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
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