The town is fully at the mercy of the plague, and there is nothing to do but mark time and try and cope with the immense fatigue. People seem less interested in reading the news when they once clamored for every scrap of it.
Rambert runs a quarantine station at the hotel and Grand is dealing with the facts and figures that come his way. He is under immense strain and is prone to excesses of sentimentality and musings about Jeanne. Rieux hears his own wife’s condition has worsened but everything is being done as it should be. Tarrou is fine but his diary entries have lost their depth and diversity; he seems mostly interested in Cottard. Dr. Castel is showing much wear and tear, which brings a lump to Rieux’s throat.
Rieux feels his own sensibility is problematic, as he has hardened everything so he can carry on. He has no illusions anymore, and his four hours of sleep do not lend themselves to sentimentality. He sees things as they are–“hideous, witless justice” (193).
The people of the town, especially Rieux’s friends and associates, are more prone than ever to “slackness and supineness” (194) and have no interest in making any move that is not entirely necessary. Some of them break small rules, and “the energy they devoted to fighting the disease made them all the more liable to it” (194).
Cottard, of course, is still a picture of contentment. He is rather aloof from Rieux and Rambert but seeks Tarrou out. Tarrou’s diary paints a picture of the man who seems to be “blossoming” (195). He is happy to be with the others instead of set apart from society. He sees their reactions to the plague as ones he already had when he was condemned; he feels their superstitions, their fears, their panics, their stretched nerves. He is happy to be swept with the herd toward pleasure, happy to live in the present moment. Since he, Tarrou observes, “has learned what it is to live in a constant state of fear, he finds it normal that others should come to know this state. Or perhaps it should be put like thus: fear seems to him more bearable under these conditions than it was when he had to bear its burden alone” (199).
Tarrou writes of a time he and Cottard see a performance of Orpheus and Eurydice put on by a traveling company stuck in the town. The company plays one show every week. It is an entertaining piece until the very end, when the actor playing Orpheus seems more and more overcome and falls grotesquely down. The music stops and the show ends, and the audience files out in confusion and dismay, then moving faster and faster in their revulsion. Plague cannot be kept out, not even in the civilized confines of the arts.
Rambert is told he can move in with Louis and Marcel now, as they have guard duty. He has to wait a fortnight, and continues his work indefatigably at the sanitation station. He confides to Rieux that one night he went to the upper part of town and screamed his wife’s name, but other than that, he is quietly biding his time.
Rieux warns him that Monsieur Othon remarked that Rambert ought to be careful about associating with smugglers, and he ought to hurry up. Rambert thanks him, then asks why he does not try to stop his going. Rieux sighs that he does not know what is right, and he should do his bit for happiness.
Rambert moves into the small Spanish house. The brothers are not there very often, but their old mother is kind to Rambert. He learns finally that he is to leave the following night at midnight.
Rambert decides to go out, and visits Rieux at the hospital. He finds Tarrou in his office, who tells Rambert he is reluctant to let him in because he is trying to spare Rieux as much as possible. Rambert understands, but awkwardly repeats his request. Tarrou smiles and leads him to a small room for a disinfected mask.
The ward is stiflingly hot even though fans whir above. There are groans and cries and men in white moving from bed to bed. Rieux is bending over a patient, lancing the groin. Tarrou gives him the news when he asks for it, saying Paneloux is ready to replace Rambert at the quarantine station. He points to Rambert. Rieux asks why he has come, and Rambert says he’d like to speak with him. Rieux says he is done, and they can go out together.
In the car, Rambert tells Rieux he does not want to go and wants to stay with him. Surprised, Rieux asks about his wife. Rambert replies that he’d be ashamed of himself if he did not do the right thing. He once felt alone in this town but now he feels a part of it whether he wants to be or not. The other men are silent. Rambert waits and then bursts out in confusion that they are not responding. Rieux says quietly that he does not know anything, and Rambert can stay if he wants. He knows nothing is worth turning down love but he himself is doing it and he does not know why.
Around the end of October, it is time to try Castel’s anti-plague serum; for Rieux this is a last hope. Monsieur Othon’s young son is sick and the family is quarantined again. Othon asks Rieux to save his son, and agrees to the accommodations proposed—a room for Madame Othon and the little girl, and an isolation camp at the municipal station for Othon.
The boy’s infection is spreading and Rieux has no qualms administering the serum to him. After a long inoculation process, Rieux, Paneloux, Tarrou, Grand, and Dr. Castel gather to observe the effects. Paneloux’s face is drawn with grief.
