Posts Tagged ‘The Plague’

Human nature in a time of pestilence

March 25, 2020

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.

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