Albert Camus The Plague – Free Ebook

In January 1941, the twenty-eight year old
French writer Albert Camus began work on a

novel about a virus that spreads uncontrollably
from animals to humans and ends up destroying

half the population of a representative modern
town. It was called La Peste/The Plague, eventually

published in 1947 and frequently described
as the greatest European novel of the postwar

period.

The book – written in sparse, haunting prose

  • takes us through a catastrophic outbreak

of a contagious disease in the lightly fictionalised
town of Oran on the Algerian coast, as seen

through the eyes of the novel’s hero, a
Doctor Rieux, a version of Camus himself.

As the novel opens, an air of eerie normality
reigns. ‘Oran is an ordinary town,’ writes

Camus, ‘nothing more than a French Prefecture
on the coast of Algeria.’ The inhabitants

lead busy money-centered and denatured lives;
they barely notice that they are alive. Then,

with the pacing of a thriller, the horror
begins. Dr Rieux comes across a dead rat.

Then another and another. Soon the town is
overrun with the mysterious deaths of thousands

of rats, who stumble out of their hiding places
in a daze, let out a drop of blood from their

noses and expire.

The inhabitants accuse the authorities of
not acting fast enough. The rats are removed

  • and the town heaves a sigh of relief but
    Dr Rieux suspects that this is not the end.

He has read enough about the structure of
plagues and transmissions from animals to

humans to know that something is afoot.

Soon an epidemic seizes Oran, the disease
transmitting itself from citizen to citizen,

spreading panic and horror in every street.
In order to write the book, Camus immersed

himself in the history of plagues. He read
books on the Black Death that killed 50 million

people in Europe in the 14th century; the
Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000

people across the plains of Lombardy and the
Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665

as well as plagues that ravaged cities on
China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th

and 19th centuries. In March 1942, Camus told
the writer André Malraux that he wanted to

understand what plague meant for humanity:
‘Said like that it might sound strange,’

he added, ‘but this subject seems so natural
to me.’

Camus was not writing about one plague in
particular, nor was this narrowly, as has

sometimes been suggested, a metaphoric tale
about the recent Nazi occupation of France.

Camus was drawn to his theme because, in his
philosophy, we are all – unbeknownst to us

  • already living through a plague: that is
    a widespread, silent, invisible disease that

may kill any of us at any time and destroy
the lives we assumed were solid. The actual

historical incidents we call plagues are merely
concentrations of a universal precondition,

they are dramatic instances of a perpetual
rule: that we are vulnerable to being randomly

exterminated, by a bacillus, an accident or
the actions of our fellow humans. Our exposure

to plague is at the heart of Camus’s view
that our lives are fundamentally on the edge

of what he termed ‘the absurd’.

Proper recognition of this absurdity should
not lead us to despair pure and simple. It

should – rightly understood – be the start
of a redemptive tragi-comic perspective. Like

the people of Oran before the plague, we assume
that we have been granted immortality and

with this naivety come behaviours that Camus
abhorred: a hardness of heart, an obsession

with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude,
a tendency to moralise and judge.

The people of Oran associate plague with something
backward that belongs to another age. They

are modern people with phones, trams, aeroplanes
and newspapers. They are surely not going

to die like the wretches of 17th century London
or 18th century Canton.

‘It’s impossible it should be the plague,
everyone knows it has vanished from the West,’

says one character. ‘Yes, everyone knew
that,’ Camus adds sardonically, ‘except

the dead.’

For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is
no progress in history, there is no escape

from our frailty; being alive always was and
will always remain an emergency, as one might

put it, truly an inescapable ‘underlying
condition’. Plague or no plague, there is

always – as it were – the plague, if what
we mean by this is a susceptibility to sudden

death, an event that can render our lives
instantaneously meaningless. And yet still

the citizens deny their fate. Even when a
quarter of the city is dying, they keep imagining

reasons why the problem won’t happen to
them.

The book isn’t attempting to panic us, because
panic suggests a response to a dangerous but

short term condition from which we can eventually
find safety. But there can never be safety

  • and that is why for Camus we need to love
    our fellow damned humans and work without

hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering.
Life is a hospice, never a hospital.

Camus writes: ‘Pestilence is so common,
there have been as many plagues in the world

as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars
always find people equally unprepared. When

war breaks out people say: ‘It won’t last,
it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly

too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it
from lasting. The citizens of Oran were like

the rest of the world, they were humanists:
they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence

does not have human dimensions, so people
tell themselves that it is unreal, that it

is a bad dream which will end. The people
of our town were no more guilty than anyone

else, they merely forgot to be modest and
thought that everything was still possible

for them, which implied that pestilence was
impossible. They continued with business,

with making arrangements for travel and holding
opinions. Why should they have thought about

the plague, which negates the future, negates
journeys and debate? They considered themselves

free and no one will ever be free as long
as there is plague, pestilence and famine.’

At the height of the plague, when five hundred
people a week are dying, one of Camus’s

particular enemies in the novel steps into
a view, a Catholic priest called Paneloux.

He gives a sermon to the city in the cathedral
of the main square – and seeks to explain

the plague as god’s punishment for depravity.

But Camus’s hero Dr Rieux loathes this approach.
The plague is not a punishment for anything

deserved. That would be to imagine that the
universe was moral or had some sort of design

to it. But Dr Rieux watches a young innocent
child die in his hospital and knows better:

suffering is entirely randomly distributed,
it makes no sense, it is no ethical force,

it is simply absurd and that is the kindest
thing one can say of it.

The doctor works tirelessly against death,
he tries to lessen the suffering of those

around him. But he is no saint. In one of
the most central lines of the book, Camus

writes: ‘This whole thing is not about heroism.
It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous

idea, but the only way to fight the plague
is with decency.’ A character asks Rieux

what decency is. Doctor Rieux’s response
is as clipped as it is eloquent: ‘In general,

I can’t say, but in my case I know that
it consists in doing my job.’

Despite the horror, Camus (who in an earlier
essay had compared humanity to the wretched

character of Sisyphus but then asked us to
imagine Sisyphus ‘happy’) maintains a

characteristically keen sense of what makes
life worth enduring. His Doctor Rieux appreciates

dancing, love and nature; he is hugely sensitive
to the smell of flowers, to the colours at

sunset and – like Camus – adores swimming
in the sea, slipping out after an evening

on the wards to surrender himself to the reassuring
immensity of the waves.

Eventually, after more than a year, the plague
ebbs away. The townspeople celebrate, it is

apparently the end of suffering. Normality
can return. But this is not how Camus sees

it. Doctor Rieux may have helped to defeat
this particular outbreak of the plague but

he knows there will always be others:

‘Rieux knew that this chronicle could not
be a story of definitive victory. It could

only be the record of what had to be done
and what, no doubt, would have to be done

again, against this terror… As he listened
to the cries of joy that rose above the town,

Rieux recalled that this joy was always under
threat. He knew that this happy crowd was

unaware of something that one reads in books,
which is that the plague bacillus never dies

or vanishes entirely, that it remains dormant
for dozens of years, that it waits patiently

in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs
and old papers, and that the day will come

when…the plague will once again rouse its
rats and send them to die in some new well-contented

city.’

Camus speaks to us in our own times not because
he was a magical seer who could intimate what

the best scientists could not, but because
he correctly sized up human nature and knew

about a fundamental and absurd vulnerability
in us that we cannot usually bear to remember.

In the words of one of his characters, Camus
knew, as we do not, that ‘everyone has inside

it himself this plague, because no one in
the world, no one, can ever be immune.’

Leave a Reply