Albert Camus` The Plague

Albert Camus
Albert Camus,
‘The Plague is Albert Camus’ most successful novel. It was
published in 1947, when Camus was thirty-three, and was an
immediate triumph...Camus’ public standing guaranteed his
book’s success. But its timing had something to do with it too.
By the time the book appeared, the French were beginning to
forget the discomforts and compromises of the four years of
German occupation...
In this context, Albert Camus’s allegory of the wartime
occupation of France reopened a painful chapter in the recent
French past, but in an indirect and ostensibly apolitical key. It
thus avoided arousing partisan hackles, except at the extremes
of Left and Right, and took up sensitive topics without
provoking a refusal to listen.’
Tony Judt, Introduction, The Plague, p viii
‘The peculiar events that are the subject of
this history occurred in 194- in Oran.
The general opinion was that they were
misplaced there, since they deviated
somewhat for the ordinary.
At first sight, indeed, Oran is an ordinary
town, nothing more than a French
Prefecture on the coast of Algeria’.
‘Our fellow citizens work a good deal but always in order to make
money. They are especially interested in trade and first of all, as
they say, they are engaged in business. Naturally they also enjoy
simple pleasures: they love women, the cinema and sea bathing.
But they very sensibly keep these activities for Saturday evening
and Sunday, while trying on other days of the week to earn a lot of
You will say no doubt that this is not peculiar to our town and that
when it comes down to it, people today are all like that... But
there are towns and countries where people do occasionally have
an inkling of something else. On the whole it does not change
their lives; but they did have this inkling and that is positive in
itself. Oran, on the other hand, appears to be a town without
inklings, that is to say, an entirely modern town.’
pp 5-6
‘On the afternoon of the same day, as he was starting his
surgery, Rieux had a visit from a young man, a journalist
who, he was told, had called already to see him that
morning. His name was Raymond Rambert...
He came straight to the point. He was doing an investigation
for a large Parisian newspaper about the living conditions of
the Arabs and wanted information about their state of
Rieux told him that their health was not good; but before
going further, he wanted to know if the journalist could tell
the truth.’
p 11
‘“I can only countenance a report without reservations,
so I shall not be giving you any information to contribute
to yours.”
“You’re talking the language of Saint Just,” the journalist
said with a smile.
Without raising his voice Rieux said that he knew nothing
about that but that it was the language of a man weary
of the world in which he lived, yet who still had some
feeling for his fellow men and was determined for his
part to reject any injustice and any compromise.’
‘It was as though the very soil on which our houses
were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that
it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface,
which up to then had been devouring it inside.
Just imagine the amazement of our little town which
had been so quiet until then, ravaged in a few days,
like a healthy man whose thick blood had suddenly
rebelled against him!’
‘There have been as many plagues in the world as there
have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people
equally unprepared. Dr Rieux was unprepared, as were the
rest of the townspeople, and this is how one should
understand his reluctance to believe...
He tried to put together in his mind what he knew about
the disease. Figures drifted through his head and he
thought that the thirty or so great plagues recorded in
history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But
what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought
a war, one hardly knows any more what a dead person is.’
p 31
‘And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen
him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history
are just a mist drifting through the imagination.... ten
thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large
That’s what you should do. You should get all the people
coming out of five cinemas, take them to a square in the
town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it
better... In Canton, seventy years ago, forty thousand rats
died of plague before the pestilence affected the human
But in 1871 they didn’t have any means of counting rats.’
p 31
‘Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our
fellow-citizens was exile... Then we knew that our
separation was going to last, and that we ought to try to
come to terms with time.
In short, from then on, we accepted our status as
prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if
a few people were tempted to live in the future, they
quickly gave it up, as far as possible, suffering the wounds
that the imagination eventually inflicts on those who
trust in it’.
p 56
‘“So I have a plan for organizing voluntary health teams.
Appoint me to take charge and we can leave the
authorities out of it. In any case, they are too busy to
cope. I have friends all over the place, and they will form
the core. And naturally, I shall take part myself.”
“Of course,” Rieux said, “as you can imagine I am only too
happy to accept. One needs help, especially in this job. I
will be responsible for getting the Prefecture to accept
the idea. In any case they have no choice. But...”
Rieux thought. “But the work might be fatal, you know
that. I still have to warn you. Have you really thought
about it?”
‘It is not the narrator’s intention to attribute more significance to
these health groups than they actually had. It is true that
nowadays many of our fellow citizens would, in his place, succumb
to the temptation to exaggerate their role.
