The Plague / Albert Camus

The Plague was published in 1947 and tells the story of a mysterious plague that broke out in the French Algerian city of Oran.  In the town, the outbreak begins when thousands of rats are discovered dying in the streets.  Their appearance proves to be the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague among the general population.  This leads the city officials to quarantine not only the ill, but the entire city from the rest of the world.  The town’s gates are shut, and almost all communication with the outside world is suspended.

Despite its critical acclaim, for decades I resisted adding this book to my reading list.  I feared it would be too distressing, presenting a voyeuristic view of the horror and panic of those dying from the disease.  To my surprise, Camus takes a completely different tack.  The novel focuses instead on the hopes, fears, and ultimately the resiliency of a population facing the terror of the city’s plight.  It provides an intimate look at the differing strengths they drew upon to keep their sanity during full year Oran is cut off from the rest of the world.

Camus achieves this by focusing on the growing friendship of five individuals who find themselves trapped within the city walls.  There is a young doctor, Bernard Rieux, who works tirelessly to bring comfort to the dying, despite being unable to provide them a cure.  Cottard, a traveling salesman stranded in the city, seems to be strangely pleased about the outbreak because he is fleeing from the police as the result of some unnamed crime in his past.  Joseph Gard, a clerk in the city government, spends his nights revising, over and over again, the perfect opening sentence to a story he imagines will bring him fame.  Raymond Rambert is a journalist visiting the city to research a story on the living conditions in the Arab quarter of the city.  Finally, there is Jean Tarrou, another outsider stranded in Oran after the gates are closed.  It is his diary that the book’s narrator draws heavily on to describe the conditions in the town.

The book’s narrator, one these five characters, remains unnamed until the story’s end.  His voice is what gives The Plague its unique appeal.  Instantly likable, he is able to portray the horror and yet find comfort in the efforts to provide support to the stricken.  Along with the other four, he rises to the situation to provide what help he can.  The plague, too, is a major character, but it remains mostly a mysterious, unseen presence.  It is the Angel of Death who must be fought, even if it cannot be defeated.

This novel tackles numerous themes.  It deals with exile and separation, the resulting solidarity of community, its resiliency, religion’s strengths and weaknesses, and the acceptance of the unexplainable nature of why some remain healthy and others succumb.  For those who have resisted reading the novel thinking it would only present a picture of doom and gloom, I encourage them to take the chance to learn otherwise.  In the end, this novel’s message focuses on the importance of hope and kindness.  Masterpiece is a word too often tossed out to describe published novels.  In this case, it is a term richly deserved.

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