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(La Peste) The Plague by Albert Camus – a review

The opening is astounding. Some three to four pages of small print in which Camus attempts to describe his Oran, the setting of the novel. The following is an extract:

Certainly nothing is commoner nowadays than to see people working from morn till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card tables, in cafes, and in small talk what time is left for living. Nevertheless, there still exist towns and countries where people have now and again an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern. Hence I see no need to dwell on the manner of loving in our town. The men and women consume each other rapidly in what is called ‘the act of love’, or else settle down to a mild habit of conjugality. We seldom find a mean between these extremes. That, too, is not exceptional. At Oran, as elsewhere, for lack of time and thinking, people have to love each other without knowing much about it.

Camus describes a collective affliction. The plague occupies the town as surely and rigidly and impersonally as a Panzer Division.

And the description is about what happens to the town, the community, as well as the single individuals. The narrator is an individual, and we meet some others, Rieux the doctor, Tarrou and their friends and colleagues, although none of these seem to be fully explored or realised. Camus’ theme is society, it’s illusions and attempts at identity. We read about the indifference of the many; the general consensus that the responsibility for the plague lies elsewhere.

We read about the events of the plague. What happens is reported. There is nothing more than that. Although the progress of the spread and decline of the plague are natural we are always conscious that the plague is a metaphor or an allegory, perhaps a series of metaphors for the Nazi invasion and occupation, or for any thing or concept that imprisons us and takes away our freedom or our expectations.

Camus has a story to tell but he also has a message. Now that God is no longer part of our equation we have to take our destiny into our own hands. Prayer will not defend our freedom. And involvement in the death of others, directly or indirectly, will only add to our problems and not even begin to penetrate the absurdity of our situation.

This post also concerns the writer, Albert Camus

10 Responses to “(La Peste) The Plague by Albert Camus – a review”

  1. Andrew says:

    Well at similar time to Camus & the like, Aldous Huxley was writing of mysticism in books like The Perennial Philosophy which while not being an evasion of personal responsibility-indeed the very opposite, certainly disagreed with the notion of God having become an obsolete concept, though Huxley’s God a far from personal deity. A far profounder writer than any of the existentialists such as Dostoevsky(a far profounder writer in the essentials of life than probably any other in comparatively recent times) than probably any other of the last few centuries) would also presumably disagree about God not being part of our equation. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” would seem to be the very opposite of an evasion of personal responsibility, and that’s quite mild compared to some other statements on the importance of how one lives.

    jb says: I imagine differing opinions of this one will be around for some time to come.

  2. Litlove says:

    I very much like what you have to say about this book (it’s a favourite of mine). What do you make of the fact that Rieux is firmly against the plague being seen as a metaphor for anything? He resists all attempts by others to convince him of its meaning and will only accept the statistics of the infected and the dead. It’s very tempting to transcend the actuality of the event, but do you think Camus is suggesting to us that we can only do so, recognising that that transcendence has nothing to do with lived experience?

    jb says: I’m still thinking about the book. I’m reading something else at the moment and have this strange experience, every time I pick it up, of thinking that it’s Camus’ novel. I don’t mind trying to answer your question but feel that I’ll have another answer tomorrow, and the next day and next week an even more thought-through response. Rieux’s fight is against creation, against the absurd world into which we are born . . . that is the plague . . . and it is an implacable foe, something that, if we take our eyes off it for a moment, will devour us.
    Every man knows this and, alone, cannot face it. As individuals we surrender to dreaming about what it might mean. We mouth the platitudes, that everyone else will succumb, but this will not happen to me. Everyone else will die but me and mine will survive.
    Rieux wants us to stop thinking about ‘me’ and start to embrace the concept of ‘us’. For that is the only way that the plague will be beaten. By us coming together and fighting it and never giving up. We don’t have to interpret it in terms of something else. We have to accept it as the reality in which we live and fight against it until it is beaten or we are beaten.

  3. Andrew says:

    Though everyone knows that life is an implacable foe that will devour him? It is a great book and perhaps my favourite Camus, but there seems a simple intelelctual error, amounting to separating oneself from the life one is a part of. We are obviously constituent parts of this life, and any notion of our being separate entities delusional. So how can we be a foe of that which is our own selves. We are part of life so how can it devour us?, us being an indivisible part of it.

    jb says: Thanks, Andrew. Mysteries, eh?

  4. integration and disintegration says:

    I was wondering, since the novel was written after WWII,,, then how can we draw parallels to the occupation of the french by the Nazis? or that of the Holocaust?

    jb says: I think you mean to infer that the novel was written before the start of world war II, when in fact it was published in 1947. But even if it had been written before the war, from a readers point of view in the 21st century, surely its equally valid to interpret it as a metaphor for the Nazi invasion and occupation of France, or as a metaphor for any thing or concept that imprisons us and takes away our freedom or our expectations. We don’t place such limits on ourselves when reinterpreting Shakespeare. Just the other day I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet set in the 1940s. Worked fine. Doesn’t culture enable us to move about in space and time, and in so doing, to reinterpret our sense of self and memory and experience?

  5. optimisation says:

    Interesting thoughts! I dont read The Plague. Is it necessary to read? Thanks.

    jb says: Not necessary, but if you don’t read it you’ll be missing something quite special.

  6. praiffs says:

    According to existentialists we have no meaning of our lives..it is worthless,purposeless..if it is so then why dont we go for suicide.?? Is there any kind of force to live.?? I think most of people believe in two kind of ideology, idealism and materialism, materialists live for materialistic things and idealist live for emotions,feelings but when they both alone they feel the absurdity of theire live,they wanna leave this world.but they cant, they have become slavers of matter and mind..what do u think.? Am i wrong?

  7. greggy says:

    hi im doing a paper on this book, and was wondering if anybody knows anything about how Camus puts in his own life into the book. Such as he played soccer and liked to swim and this is in the book. any help?

  8. Nanoubix says:

    @ Praiffs
    Camus’s essay ‘The Myth of Sysiphe’ is about the enormous idea of suicide. The essay starts with the following:

    “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

    Through the rewriting of the myth of Sisyphus, Camus tries to communicate his sense that, although existence is meaningless (= absurd), it is not without hope, not without happiness.

    Being aware of the absurdity of (one’s) life is ultimately a formidable success for humanity. Choosing to end one’s life would show one’s failure to comprehend and endure our human condition.

  9. Eric says:

    I strongly disagree with your last paragraph. I think that you should read more about Camus. Camus was a believer, and for him God was never out of the equation.

  10. john baker says:

    You are welcome to your opinion, Eric. But Camus was an atheist. In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, he states that religious faith is a kind of suicide; a distraction from the real in which the individual embraces the Absurd and abandons reason and logic.