The opening section of Albert Camus’ The Plague introduces the city of Oran, a bustling French port on the Algerian coast of Africa. In this smug town, the inhabitants are primarily focused on business. However, the normal rhythm of life is disrupted when a multitude of rats emerge from the sewers and perish. Initially, the townspeople are relieved to see an end to the repulsive rodents, but soon they face a much graver problem: an outbreak of a fatal fever. After a significant delay, government officials finally declare a state of plague. Dr. Bernard Rieux, a physician who recently separated from his wife due to her illness, assumes the responsibility of treating the disease.
Part two of The Plague sees the town of Oran succumbing to the illness, resulting in significant changes. Isolated from the rest of the world, Oran enters a state of exile. Auxiliary hospitals are established to accommodate the growing number of plague victims. The death toll skyrockets from 302 deaths per week to 137 deaths per day. Many residents experience the loss of loved ones to the plague, creating an atmosphere of sorrow and despair. Smiles become rare in the town, as its inhabitants grapple with the devastating effects of the disease. Dr. Rieux perseveres in his work, despite facing challenges due to limited supplies. A respected Catholic priest exacerbates the situation by blaming the plague as punishment for people’s sins. In response, a man named Tarrou dedicates himself to helping the government combat the destruction caused by the disease. He organizes sanitary squads consisting of volunteers. The scorching hot summer weather compounds the hardships faced by Oran’s residents, forcing them to seek solace in cafes and alcohol. Increased security measures are necessary as people attempt to flee from the epidemic.
In part three of The Plague, conditions in Oran deteriorate further. The oppressive summer heat persists, and a lack of rain leads to dust clouds enveloping the town. With the number of plague victims rising rapidly, space for bodies becomes scarce. Soon, there is an insufficient supply of coffins and burial sites. As a result, the government resorts to mass burials in large ditches, layering quicklime and soil to cover each section.Later on, the authorities make a decision to utilize the unused crematorium and streetcars, which had been out of operation since the exile. They load the deceased onto the streetcars and transport them for cremation. As more and more people lose their jobs due to the plague, the number of public servants assisting with plague-related matters decreases. However, these vacant positions are quickly filled by those who have lost their office jobs. In addition to the sanitary squads, other necessary roles include grave diggers and stretcher-bearers. Time in Oran appears to have come to a halt. The residents, who were previously consumed with their own problems of isolation from loved ones, now realize that they are all in the same situation. As a curfew is enforced to deter crimes like arson and attempts to flee, Oran becomes eerily lifeless at night. The plague is ravaging the town.
In part four of The Plague, the conditions in Oran remain terrible. Dr. Rieux is working harder than ever, only getting four hours of sleep and constantly feeling exhausted. While the chances of survival for those diagnosed with the plague are slim, Dr. Rieux’s role has shifted from curing to diagnosing patients. The people of Oran are growing restless, leading to daily riots and various crimes. Despite the number of deaths no longer increasing, many individuals close to Dr. Rieux have passed away. Father Paneloux, after delivering a less hostile sermon, contracted the plague. Another doctor named Dr. Richard, who collaborated with Dr. Rieux, also succumbed to the disease. A tragic death from the plague was the magistrate’s son who received an experimental serum that ultimately prolonged his suffering instead of providing a cure. This serum became renowned for reducing the number of deaths and causing some individuals to recover from the plague. Fortunately, towards the end of part four, healthy rats reappeared in Oran, signaling a positive sign for the end of the epidemic.
In the final section of the novel, Dr. Rieux continues to work diligently as winter arrives and the number of deaths decreases. Eventually, the epidemic abruptly ends. Sadly, Dr. Rieux’s dear friend Tarrou dies from the plague during its dying moments. Another close friend, Cottard, is unable to handle the opening of the town gates and succumbs to madness. He starts shooting people from his apartment until authorities intervene and apprehend him, fearing he may reveal his own crimes. Later, Dr. Rieux receives the heartbreaking news that his wife has passed away while they were still in exile. Consequently, he finds it difficult to join in the town’s celebration when the gates are finally opened. The novel also explores Father Paneloux, an esteemed and well-educated priest in Oran. He is introduced helping the sick concierge, M. Michel, at Dr. Rieux’s apartment building (17).
