The Conflict Between Duty and Heroism in The Plague
In The Plague itself, Albert Camus uses the concept of a plague to allegorically represent the wartime occupation of France during World War II and symbolize the absurdity of nature. The coastal town of Oran, located in Northern Africa, is burdened by this unstoppable pestilence that threatens the townspeople’s humanity. Camus’ “symbolic plague represents a multitude of ideas, but its purpose is to put humans to thought and action whereby they rise above themselves” (Payne). Despite the Absurdity of Oran’s state, Camus holds an optimistic view of human nature through his characters’ selfless struggle against death. However, in the case of The Plague, there is a significant distinction between heroism and duty. The ambiguity of Camus’ characters creates this conflict as they face an array of emotional, moral, ethical, legal, and religious challenges. The Plague demonstrates that duties do not always equate with heroics, because man is expected to support the common decency of a society.
The setting of Oran is introduced in the first paragraph of the novel; this locale is presented as a French port on the Algerian coast. This clarity sets the stage for the narrative while providing an actuality for the reader. Camus continues his description by juxtaposing the ordinariness of Oran to the extraordinary character of the plague. By establishing this contrast, Camus’ perception of the universe is more easily understood. He believes individuals must live a meaningful life, despite the fact that life itself has no ultimate meaning. This contrast immediately sets the tone for the novel through its many themes. The absurd setting of the plague allows individual behavior to be examined and the way they respond to their conflicting duties. Duty in its literal sense is “something that you must do because it is morally right or because the law requires it” (Merriam-Webster). It is unquestionable that the characters in The Plague were called to duty. Whether that duty was to the self, religion, love, occupation, or mankind in general, it was expected for individuals to oblige accordingly. Therefore, if duty is an expectation for the common good, what establishes the heroic individual? Engaging in selfless struggle is not a “heroic” deed. Camus undermines any “heroic” endeavors in the plague stricken town because of his theory that humans are predominantly good. By responding to their duties, characters are simply carrying out a meaningful life during a hostile time. The only character that Camus explicitly refers to as a hero is Grand. Some believe he was brought into this world to perform the needful duties of an assistant municipal clerk. To the surprise of many, he revolted against the plague through his writing and volunteering. Grand was a mediocre man and a failure of love, yet he “was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups” (134). Grand, like Camus, interprets duty to be a role of man in society, not a heroic deed. He rebels by seeking the perfect sentence, refusing to let the plague deprive him of language. Grand may not hold a “heroic” role as secretary of the sanitary groups, but his quest for a meaningful life gives him the courage to fight. His courage to surpass the social structure also diverges from the development of other characters. Grand’s insignificance prior to the outbreak and commitment throughout the duration of the pestilence makes him a hero.
Dr. Bernard Rieux is the narrator of the chronicle who attempts to provide an objective account of Oran during the time of pestilence. In Part 1 of the novel, Rieux believes the plague can be stopped but to his dismay, he uncovers the devastating reality such absurdity will instill on his town. As a doctor, he fears the panic that the implication of plague will create. As a doctor his duty is to his occupation. He is expected to combat the plague with his extensive knowledge and talent. He tells Father Paneloux “Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first” (219). While Rieux does express a sense of atheism, he does not negatively construe his opinion of God. Rather, he uses God’s absence as grounds to continuously tend to the plague-stricken. He adheres to his duty throughout the epidemic but disregards a conflicting duty. It is understood that Rieux’s wife is ill and recovering in a sanatorium outside the boundaries of Oran. In choosing to aid the infected citizens, he ultimately neglects his wife and his duty to love. When the pneumonic plague develops, Rieux’s work seems hopeless but he continues to contribute to the battle despite the certainty of defeat. In a world of abstractions, he understood that reality dissipated during the “never ending defeat” (128) of the plague. He maintained that his fight against the plague was an act of common decency and not of heroism or sanctity. Although he opts for the good of society over his individual duty, he cannot be considered a hero because a doctor is morally required to care for the sick.
Tarrou notices many developments of the plague as he keeps a diary of the ongoing events throughout the duration of the epidemic. He proclaims that “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like)- is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” (253) The emphasis on maintaining peace is the moral responsibility of humans to aid when disaster strikes. It cannot be observed as heroic. Tarrou is aware of his sense of duty to the people and proposes the idea of the sanitary groups. The plague is a collective disaster that Tarrou alongside Rieux struggles to fight against in order to protect humanity. Tarrou refers to his comprehension as a moral guide to his duties. From this understanding, Rieux, Grand, and Tarrou and their awareness of the plague results in a strong fight against it. In a world where humans are constantly suffering from some variety of plague, Tarrou does not seek heroism. He hopes to attain peace by siding with the victims of pestilences and discovering how to become a healer.
In normal times, the people of Oran were not devout. In waiting for a turn of events, however, they took part in Father Paneloux’s Week of Prayer. His sermon ultimately shifted the people’s attitudes and created widespread panic by his declaration that the plague was a punishment created by God. He interprets his sermons to be a beneficial provision to the suffering townspeople. His duty to God makes him inadequate and ignorant to the severity of the plague. He clings to his faith even after witnessing the horrifying death of the police magistrate’s son. Paneloux eventually succumbs to death. He certainly fulfilled his duties to his religion but ignored his duty to himself by initially objecting doctor care when he became sick. As a priest, his duty to religion led him to advocate for faith in God but created no sense of heroism because he refused to physically combat the plague.
