Reading Camus’ The Plague in a Time of Pandemic

“Each of us has the plague within him, no one, no one on earth is free from it. We must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”

– Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947

Like millions of other “shut-ins” in northern California, where I live, I’m under quarantine and doing my best to chill. I’ve just finished reading for the first time Albert Camus’s The Plague, which takes place in Oran, on the coast of Algeria, and offers a horrific picture of a whole population living with fear and anxiety and trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

For decades The Plague has been less well known than The Stranger, which was first published in 1942, but here and now in 2020 it ought to sound alarms, touch nerves and reverberate globally. In fact, it reads to a large extent like a contemporary account of the coronavirus.

Oran suffered from plagues in 1556, 1678, 1921, 1931 and 1944 in part because it was a major port on the Mediterranean. Camus must have looked back at historical events to write his book, which he began to think about in 1941, soon after the Nazi invasion and occupation of France.

Published in French in 1947 as La Peste and in English in 1948, as The Plague, it’s set sometime in the 1940s. Camus doesn’t provide an exact year, but he describes in vivid detail the pain and suffering that strikes the lives of rich and poor alike. Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably, the narrative features no Arab or Berber characters, though Spaniards appear in minor roles.

Born in 1913 in Algeria to parents who belonged to the demographic group known as “pied noir,” Camus refused to support the Algerian struggle for independence when it raged in the 1950s and 1960s. He famously observed, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” His mother was of Spanish descent, his father French-Algerian. Briefly, he belonged to the French and then the Algerian Communist Party to “fight inequalities between Europeans and ‘natives’ in Algeria.”

He moved to Paris before the outbreak of World War II, took part in the Resistance, edited and wrote for Combat and befriended Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, though he soon went his own way politically speaking.

The Plague isn’t exactly a novel. It doesn’t have a strong plot and dramatic action, though it has momentum and suspense. It’s a philosophical work with reflections on freedom, terror, love, and exile and on the necessity of bearing witness. Still, despite its refusal to play by the traditional rules of French fiction, it offers six major characters, all of them men and all intended to be representative types, though they lack real individuality.

The six men are: Bernard Rieux, a medical doctor; Jean Tarrou, an outsider who arrives in Oran just before the advent of the plague; Raymond Rambert, a journalist; Joseph Grand, a government clerk; Monsieur Cottard who goes mad and shoots people on the street; and Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest. There are no political leaders and no military officers. Indeed, there’s a vacuum of leadership.

Camus tracks the comings and goings of his characters, though the real protagonist of the book is the plague itself, which follows phases of life and death. Critics have suggested that The Plague was meant to be an allegory about French resistance to the Nazi occupation.

That may well be. In The Plague, “the contagion,” which is also referred to as “the holocaust,” creates a totalitarian society. “It’s up to us, as far as possible, not to not to join forces with the pestilences,” a character observes and sounds like he’s preaching a version of existentialism.

If Camus were alive today—he died in 1960 at the age of 46—and wanted his book to speak even more directly to the current Coronavirus pandemic than it already does, he might want to revise and update, though there’s a great deal that he wouldn’t want or need to touch. Indeed, The Plague, with its trenchant reflections on the human condition itself, is timelier now than it was in 1947. Much of the language retains its power. Camus writes poetically about “the angel of the plague” and the “odious freedom of the plague.”

Tarrou, the outsider in Oran, observes, “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.” He adds “we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the inflection on him.” No heroism exists in The Plague, though there’s human decency and friendship between men.

Before the arrival of the pestilence in Oran its citizens are largely preoccupied with matters of commerce and are bored with themselves, and one another. The plague catches the authorities off guard. The essential serum that can fight the plague is in short supply, and coffins run out so the dead can’t be properly buried. At its height, the plague erodes the capacity to love and to experience pleasure. Citizens fall into a state of denial. Railroad platforms are off-limits, streets are often empty, telephone calls are illegal, good intentions do as much harm as evil itself.

Citizens are quarantined in a vast public stadium. Those without the contagion are obsessed about getting it and do their best to practice cleanliness. They’re also obsessed about the need for sterilization. “Revolutionary violence” erupts but achieves nothing.

The Plague offers a happy ending of sorts. The pestilence vanishes almost as mysteriously as it arrived. Optimism is reborn, but a sense of uncertainty lingers. Those who are alive in Oran want medals merely for surviving. The reader is left with the assumption that the plague can return at any time. On the last page, Camus writes about “the never ending fight against terror.”

His language suggest that he was thinking about religion when he wrote The Plague, and, though it’s not an explicitly Christian book, it offers words and concepts like “grace,” “crucifixion” and “deliverance.” Religion provides a kind of subtext, though the book doesn’t endorse Oran’s Catholic Church. What Camus wants are healers, not priests, political leaders and certainly not demagogues. We could use a few million healers right now, from Los Angeles and Sydney to Odessa and Oran.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival
César Chelala - Alberto Luis Zuppi
The Pope is Wrong on Argentina
James Preston Allen
Alexander Cockburn Meets Charles Bukowski at a Sushi Bar in San Pedro
Jérôme Duval
The Only Oxygen Cylinder Factory in Europe is Shut down and Macron Refuses to Nationalize It
Neve Gordon
Gaza Has Been Under Siege for Years. Covid-19 Could Be Catastrophic
Alvaro Huerta
To Survive the Coronavirus, Americans Should Learn From Mexicans
Prabir Purkayastha
Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Fundamental Challenges to All Societies
Raouf Halaby
Fireside Chatterer Andrew Cuomo for President
Thomas Drake
The Sobering Realities of the American Dystopia
Negin Owliaei
Wash Your Hands…If You Have Water
Felice Pace
A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?
Ray Brescia
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19
The Covid-19 Opportunity
John Kendall Hawkins
An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Propaganda Virus: Is Anyone Immune?
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 1: Dispatches From a Terrified Heartland
Nolan Higdon – Mickey Huff
Don’t Just Blame Trump for the COVID-19 Crisis: the U.S. Has Been Becoming a Failed State for Some Time
Susan Block
Coronavirus Spring
David Yearsley
Lutz Alone
CounterPunch News Service
Letter from Truthdig’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer to the Publisher Zuade Kaufman
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Striking Truthdig Workers