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.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.