A journalist from Paris, visiting Oran for an assignment, Rambert finds himself trapped when the town is quarantined. Having a wife back home, he fears that his duty to her will be forgotten. In the absurdity of the plague, Rambert seeks happiness through love and initially argues that his personal suffering is most important. He attempts many routes of escape, legally and illegally, but eventually comes to terms with being exiled. He slowly begins to understand the collective nature of the epidemic. Unlike Cottard, Rambert is able to see past his individual suffering and realize the distress of others. In his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he explains to Rieux and Tarrou how he lost his belief in heroism. Abstractions cause people to fight but Rambert stresses the importance of emotions, specifically love. In response to his contradiction, Rieux replies with “there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency” (163). This response, Rambert’s conscience, and the reveal of Rieux’s similar situation with his wife foster Rambert’s decision to stay in Oran. He ignores his duty of love with hopes of attaining happiness when reunited with his wife. Under the precedent of Rieux, Rambert realizes his duty to the people of Oran and proceeds to work alongside the doctor and his associates.
In the case of Cottard, his lack of duty directly linked to his cowardice. In normal conditions, he would be considered a criminal but the plague allowed him to disregard his duty as a citizen. Cottard is at ease under the plague’s “reign of terror” because he relishes in the overarching sentiment of fear among the citizens. He believes it is not his “job” to assist the sanitary groups efforts. While adhering to one’s duty does not necessarily produce heroism, Cottard’s lack of duty secured him as a pariah. He monopolized on the devastating lifestyle and refused to fight against the plague. He is not an antagonist of the story, but he is unable to disregard his prior suffering as a criminal. The plague does not concern him and he feels no obligation to help. The protagonists in The Plague possessed varied backgrounds that contributed to their similar views of life. As Tarrou professed, “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” (254) Aside from Cottard, none of the characters found pleasure in the plague and in some way worked towards ceasing the epidemic.
In The Plague, Camus asserts that it is one’s perseverance in times of calamity that is most reputable. Individuals are tested to act advantageously, but can be torn between social duty and self-interest. The characters Grand, Rieux, Tarrou, Paneloux, and Rambert complied with their duties as men, doctors, and priests; all displayed an inherent potential for good. Yet even as they work towards a common decency, such “heroes” cannot be applauded because individual suffering for the greater good is an expectation of mankind.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage, 1947. Print. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2015. Payne, Melissa, “Discussion of the Absurd in Albert Camus’ Novels Essays and Journals” (1992). University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects. http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_chanhonoproj/93
The Plague as Double Allegory
In The Plague, Albert Camus writes about a plague that strikes the Algerian town of Oran around 1940 and devastates the residents who did not expect a plague. This work of fiction takes on meaning beyond the plague itself by looking at how the characters and the society respond to the plague. The plague and society’s subsequent response can both be paralleled to actual historical events that occurred immediately before The Plague’s 1947 publication. However, Camus’ The Plague, while ostensibly allegorical of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, is also an allegory of human solidarity against social calamities.
The Plague can be regarded as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of Paris because of the circumstances regarding its publication. Camus published The Plague in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. He began writing The Plague while he was in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. In fact, Camus arrived in Paris shortly before the Nazis did (about two months earlier, in fact). Once the Nazis had invaded, he joined the French Resistance against Nazi occupation and became the editor of a pro-liberation, leftist newspaper. He kept copious notes on the situation in France and began writing The Plague during that time. It is only natural that The Plague would be shaped by Camus’s experiences during the Nazi occupation of France.
The Plague’s plot line reflects the situation during the Nazi occupation. The original French title was La Peste; the word “peste” has two meanings in French, “plague” and “pest” (“Peste”). If we were to take The Plague as allegorical of the Nazi invasion, the plague is the epidemic and the pests are the rats. The rats represent the Nazis and the plague represents the destruction caused by the Nazis to Camus’ new home. The Nazis had cut off Paris from the outside world and trapped the entire city within itself. That led to Camus first contemplating Les Prisonniers or, The Prisoner as the title for this novel. In fact, he wrote “Don’t put ‘the plague’ in the title. But something like ‘The Prisoners’” (Camus, Notebook IV 28). The people of this fictional world are trapped, with no possibility of escape.
The idea of France at that time being a prison fits well. The setting of The Plague is Oran, which is a real town in Algeria, Camus’ native country. Camus was familiar with Oran, having taught there for three months in 1940. However, it fell to the Nazis later that year (after Camus left). The Nazis occupied it for two years before the Allies launched Operation Torch in 1942 and removed the Nazis from Northern Africa, including from Oran. Meanwhile, Camus was in Paris, involved in the underground resistance to the Nazis. He had been exiled from his original home and he was a prisoner in his new home. Camus reflected this in Rambert’s attempting to leave town legally and his receiving of a mocking reaction: “But the post-office officials had vetoed this [sending a letter], his colleagues of the local press said they could do nothing for him, and a clerk in the Prefect’s office had laughed in his face” (Camus, The Plague 84). Camus was unable to leave Paris and Rambert was unable to leave Oran.
