Though the plague seems to be abating, the people have not entirely given themselves over to jubilation. The past cannot be restored all at once; destruction is easier than reconstruction. Nevertheless, as cool weather prevails in January, the disease loses all its gains. Castel’s serum makes headway and all the other treatments prove themselves mostly meritorious. Though some still die, including Othon, the epidemic is clearly retreating. The strategy to combat it has not changed but now it seems to be working.
People smile more as they go about their business. Yet there is still a vacillation between optimism and despair. Some still try to escape, thinking that they’ve made it this far and must get out before they die.
Prices drop and people who’d once lived in groups, such as nuns, return to such groups. The gates of the town will remain closed for two weeks and the prophylactic measures in place for another month, but the night of January 25 is one of festivity. The Prefect orders the streets lit as they once were and many people rejoice. Of course, others are still dealing with things and hold off on their joy, preferring to wait until their loved ones improve.
Tarrou, Rambert, and Rieux join the crowds that night and also feel as if they’re walking on air. Sorrow is mixed with joy, but Tarrou is pleased to note that he sees the first cat since the spring, and he hopes the old man will be around to see it.
Tarrou’s diary at this point is less objective than it once was, and jumps from point to point. He has entries about Grand, who is convalescing and then back to work, and Cottard. He speaks positively of Mme. Rieux’s self-effacement and grace, and tells Rieux she reminds him of his own mother.
Specifically in regards to Cottard, the man begins to be perturbed at the plague’s retreat. When people show anxiety, Cottard feels better. As things improve, he retreats into his own isolated shell and engages less with the outside world. He is gruff and short, and asks Tarrou at one point if he thinks things will go back to normal. Tarrou replies that the “plague changed things and not changed them” (279). People will want to go back to normal but this is of course impossible. Cottard replies that he hopes all administrative things will be changed. Tarrou concedes there might be new problems as things grind back into gear.
Tarrou then suggests everyone might be trying to have a new life, and Cottard agrees that that would be ideal. Suddenly, though, as the two men are walking in the evening, two other men approach them and ask if Cottard is indeed Cottard. Cottard runs away into the darkness. The men tell the startled Tarrou that they want some information from him. This is where Tarrou’s diary ends.
Rieux is waiting for a telegram from his wife. He is filled with hope and a new sense of the possibility of life, and is ready for some good news.
Once he returns home, however, his mother tells him Tarrou is not well. It seems like it might be the plague, though Rieux will confirm nothing. He and his mother agree to keep Tarrou in their home and watch over him.
Tarrou insists Rieux tell him the truth about his condition, and Rieux promises. The doctor watches his friend’s struggle, knowing the only thing that can help him is luck. Tarrou wrestles with the disease silently and stolidly, once having a remission that sadly lapses. As Rieux waits, he hears “on the edge of silence, that faint eerie sibilance which had haunted his ears ever since the beginning of the epidemic” (286).
In the evening Rieux cancels his consultations and sits by Tarrou’s bedside as his friend fades. Tears of impotence fill his eyes. Finally, Tarrou passes, and Rieux wonders if he has his peace. His mother comforts him, and he appreciates the silent love between them. The next morning, a telegram comes announcing Rieux’s wife’s death. He has been expecting it and thinks to himself that this suffering is nothing new.
The ceremonial opening of the gates takes place in February. The town is jubilant as trains prepare to come in and depart. Lovers reuniting tremble with anticipation and excitement. Rambert and his wife tearfully reunite, with Rambert marveling at the oddness and wonder of the situation.
Many people never get to reunite with their loved ones, but such lonely mourners are not on most people’s minds right now. There is dancing in the streets, the cafes are packed, churches are full of thanksgiving services. It seems as if emotions once held in reserve are being emptied exultantly. Some people, newly reunited, quietly visit sites that were meaningful to them while stuck in Oran during the plague. Overall it seems like everyone wants to forget the hell that was the last months.
