference.
recognizes that three hundred or so deaths in three weeks fails “to
strike” the “imagination” because, for so many,
what’s happening is happening to others. Others are being
removed to die or already “dead,” so that those groans
from the homes of the dying, listened at first, is ignored and
dismissed as even an event.
wasn’t some of this heartening of the heart, this indifference,
already present in the culture that only thought about the bottom
line. Profits! The groans of fellow neighbors, notes the narrator has
long become recognized as one form of “the normal speech of”
you believe in God, Tarrou asks Rieux one evening during their
discussions. It should be noted that the narrator, privy to these
daily discussions, acknowledges that there were a handful around Dr.
Rieux who offered him their serves to help with the sick and dying,
at risk to their own lives. And they compared notes and tried to
answer the question, what is the problem? Why are people dying,
I believe in “‘an all-powerful God’”? No,
answers Rieux. No.
The victory is never lasting.
But that’s no reason to give up the struggle.
Never ending defeat.
“‘Who taught you all of this, doctor?’”
the “critical spirit” has been dulled in people,
producing the Foucault’s “docile bodies” instead of
human beings, then suffering is to be expected. To govern is to
engage in the practice of dehumanizing citizens.
takes charge of the sanitary group, and he, Tarrou, wants to offer
that these are brave human beings. Exceptional, but the narrator of
the chronicle we are reading ponders this position, thinking, to say
these are exceptional people is to “exaggerate their efforts.”
If we do, we are “paying indirect but potent homage to the
worse side of human nature.” It would be as if the work of
these workers, fellow humans, is “a rare exception” and
“‘callousness and apathy are the general rule.”
evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance and good
intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack
is “ignorance,” claiming to know everything, that then
claims “for itself the right to kill.” For those in the
sanitary squad, they know it was “the only thing to do.”
What would have been “unthinkable” would have been to
“refuse to do this work.”
plague is human work and,
therefore, the “concern of all.” There comes a time when
risk is confronting death—in order to save, not destroy lives.
fight the plague is, writes the narrator, to save the greater number
of people. It’s the most logical thing to do. The doers in this
community need not look up to the skies or up to Paris or up to
Washington for leadership.
A different philosophy from that
too, did his work bravely, talking with people active in the struggle
and recording their work.
to the narrator, in fact, the men surrounding Rieux, Tarrou, Grant,
Rambert, and even Cottard, “began to to take a genuine interest
in the laborious literary task to which he [Rieux) was applying
himself,” even as the plague raged on around them. And in the
evening, there was time for thought, as these individuals represented
not separate destinies. But, instead, they represented a “collective
we lost the capacity for love? For dying for an idea?
“heroism”? What is it if not “a matter of common
was recorded that many in the town ceased to “feel the sting”
of the plague; becoming adjusted to its presence, these townspeople
resorted to “the habit of despair,” worse, writes the
narrator, than despair itself. People lived for the moment, he
continues, “and by the end of their long sundering, they had
also lost the power of imagining the intimacy that once was theirs or
understanding what it can be to live with someone who life is wrapped
up in yours.”
now “served nothing.” It was “an inert mass within
us, writes the narrator, sterile as crime or a life sentence.”
someone like Rieux, the situation was “disheartening,”
for this was the evil that could easily become the “norm”--far
worse than the previous variant
of the “norm.” This norm, the narrator observes, made it
possible for people “to waste away emotionally.”
to rely this observation, writes the narrator, to the reader? For
there’s a difference when
the apathetic response to the plague actualizes a totalitarian state.
then, just “mark time.” One day is another day. With no
love. Love has been “outed” from their lives.
Will there be change?
they say, you’ll have to read the narrative.
a word about memorials.
memorial is left for the generations. Rumor is that the town’s
administrators are planning a memorial dedicated to “the
plague.” But Dr. Rieux has been working on another, however.
And this memorial is for the dead and for the living. This memorial
can’t be placed “in the town’s square.” This
memorial is more permanent—if recalled, by subsequent
Rieux knew to get to work as soon as the event began. So did Tarrou,
without being told. Once Rambert is re-directed, he’s an
important contributor in the construction of the memorial, that even
book-burning bonfires can’t extinguish. This memorial is
dedicated to those who did the work necessary, at great risk because
they banded together to fight “the injustice and outrage”
committed against to the townspeople.
Rieux discovers, the terror waged against citizens long before “the
plague” serves as a means of controlling any critical responds
to the “victory that never last” or the “never
ending defeat.” Only despair is required of a people.
some do manage to fight. Dr. Rieux witnesses it, and his narration of
events (a collective effort with Tarrou and Rambert) is a memorial to
the rise of the critical spirit. Such a resistance is recorded in
history, too. “It could be only the record of what had had to
be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never
ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts...”
the end, humans, Dr. Rieux surmises, possess more to admire than to
the “fight against terror,” humans, Rieux writes, who
were not “saints,” refused “to bow down to
pestilences.” Humans who strove to do their upmost “to be
healers” existed, too.