In The Plague, the residents of Oran at first completely deny that they have been invaded and occupied. . After all, it has been many years since an actual plague had struck Europe and in that modern age, with antibiotics and advanced medicine, everyone was confident that any threat would quickly be mitigated: “…he said that he knew quite well that it was plague…he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues’ reluctance to face the facts and, if it would ease their minds, he was quite prepared to say it wasn’t plague” (Camus, The Plague 48). In real life, France had defeated the Germans in WW1 only 20 years before and force upon them a crippling treaty. The French, in their hubris, did not imagine that Germany would be able to defeat and occupy France. However, the Nazis managed to take Paris in three short weeks in 1940. In the novel, the plague struck Oran much quicker, but the people still found it hard to believe.
Once the Nazis took France, many French people felt that they should accept the inevitable Nazi domination of Europe (including French soil). In the novel, Father Paneloux and his followers embody those views, favoring praying for God’s forgiveness over actual action against the plague. He claims that the plague came because the town collectively turned its back to God: “For a long while God gazed down on this town with eyes of compassion; but He grew weary of waiting, His eternal hope was too long deferred, and now He has turned His face away from us. And so, God’s light withdrawn, we walk in darkness, in the thick darkness of this plague” (Camus, The Plague 96). Father Paneloux takes advantage of the plague to boost the town’s participation in church. A small but noticeable minority of people accept his view and decide to simply pray and beg for forgiveness from God instead of taking an active stance against the problem.
In contrast to the passivity and selfishness of many characters, Dr. Rieux takes an active stand against the plague. The kind hearted doctor, along with the health teams, represents the French Resistance, and by extension, Camus himself. Rieux fights against the plague and encourages others to do so as well. Even more telling, it is revealed at the end that he has been the narrator throughout, writing the history of his town’s eventual victorious struggle with the plague. Similarly, Camus, the francophone litterateur, wrote the history of France’s struggle against and victory over the Nazis when they occupied and terrorized France.
However, Camus did not acknowledge that he was writing the history of France under Nazi occupation. In his Notebooks, Camus mentions The Plague several times but he never acknowledges it as a political allegory. This is not as significant as it might seem though because he was in Nazi controlled territory. The Gestapo (Nazi police infamous for sending dissenters to concentration camps) inspired fear and it is likely that Albert Camus did not want to put any potentially rebellious thoughts on paper. He made his point in a much more subtle way: he wrote a novel that is allegorical of the Nazis but never directly mentions them, thus protecting himself from any retribution from the Nazis. They never would have been able to prove The Plague was actually about their occupation.
Instead, Camus includes an apolitical message in the story. In Notebook IV, written in October of 1942, Camus states “The Plague has a social meaning and metaphysical meaning. It’s exactly the same” (Camus, Notebook IV 36). The Plague is littered with a cast of characters displaying the full range of different individual human reactions to a calamity. They make difficult decisions under duress. Some like Rambert and Tarrou try to get out of Oran, but ultimately they join together in the group response to the calamity. They are able to get rid of the plague because they join forces.
Thus, The Plague can also be seen as transcending the Nazi invasion and occupation of France and representing the human response to calamities in general. This makes it a “double allegory” comprising both the political allegory and a moral allegory. The political allegory is when parallels can be drawn to the Nazi occupation of France. The moral allegory is the overall human solidarity which defeats the plague.
Camus achieves this moral allegory by keeping the language as general as possible, as well as by making the calamity a fairly generic one. The plague is simply the backdrop for the fascinating human developments that we see in the story. The Nazi presence in France is never directly mentioned, but it is fascinating to readers familiar with the course of World War II. Camus effectively utilizes the plague to give a political and moral lesson that transcends time.
The Absurd and the Concept of Hope in Camus’s Novels
When one questions the existence of God, one often reverts to a specific, troubling question: “if God exists, why are there moral tragedies that cause such great suffering?” In other words, humans find it very difficult when there is an event or scenario that does not fit their framing of thought. Similar types of thinking have plagued humans for centuries; whether morality exists or not is still a topic of debate. These seemingly unanswerable questions can only verify one aspect of the universe: the Absurd governs it. This concept that human reason could not possibly explain the universe and its workings is explained in The Stranger and The Plague by Albert Camus. However, this conception leads many to believe that there is absolutely no value in the world; however, this is not the message Camus wants to communicate. In The Stranger and The Plague, the conclusion is not one of nihilism, but of hope, as explained through “Existentialist Fiction” and “Nonviolence in a Plague-striken World.”
