The Plague

Themes

Absurdism

Absurdism is the search for a meaning to life and being unable to find one. This is similar to nihilism, where one assumes there is no meaning to life.

Exile and separation

The theme of exile and separation is embodied in two characters, Rieux and Rambert, both of whom are separated from the women they love. The theme is also present in the many other nameless citizens who are separated from loved ones in other towns or from those who happened to be out of town when the gates of Oran were closed. In another sense, the entire town feels in exile, since it is completely cut off from the outside world. Rieux, as the narrator, describes what exile meant to them all:

That sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.

Some, like Rambert, are exiles in double measure since they are not only cut off from those they want to be with but they do not have the luxury of being in their own homes.

The feeling of exile produces many changes in attitudes and behaviors. At first, people indulge in fantasies, imagining the missing person's return, but then they start to feel like prisoners, drifting through life with nothing left but the past, since they do not know how long into the future their ordeal may last. And the past smacks only of regret, of things left undone. Living with the sense of abandonment, they find that they cannot communicate their private grief to their neighbors, and conversations tend to be superficial.

Rieux returns to the theme at the end of the novel, after the epidemic is over, when the depth of the feelings of exile and deprivation is clear from the overwhelming joy with which long parted lovers and family members greet each other.

For some citizens, exile was a feeling more difficult to pin down. They simply desired a reunion with something that could hardly be named but which seemed to them to be the most desirable thing on Earth. Some called it peace. Rieux numbers Tarrou among such people, although he found it only in death.

This understanding of exile suggests the deeper, metaphysical implications of the term. It relates to the loss of the belief that humans live in a rational universe in which they can fulfill their hopes and desires, find meaning, and be at home. As Camus put it in The Myth of Sisyphus, "In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile."

Solidarity, community, and resistance

The ravages of the plague in Oran vividly convey the absurdist position that humans live in an indifferent, incomprehensible universe that has no rational meaning or order, and no transcendent God. The plague comes unannounced and may strike down anyone at any time. It is arbitrary and capricious, and it leaves humans in a state of fear and uncertainty, which ends only in death. In the face of this metaphysical reality, what must be the response of individuals? Should they resign themselves to it, accept it as inevitable, and seek what solace they can as individuals, or should they join with others and fight back, even though they must live with the certainty that they cannot win? Camus's answer is clearly the latter, embodied in the characters of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou. Rieux's position is made clear in part II in a conversation with Tarrou. Rieux argues that one would have to be a madman to submit willingly to the plague. Rather than accepting the natural order of things — the presence of sickness and death — he believes one must fight against them. He is aware of the needs of the community; he does not live for himself alone. When Tarrou points out that "[his] victories will never be lasting," Rieux admits that he is involved in a "never ending defeat," but this does not stop him from engaging in the struggle.

Rieux is also aware that working for the common good demands sacrifice; he cannot expect personal happiness. This is a lesson that Rambert learns. At first he insists that he does not belong in Oran, and his only thought is returning to the woman he loves in Paris. He thinks only of his own personal happiness and the unfairness of the situation in which he has been placed but gradually comes to recognize his membership in a larger human community, which makes demands on him that he cannot ignore. Ultimately he realizes he cannot face his lover if it is as a coward.

Tarrou lives according to an ethical code that demands that he act in a way that benefits the whole community, even though, in this case, he risks his life by doing so. Later in the novel, when Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life, he adds a new dimension to the term ”plague.“ He views it not just as a specific disease or simply as the presence of an impersonal evil external to humans. For Tarrou, plague is the destructive impulse within every person, the will and the capacity to do harm, and it is everyone's duty to be on guard against this tendency within themselves, lest they infect someone else with it. He describes his views to Rieux:

What's natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.

Religion

In times of calamity, people often turn to religion, and Camus examines this response in the novel. In contrast to the humanist beliefs of Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou, the religious perspective is given in the sermons of the stern Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. While the other main characters believe there is no rational explanation for the outbreak of plague, Paneloux believes there is. In his first sermon, given during the first month of the plague, Paneloux describes the epidemic as the "flail of God," through which God separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the evil. Paneloux is at pains to emphasize that God did not will the calamity: "He looked on the evil-doing in the town with compassion; only when there was no other remedy did He turn His face away, in order to force people to face the truth about their life" In Paneloux's view, even the terrible suffering caused by the plague works ultimately for good. The divine light can still be seen even in the most catastrophic events, and a Christian hope is granted to all.

Paneloux's argument is based on the theology of St. Augustine, on which he is an expert, and it is accepted as irrefutable by many of the townspeople, including the magistrate, Othon. But it does not satisfy Rieux. Camus carefully manipulates the plot to bring up the question of innocent suffering. Paneloux may argue that the plague is a punishment for sin, but how does he reconcile that doctrine with the death of a child? The child in question is Philippe Othon, and Paneloux, along with Rieux and Tarrou, witnesses his horrible death. Paneloux is moved with compassion for the child, and he takes up the question of innocent suffering in his second sermon. He argues that because a child's suffering is so horrible and cannot easily be explained, it forces people into a crucial test of faith: either we must believe everything or we must deny everything, and who, Paneloux asks, could bear to do the latter? We must yield to the divine will, he says; we cannot pick and choose and accept only what we can understand. But we must still seek to do what good lies in our power (as Paneloux himself does as one of the volunteers who fights the plague).

The second sermon given by Paneloux, however, suggests that his faith has been shaken. Unable to reconcile his beliefs with the death of the child, Paneloux becomes sick and refuses to be treated. His illness is not consistent with the symptoms of the plague, and the inexplicable nature of the illness leads Rieux to diagnose him as a "doubtful case". He leaves his fate in the hands of God, and he dies clinging to his cross and the remnants of his beliefs. The implication is that Paneloux's loss of faith is what leads to his death. Paneloux's death is in contrast to Tarrou's, who fights valiantly against death when his turn comes. The fight Tarrou puts up against his end is emblematic of the fight against the plague and the absurdity of the universe. The criticism of Paneloux, is that he, unlike Tarrou, has lost his faith in humanity. He chooses, instead, to cling to a hollow ideal he no longer believes, and his death, in contrast to Tarrou's, does not bring him peace.

It is clear that Camus's sympathy in this contrast of ideas lies with Rieux and Tarrou.


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