Published in 1947, the background of Albert Camus' The Plague is that of Oran, a coastal town of colonial Algeria. The author certainly knew the place well and demonstrated his disgust against its ugly face of materialism. Craftily placed away from the actual happenings of liberation from German occupation, it still can be considered as an allegory of France's wartime trauma. Introspective and revealing in nature, the novel attempts to capture humanity's innermost thoughts.
When Camus was in central France recuperating from tuberculosis, North Africa was liberated. During the time, the author was separated not just from his homeland, but also from his own mother and wife. Like his personal life there is pestilential illness in the outbreak of plague in Oran; isolation and loneliness in the quarantine. The description of the plague is so vivid and heartfelt that the reader finds an element of personal involvement – an allegory of life in the occupied France. In his words, “the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile,” separating families and friends for eternity.
In the novel, Camus did more than just inserting some vignettes and emotions; he portrayed three representative characters through those of the journalist Rambert, Dr. Rieux and the narrator in Tarrou. Rambert, the journalist gets stranded in Oran after the quarantine is imposed. He desperately wants to go back to Paris to his wife. Isolation and loneliness aggravate his suffering of being stranded in Oran. A stranger in town, the exile is stifling for him, and he desperately wants to get away. He is also cynical about the higher nature of his calling when Dr. Rieux tries to comfort him by saying that “there was no cloud without a silver lining,” and that he could do well by writing an interesting report on the situation in Oran. He retorts, “I wasn't put on this earth to make reports; but perhaps I was put on earth to live with a woman.” Reaching a dead end, Rambert explores possibilities of escape. But on the eve of it, realization dawns on him. He opens up, “I always thought that I was a stranger in this town and nothing to do with you. But now that I have seen what I have seen, I know I come from here, whether I like it or not.”
Dr. Rieux, who can be called an alter ego of Camus, is an unassuming fellow who faces the common crisis, suffering not out of lofty ideals or heroic courage, or of careful reasoning for that matter, but of casual affairs and mundane realities. For Dr. Rieux, it is simple necessity and he acts out of necessary optimism. On a personal level, Camus himself was exhausted and depressed by the demands of public expectations that were placed upon him as a public intellectual after the liberation of France. He was weary of being called an existentialist philosopher. Dr. Bernard Rieux becomes his stand in.
When Raymond Rambert the journalist, who was preparing a report on the health condition of the Arabs, seeks an unqualified indictment, Dr. Rieux gently answers that it would be groundless and that he would not be giving anything to add to his report. The journalist then characterizes him as Saint Just; what he understood from his language.
The narrator Jean Tarrou represents Camus' stand on moral issues. In a way, Tarrou has similarities with Camus, both in their mid-thirties; he left home by his own account, in disgust at his father's advocacy of death penalty - a subject of intense concern to Camus. Tarrou eventually opens up to Rieux about his past life and commitment, summarizing the moral message of the story, “that I had continued to be a plague victim for all those long years in which, with my heart and soul, […] I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them.” Tarrou's conclusions are more than an avowal of political error: “...we are all in the plague .... I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.”
Sketching an authentic voice on the ideological stand of Camus, this story speaks of collective responsibility. The calamity that had befallen the citizens of fictionalized Oran is a symbolic representation of what happened in France after German occupation in 1940s. The Republic is abandoned and Vichy’s government is set up under German tutelage. “It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile … letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then had been devouring it inside.” The widespread observation among the Frenchmen was like what Father Paneloux thundered out to his flocks, “My brethren, a calamity has befallen you; my brethren, you have deserved it.”
The similarities between fictionalized Oran and France are all too many. Like what Camus says in The Plague, in appearance nothing had changed. “The town was inhabited by people asleep on their feet.” He also notices how when the plague has passed, a kind of stupor somehow set in. And Camus moves on, speaking of the train of ills befalling Oran as what happened in France after liberation.
The awkward character of Cottard appears in the drift. But Camus is against polarized moral rhetoric. He presents Cottard in sympathetic vein drawing him close to Tarrou in spite of his many failings. His fate is similar to the punishment meted out at Liberation to the presumed collaborators, often by men and women driven by revenge and equally culpable of past failings.
In conclusion, The Plague is a symbolic landmark in world literature chronicling a calamitous period in the life of a nation as happened in France. Reminiscent of Kafka, it also is a commentary on human life with all its absurdity, beautifully meaningful in its own way.
Maksud Jamil is an occasional contributor to The Daily Star Literature and Review Pages.