To fully understand how Absurdism functions within Camus’s novels, we must first understand what the Absurd entails. The Absurd states that the human need for objective understanding of the world is incoherent because thought reduces the world to a sphere of human understanding. Though reduces an inhuman world to the world of the human; for instance, a tree is known to humans as a tree, but that is simply the meaning mankind has projected onto the object. In other words, a tree is not called “a tree” by the universe, but rather because human society has decided that it is a tree. Furthermore, institutions created to instill meaning within the world have repeatedly failed; only absurdism can acknowledge the persistent confusion as a result of these institutions. It is clear that humanity has witnessed failures of religious, governmental, and social institutions that were designed to create reason. Instead of adhering to what humans expected, institutionalized life only contributed to a growing sense of confusion.
Camus uses different tools to symbolize the Absurd in his novels. In The Stranger, Meursault is used to represent the Absurd and its interaction with the human world. For instance, when Meursault’s mother dies, he does not view this death as something that has moral weight to him. Typically, humans will grieve their loved ones, and those who do not seem to go against common human reasoning. Another example arises when Meursault kills the Arab. He states that it is something that just “happened.” There was no premeditation or rationality involved; he acted because of the hot sun. Furthermore, murder is something that humans confer moral judgment onto. But under the Absurd, murder is not something that is naturally bad, which is why Meursault is not able to understand why killing the Arab is a problem. He is unpredictable and indifferent to those around him: “I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t” (Stranger 60). This statement indicates that he knows that he is indifferent, and recognizes that he does not care for anything. He says he will marry Marie even though he does not care whether he does or not, and he barely attempts to defend himself in court. Just as in a perfectly absurd universe, one cannot predict what he will do next. Not only is he unpredictable, but he is also controlled by the empirical world. Instead of mourning for his mother, he cares more about the people crying in the room at that moment. Just as the absurd is entirely based on the physical world, Meursault’s actions are motivated by the empirical world.
In The Plague, absurdism takes the form of the bubonic-like disease that rocks the small town Oran. The citizens of the town try desperately to rely on human-made institutions, such as government, religion, and medicine, to help them. Despite this reliance, absurdism triumphs over the manmade systems. The government fails in multiple instances. The first signs of the disease is marked by an increase in the dead vermin. Despite signs of a public health risk, the government does not do anything proactive: “Actually the Municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all” (Plague 16). Even as the problem becomes more dire, the government takes the wrong course of action, instead looking to collecting trash more often rather than searching for what is killing the rats. When the government assigns its prefect to deal with the problem, he decides to forestall the formal recognition of the plague. This move is problematic because it entails risking more lives for a longer period of time. Subsequently, the quarantine takes longer to take effect, and as a result, the risk of more death increases. Once it does take effect, the quarantine has the end goal of eliminating the afflicted rather than attempting to find a way to help. As a result, the diseased are all herded into the sports arena, much as pigs are moved into their pens. The hope of the citizens that the government would save them is misplaced; in fact, the inaction of the government is a crucial factor in making the epidemic so hard to clean up.
When the government begins to fail the citizens, many turn to religion to find solace and peace. Although the people are not usually religious, they grow more so as hope grows dim and the death toll rises. The town organizes a Week of Prayer in order to counter the disease. At the end of the Week, Paneloux blames the plague on the “heathen lifestyle” that the townspeople had led during his sermon:
“‘My brothers, he cries, ‘that fatal hunt is up, and harrying our streets today. See him there, that angel of the pestilence, comely as Lucifer, shining like Evil’s very self! He is hovering above your roofs with his great spear in his right hand, poised to strike, while his left hand is stretched toward one or other of your houses. Maybe at this very moment his finger is pointing to your door, the red spear crashing on its panels, and even now the plague is entering our home” (46).
However, he believes that if the people repent, “God would see to the rest” (47). According to religion, the bubonic disease is something that brings suffering, but it is also something that opens the eyes of mankind. Rieux, the doctor, does not believe in this train of thought, as he believes that a disease that brings such suffering cannot possibly have such a positive implication: “All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague” (50). This is a crucial junction between religion and the Absurd; religion is premised on the idea that things that cannot be explained by human reason can be explained by a higher order. However, absurdism brings up the paradox of God. Either an all-powerful God exists and humans are not responsible for the evil that occurs on Earth, or God does not exist, in which case there is no being to put transcendent meaning in the world and all human constructs of meaning are illusory. Furthermore, since the absurd debases all other ethical judgments which apply ethical meaning to the world, all conclusions must be based upon the absurd. Yet since the absurd only exists insofar as humans can experience the world, believing in a higher power does not do absurdism justice.
A major problem with how many perceive Camus’s two works is that Camus’s philosophy tends to be seen as nihilistic. Many argue that The Stranger is mostly existentially nihilistic, as the story seems to suggest that Meursault, who represents the Absurd, does not confer value onto anything in his life. This is why he is able to act without any motive or reason; he simply “does.” The definition of existential nihilism is the idea that life has no purpose, value, or objective meaning. Moreover, it argues that a person cannot affect the universe in its totality because it cannot alter the infinite nature of it. This interpretation fits Meursault’s actions, as he seems to understand that all the actions he takes are essentially useless up to a certain point. Another facet of existential nihilism is the idea that subjective values and ideas cannot have lasting meaning because they are subject to change. Such an idea is clearly demonstrated in terms of Meursault’s dismissive attitude with marrying Marie. In the case of The Plague, Camus’s writing may be more representative of political nihilism, or the refusal to accept governmental and political structure due to a lack of objectivity. The conflicts within The Plague are largely centered around these manmade institutions that ends up failing. The government at first stalls the quarantine, and religion is not able to offer shelter to the citizen. Thus, it makes sense that the novel is largely politically nihilistic.
