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Est. April 5, 2002
Mar 26, 2020 - Issue 811
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The Plague: An Allegory

"Everybody 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 surprise."

The Plague: An Allegory

“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 other eyewitnesses.

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 exception.

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 all involved.

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…

Dr. 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.

So 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!

Allegorical, 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.

How does this organizing of work benefit to the well-being of humanity?

Rieux 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.


Albert 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.

Just 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?

Rambert promises to get on, and thanks the doctor.

Living 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.

The 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.”

How 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.

And 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.

Cottard 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 procedure.

Cottard, terrorized, begs Rieux not to notify the police.

Okay, okay. Maybe later, says Rieux.

With the concierge's death and Cottard’s suicide attempt, so ends, notes Dr. Rieux, the first period of the unusual event.

Nothing gets better.

Oran, 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 lifestyles.

And 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. La Peste.

Everybody 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 surprise.”

It’s 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.

So 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.

But, narrator’s analysis offers this: “no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

History 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. And why?

Yet, for all the historical evidence of the hundreds of millions dead, the preparation necessary for confronting this devastation is nonexistent in Oran.

Rieux 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.

Rieux 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.

But 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” human beings.

Do 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, needlessly?

Do I believe in “‘an all-powerful God’”? No, answers Rieux. No.

Tarrou: The victory is never lasting.

Rieux: But that’s no reason to give up the struggle.

Tarrou: I understand.

Rieux: Never ending defeat.

Tarrou: “‘Who taught you all of this, doctor?’”

Rieux: Suffering.

When 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.

Tarrou 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.”

[T]he evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.”

It 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.”

The 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.

To 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 of warfare.

Tarrou, too, did his work bravely, talking with people active in the struggle and recording their work.

According 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 destiny.”

Have we lost the capacity for love? For dying for an idea?

And “heroism”? What is it if not “a matter of common decency”?

It 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.”

Love now “served nothing.” It was “an inert mass within us, writes the narrator, sterile as crime or a life sentence.”

For 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.”

How 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.

Humans, then, just “mark time.” One day is another day. With no love. Love has been “outed” from their lives.

Will there be change?

As they say, you’ll have to read the narrative.

But a word about memorials.

A 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 generations.

For 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.

As 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.

Yet, 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...”

In the end, humans, Dr. Rieux surmises, possess more to admire than to despise.

In 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. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.
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