The boy stiffens and relaxes, and repeats. Most of these men have seen children die before but not watched one’s agony minute by minute. They feel this abomination acutely, as this innocent child is literally dying in front of them. The boy often gasps and has tremors, then sinks back into his languor. His flesh is wasted; his position is a “grotesque parody of crucifixion” (215). Castel clears his throat and asks about remission, and Rieux says he is putting up more resistance than expected. Paneloux muses bitterly that this means his suffering is worse.
Elsewhere in the ward someone is screaming. Rieux takes the boy’s pulse and silently urges it to match his own. It slows, and Rieux realizes his utter impotence. Finally the boy issues a terrible, long scream and clutches his blankets. His death-cry is fiercely angry, and picked up by others in the room. Right as Rieux is about to flee from not being able to take it anymore, it stops. The child has passed.
Rieux moves to leave the room and as he passes Paneloux, who reaches out to him, he bursts out that the child was innocent and Paneloux knows it as well as he does. Outside, he feels like screaming curses. He sits wearily on the bench.
Paneloux joins Rieux and asks why there was anger in his voice, for what happened to the child was just as unbearable to him. Rieux apologizes and says he is weary and the only feeling he has sometimes is revolt. When Paneloux suggests that such a thing passes human understanding and they ought to love what they cannot understand, Rieux replies that he has a different conception of love and will never be able to love a scheme of things in which children are tortured. He adds, though, that he knows he and Paneloux are working for the same thing and they are united beyond blasphemy and prayers.
Paneloux sits with him and agrees that they are both working for salvation. Rieux smiles that he is working for health. Paneloux hesitates, and stands. He says goodbye. Rieux also stands and says he is sorry again. Paneloux rues that he has not convinced him, and Rieux responds that it doesn’t matter and nothing can part them now.
Paneloux prepares a second sermon and tells Rieux he ought to come. That day it is windy and the church is not as full as the first time. In the interim between sermons the people have become less religious and more superstitious. Predictions from soothsayers and prophets and references to Nostradamus are common; they seem comforting to the people, especially when they predict the plague’s end.
Paneloux speaks in a gentler tone and says “we” instead of “you” this time. He speaks of how all trials work together for good for the Christian, how nothing on earth is more horrible than the suffering of a child and we naturally seek to understand it and reason with it. For the Christian, he says, the ultimate choice is to believe everything or deny everything. The ordeal is the all or the nothing, and Rieux realizes from the pews that to some this must sound like heresy. With the wind howling outside, Paneloux says his choice is to believe everything so he does not deny everything. Some might say this smacks of fatalism, but to him it is an “active” fatalism.
Continuing, he speaks of the story of how only four of more than eighty monks at one monastery during the Black Death survived, and three fled. He thinks they should all be like the one who stayed. They should not give up, but grope their way through the dark if they must and do what good they can. Ultimately, they must love God or hate Him, and who would choose to hate Him?
As he comes to his conclusion, Paneloux says he knows this requires total self-surrender and it is a hard lesson but that they must “aspire beyond ourselves to that high and fearful vision” (228).
Filing out with the others, Rieux is of the opinion the sermon was more uneasy than powerful. A young deacon tells him the Father is working on an even more radical pamphlet—that it is illogical for a priest to call a doctor. When Rieux mentions this to Tarrou later, Tarrou says it makes sense, for if Paneloux wants to hold on to this faith he will do so until the end.
At this time Paneloux has to move out of his room and take lodgings with a parishioner. This old woman is honored by his presence but comes to be annoyed with his fatigue and his reticence. Nevertheless, it is she who discovers one morning that he has not arisen and seems more flushed and weaker than ever. She suggests calling a doctor but he refuses. She does not care for herself she later says, but feels responsible for the Father.
She is struck, she narrates later, by his restlessness. He cannot get comfortable and stares straight ahead into the void in between paroxysms. He continues to decline but refuses a doctor until he finally says he will be taken to the hospital in accordance with the regulations. The fraught woman calls Rieux, who hurries over.
Rieux examines him and says he does not have any of the specific symptoms of the disease but he cannot be sure so he should be isolated. Rieux softly says he will stay with him. Paneloux looks at him with warmth and a sad smile, and says priests can have no friends as they’ve given their all to God.
At the hospital Paneloux submits weakly to observation but still seems undiagnosable. He remains for several weeks. At one point he coughs up a clot of red stuff, which he’d been trying to get out for some time. He then dies, and is marked as “Doubtful case.”
This All Souls’ Day is much different than past ones. The cemeteries are unvisited, as the dead are no longer thought of as the forsaken who must be visited once a year; rather, they are intruders.
