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.