Camus, however, did not intend for his novels to be read as nihilistic. In fact, his own conclusion is quite the opposite. His short story “The Myth of Sisyphus” helps clarify and correct the misconceptions of absurdism. Sisyphus is stuck rolling a boulder up a hill for all eternity; when he finally reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down. It is understood that the act of rolling the boulder up has no inherent meaning, as Sisyphus is simply expected to do so an infinite number of times. One may state that this means that the entirety of Sisyphus’s life is now meaningless. However, that is not the conclusion that Camus reaches. When Sisyphus reaches the top of the mountain and the boulder rolls down, he becomes aware of his absurd fate as he heads down to continue his laboring. This moment of lucid understanding of his situation is crucial, as it demonstrates that life can be meaningful despite not having any kind of order. This understanding of his fate is also crucial, as an acknowledgment of the futility of his actions makes it that much more bearable. By acknowledging the pain, the individual is able to confer a certain amount of control over his situation. Sisyphus has also accepted that he will never be able to stop rolling the boulder down the hill. To him, there is no opportunity to leave or to have some alternate task available. This is the crucial difference between nihilism and absurdism; nihilism is the idea that nothing matters, but absurdism takes it a step further by understanding that nothing matters and then accepting that there is no better alternative available to anyone. Therefore, rather than the answer being suicide, the answer is acceptance; only through this acceptance can anyone find true happiness.
This idea is present in both novels, thus denying the nihilistic conclusions that many believe these works have. In The Plague, the disease represents the Absurd, and so the book is literally about humans fighting against the unforgiving nature of the universe. However, the way in which the characters react to the disease allows them, to some extent, to combat it. In “Nonviolence in a Plague-striken World,” the author argues that the Absurd via the disease allows the individuals to create meaning through human solidarity. However, this solidarity is only reached through suffering. The clearest example is when Tarrou asks how Rieux developed his knowledge of reality, which Rieux replies with “suffering.” This is because suffering is a twin, and healing is its sibling. Similarly to how dark does not have context if light did not exist, one would not understand healing if suffering is not present. After the plague disappears as quickly as it appeared, Rieux is able to share in his happiness of surviving such suffering. The misery the disease brought upon Oran allows for the survivors to feel a common solidarity amongst each other. This is an important message; it suggests that once humans go through the Absurd together, they will be able to feel a sense of community with one another. In fact, this idea explains why the Oran community began to act:
“Still, if things had gone thus far and no farther, force of habit would doubtless have gained the day, as usual. But other members of our community, not all menials or poor people, were to follow the path down which M. Michel had led the way. And it was then that fear, and with fear serious reflection, began” (Plague 22).
In terms of The Stranger, the novel takes a “show don’t tell” method of explaining the Absurd to the reader. However, the novel can be used as a tool to explain the difference between existentialism and absurdism, whereas The Plague can delineate the difference between nihilism and absurdism. There is a misconception that existentialism is akin to absurdism, but the difference can be explained in “Camus and the Novel of the ‘Absurd.’” Existentialism suggests that because the world could be empty, one has to take action to get rid of that emptiness. However, Meursault understands the loneliness and emptiness of the universe, but does not attempt to find any kind of meaning in his life. Absurdism is about accepting the emptiness of the universe and conceptualizing it, rather than applying one’s own meaning upon the world. Even in the end where he realizes that he wants life, he takes no action to attempt to stop his execution. Instead, he decides that he will go on passively.
Thus, absurdism is the middle ground between nihilism and existentialism. One does not concede that there is absolutely no value to the world, but one also does not apply one’s own source of value to the world. Absurdism is about being one with the universe, whether that means being passive or struggling for life. This idea is usually experienced by those who face mortality, and in the face of it, decide to accept whatever fate may come to pass. Everyone has the capacity to access the Absurd; it is just how they act when they come into contact that defines them as individuals.
Ideological Tenacity in The Plague
The Plague is an exploration of caricatures and how they respond in desperate situations. Albert Camus does this by putting multiple characters in the same situation, the controlled variable, but changing the philosophies each represent, the manipulated variable. This experiment judges the philosophical tenacity of each caricature through adversity. Specifically, Camus looks at the tenacity of existentialism versus religion. To cope with the plague, Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux both create purposes for themselves based on their beliefs, abilities, and needs of the society; however, their contrasting ideologies ultimately determine which caricatures survives philosophically. In The Plague, Camus develops the idea that in desperate situations, individuals will create a purpose for themselves based on their philosophies: those with philosophies solely dependent on the individual, and separate from higher power survive philosophically; in contrast, individuals with philosophies dependent on higher power will have their beliefs broken down by adversity, and do not survive philosophically.