Rieux walks through the streets and gradually begins to feel a connection to the “seething, clamorous mass” (299), knowing they’ve suffered together.
Rieux confesses that he is the author of the chronicle. He says he must justify himself, saying he sought to be objective and faithful to the truth, only using documents that came his way. He always took the victims’ sides and only brought in his personal stories when they could shed light on the universal situation.
Rieux heads out of the celebratory thoroughfares to the street where Cottard and Grand live. It is cordoned off by police and there are shots being fired. Grand approaches, shocked, and says he lives here. They realize it is Cottard shooting at anything or anyone who comes near. The police finally storm the place and remove Cottard, who looks crazed.
After all this hubbub, Grand confides in Rieux that he wrote a letter to Jeanne and has started his manuscript again, this time leaving out all of the adjectives.
Rieux visits his old asthma patient, who is as happy and odd as ever. The man asks after Tarrou and Rieux replies flatly that he is dead. The man sighs that it is always the best who go, but Tarrou knew what he wanted.
Rieux asks, after a minute, if he can go up to the terrace. The old man assents and Rieux goes up to the roof where the air is cool and the sounds of elation and deliverance can be heard. It is like the night when he and his friend were here, but the mood is totally different. This is the moment when Rieux realizes he needs to draw together his chronicle, so “he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people” (308).
Yet, as he listens to the exultant people below, he remembers how fleeting joy can be, for the plague can lie dormant for years and then suddenly return.
As the plague comes to an end, the citizens of Oran act in understandable ways: they are wary of embracing jubilation too much too soon; when they finally do so, they do not want to be reminded of those who are still mourning; and they more or less reveal that they will be going back to normal, even though, paradoxically, they are irrevocably changed.
That is not to say that some of the main characters have not demonstrated some change. For example, Grand, recovered from the plague, finally writes his estranged wife and restarts his manuscript, leaving out the flowery adjectives. As another example, Rambert embraces his own wife for the first time since he came to Oran, knowing full well that the physical and psychological distance brought about by isolation renders their future love more difficult.
Rieux allows himself to feel a bit of happiness for the first time, feeling “himself at one with [the people]” (308). Up on the roof that celebratory night, he decides to write the chronicle of the plague “so he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state simply what we learn in times of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Yet, ever the realist, Rieux acknowledges that “such joy is always imperiled” and that the plague “for the bane and the enlightening of men…would rouse up its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city” (308).
One character who certainly does not learn from the plague or change for the better is Cottard. Realizing that with the waning of the plague comes his own imminent arrest, he begins acting erratically. Tarrou had earlier identified Cottard’s thought process as “a man suffering from a dangerous ailment or grave anxiety is allergic to other ailments and anxieties” (195), meaning as long as the plague is the prevailing reality Cottard is free, and that he revels in being an “accomplice” who is now “happily at one with all around him” because everyone else has the reactions he has had ever since he committed his crime. At the end of the novel, Cottard is cornered by police and begins shooting a gun capriciously into the street before he is arrested.
Critic Elwyn Sterling poses the question in his article on Cottard, “why is it right and fitting that La Peste should end with the episode of Cottard’s madness?” Firstly, the sense of collectivity and community that were present during the plague begin to fade away; the individual and his or her experience of the world is paramount. Cottard is not connected to others anymore, and will not get a fresh start. Secondly, nothing is really going to change after the plague. The people are going to go back to the way they lived their lives before, and Cottard’s hope that the administration would be changed “lock, stock, and barrel” and or that “new problems would arise and necessitate at least some reorganization of the administration system” (280) does not come to pass. Sterling believes that Cottard’s punishment is not necessarily important for its own sake, but because it is “a balance point which reestablishes an equilibrium between an essentially optimistic view of human reaction to a clearly defined menace to the general welfare and a no less pessimistic view…of human indifference to the suffering of others in the absence of a clear and present danger.”