Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold. If we let them carry on like this they'll soon be dead, and so shall we.
The bureaucracy in Oran is depicted as being utterly incapable of dealing with a crisis like the plague. The officials argue over what to call the disease, care more that the populace isn't alarmed rather than fully informed, issue regulations that cannot meet the scope of the problem, and, as Tarrou states here, are fundamentally unable to shift their plodding, rules-oriented methodology to combat a menace as subtle and insidious as an epidemic. Their overly cautious and unimaginative approach leads to regulations that don't go far enough, isolation camps that treat inmates like prisoners, and information salvos that fail to provide knowledge.
Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.
In this beautiful and haunting passage, Camus articulates what it feels like to be dealing with the plague. The people have "heights" when they convince themselves that everything is okay, the plague will soon be over, and pleasure is still worth pursuing, and "depths" when they suffer from the weight of their pain and loss and confusion. Since real life has been put on hold—no dreams, no plans, no guarantee of a future—they can only "drift" through life. Their days are "aimless" because there's no point to anything; their memories are "sterile" because what use are they? They are "shadows" and they are stuck in their "distress." Passages like this exemplify Camus' existentialist thought, for people are stuck in a God-less and meaningless present and all that they have are their choices.
...they resigned themselves to using the current coin of language, the commonplaces of plain narrative, of anecdote, and of their daily paper. So in these cases, too, even the sincerest grief had to make do with the set phrases of ordinary conversation. Only on these terms could the prisoners of the plague ensure the sympathy of their concierge and the interest of their hearers.
One of the themes of the novel is that language is insufficient to truly convey the reality of the plague. This quote explains how people have to use commonplace, quotidian phrases and expressions to convey the deepest recesses of emotion. These are all they have, and these are all that others are receptive too. There is almost an implicit understanding amongst the people that this is the way things will be discussed because it is the only way they can handle what is happening.
Try as he might to shut his ears to it, he still was listening to that eerie sound above, the whispering of the plague.
Rieux is not a man given to flights of fancy, but several times in the novel he imagines he hears the sound of the plague whispering through the streets of obsolescence and death. This personification of the disease does not change Rieux's response to how he combats it, and he of course never stops approaching it as the microbe it is, but it does allow him to conceive of it in terms of language—it is an insidious and implacable enemy, it moves, it speaks, it preys and stalks, and it kills.
From now on, indeed, poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear, especially as, owing to its risks, such work was highly paid.
Another quote that resonates with anyone living through the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, this quote refers to the agonizing situation many people face: eschew working in order to avoid catching the disease, but watch your savings, if any, dwindle away to the point where you do not know if you can buy food for your family. For people on the brink of impoverishment, working is better than starving, and these are the sorts of people taking the most dangerous jobs. The work, the narrator says, is "highly paid," but it also comes at a potentially high cost.
The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them, the grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.
Rieux acknowledges the desire for this narrative, this "story," to have a triumphal, sensational moment. Such chronicles have heroes and epic sacrifices, definitive and tidy ends to the crises. Yet this is no novel, and there is no poetry here. The plague is a monster, yes, but it is an indefatigable one, and the only way to defeat it is to let it wear itself out. This is a slow, laborious, dull, and uninspiring fight.
"He has an insight into the anomalies in the lives of the people here who, though they have an instinctive craving for human contacts, can't bring themselves to yield to it, because of the mistrust that keeps them apart. For it's common knowledge that you can't trust your neighbor; he may pass the disease to you without your knowing it, and take advantage of a moment of inadvertence on your part to infect you."
For anyone living through the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, this quote will ring uncomfortably true. Just as we avoid others today through "social distancing," Camus' townspeople contort themselves awkwardly to stay away from each other on the street and in cafes and shops, look at each other with deep mistrust, shy away from former friends and associates, and agonize over whether or not it is worth the potentiality of getting sick to indulge in the deep desire for human contact. The plague frays the social fabric in profound and immeasurable ways.
Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men's hearts. They were assured, of course, of the inerrable equality of death, but nobody wanted that kind of equality.
On the one hand, the plague cares nothing for class difference. The rich can fall ill and die a grotesque, senseless death just as easily as the poor can. The plague permeates all parts of the town, striking down doctors and magistrates and businessmen as easily as it strikes down laborers and derelicts. However, those with money do find it easier to keep to a higher standard of living and inoculate themselves slightly more than the poor. They can keep food and supplies coming in even when prices escalate and supply dwindles. They can reside in capacious abodes and restrict their interaction with others. They can rest assured that they will not have to take a dangerous job because they have no money. This quote effectively articulates how such class differences not only deeply rankle, but how they may result in the poor dying in higher numbers.
"But worst of all," Tarrou writes, "is that they're forgotten, and they know it. Their friends have forgotten them because they have other things to think about, naturally enough. And those they love have forgotten them because all their energies are devoted to making schemes and taking steps to get them out of the camp... In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity."
Tarrou and Rambert's visit to the camp is bleak and depressing. The people there are listless and dull, and, as Tarrou points out in this quote, easily forgotten by those outside the gates. The inmates are a reminder of disease, suffering, and death; if they are locked away then those on the outside can try and forget that such horrors exist. Even the loved ones of those locked away find it easier not to think about them, preferring to dwell on what sets the mind at ease, not what stirs it into anxiety and despair. Even if what those on the outside are focusing on is getting their loved one(s) out of the camp, this process is easier to deal with than thinking about the person. This situation is yet another way the plague divides people physically and psychologically.
In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.
Unsurprisingly, once the plague is declared over and the gates are open, the people want to return to normal as quickly as possible. It is not necessarily easy to do so—"destruction is an easier, speedier process than reconstruction" (269)—but it is intuitively imperative for the people that they return to the routines, dreams, lovers, jobs, and pursuits that were put on hold during the scourge. This is a very human impulse, but Camus suggests that it is not an altogether good one. There should be some memory of the collectivism and community fostered, some recognition that what is actually important—family, health, love—should take precedence over making money and pursuing pleasure. At the end of the novel when Rieux intimates that the plague is never truly gone and is just waiting to return, there is a sense of the cyclical, of people forgetting and becoming dulled to danger, only to have it surprise them when they least expect it.
The Plague Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Plague is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The flagellants believed that selfpunishment for their sins might help save them from death as a result of the Plague. Those who followed this movement were regarded as a dangerous threat to church authority.