To philosophically survive the plague, the caricatures must develop a purpose for themselves based on their niches and beliefs. Both Father Paneloux, and Dr. Rieux do such. Paneloux, a well-respected Jesuit priest of Oran, provides sermons to give the plague a purpose for the townspeople: the plague is a test and punishment from God, and he will spare the faithful and kill the sinners. In the beginning, the sermons and the Week of Prayer attract many people because many of these individuals would be asking, “Why us?” or “Why is this happening?” during this adversity. Paneloux assigns the plague a function, and gives the public a how-to-guide for surviving the plague. By practicing Christian virtues and repenting sins, this gives some townsfolk hope the will survive the plague and purpose. Further, Paneloux engages and unites the townsfolk in activity to survive the monotony of a quarantined town with the Week of Prayer. In the beginning of the plague, Paneloux’s philosophical beliefs help him and the townsfolk handle the plague by providing purpose, hope and unity.
However, unity under Paneloux’s philosophy is only effective on the surface. Because many townsfolk are not religious, and participation in sermons was met with an attitude of, “Anyhow, it can do no harm” (89), the hope and purpose Paneloux provides only resonates with some and the unity lasts temporarily, drying when plague times worsen and the reality that the plague is here to stay settles in the town. At the height of the plague with extreme summer heat, high winds, and manmade fires in a desperate attempt to destroy the infection, the town “retained the attitude of sadness and suffering, but they had ceased to feel the sting” (175). By this time, the townsfolk retained a hopeless, “habit of despair” (175), submitting to the separation from loved ones, monotony of a quarantined town, fear of the plague, and daily deaths. By Paneloux’s last sermon, there is only a group of men in the church, and the crowds that the Week of Prayer attracted are gone. Paneloux’s philosophical purpose only assists the town temporarily and shallowly, until they experience the worst hardships, a direct reflection of how his philosophies only assist him until he experiences the worst hardships.
Rieux’s purpose contrasts Paneloux’s both in ideology and effectiveness. With the help of his friends, Rieux uses his medical abilities to aid the sick, and the group organize and create sanitary groups to deal with the plague practically, attempting to bring order by using a systematic approach to prevent the disease from spreading, aid the plague-stricken, and deal with the dead. In addition, this order Rieux and his friends impose is a fight against the plague’s disorder. Rieux’s niche and the purpose he creates for himself encourages others to fight back by participating in sanitary groups: “These groups enable [the] townsfolk to come to grips with the disease, and convinced them that, now that plague was amongst [them], it was up to them to fight back” (128). Further, the groups unites the townsfolk, by showing that because it is “some men’s duty” (128) to fight back, it is “the concern of all” (128). The systematic approach to the plague Rieux uses reflects his philosophy and personality: he approaches his life objectively, and is an atheist because he thinks logically, the existence of a God is invalid considering the amount of suffering he’s seen as a doctor.
While Paneloux uses his ideology and niche to aid the townsfolk shallowly in the beginning, Rieux’s niche effectively aids the townsfolk throughout the plague. Rieux provides objective resolution and purpose with the sanitary groups, helping the town come to terms with the fact that the plague is here to stay, and therefore the townsfolk should fight the disorder with order. This purpose appeals to most; it fights against monotony and despair in a realistic fashion. On the other hand, Paneloux’s ideology isn’t as appealing to the majority, and the temporary unity it provides disappears during the worst times.
As a controlled variable, Paneloux and Rieux are similar in the rigidity their philosophies. When Paneloux experiences Mr. Othon’s son’s suffering, he begs, “My God, spare this child…!” (206), but the child dies in pain. He reflects upon the child’s death after: “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand” (208). In this reflection, he essentially states that individuals should love the suffering of a child, because we can not understand such; a grotesque, immoral statement. His inflexible beliefs causes Paneloux to go to extremes to justify why God would let such suffering happen. Paneloux is unable to comprehend this, and he argues in his last sermon that because of the incomprehensible injustice of a child’s suffering, one must choose to believe entirely in God or not at all, emphasizing that one must believe entirely in God. This in an attempt to philosophically justify the suffering of the child to himself, emphasizing his rigidity. Instead of losing his faith, Paneloux “consents to have his eyes destroyed” (219).
Rieux is a rigid character, and this reflects in his attitude towards his beliefs. Camus shows this through Rambert’s reaction to Rieux’s coldness: “You’re using the language of reason, not the heart; you live in a world of… of abstractions” (82). Further, his rigidity reflects in the smallest idiosyncrasies: “When crossing a street he steps off the pavement without changing his pace” (27). This detail shows Rieux’s predominant attitude: once he sets his mind on something, he persistently sees it to the end. Rieux’s indifference appears almost superhuman, noted when he reacts numbly after receiving the telegram of his wife’s death. He reflects that “this suffering was nothing new. For many months… it was the self-same suffering going on and on” (281). Rieux’s cold, calculative and rigid character reflects in his philosophies and medical purpose: even though suffering and death is inevitable, individuals must struggle against it.
