“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.