The curve has seemingly flattened, and Dr. Richard proclaims this a high-water mark. Yet he is taken away by the plague, and the pneumonic version of the plague is spreading quickly. This is more contagious and more fatal. The food supply is affected, and the poor begin to resent the rich even more, for the plague does not seem to be affecting everyone equally.
The newspapers promote optimism at all costs, and seeing the true heroes and reality of the plague is only possible when going to quarantine depots or isolation camps. Tarrou gives an account of a visit he and Rambert pay to a camp in the municipal stadium on the outskirts of town. The stadium is surrounded by high walls and now sentries, giving the impression of people being forcibly hidden from society. It is a Sunday afternoon and Gonzalez, the football player and fan, comes with them. The majority of the people are sitting on the stands, while others loll about or walk around listlessly. Tarrou asks Rambert what they do all day and Rambert replies that they do nothing. They first were full of chatter but now they are silent. Tarrou notes that they all have vacant gazes and seem to have forgotten what life really means.
The camp manager comes up and tells Tarrou and Rambert that Othon wants to see them. They meet with the tired man, who asks if his son suffered. Tarrou lies and says no. The loudspeakers announce that it is mealtime and the inmates shuffle to their tents. As Tarrou and Rambert leave, Tarrou sighs that one feels like he must help Othon, but what can one do for a judge?
There are other camps, the narrator says, but he does not know any specifics about them. Suffice it to say, they are all feared and despised.
As November ends, Tarrou goes with Rieux to visit the old asthma patient. The old woman at the home tells them to check out the roof terrace, from where they can get a lovely view and fresh air. The men agree and ascend. Nobody is up there. They can see the horizon and the sea meeting in a dim blur, stars sparkling, and the lights of the lighthouse flashing.
The men sit, grateful for the pleasant spot. Tarrou asks if Rieux might take an hour off for friendship, and Rieux smiles yes. Tarrou begins his story by saying he already has the plague. When he was young he lived with a sense of his innocence and fortuitousness. Things went well for him. He had a good relationship with his father, a prosecuting attorney. His father had a peculiarity, which was that he was a “walking timetable” (246) who knew every distance and arrival and departure time between cities in Europe. Tarrou loved quizzing his father and seeing how skilled he was.
One day Tarrou’s father invited him to hear him speak in court. Tarrou now assumes that his father intended him to be impressed and want to become an attorney. However, the only thing Tarrou could focus on was the criminal, who was most definitively a man. He was a human being and though he was a criminal, he was to be killed. Even more horrifying to Tarrou was that his own father was the one arguing for this. He felt sick. From that day on he could not look at the railway directory. He “took a horrified interest in legal proceedings, death sentences, executions” (248) and could not help knowing what his father’s role in such things—such murders—was.
Tarrou did not leave home immediately but he finally did so. When his father sent a letter, Tarrou told him forthrightly that he would kill himself if forced to return. His father let him have his way. Tarrou would visit his mother occasionally and saw his father, but they were not close. His mother came to live with him after his father died.
Tarrou experienced poverty after he left his wealthy home. He was interested in the death penalty and became an agitator against it all over Europe. He tells Rieux about what firing squads are really like, what abuses men really carry out against other men. He tells of his conviction that his belief in certain principles or systems in his life contributed to the death of thousands, no matter how indirectly. He will never accept any argument that allows the people in power to justify their butcheries.
Tarrou concludes. He says that no person can lift a finger without the risk of bringing death to someone else, and this is why everyone has plague. He feels no peace but wants to find it somehow. He thinks everyone must be careful not to infect others, not to lapse in attention. There are pestilences and there are victims; Tarrou believes one must know that and live that, and act carefully.
When he is done speaking, the doctor asks if Tarrou has an idea of the path for getting peace. Tarrou replies that it is the path of sympathy. Tarrou says he is essentially trying to be a saint without believing in God. The doctor understands, but replies that he has always felt more sympathy for the fellowship than the saints.
Tarrou suggests that the two of them do something for friendship—take a swim in the sea. Rieux happily agrees and the men go down to the beach. They undress and jump into the water. They float and drift, completely at peace. They feel free from the town and the plague, and are “conscious of being perfectly at one, and the memory of this night would be cherished by them both” (257).
The plague does not abate during the cold spells, and is more and more in the pneumonic form. Rieux meets with Othon after he gets out of the isolation camp, and the magistrate shocks him by saying he wants to return as a government volunteer, for it would be the only way to be close to his little boy.
