'E's Not Quite Dead Yet:

Existentialism and The Plague

In the mid 1940s, a man by the name of Albert Camus began to write a story. This story he called La Pesté. Written in French, the novel became extremely popular and has since been translated numerous times into many languages. This story has been read over and over, yet it tells more than it seems to. This story tells the tale of a city gripped by a deadly disease. This is true enough, but this is not what the novel is about. The Plague can be read as an allegory of World War II, of the French Resistance against German Occupation. "To simplify things, one can say that The Plague is an allegorical novel" (Picon 146). This however, is indeed an oversimplification, and so this only tells part of the story. Camus is often considered to have been an Existentialist. "That Existentialist philosophies offered him a vocabulary from which he occasionally borrowed is of secondary importance in his case" (Brée, Camus 74). Perhaps this, Existentialism, is the focus of the novel? Not, it is not quite that simple. The Plague tells the story of a fight: not a fight against a disease, not a fight against German soldiers, but a fight against the indifference in the face of human suffering. Every man responds to this in his own manner, and this reaches to the heart of the Existential philosophy -- it is actions that truly define a man.
"No, I am not an existentialist" (Doubrovsky 345). These words come from Albert Camus himself. It is true; Camus was not an Existentialist. Yes, he embraced much of existentialism, but not all. What, then, do Existentialists believe, and of this, what does Camus reject and what does he accept? To the existentialist, life is meaningless in and of itself. Therefore, "Since life made no sense, each man must give meaning to his individual existence" (McCarthy 202). Thus, a man defines his very existence by his own day-to-day actions.

For Camus, on the other hand, a man's acts could reveal an
intrinsic integrity or dignity which were always there but which
had laid dormant and unasserted until he was made to face the
absurdity of his mortal condition in an immortal universe"
(Masters 107).
Key to understanding this is that the integrity is unasserted. Camus believed that man was more than just a shell to begin with, that there is some basic worth to a man. Within each man Camus believed that there is a spark of goodness which only he himself could fan into a flame.

While man may have innate goodness, what Camus saw in the world more often was indifference, inaction. Mankind failed to act on this goodness. Camus addresses this indifference in The Plague. Camus wrote this novel during a tumultuous time in history, World War II. Even before the war had begun, Camus saw this indifference. Camus watched as the nations of Western Europe sat idly by as Hitler's Germany seized lands, building his Reich. These lands believed they could ignore the problems Hitler was causing; they believed they could "appease" Hitler and leave it at that. Suddenly, France had fallen under German control and England was at the mercy of German bombers. These events helped to prompt Camus into writing The Plague. The war which Camus witnessed was transformed into the guise of a deadly disease. However, Camus does not merely attack the events of one war, nor does he merely attack war in this novel. "The significant potential of the plague encompasses war, but includes other levels of meaning as well" (Ellison 95). Camus' aim was not to change the people of his Europe, to open only their eyes to the indifference he saw. His aim was greater. Camus, through the character Rambert, comments, "We -- mankind -- have lost the capacity for love" (Camus, 149). Rieux calls the plague "a never ending defeat" but he adds that "it's no reason for giving up the struggle" (Camus, 118). Camus writes this novel for all of mankind, not just for the population of Europe in the 1940s, not just for those who experienced W.W.II. Camus knew that men in all ages will face this very struggle, and with this novel he attempts to open men's eyes and to show them the true path to what his character Tarrou calls sainthood.

Camus could not have created a better setting for The Plague. The setting matches his goal: Camus "had carefully chosen his terrain: the atmosphere of collective suffering; inner tensions; the gradual snuffing out of individual aspirations; the sense of impotence and frustration." (Brée, AC 35). The story takes place in the desert town of Oran, Algeria, in northern Africa. The city suffers from extremes of weather conditions; in the summer, the heat forces the inhabitants "to spend those days of fire indoors, behind closed shutters" (Camus, 3). The shutters are closed just as the people of the town close themselves off from their neighbors. The main focus of every person in Oran is himself. "The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich," according to the narrator (Camus, 4). Everyone has become and individual in Oran. The focus has turned from society to the self. It is fitting, therefore, that "the town's so being disposed that it turns its back on the bay, with the result that it's impossible to see the sea, you always have to go look for it" (Camus, 5-6). The residents of Oran, though, do not need to worry about looking for society and its common welfare, as each of them is wrapped up in his own concerns. The plague, however, changes all of this. In Oran, life for its inhabitants has lost meaning. The plague offers them a chance to give meaning back to their lives.