But the narrator is rather inclined to believe that by giving too
much importance to fine actions one may end by paying an
indirect tribute to evil, because in doing so one implies that such
fine actions are only valuable because they are rare, and that
malice, or indifference are far more common motives in the
actions of men...
In reality it was no great merit on the part of those who dedicated
themselves to the health teams, because they knew that it was the
only thing to be done and not doing it would have been incredible
at the time.’
pp 100-101
“A lot of new moralists appeared in the town at this
moment, saying that nothing was any use and that we
should go down on our knees. Tarrou, Rieux and their
friends could answer this or that, but the conclusion was
always what they knew it would be: one must fight, in one
way or another, and not go down on one’s knees.
The whole question was to prevent the largest possible
number of people from dying and suffering a definitive
separation. There was only one way to do this, which was
to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about
this truth, it simply followed as a logical consequence.”
p 102
‘Cottard looked at Tarrou without understanding. The other
man explained that too many people were not doing anything,
that the epidemic was everybody’s business and that they all
had to do their duty...
“Why don’t you join us, Monsieur Cottard?”
Cottard got up looking offended and picked up his round hat.
“It’s not my job.”
Then with a tone of bravado:
“In any case, this plague is doing me a favour, so I don’t see why
I should be involved in getting rid of it.
Tarrou struck his forehead, as though suddenly realizing
“Of course, I’m forgetting; you would be arrested otherwise.”’
p 120
‘When the epidemic levelled out after August, the
accumulated number of victims was far greater than the
capacity of our little cemetery...
Soon it was also necessary to take those who had died from
the plague off to the crematorium. But for this they had to
use the old incinerating ovens to the east of the town,
outside the gates. The guard post was moved further out
and a town hall employee made the task of the authorities
much easier by advising them to use the tramline which
had formerly served the seaside promenade but was now
lying idle.
To this end, they made some alterations to the
interior of the trucks and engines by taking out the
seats, and redirected the track to the oven which
now became the end of the line...
One could hear the vehicles still bumping along on a
summer’s night, laden with flowers and corpses.
By morning, at least in the early days, a thick, foulsmelling vapour would be drifting over the eastern
quarter of the town.’
p 137
‘Finally they entered the stadium. The stands were full of people
and the field was covered with several hundred red tents inside
which one could see, from a distance, bedding and bundles...
“What do they do all day?” Tarrou asked Rambert.
Almost all of them were empty handed, with their arms hanging
by their sides. This vast assemblage of men was curiously silent.
“In the early days, you couldn’t hear yourself speak here,” said
Rambert. “But as time goes by, they talk less and less.”
If one is to believe his notes, Tarrou understood
them and imagined them in the beginning piled
into their tents, kicking their heels or scratching
their bellies, shouting out their anger and their
fear whenever they found a willing ear.
But as soon as the camp became over-populated,
there were fewer and fewer willing ears.
There was nothing left for it but to be quiet and
p 185
‘“That is why this epidemic has so far taught me nothing
except that it must be fought at your side. I have absolute
knowledge of this – yes Rieux, I know everything about life,
as you can see – that everyone has inside it himself, this
plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune.
And I know that we must constantly keep a watch on
ourselves to avoid being distracted for a moment and find
ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting
him... Yes indeed Rieux, it is very tiring to be a plague
victim. But it is still more tiring not to want to be one.”’
p 195
‘As he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the
town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under
He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of
something that one can read in books, which is that
the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that
it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture
or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars,
trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps
the day will come when, for the instruction or
misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats
and send them to die in some well-contented city.’
pp 237-238
‘The stricken city is Oran in Algeria, but it's also France,
during the Second World War. This France, however, stands
for Everywhere, a banal small place where history
unfortunately takes a terrible turn. Far from being a study
in existential disaffection...
The Plague is about courage, about engagement, about
paltriness and generosity, about small heroism and large
cowardice, and about all kinds of profoundly humanist
problems, such as love and goodness, happiness and
mutual connection.
Camus published the novel in 1947 and his town's
sealed city gates embody the borders imposed by the
Nazi occupation, while the ethical choices of its
inhabitants build a dramatic representation of the
different positions taken by the French. He etches
with his sharp, implacable pen, burning questions
that need to be faced now more than ever in the
resistance to terrorism.
Perhaps even more than when La Peste was
published, the novel works with the stuff of fear and
shame, with bonds that tie and antagonisms that
Marina Warner, The Guardian, 2003

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