Fitting for the times we’re living, The Plague by Albert Camus (winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature before his untimely death in 1960 in a car accident) is a story that seems to mean more in our reality today, than it did when it was released nearly seventy years ago.
Originally an allegory for occupation, the book is now a surrealist depiction of our society entrenched inside of a worldwide pandemic. The Plague is one of those books that you can pick up the rest of your life and get new meaning every time, and when I first read it in college over ten years ago, I was quick to pick up the existential themes written by one of the premier philosophical thinkers of his time.
Concepts such as the absurd and an individual’s freedom in the face of circumstances outside of their control; when I first opened the book, The Plague felt like dystopian science fiction, but now, strangely enough, it feels like a piece of journalism, a true story that is all too familiar to us.
The Plague takes place in a city in Algeria, far removed from the beautiful backdrop of the sea, the sun and gentle winds, that took center-stage in probably Albert Camus’ most mainstream book, The Stranger. The story unfolds in the city named Oran, a modern cold, dreary and unromantic manufacturing city. It is a town of an overabundance of materialism, and the citizens are dull, unpoetic and robot-like, rushing through life one day to the next. The streets are dirty and the people are detached from nature.
The city of Oran in the plague is a tired place, full of work and death. As the narrator tells us in the opening pages:
“The town, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug placid air. A town without pigeons, without trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves. A thoroughly negative place in short.”
Even before the plague shows up, first being observed killing off rats, before the bridges are blocked and the quarantine was set up, and before the daily death count and the models depicting that half of the town’s people could die; before any of this there was already a plague of sorts wearing the people down, even making them more susceptible to the horrors of the virus. Oran was unprepared for anything outside of their creation, and the natural plague itself is less of a villain in the story. It is often the city and all of its dehumanizing aspects that end with horrible consequences for the people of Oran. But even in a story about death there is hope everyday that starts anew.
Here we have another one of the many important themes of the book. A doctor by the name of Rieux (one of the main protagonists) has hero-like qualities the reader can identify with. He faces the absurd with love and compassion, embodying altruism and helping the sick with no physical reward and no end of the plague in sight. The writer Albert Camus was labeled many things in his short life, such as an Existentialist in the vein of Jon Paul Sartre being the most widely used. But, that’s mostly incorrect, as Camus himself said he was a Humanist, a philosophy at the core of all his writing, especially in The Plague, and his character Rieux is the perfect example, working on the frontlines of this terrible affliction but the love for his fellow people is enough to keep him going.
In closing, maybe I knew too much about the author and his life when I read the book. Maybe I couldn’t objectively view The Plague as a self-enclosed novel in-itself. But the human being that Albert Camus was is firmly pressed into his fiction, and it’s difficult not to see it. The Plague and its characters, even the city itself mirrors many of the actual events and themes that were present when he was alive. Art imitates life it is often said, we can only write about what we know, and Camus’ experiences translated into the story of The Plague.
Camus (at the time when he was writing the book) felt like an exile and was missing his wife who he was separated from, and there’s a character named Rambert who shares the same situation. Come to think about it just about every character in The Plague you find a shade of the author. But I suppose that’s true with any novel. An artist creates their reality, even fiction, with their own experiences, and that’s what The Plague by Albert Camus is:
It’s a timeless piece of literary art of the highest form that has more questions than answers, and the story never really has an ending. It asks us…
How will you live confronting the absurd, something beyond your control that we all must accept?