Human nature in a time of pestilence

I recently read an old paperback copy of Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, which I’ve had on the shelf for decades.  If I ever read it before, I don’t remember..

The novel tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran.  It was published in 1947, but Camus wrote it during the German occupation of France during World War Two.

The novel’s real topic is not so much plague specifically as how people react to catastrophe.  Camus’ view is surprisingly comforting and reassuring.  The novel’s principal characters all rise to the occasion, and the political and social order, although under strain, functions as it should.

The novel begins with mysterious deaths of rats in the city, a sign of plague, but which Oran’s physicians and municipal authorities refuse to take seriously until people start dying.  The public can’t imagine something could happen that would prevent them from living their accustomed lives.

At first the public seeks to maintain a semblance of normal life while the plague rages.  As the death rate increases, the people forget what normal life was like and just deal with the ever-present threat.  Just as they’ve given up hope, the plague fades away, and people try to pick up where they left off, as if it never happened.

The novel’s six main characters show different ways of thinking and coping with catastrophe—what Camus called the Absurd, meaning things and events that have no purpose or meaning in human terms.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is a physician who at first finds it hard to believe the plague is real, but calls on the authorities to take action.  He heads an auxiliary hospital for plague victims and also helps enforce quarantine regulations.

He works long, exhausting hours.  He finds he has to harden his heart in order to do his duty.  When he visits a patient at home and finds the person is infected, he calls for an ambulance to take the person away, despite the pleas of relatives, who understand that they may never see the victim again.  In the later stages, he has to go to patients’ homes accompanied by police

He does not believe in God and denies having any overarching philosophical belief.  He does his job simply because he is a physician and that is his role.  When asked what he believes in, he replies, “human decency.”

Jean Tarroux is a mysterious character who seems to have nothing to do but hang out around town and observe life.  But then he takes the initiative to form volunteer auxiliaries to help fight the plague—for example, by disinfecting houses.

He reveals that he is a former revolutionary—a Communist, if you read between the lines, although this is never spelled out.  He joined the revolutionary cause because of his horror of capital punishment; he left it because the revolutionaries are killers themselves.

He speaks about how human beings carry plague within themselves, which I take to mean most human beings are willing to see other people die in order to save themselves or achieve their goals.

He says the great sin is refusing to speak the truth in plain language.  He says his desire is to find out whether you can be a saint without believing in God.

He is one of the last to die, hanging on to life as long as he can,  but rejecting comforting illusions.

Click to enlarge.

Father Paneloux is a Catholic priest who preaches a sermon about how the plague is God’s judgment on the sins of the people of Oran. Camus, although an atheist, took religious faith seriously and a lot of his philosophy, including this book, is a kind of dialogue with Christianity.

The priest says people ignore God’s commandments and reject his love because they confidently expect to be forgiven, but sometimes God’s patience is exhausted and he lets people suffer what they deserve.

He says God figuratively is standing over the city with a giant flail, which is used to thresh wheat and separate the  nourishing grain from useless chaff.  I find this a powerful image.

I think of the flail in terms of the coronavirus emergency, in which we are see who are the wheat (not just health workers, but grocery clerks, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners, truck drivers) and who are the chaff (hedge fund managers, corporate lobbyists, diversity trainers).

The priest joins the volunteer auxiliary and witnesses the slow, painful death of a child from the plague.  He later preaches another sermon on whether a child’s painful death can be God’s will.

He said that a Christian must believe that everything that happens is God’s will, even if you can’t understand the reason.  This includes the death of a child.  Otherwise you don’t really believe in God.

But he adds that if you accept human suffering and death as God’s will, you must be willing to suffer and die yourself.  Later Father Paneloux himself falls sick and dies painfully, but not from symptoms of the plague.

Raymond Rambert is a journalist who comes to Oran to investigate conditions in the Arab Quarter, but then finds himself stuck there because of the plague.  Oran is described as having walls, like a medieval city, and entry and exit are forbidden because the whole city is quarantined.

He is desperate to get out because he wants to be reunited with his wife in Paris.  He makes contact with smugglers, but the deals fall through.  Dr. Rieux knows all about this, but makes no moral judgment.

Lambert joins the volunteer auxiliary as a way to occupy his time while waiting.  Then, when his chance to leave finally materializes, he decides to remain with his new comrades.

Joseph Grand is a humble, devoted underpaid clerk in the municipal government.  He joins the volunteer auxiliary as a matter of course.  He is a noble but comic character.  His aim is to write a literary masterpiece, but is never able to get beyond his struggles to write a perfect first sentence.

Cottard is a said confused loner who attempts suicide as the novel opens.  But as the plague develops, he thrives on the crisis of a social order in which he has no part.  He becomes a smuggler of cigarettes and liquor.  Then, as the plague vanishes, he goes berserk and starts shooting at people at random.

Each of the six characters has his own way of finding meaning in life—Dr. Rieux (just living), Tarroux (rebellion), Father Paneloux (religion), Rambert (romantic love), Grand (art) and Cottard (excitement).

Albert Camus’s imaginary Oran responds remarkably well to the crisis.  After an initial hesitation, the municipal authorities do what is needful.  The rich don’t hoard food and medical supplies.  The poor don’t riot.  Minorities aren’t scapegoated.  There is a judge who is overly stern, but nobody abuses power.

Although Oran is cut off from the world, there are no shortages of food and other necessities, except for one mention of “long lines” at the food shops.  The cafes stay open, and so do the movie theaters, although they are unable to obtain any new movies.  Nobody is shot dead trying to escape.

Despite their disagreements, the principal characters all get along with each other.  Even Cottard, the criminal, is presented as pathetic rather than dangerous and evil.  The smugglers Rambert deals with seem like “good old boys,” not vicious criminals.

The novel mentions both an Arab Quarter and a Negro Quarter, but neither Arabs nor black Africans appear in the novel.  The main characters are all French males.  The women characters are all faithful wives and mothers, who don’t have much to say for themselves.

Camus once said that while Christians are optimists about human destiny and pessimists about human nature, he is the reverse.  The novel’s narrator concludes that “we learn in a time of pestilence that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”  The Plague is an expression of faith in human nature—which is a faith, like any other.  It can be believed in, but not proved.

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3 Responses to “Human nature in a time of pestilence”

  1. Nicky D Says:

    This is one of my favorite books, and I’ve thought of it often in the past month.


  2. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    I took it to be a commentary on France under Nazi occupation. Some did nothing, some profited, while many stepped up and took huge risks as members of the Resistance. In a time of crisis, you can learn a lot about people – good and bad.
    The current trouble is not nearly so bad as the fictional plague or the German occupation, but it’s already interesting to see how a population unaccustomed to real problems reacts. Some fight over toilet paper, some volunteer to make food deliveries. Some hoard in order to resell at a profit. Most just stay home and watch Netflix.
    When this is all over, we will remember who did what. Perhaps the profiteers will be paraded through town with their heads shaved.


    • philebersole Says:

      The Plague may well be a parable of France under Nazi occupation. This is a common interpretation.

      But, if it is, it is an occupied France as it ideally should have been, not the actual occupied France.

      In the novel, characters of differing philosophies come together to fight the common enemy. There are no conflicts within the common cause.

      Some hang back, but no profiteer or authoritarian official exploits the plague to their own advantage.

      After the plague lifts, there are no recriminations. The worst sin of the people of imaginary Oran is an inability to imagine catastrophe.

      Albert Camus may have started this book while the occupation was still going on. If so, it reflected his hopes and ideals more than reality.

      When I read a classic, I often find it is very different from what I’ve been led to belief it is. This is an example.


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