Everyone in Oran wishes to be an individual, to have none of the problems of the rest of the world in common, as this quote illustrates:

The manager of the hotel can talk of nothing else. But he has a
personal grievance, too; that dead rats should be found in the
elevator of a three-star hotel seems to him the end of all things.
To console him, I said, 'But, you know, everybody's in the same
'That's just it,' he replied. 'Now we're like everybody else.'
(Camus, 26-27).
The people don't want to be stuck in the same boat with someone else; each believes one man's problem is his own, while they truly affect everyone. The disease captures the city completely by surprise; no one is prepared for it. Doctors gather to discuss the matter. They have trouble naming the disease at first, and refuse to accept it for what it is. This reflects the attitude of the whole town, as the citizens do the very same thing. The refuse to accept the inhumanity of the situation, and try to continue life as they always have lived, in their selfish pursuits. And because they believe in being individuals, the struggle against the plague begins with individuals. Doctors in particular are the first to attempt to combat the disease. The individual efforts are valiant but have a negligible effect. An epidemic is a problem which belongs not to a person but to a people. "That one must fight against the plagues that enslave man: this is the sole conclusion which, according to Albert Camus, is not open to doubt" (Picon 150). It becomes apparent, however, that it cannot be merely "one" who must oppose the plague. No matter what the doctors do on their own, they cannot stop the dying. The number of victims lost to the plague climbs higher and higher. "The Plague does, beyond any possible discussion, represent the transition from an attitude of solitary revolt to the recognition of a community whose struggles must be shared" (Sprintzen 103). Yet slowly at first, people begin to die, and the citizens of Oran take notice.

The plague evokes different reactions from different people. "More than anything, the characters themselves represent a reply to the problem of evil" (Maquet 84). This reply varies from one character to another. Some, confronted by the disease, as with many other calamities, choose to run away from the problem. "Others, too, for example, were trying to escape from this atmosphere of growing panic" (Camus 97). Some welcome the plague with open arms only because it is to their own advantage. Most, however, fall into the category of those who, at least eventually, join the struggle against the plague. "In their reaction to a sudden and overwhelming catastrophe, the plague, they are deadly defined and focused" (Cruickshank 174). Each group of people has it's own reaction.

The first reaction of almost all people is simply to run away. A disease is a frightening thing, and fear takes over immediately. The only named character who attempts to run away in the story is Rambert. Camus gives Rambert a name for only one reason: he does not flee. The others who flee do not receive names because they amount to, in Camus' understanding, nothing: they have done nothing to bring meaning to their lives. These people are, to any Existentialist, meaningless. This primitive reaction calls no action of the doer nor does it require any thought out action, and so this sort of person is viewed in a negative light by Camus.

Camus has an even lower view, however, of those who do not merely avoid the indifference of society, but who benefit from it. This sect of the populace includes the character Cottard.

With this, the people of Oran begin to unite. "Against this background of collective misery ... some individuals in the revolt against the plague are sharply silhouetted" (Maquet 79). The help often comes from unexpected places, from unexpected people. One man who joins the assault on the plague is Tarrou, a visitor to the city, an outsider. He leads the effort to form a sanitation squad. He tells Rieux, "That, too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new except that I must fight it at your side" (Camus, 229). The journalist Rambert joins the fight. The shy, introverted Grand joins as well: "I can't say I really know him, but one's got to help a neighbor, hasn't one?" (Camus, 19). Father Paneloux, the Catholic priest, is also drawn into the effort to stop the plague. "The plague is far from infecting them; it is the test which reveals instead of dissolving, which concentrates instead of disconcerting" (Maquet 86). Each of these characters, as well as the multitude of nameless faces who combat the disease play an important role in the development of Camus' beliefs throughout the novel.

Of all the characters in The Plague, Tarrou most conveys Camus' ideals, his beliefs, and even the very questions that Camus himself asks. The presence of the character Tarrou is central to the theme of the novel. Tarrou begins in the story as an outsider. He is not from the town of Oran; he is not on business there: apparently, he is vacationing. When the plague strikes the town, Tarrou has no outside motivation to help the people of the town. "Yet he realizes his responsibility towards others and acts on that responsibility" (McMullen 1). Tarrou simply hates to see human suffering ignored by the masses. To correct this, Tarrou gathers together his sanitary squads, men who otherwise may not have been so eager to do the jobs they now must face daily. "Next day Tarrou set to work and enrolled a first team of workers, soon to be followed by many others. However, it is not the narrator's intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups more importance than their due" (Camus, 12). One might assign a heroic quality to Tarrou, that he is larger than life, a great man in a troubled time. But he is no hero. He is not larger than life. What Tarrou does, every man can do. "I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy ... What interests me is living and dying for what one loves" (Camus, 149). Camus believed this. Tarrou is not a great man, but he is a man. He lives and acts as he sees right, and in doing so, he conforms to the Existential beliefs of Camus himself.