With this controlled variable, Camus puts the caricatures’ philosophies to test with the suffering of Mr. Othon’s son. When Paneloux’s philosophies do not assist the townsfolk during the worst of the plague, it directly reflects how his philosophies also do not assist him during such times. Paneloux’s failed attempts to justify the suffering of the child reflect in his metaphorical death. As he dies, Paneloux clutched his crucifix, and passively submits to his death with “blank serenity” (223). This shows Paneloux’s “consent to have his eyes destroyed,” by rigidly clutching his ideology, and submitting to the ugly implications of such. Further, his death was labeled a “doubtful case” (223), accenting the metaphorical representation of Paneloux’s inability to justify the suffering of a child, but need to hold onto his appeal to higher power, and the resulting philosophical death because of this.
Rieux remains philosophically intact after witnessing the child’s suffering, evident when he discusses the suffering with Paneloux: “Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first” (209). In this quote, the reader can see Rieux’s individual purpose, helping “man’s health”, and his reluctance to give himself a purpose outside his abilities. Further, he comments on Paneloux’s rationalization of the child’s suffering: “I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (208). The rationalization behind this comment, and his continued focus on “man’s health” reflect his existential philosophy that suffering is inevitable, but we as people must fight against it anyways.
Paneloux’s need for God to be the reason behind the plague, it’s victims and his purpose causes his ideology to fail. Because he appeals to externalized faith, Paneloux is not in control of his philosophy, and when he sees adversity that directly contradicts such, he must continue to appeal to God. However, Rieux’s existential philosophy is solely dependent on his internal being, giving him control, and allowing him to survive through the worst adversities. This reflects in the purposes they create for themselves, and how effective their purpose is for the community. As a doctor, Rieux sees unfair deaths often, but when Paneloux sees a single unfair death, his philosophy immediately break down. By controlling the environment and the adversity that tests their philosophies, Camus ensures his experiment tests the tenacity of existentialism and religion. Even though the characters’ backgrounds and personalities are different, the similar extent of rigidity in the caricatures’ attitudes towards their philosophies ensures this doesn’t impede. Through this, Camus finds that because existentialism is dependent solely on the individual, and because it acknowledges the inevitability of suffering and death, it is more resilient than religion’s externalized philosophy.
Battle Against Crisis at the Conclusion of The Plague
The last two paragraphs of The Plague emphasize Camus’ belief that even during a crisis, humans must always fight against death even if that battle will be a constant struggle without victory. Rieux deems the stubborn and communal fight of man against death as the most essential element of human response to crisis. As he ends his narrative, he points out that his story was not one of his seemingly heroic decision to fight the plague, but was rather “only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror” (308). His emphasis on “only” indicates that he believes his response to the plague, and in a larger sense, to crises, is not exceptionally heroic, but is only natural, proper, and simply “common decency” (163). In addition, by choosing to use “had had” instead of just “had”, which would have not changed the apparent meaning of the sentence, Rieux further stresses the necessity of a persistent struggle against death. He continues his sentence with additional words, “assuredly” and “would have” that also highlight his belief in fighting against death. Though he knows that the battle against death will be “never ending” (308), he still urges humans to put aside “their personal afflictions” (308) and “[refuse] to bow down to pestilences” (308). By “personal afflictions”, Rieux means hardships that affect only the individual; therefore, according to Rieux, in a time of crisis, humans should not worry greatly about their individual suffering, but about the suffering of humankind. The fight against death requires the effort of the whole community and the individual’s willingness to help others. His use of “bow down” conjures up an image of a tyrannical ruler, the plague, attempting to repress his people. Natural human response to such a ruler is not one of submission, but is rather one of resistance, and through this image, Rieux further underscores the need for humans to resist the ubiquitous domination and oppression of crises. Rieux believes that times of crisis and terror are inevitable in life, no matter how strong human resistance is. Throughout the novel and especially in the last paragraph, the plague has served as a metaphor for crisis, and all the pain, death, and fear associated with crisis. The plague, like crisis, “never dies or disappears for good” (308) but is only suppressed. Rieux’s use of such an extreme word, “never,” suggests that he firmly considers the plague as an omnipresent horror that can suddenly invade human society and just as suddenly retreat. The plague can hide in any ordinary object and “lie[s] dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests, [biding] its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves” (308). The long list of household furniture accentuates the multitude of places in human society the plague can hide in and just how pervasive the plague is. Similarly, crisis can conceal itself within any facet of society, until something triggers it to come out of hiding. Rieux also describes the plague as “[biding] its time”, almost attributing to it an image of a calculating monstrosity. Humans, however, are completely ignorant of the nature of the plague’s calculations, until “it [rouses] up its rats again and send[s] them forth to die in a happy city”. The irony in Rieux’s ending statement is both striking and awful: unknown to the “happy” people, the plague has always been secretly planning its next attack on society. Plague, like any crisis, can never be prevented; all humans can do is fight it when it does come. Rieux contends that while life during crisis is void of true emotion, one can find comfort in human warmth, friendship, and love through a willingness to relentlessly fight against that crisis. Rambert spends the first month of the plague searching for a way to escape Oran and reunite with his wife, who is outside the town. Slowly, his search becomes a desire for escape, no longer driven on not by love for his wife. Like many other residents of Oran, his love becomes merely “an inert mass within” them that bears no real meaning. In contrast, Rieux and Tarrou, who are the forefront of the struggle against the plague, can retain their feeling of true friendship. Together, they overcome obstacles, hardships, together fighting against the plague. Even in the face of certain death, they maintain their true friendship: Rieux himself cares for Tarrou, Rieux tells Tarrou exactly how Tarrou’s condition is progressing, and during Tarrou’s last moments, Rieux’s eyes flooded with tears, symbolic of their strong bond that extends all the way up to their dying minute. Though crisis can bring widespread fear into a society, one must never give in to that fear, choosing to fight with and for each other.
