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The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. – A quote from “The Plague” by Albert Camus.
I had been reading “The Plague” since August 22, 2023, and only finished it on November 4th. That’s an embarrassingly long amount of time spent on a novel that’s barely 300 pages long. To give you context – I finished Vikram Seth’s 1,488-page epic, “A Suitable Boy,” in less than two weeks. However, to be fair, “The Plague” has an engrossing start and a poignant climax that evoked my emotions, but it was the content in between that was a struggle to read.
Set in the fictional seaside town of Oran during the 1940s, ‘The Plague’ chronicles the emergence and eventual containment of a mysterious disease that engulfs the region, leading to the town’s isolation from the rest of the world by the authorities. The story commences with unsettling imagery of rats appearing throughout the town and the first instance occurs in a doctor’s office, where the rodents are an unexpected intrusion into an otherwise pristine environment. Dr. Bernard Rieux, the primary protagonist, is among the first in town to sense an impending epidemic and becomes the central figure in the community’s battle against the inexplicable deadly disease. He forms new friendships during uncertain times, the most notable of which is with a man named Jean Tarrou, a lawyer and outsider who becomes stranded in Oran when the town is placed under lockdown. Rather than lamenting his circumstances, Tarrou assists Dr. Rieux in combatting the epidemic by contributing to sanitation efforts and volunteering to care for those affected by the new disease. Tarrou’s character is contrasted well by another character called Raymond Lambert, a journalist, who is also an outsider and finds himself trapped in the quarantined town. Throughout the novel, Lambert is determined to leave town and reunite with his girlfriend, constantly seeking assistance from shady individuals who could help him escape.
The first 40-50 pages of the novel are very gripping, and reading it after experiencing the global Covid-19 pandemic made the novel even more fascinating. Initially, authorities of Oran are in denial about the existence of a deadly epidemic, dismissing the initial death toll as insignificant, and only implementing quarantine measures when the number of casualties becomes alarming. It was initially quite amusing that a journalist like Lambert failed to find the opportunity to cover Oran’s epidemic exciting. In this small town, there was no mention of any other journalists, so Lambert could have chosen to extensively cover the plague. Instead, he dedicated all his efforts to extricating himself from the situation. It’s understandable; anyone would be desperate to return to their loved ones rather than being stuck in a region plagued by death.
Albert Camus eloquently elaborates the tedium of living through disease – “The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through the place, the grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.”
But these eloquent quotes are few and far in between, instead “The Plague” is padded with philosophical musings and long descriptions of people and places that you’d soon forget. For instance, there’s a character named Father Paneloux, whose introduction in the story is intriguing as he presents the theological perspective on the epidemic. Paneloux, a man of God, interprets the death and disease in Oran as divine punishment, a view he conveys during his Sunday sermons, with minimal dissent from the congregation. This religious perspective adds an interesting dimension to a narrative predominantly centered on logic and science; however, the plague is indiscriminate in its reach, affecting people of all backgrounds and ages, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. So, the Father Paneloux subplot ends in a way which was true to the existential themes of the novel, but utterly unexciting.
Throughout the novel, characters grapple with an existential dread, wondering if their ordeal would ever end, and if the epidemic will simply consume all of them one by one. But despite the gloom and doom pervading its pages, ‘The Plague’ is essentially about the human will to survive, despite the absurdities and uncertainties of life. Among the characters in the story, those who suffer the least are the ones who find a purpose to live amidst the chaos and do not succumb to despairing desires of the heart. My main grouse with ‘The Plague’ lies in the absence of any significant female supporting characters in the narrative; all the prominent figures in the story are men. It’s somewhat surprising that in a book replete with disease, death, and suffering, the author deliberately excludes any female characters in active roles. Women appear solely in the fantasies or lamentations of male characters or as weeping mothers in quarantine camps and hospitals. Oran at times seems like a town without women and it definitely strikes you as odd at times.
There were days and even weeks when I simply didn’t return to the novel, but once I finally finished it, I felt a void that I haven’t experienced after completing a book in a long time. It ends on an high philosophical note about how life always goes on, no matter how nightmarish and terrifying the circumstances becomes. Some people will die, others will live on, that’s just how life is. That’s really the central message of “The Plague”.
I have friends who would really enjoy reading this Camus title, but I also have friends who would hate it. Then there’s me, with mixed feelings. If you like reading literary works and are fascinated by existentialism, definitely pick up “The Plague”.
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