One of the most important scenes occurs late in the novel. Rieux has finally taken the chance to get to know the man Tarrou is. Tarrou goes into great detail describing an event from his youth which forever altered his life. Tarrou, then in his teens, had gone to court to witness his father, a prosecuting attorney, in action.

Yet 'the only picture I carried away with me of that day's
proceedings was a picture of the criminal. I have little doubt
he was guilty -- of what crime is no great matter. That little
man of about thirty, with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager
to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he'd done
and what was going to be done with him ... I needn't go on,
need I? You've understood -- he was a living human being
(Camus, 224).
From this time onwards, Tarrou has spent his life as an "agitator." He openly opposes the death penalty, which he equates with murder. He doesn't believe in the value of society that "for the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life" (Camus, 227). Tarrou comes down hard on the evil in society. He puts in plain terms not only his beliefs, but also Camus'.

If we take Tarrou's observations seriously, we discover a more
sobering message: namely, that the inherent tendency toward
evil that exists in each human being must be countered daily
by an act of good. (Ellison 112).
Camus through Tarrou conveys his belief that man must do good to bring out that "innate goodness" within him. Tarrou explains, "All I maintain is that there are on this earth pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences" (Camus 229).

Within the story of his life changing event, Tarrou also expresses his goal in life:

'It comes to this,' Tarrou said almost casually; 'what interests
me is learning how to become a saint.'
'But you don't believe in God.'
'Exactly! Can one be a saint without god? -- that's the
problem, in fact, the only problem, I'm up against today.
(Camus 230-231).
Tarrou doesn't want to be just another man, nor does he want to be escalated to the level of a hero. He wants to be a saint. The question is, therefore: What is it that makes a saint? First, a saint is a holy man who has attained peace in heaven. However, a saint is more than this. A saint becomes an example to everyone of the goodness that is possible for a man to accomplish. God and Existentialism, however, do not fit together well. "Nevertheless, there is no doubt that on this question Tarrou is speaking very much in Camus' own name" (Thody 105). Camus struggled with the very same concepts that Tarrou lies forth in The Plague. Tarrou has his idea on how to attain peace: "The path of sympathy" (Camus 230). Tarrou follows this path throughout his life, struggling to overcome the indifference to suffering, struggling for the cause of helping others. Through Tarrou, Camus thus presents his own particular variety of Existentialism: A man gives himself and his life meaning through the good deeds which he performs for the welfare of others. No man can attain peace in any other way. Good actions must replace the conscious and unconscious indifference which plagues mankind. Camus alters Existentialism to fit into this ideal of his.

Camus wrestles with his questions of Existentialism in The Plague through another character as well: Father Paneloux. With Paneloux, Camus attempts to reconcile Existentialism and Christianity. Toward the beginning of the novel, Paneloux is a steadfast Christian. He proclaims in his first great sermon during the epidemic that the plague is God-sent, brought upon the evildoers of society to punish them for their sins. He later involves himself in the struggle against the plague, helping men such as Rieux and Tarrou, and putting his faith to the test. The test reaches its utmost when the characters are forced to watch the slow, tortured death of an innocent child. How could something sent to punish sin afflict a child? The child had done no wrong, yet the group cannot do more than to sit and wait helpless as the child dies before them. Shortly after this event, Paneloux begins to write another sermon. This one differs from the first. He reflects in his sermon on what he has witnessed. "And, truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it" (Camus 201). Paneloux goes on to explain his reason. "The second sermon affirms that the plague is not sent by God; it is part of an evil which is present in the universe and which the Christian must confront" (Woelfel 109). Although Paneloux attempts to reconcile Christianity with Existentialism, he nonetheless fails. Paneloux dies. He, as well as symbolically, his attempt, receive the label which the doctor Rieux records on a card: "Doubtful case."