Rambert manages to get letters out to his wife and tells Rieux, who laboriously composes his own to send. Cottard is still prospering but Grand is not doing well.
That Christmas is a mournful one for the town. There is no cheer, no celebrating.
During the season, Grand does not make an appearance, so Tarrou and Rieux go to find him. They espy him standing in front of a shop window, tears coursing down his face. It is clear thoughts of Jeanne are consuming him. When he turns and sees Rieux, Rieux is struck by the man’s sorrow. Rieux suggests they go home, but Grand frantically runs away, then falls onto the ground, clearly ill.
Tarrou and Rieux take him home, and as he has no family, they decide to let him stay in his home instead of being evacuated. Grand grows sicker and sicker, but has moments of lucidity. He tells Rieux to get his manuscript. Rieux sees that same phrase and all of its changes and corrections, and Grand croaks at him to read it, and, when Rieux does, to destroy it. Rieux hesitates but Grand repeats his request in an agonized tone, so Rieux complies. Grand turns his back.
All night Rieux is tormented by the thought of Grand’s imminent death, but the next morning he is greatly improved. By noon there is no change for the worse, and by nightfall it is clear he is fully out of danger. Rieux is baffled.
At this same time, such a pattern repeats in a girl at the hospital: she has all the symptoms of pneumonic plague and seems fated to die, but recovers miraculously. The old asthma patient gleefully tells him the rats are back. Rieux checks the mortality figures that are released every Monday, and sees that they have decreased.
In this section, nearly all of the characters undergo psychological and/or physical crises. Grand falls ill with the plague and anguishes over the futility of his manuscript. Paneloux also falls ill, having come to terms with his views on turning fully to God even though the problem of evil is overwhelming. Rambert chooses to stay in Oran even though he can get out, realizing he needs to choose a love for the collective rather than a personal love. And Rieux grapples with the nature of God, suffering, and love as the plague rages around him but then, by the end of the section, begins to wane.
The climax of the novel occurs when Rieux, Tarrou, and Paneloux witness the intensely painful and grotesque suffering and death of the Othon boy. Rieux is even more convinced of the absence of God, for the death of this innocent child is unfathomable in a world where God putatively loves all of His creatures. Camus, a known atheist, remarked once that “in its essence, Christianity (and this is its paradoxical greatness) is a doctrine of injustice. It is founded on the sacrifice of the innocent and the acceptance of this sacrifice” (quoted in Hanna). Paneloux is faced with a crisis of faith, for, as critic Thomas Hanna explains, “either he maintains his faith that God is the ultimate ruling force in the universe, bringing good out of the evil which he allows to afflict man, or else he takes his place with Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, and all the rebels of the earth in maintaining that this evil and this death are unbearable and that either there is no God and men must ceaselessly struggle with their single powers against the plague of life or else, if there be a God, he is a murderous, unjust, and incomprehensible being who is the supreme enemy of men.”
Paneloux ultimately has to choose all instead of nothing, to believe everything instead of denying everything. He does not believe anymore that the plague is punishment for the sins of the people, but it is still mysterious beyond man’s measure and ultimately one must trust in God regardless of the inscrutability of His plan. Critic Andrea Lesic-Thomas confirms this assessment, writing that “Camus makes Paneloux face the logical paradox of the presence of suffering inflicted by a good and just God, bringing him to the realization that the only way of continuing to be a believing Christian is to believe without understanding and without judging.” Unfortunately, that also means he “really abandons himself to the divine will—and it swallows him. Paneloux is killed by an aporia.”
In this section we also come to know more about Tarrou, who expatiates on his history and his past and present motivations. He tells Rieux how he came to see the death penalty as a fundamental evil and thus spent many years as an agitator. He is profoundly against any suffering whatsoever: Lesic-Thomas notes, “He places himself always on the side of the victim and refuses to kill, directly or indirectly, under any circumstances.” For Tarrou, the plague is much more than the microbe—it is man’s inhumanity to man. In his endeavors to act on this belief, he tells Rieux that he wishes he could be “a saint without God” (255).
While Tarrou is far from being the monster that Cottard is, he still ultimately retains an abstract response to the plague. Eugene Hollahan reminds readers that Tarrou’s motivation for fighting the plague is his own private code of morals; his “troubled intellectual stance contrasts with the doctor’s simple statement that his own motivation for fighting the plague is sympathetic outrage at human suffering.” In his identification with the cat-spitter and pear-counter, he “indicates his own deep tendency toward abstraction and transcendence.” He cannot travel the path of sympathy to its end, and dies of the plague.