The Plague by Albert Camus

“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”

During the beginning of the Covid pandemic, The Plague by Albert Camus had a spike in popularity. I’m a bit late to jump on the bandwagon, but I’m glad I got around to reading it. Quotes from it, such as the one above, speak directly to our times, in which an act of common decency, such as wearing a mask, is the best way to fight disease.

I haven’t read Camus since college, but from what I remember of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, he’s a somber writer. I was therefor surprised at how funny The Plague sometimes is. There’s one man who rips up paper and drops it from his balcony so it flutters down in a way that attracts stray cats. Once the cats are under his balcony, the man then spits on them! It’s quirky.

Another quirky character thinks it’s impossible for someone to have two deadly diseases at once and even says you never hear of someone with cancer getting into an auto accident. 

Another man thinks the best way not to waste time is to do things like sit in a dentist’s office, listen to lectures in foreign languages, or wait in long lines, because then you’re aware of every moment passing! One character, who fancies himself a writer, is such a perfectionist he claims to sometimes spend weeks writing a single conjunction!

“When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though a war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.”

These moments of levity aside, the book is largely serious. First rats, then people, in the small town of Oran start dying of plague. The Prefect doesn’t take the plague seriously at first, but eventually the town is quarantined.

When the people of town learn the death rate, they don’t think it’s that serious at first because they don’t know how many people usually die each week. Since this is a work of fiction, most of the townspeople come to realize it is serious, after all.

People whose shops close act like it’s a vacation at first, before realizing they’re unemployed. Hoarding and smuggling occur. The plague is worse for the poor than the rich, who can afford the profiteering price hikes. Police are tasked with preventing people from breaking quarantine. The priest says the plague is a punishment from god. It certainly leads to social disconnection.

“Moreover, in this extremity of solitude none could count on any help from his neighbor; each had to bear the load of his troubles alone. If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him. And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing. For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced. Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”

The Plague is a very poetic and philosophical book, full of quotable passages. He says much of what we call evil is ignorant people with good intentions trying to do good.

The character we spend the most time with is Dr. Rieux. His victories against death are never lasting, but he doesn’t see that as a reason for giving up the struggle. This is an idea we’d expect from the author of The Myth of Sisyphus.

“If he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort […] No one ever threw himself on Providence completely.”

Camus speaks to our present time with descriptions of people sleepwalking through the plague. There are no sudden dramatic events, just monstrous monotony. Townsfolk obsessively check the papers for news that the plague might soon end. While most people are depressed, one man, who was suicidal, suddenly livens up during the plague. He’s happy that everyone is now in the same boat as him with death hanging over them.

One character, who is opposed to the death penalty, uses plague as a metaphor. Everyone has the plague in the sense that everyone is either directly or indirectly the cause of someone’s death. Just as someone with the plague can kill without realizing it by breathing on someone, all of us kill without realizing it in our daily lives by supporting certain acts or principles that indirectly lead to death. 

Eventually, the plague goes away, but, of course, for those who lost a loved one, the plague never ends.

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