Rieux becomes himself one of the first people in the town to recognize the plague for what it is, and he helps to lead the fight against it. "Rieux is an authentic rebel in 'fighting against creation as he found it,' in actively struggling against the injustices of the human condition" (Woelfel 98-99). Rieux is no ordinary rebel; he is also a doctor. As a doctor, Rieux's exposure to not only the dangers of the plague but also to its horrors is more than most must endure. Rieux faces this in his job before him each day. "In order to make his rounds and to isolate the people who are infected he has to repress the pity and sympathy he feels for them" (Cruickshank 110). It may seem then that Rieux goes against Camus' beliefs on indifference. Rieux's actions can indeed be seen as self-enforced indifference. For "indifference, properly cultivated, can be a stoic value" (Parker 5). Rieux cannot afford to show compassion for each of his patients. He must detach himself in order to perfrom his duties. "No resource was left him but to tighten the stranglehold on his feelings and harden his heart protectively" (Camus 172). Yet Rieux does not keep his feelings locked up within a fortress. After he talks with Tarrou, he lets himself become more open, more vulnerable. Nothing he could have done would have made it any easier to bear witness to the death of an innocent child.

The movement of revolt that springs from the vision of human
suffering while bringing to light the commonality of the
condition which links him to his fellow men, renders the
physician vulnerable to sympathy and shows him the meaning
of the action to which he must dedicate himself: the struggle
against evil" (Maquet 93-94).
Rieux does not stake a claim to the same peace that Tarrou seeks. Rieux knows that the fight he fights can never end. "Rieux knows that the plague bacillus never dies and that the day would come when 'it would raise up its rats again and send them to die in a happy city' " (Erickson 84). Riuex, like the plague bacillus, lives on as the disease slows and the epidemic ends, for the time being, anyhow.

If in The Plague, there is one person who most represents most people, it is Rambert. Rambert is a journalist. Rambert finds himself trapped in the city of Oran, trapped with all the other people. He believes, though, that this is truly not his concern. He does not belong. He is an outsider. The woman he loves lives beyond the city walls, and he believes this is where he should be. He spends much time talking to Rieux. And as they talk, he begins to think. He considers his motivation for leaving the city: personal happiness. "'There's nothing shameful in preferring happiness.' ' Certainly, but it may be shameful to be happy by oneself' " (Camus 188). Rambert awakens to the truth which he had been facing all along . Rambert decides to drop his attempts to escape: he is part of this people, he is no longer an outsider. They must all stay together to fight the plague. Rambert gives the fight his best efforts as well.

Grand is also a character who fights against the plague. He is faced with all the same facts as everyone else. Nonetheless, Grand joins in the fight. Grand, like the rest, is not viewed as a hero. "That, too, is why it was natural that Grand, who had nothing of the hero about him, should now be acting as a sort of general secretary to the sanitary squads" (Camus 122). In his own ways, Grand does what he can to contribute to the fight against indifference.

Albert Camus saw Existentialism as a key to eliminating the problem of indifference toward human suffering from society. His novel The Plague is his written attempt to show this. The Plague can be understood on multiple levels of meaning. "This work of simple realism presents, on different levels, a symbolical transparency, where each reader has been able to find something to satisfy his preoccupation of the moment, whether metaphysical, ethical, or historical" (Maquet 75). The novel can be viewed as an allegory to the Nazi occupation of France during W.W. II. The novel can be symbolic in general, with the objects of the symbols not specific events or items but general, dealing with humanity. But most importantly, the novel deals with the fight against indifference. "It is quite true that in a way The Plague presents a perfect situation in which all human beings can unite to fight the inhuman" (Doubrovsky 161). This perfect situation is not limited to the storybooks. Every man can give meaning to his life by doing good. Existentialist or not, Camus philosophies carry important values that surpass any amount of explanation, and with these values in mind, Camus wrote The Plague.

Works Cited

Brée, Germaine. Albert Camus. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Brée, Germaine. Camus. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1959.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

Cruickshank, John. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Doubrovsky, Serge. "The Ethics of Camus." Trans. Sandra Mueller and Jean-Marc Vary. Preuves. 116. 39-49.

Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Erickson, John. "Albert Camus and North Africa: A Discourse of Exeriority." Critical Essays on Albert Camus. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1968. 73-88.

Maquet, Albert. Albert Camus: The Invisible Summer. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1958.

Masters, Brian. Camus: A Study. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1974. McCarthy, Patrick. Camus: A Critical Study of His Life and Work. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982.

McMullen, Laura Elizabeth. "Albert Camus." Internet document. http://www.wwc.edu/student/mcmula/camus.htm. size 2K. 11 Apr 96.

Parker, Emmitt. Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Picon, Gaëtan. "Notes on The Plague." Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. L'Usage de la lechire. Paris: Mercure de France. 1960. 79-87.

Sprintzen, David. Camus: A Critical Examination. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Thody, Philip. Albert Camus. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Woelfel, James W. Camus: A Theological Perspective. New York: Abdingdon Press, 1975.

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