“The Plague” by Albert Camus

“The Plague” by Albert Camus (1948) Translated by Stuart Gilbert

In “The Plague” by Albert Camus, first the rats start dying in Oran, Algeria.  Dead rats are everywhere, in the streets, on doorsteps, in basements.  Then the rats stop dying, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, only to find that soon some of the people start to die in similar fashion.

Earlier this year, I read Camus’ ‘The Fall’ which impressed me with its deep philosophy, dramatic dialogue, and the vivid character at the center of the story.  Thus I was keen to read another Camus novel.  I decided to read ‘The Plague’.

    “They would plunge together into the dark crowds filling the streets at nightfall; how they mingled, shoulder to shoulder, in the black-and-white moving mass lit here and there by the fitful gleam of a street-lamp; and how they let themselves be swept along with the human herd toward resorts of pleasure whose companionable warmth seemed a safeguard from the plague’s cold breath.”

‘The Plague’ is a much different type of novel from ‘The Fall’.  The style of ‘The Plague’ struck me as very much like reportage, the bare stating of the facts.  It did not strike me at all as a philosophical novel.  I note that some reviewers thought the plague in this book was an allegory for fascism, but I didn’t find any indication of that whatsoever.  I’d be happy if someone explained to me how this novel is an allegory, but as far as I could see, the plague in this book was just the plague.  Besides, all the rats in this book die at the beginning, while the Nazi rats didn’t die until the war’s end.

I found much of the novel dismal and bleak.  You might  ask how anyone could find a story about thousands of people dying a hideous, disfiguring, horrible, and painful death dreary and depressing, but I did.

Parts of the novel were moving.  There is the good doctor Rieux who tirelessly devotes himself to caring for the plague victims, the young man Rambert whose only goal is to get out of the city and back to his girl friend, the priest Father Paneloux who sees the plague as God’s punishment for the people’s misbehavior until his own son is stricken.  As I wrote this last sentence these characters seemed more vivid than they seemed while I read the novel, so maybe this is one of those books that grows on you as you think about it over time.

In ‘The Plague’, they quarantine the entire city of Oran by putting armed sentries at the city gates.  A major plot issue is people who are stuck in the city who would do anything to get out.  In most cities today, there would be no way to impose any sort of quarantine to keep people from leaving, because there are just too many ways out of town.

I much preferred ‘The Fall’ over ‘The Plague’.  In ‘The Fall’, I was completely involved in the story all the way.  In ‘The Plague’, I felt detached from the story, so that it seemed more like news reporting than personally involving for me.  There were many reviews of this novel on the Internet, most praising it highly.   Only a few found the novel less than wonderful.  For me, the last section, Section 5, was very good, but there were many stretches before that which I found less than compelling.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. As you know I really love this book … but it’s been a long time since I read it so can’t really comment on your responses. It’s one I would be happy to read again one day – maybe I will feel differently. BTW Does an allegory have to parallel?

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  2. Reacting to books is such an iffy thing. Who knows why one likes one book, isn’t so excited by another? To me, ‘The Plague’ was about rats dying, then people dying, and I didn’t see any political dimension whatsoever. For it to be a political allegory, there would need to be at least one or two similarities to the political situation, but I didn’t see that. In the reviews I read where they thought it was a political allegory, they never specified what was allegorical about it. ‘Animal Farm’ is a political allegory about fascism. I don’t think The Plague is.

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  3. As I said I can’t recollect the details enough to argue “allegory” but I can see the plague being, I suppose, a metaphor for some sort of “ills” being imposed on a society, such as Nazism, and then exploring how people respond to it. I may be on thin ground here due to lack of memory. And anyhow, it works just as well being a plague with we readers drawing our own conclusion about what it says about humans under distress. It doesn’t need to be a metaphor for that, does it? As I recollect I read it as straight – and came across the allegory arguments later.

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  4. Yes, several of the main characters, especially Dr Rieux, are selfless and heroic in helping the plague victims.

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    • I have just reread The plague Tony … my review will appear in a few hours. I posted on Shaun Tan yesterday morning so decided to leave a little air between the two posts. Anyhow, I loved it all over again – I’d argue as I did here that the Nazi occupation is the inspiration and can be read into it though not as a parallel, but that it is really a bigger novel about how are we to live in a world where such pestilences occurred. Have a look at the review if you like. I also wrote up my bookgroup’s discussion at the Minerva Reads blog (link on my page). You might be interested in that too because one member wished it WAS more about The plague!

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  5. Posted by Sarah on April 29, 2010 at 1:14 AM

    I’m the opposite to yourself Tony, prefering The Plague to The Fall. The former’s matter of fact, understated tone actually increased its emotional impact on me . And yes I read it as a realist novel in which Camus draws on his observations from Vichy France of human behaviour when under threat /in crisis but doesn’t attempt a clear allegory.

    I do think this book might improve on acquaintance- I was ho hum when I first read it but having re-read it a few years back it has become a favourite.

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  6. Hi Sarah,
    Good to hear from you! Yeah, the understated approach is probably what lost me. I need a big sign that says, “This is IMPORTANT.” Towards the end of “The Plague”, the narrator explains why he uses this understated approach, so Camus knew what he was doing.

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