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.