Exile and the Kingdom
Amid the feverish horror of rampant sickness and death, The Plague is a parable of human remoteness and the struggle to share existence. In studying the relationships which Camus sets forth, the relationship between man and lover, mother and son, healer and diseased, it can be seen that the only relationship Camus describes is that between the exiled, and the kingdom for which he searches with tortured longing.”Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.”(p.71). The first exile Camus writes is the physical exile of a diseased town from the world, and consequently, the exile of the town’s people from the kingdom of everyday. The particular torture of this exile is memory; once expelled from a kingdom, the kingdom ceases to exist, living on only as “a memory that serves no purpose… ha[s] a savor only of regret.”(p.73). Thus the townspeople are haunted by memories of their distant loved ones and their interrupted lives, creating islands of their own exile- an exile intensified by years of monotonous selfish habit. “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”(p.4). The pea-counter is the ultimate representation of this exile; he is completely removed from the reality of man, measuring his life in the perpetual repetition of an absurd activity. Through the character of Rambert, Camus defines plague as precisely this selfish exile of habit, this doing “…the same thing over and over and over again…”(p.161).Exile is further compounded by the desperation with which many of the characters fling themselves into the quest of trying to regain their personal remembered kingdoms. Rambert the visiting journalist is the most pronounced example; literally trying to escape the exiled town, he makes mad efforts to return to his kingdom of romantic love, although ultimately he comes to realize that selfishness renders this kingdom empty. Grand, who is exiled by his inarticulateness is perpetually trying to end isolation by completing his manuscript; unfortunately he can never finish the first sentence. An anonymous crazed plague victim rushes out to the street and embraces the first woman he sees, trying to break out of the awful isolation of the selfish, trying to share his exile. The kingdoms these townspeople search to regain never existed, and they suffer in the most profound and hopeless exile of man from man.The exile and the kingdom of which Father Paneloux preaches is the exile of man from the Garden. The plague now becomes a pestilence of the soul, a punishment of evil, a manifestation of the Divine Wrath. In his sermon of the first Week of Prayer, Paneloux warns that “God has… laid low those who hardened themselves against Him…”(p.95). At the time of this sermon Father Paneloux “…hasn’t yet come into contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth…”(p.126). Over the year after this first sermon, Paneloux descends from his pulpit to the depths of real human suffering, joining Rieux in his campaign against the plague. It is during this time, after Paneloux witnesses the excruciating, prolonged death of a child, that he removes himself once and for all from the kingdom of humanity, stepping back up to his pulpit, placing himself in exile on the path to the kingdom of God. By the time of his sermon of the second Week of Prayer, Father Paneloux has carried his view of the plague to a level of radicalism. Reasoning that God’s will must be embraced as one’s own, he denounces resistance against the plague as heresy. In strange irony, he tells the story of a Bishop who exiles himself in an ancient time of plague only to have “corpses rain[ed] down on his head.”(p.228). This same story is Paneloux’; by embracing the plague and decrying resistance, he himself has renounced the world of man. He has exiled himself from humanity to search for the kingdom of God; a search equally as isolating and selfish, and, as the reader is informed by Camus’ atheism, equally as futile as the townspeoples’ search for the kingdom of past.It is between these two kingdoms, the kingdom of remembered but nonexistent happiness, and the kingdom of heaven awaited, that Camus’ truth is found; the kingdom of humanity. Despite his professed atheism, Camus communicates through Rieux a faith in the great spirit of man; although following no god, his main character betrays a spirituality rooted in selfless action and “common decency”(p.163). Rieux moves beyond pity (“…what purpose could [pity] serve…”(p.90)) to compassion, a transition which renders Rieux free to act one-pointedly against the plague; Rieux is the only man in Oran who has a clear view to this path of action. “For the moment I(Rieux) know this; there are sick people and they need curing.”(p.127). “…and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness…”. And though Rieux from behind the guise of narrator discourages the reader from labelling this action heroic, the very existence of the novel is proof to the reader that Rieux is Camus’ hero. It is precisely this sense of “common decency” which sets him apart, renders him uncommon in a town of men exiled from eachother by selfishness. Rieux is not searching for anything, he is merely doing what has to be done to fight the plague. His will to see man healed has freed him from his own search, and thus from exile; no longer in exile, Rieux has found eternal kingdom.For Camus tells us there is no kingdom but present humanity, though we spend lifetimes searching in isolation for assurance in a future or a past. And there is no exile except that which the selfish man imposes on himself. It is by giving up the fruitless search for the non-existent that man can ultimately free himself from exile, and gain the eternal kingdom of present.