During the epidemic, Father Paneloux was employed at various locations. He used his education to assist at the Oran Geographical Society, where he delivered educational lectures on historical plagues (92). After the initial month of the outbreak, Father Paneloux delivered a profound sermon during a major Sunday mass at the local church (95-99). He held the belief that the plague was a divine punishment inflicted upon the town’s inhabitants for their sins (92). The congregation had diverse reactions to the sermon, with some rejecting the church and abandoning their faith, while others simply disregarded it (100). Father Paneloux perceived the plague as an opportunity for individuals to gain insight and contemplate. He discovered a positive aspect amidst the prevailing disease (125).
Father Paneloux, previously depicted as rigid and unpleasant, reveals his emotional side after witnessing the agonizing death of M. Othon’s son. The boy’s prolonged death, caused by an experimental serum, leads Paneloux to beseech God for mercy during the despairing ordeal. Later, Paneloux discusses the concepts of death, grace, and the connection between God and doctors with Dr. Rieux. Inspired by their conversation, Paneloux joins Rieux’s group of workers and dedicates himself to assisting in plague-stricken areas.
Paneloux writes an essay titled “Is a Priest justified in Consulting a Doctor?” and delivers a sermon about it at a mass for men. This sermon possesses a more compassionate tone compared to his previous one, as Paneloux uses inclusive language to establish easier identification with his audience. The location where Paneloux lived is seized to aid in plague treatment, prompting him to move in with a devout old woman.
Despite falling ill, Paneloux adamantly refuses medical help until the old lady recognizes his urgent need for it. Suspecting the presence of the plague, a doctor is called to assess his condition. Dr. Rieux arrives at the house and takes Paneloux to the hospital after giving him his crucifix. Remarkably, Paneloux passes away in the hospital without displaying any evident plague symptoms apart from congestion.The doctors had doubts regarding the nature of the illness, questioning whether it was plague or not (231-234). Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, provides a vivid depiction of a horrifying epidemic. It captures the emotions and experiences of those affected by the devastating impact of the plague. This powerful literary work evokes profound emotions in the reader, leading them to contemplate themes such as love, death, and freedom.
The Plague has a somber tone throughout, as it explores the subject of coping with loss. Particularly, when Dr. Rieux receives the news of his wife’s passing after the death of his friend Tarrou, he instructs his mother not to grieve. Despite the difficulty, he emphasizes the need to remain strong. This poignant moment imparts a valuable lesson on dealing with death.
The most heartbreaking part in the novel was the passing of M. Othon’s son in the hospital, which also revealed how to cope with death. The scene demonstrated the various ways in which different individuals deal with death, while also introducing a religious component as Father Paneloux begged God to spare the child. Although The Plague is a captivating book, the plot is somber. The disappointing death of the most intriguing character, Tarrou, also showcased the emotions one experiences when losing a dear friend to an illness.
The fragments from Tarrou’s journal were captivating and amusing in certain instances. They brought a slight lightheartedness to maintain the impact, while preventing the novel from becoming completely disheartening.
An allegory is a representation of spiritual, moral, or other abstract meanings through the actions of fictional characters that serve as symbols. The Plague exemplifies this concept by using characters with symbolic meanings and a plot with significant messages. The entire plague epidemic in the book symbolizes WWII and the holocaust. The way the epidemic was initially ignored due to the residents’ inaction represents the Nazi party’s early stages when they were not taken seriously. Eventually, as the party grew, the severity of the epidemic became evident, much like the holocaust. The use of a crematorium, reminiscent of the holocaust, further emphasizes these connections. Similarly, as in the holocaust, people in the book become desensitized to death and ignore it, just like some non-Jewish, non-Nazi Germans did during that time. The Plague offers commentary on WWII.