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‘What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves’: The Plague by Albert Camus

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: The Plague (1947)

Author: Albert Camus

Camus’ La Peste has never been out of print. In the wake of pandemic that now sweeps the entire world, its sale has seen a surge quite unlike at any other time since its publication in 1947. What else can be a greater proof of the relevance of a work that seems to be an ageless parable of human condition.

The novel, most of which he wrote in confinement, away from his family due to his acute illness, is the story of a town suffering from bubonic plague. But this novel can also be seen as an allegory of human crisis brought about by moral contagion.

Camus belonged to a generation which was born either before or during the First World War, reached adolescence during the worldwide economic depression and turned twenty the year of Hitler’s rise to power. Next they saw the civil war in Spain, the Munich Agreements, the start of another World War in 1939, the fall of France in 1940 and four years of enemy occupation and underground struggle.

All of this, in his opinion, resulted in a human crisis where most people, disillusioned by religion or nationalism and wary of the traditional morality imposed upon them, lived in contradiction. They accepted war and violence which was given to them, which they had never wanted but from the consequences of which they could not escape. It was as if the entire generation was plagued by an indifference which led people to accept human suffering as a banal reality.

In one of his lyrical essays, The Almond Trees (1940), Camus wrote:

I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress or to any philosophy of history. But I do atleast believe that men have never ceased to grow in the knowledge of their destiny. We have not overcome our condition and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find those few first principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must stitch up what has been torn apart, render justice imaginable in a World which is so obviously unjust, make happiness meaningful for nations poisoned by the misery of this century.”

He believed in human kindness and solidarity. He believed that if in the face of a crisis people could rise and act, not out of some heroic courage expected of them, but with reason and optimism, then it would be possible to reduce human suffering.

Written in the given context, the novel quite pertinently, became a tale of a persisting contradiction and subsequent human actions in overcoming the condition.

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

In the novel, after initially rejecting the plague, the people of Oran are forced to go into isolation and quarantine. In fact the whole city is closed down and its borders are sealed. There are people suffering from the disease, people in exile – away from their loved ones, people serving those ridden with disease and also people trying to make more money by smuggling goods. Here the depiction of illness, loneliness and separation is quite vivid – much that we can relate to as well at present?

Dr. Rieux, the one who detects the illness, assumes his responsibility and does what he must. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, not out of a notion of valour but out of simple decency and a sense of moral obligation. His character personifies individual moral responsibility essential to make effective public choices in a society. At one point, he says:

When you see the suffering it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the Plague.”

Rambert, a young journalist who is exiled in Oran, tries to escape the city initially but later he realises that he shares a common fate with rest of the people and joins in serving those afflicted.

Then one fine day, the plague disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared but not without playing havoc with the lives of people. Later when the people celebrate in the streets of Oran, Dr. Rieux observes:

The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

Camus knew that even if a contagion, whether biological or moral, ends – one couldn’t be too sure of its absolute extinction. So in the absence of a clear moral lesson from this book, what is it that makes the book still relevant?

In the face of the present pandemic which lurks in the corners of our cities and stares at us from outside the windows of our isolated homes, this book not only brings to our notice the horrors such plagues can inflict but also the human will, solidarity and collective resistance that remain instrumental in overcoming such disasters. It puts our focus back where it should be – on assuming moral responsibility as individuals — on each act of kindness, on goodness which when collective not only helps combat a pandemic but also rouses our alertness lest our laxity make us miss the signs of an impending darkness. 

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.