Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French author and philosopher who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. His novel The Plague has recently garnered much worldwide attention do to the pandemic of 2020. As a philosopher familiar with Camus’ thought, I’d like to highlight the book’s main philosophical themes. But first a very brief plot summary.
The people react differently to the town’s quarantine. Some try to commit suicide or covertly leave town; a priest assumes the plague is divine punishment; a criminal becomes wealthy as a smuggler; and others, like Dr. Rieux, treat patients as best they can.
The situation worsens and the authorities shoot people who try to flee. They declare martial law to control violence and looting; conduct funerals without ceremony or concern for the families of the deceased. Gradually, people become despondent, wasting away both emotionally and physically.
The plague continues for months and again responses vary. Dr. Rieux controls his emotions in order to continue his work, while others seemingly flourish due to their close connection with strangers. An antiplague serum is developed but it doesn’t save even an innocent child. The priest argues that the child’s suffering is a test of faith—the priest soon dies too.
Gradually deaths from the plague start to decline and people begin to celebrate. But many of the main characters have died of the disease. Dr. Rieux’s wife, who was being treated elsewhere for an unrelated illness, also dies. The narrator concludes the novel by stating that there is more to admire than to despise in humans.
The key to understanding Camus’ novels is to know that he was an atheist and an existentialist who emphasized the absurd—the conflict between our desire for value and meaning and our inability to find any in a meaningless and irrational universe.
But Camus believed that we should revolt against absurdity—not by cowardly committing suicide or fleeing into religious faith—but by taking responsibility for our lives, enjoying the goodness and beauty around us, and creating our own meaning in an objectively meaningless world. We do this primarily by struggling against suffering and death even if our efforts fail. This is what the novel’s hero does, fighting defiantly against absurdity.
Philosophical Themes in the Novel
The plague represents this absurdity. There is no justice regarding who lives and dies from the plague; there is no rational or moral meaning to be derived from it; religious myths or angry gods don’t explain it. The gods watch the unfolding calamity with arms folded either unwilling or unable to do anything. The plague is neither rational nor just.
Moreover, wishful thinking doesn’t help; instead, it distorts reality. Miracle cures won’t work and real cures aren’t right around the corner. Life is fleeting, our lives are ephemeral. Neither wealth nor education completely shields us from microscopic pathogens. Yet people forget all this. They’re surprised that they’re vulnerable, that their status or accomplishments don’t provide immunity. They shouldn’t be surprised.
For the plague is everywhere—people suffer and die; psychopaths create havoc; nations commit genocide. We live in a plague-filled world. The plague is always with us—our lives can end at any moment. Death doesn’t await us at the end of the tracks, it’s right here, now. It is a constant companion of our transitory lives. Eventually, the plague will kill us all.
What then should we do? Express care and concern for our fellow travelers and try to help them. That’s what the novel’s hero Dr. Rieux does. He accepts the absurdity of suffering, death, and meaninglessness, but battles them nonetheless. He treats his patients for no other reason than that he sympathizes with their undeserved plight.
We all have the plague; we live in its midst, and we don’t deserve it. Nothing makes sense. Still, all we can do is care for each other.
Here is a brief summary of Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the best introduction to his philosophy.
Also, The School of Life produced an excellent, short video about the novel’s philosophical themes. It’s definitely worth a watch.