The events of the novel, the narrator says, take place in an unspecified year in the 1940s in Oran, a French town in Algeria in Northern Africa. The town is smug and placid, stiflingly hot, and everyone is bored with the “same feverish yet casual air” (4). The inhabitants care mostly for commerce, they love and have sex much like other places, and dying there is rather disagreeable because the place seems to necessitate good health due to its love of business, its pleasures, and its excessive heat. The town overall is banal but likable enough. There is no social unrest and the citizens are amiable and frank. For this tale, the narrator (his identity unknown until the end of the chronicle) has relied on three forms of data: his own observations, the accounts of eyewitnesses, and documents that came into his hands.
On the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux accidentally steps on a dead rat outside his door as he prepares to go to surgery. The concierge, Michel, is aghast, and claims there are no dead rats here. Later, even though he sees another one, Rieux is concerned only with his wife, who is about to go stay in a sanitarium. She is thirty and pretty, but has been unwell for a while.
The next day Rieux hears and sees more of the dead rats. His first patient on his rounds, an old Spaniard with asthma, wheezes that all the rats are coming out.
Rieux receives a telegram at home that his mother is on her way; she will be staying with him and tending house while his wife is away. Rieux bids his wife an emotional goodbye at the train platform, and her eyes sparkle as she says she hopes for a fresh start.
A young man calls on Rieux in the afternoon as he prepares to begin his consultations. His name is Raymond Rambert, and he is a handsome, intelligent journalist. He tells Rieux he is to make a report on the living conditions in the Arab countries and asks if Rieux will comment. Rieux asks if he can print “an unqualified condemnation of the present state of things” (12). Rambert, puzzled, says not entirely, and Rieux replies that he cannot help. His voice evinces his fatigue with the world. He does point out to Rambert, who understands his point, that there is something odd going on with the town rats. Rambert is intrigued and decides to follow up on that.
Again on his way out to another round of visits, the doctor encounters Jean Tarrou, a stocky young man, who remarks that the rats are odd and interesting. Next he sees Michel, who complains of a headache and seems tired. He tells Rieux it is just the stress.
Rieux calls the Municipal Office to ask about the rats and Mercier admits he is a bit perturbed and asks the doctor if it means something serious. Rieux replies that he cannot say, but the sanitary service should take action. Mercier agrees.
Over the next few days, things worsen and the townsfolk begin to evince nervousness. The papers talk about the rats, which are found more and more. They sway and fall dead, burst in streams of blood, and show up as warm, soft bodies under people’s feet. It seems to many like the earth is “being purged of its secreted humors” (16). The official announcement of rats dead—6,231 in one day—is striking to people and jolts their nerves. The next day it is 8,000, but then the very next day it is almost nothing. People breathe freely.
However, that same day Michel comes to Rieux. He is dragging himself painfully, leaning on Father Paneloux’s arm. He says he has pain all over the place, and Rieux feels a hard knot at the base of the man’s neck. He sends Michel to bed and promises to come by later.
Rieux receives a call from a former patient, Joseph Grand, a clerk in the Municipal Office and someone whom, since he was poor, Rieux did not charge a fee. The man exhorts Rieux to come quickly, as a neighbor has had an accident. Rieux hurries over and finds Grand with a man who has tried to hang himself but failed. The man, introduced as Monsieur Cottard, does not want Rieux to report it to the police. He says he had a crazy fit but is better now. Rieux agrees he will say nothing now and will check back. Outside, he tells Grand he will have to make a report but will have the inspector hold up the inquiry for a few days. Grand says he will stay with Cottard that night.
Rieux finds Michel vomiting and complaining of internal pains. He also has a raging thirst and inflamed ganglia. His temperature is 104 degrees that night. When Rieux calls up another leading practitioner in the town to see if he’s seen anything similar, Dr. Richard says he has seen fever and ganglia in his own patients.
The next day Rieux is cheered by a letter from his wife and the fact that Michel looks better. However, that afternoon Michel’s temperature shoots up. His head strains from his body and Rieux orders an ambulance to take him away. He is in immense pain, decrying the rats. He dies.
This is the end of the first period, that of “bewildering portents” (23), and the beginning the second, one that is “relatively more trying, in which the perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic” (23). Fear and serious reflection begin to permeate the town.
The narrator says he will share some of Jean Tarrou’s witnessing of this period. He’d come to Oran weeks before and was not engaged in business. No one knew why he came but he was good-natured and in public often. His recordings were a sort of chronicle of this time, but they were a bit odd because they focused on the trivial, yet the trivial still had its importance.
Tarrou would write of seeing an old man spit down at cats, about the idiosyncrasy of the town’s obsession with commerce, of other eccentricities. He was rarely personal in his writings. As the strange distemper began to manifest itself, he wrote of the dead rats and his conversations about them, and about the growing fear. He described Dr. Rieux as handsome with prominent features, perhaps absentminded but knowledgeable.
Rieux rings up Richard and other colleagues to talk about the fever cases. He asks if Richard can have fresh cases put into isolation wards but Richard says only the Prefect can order it.
The weather changes for the worse and there is rain, oppressive heat, and a concomitant mood of listlessness. The whole town seems to be running a temperature.
Rieux visits Cottard for a checkup. He asks Grand how the man did and he said fine. He confesses he does not know Cottard very well, as they’ve only had two conversations prior. The inspector arrives as Grand is telling the doctor about how fascinated Cottard was with Grand’s Latin conjugation practice.
Grand has to give his testimony, and refers to Cottard as having a “secret grief” (33). He had no reason to guess Cottard might try to kill himself, though he always seemed to want a conversation.
Cottard is called upon and he seems very scared. Rieux reassures him everything is just a formality.
He agrees with Grand’s assessment of his “secret grief” and he declares he will absolutely not try something like suicide again.
Afterward the inspector sighs that this was a wasted hour, and then asks the doctor about the fever. Rieux says he doesn’t know much and the policeman says it must be the weather.
Indeed, Rieux grows more and more anxious after each visit. A few more people are ill and begin dying. Nothing is being reported in the newspapers yet, as the rats were in the street and people are dying in their homes. But the various doctors are starting to see similarities, which is what Rieux and his peer Castel talk about when Castel comes to visit.
Castel says he knows what it is and even though everyone else might want to pretend it’s unthinkable, it’s not. Rieux ponders for a moment, and agrees—it is plague. Castel rolls his eyes that people will say it vanished from temperate countries a long time about, but “vanished” doesn’t mean anything.
Rieux, like everyone else, is aware that plagues happened in the past, yet plagues and wars still take people by surprise. These townspeople are like everyone else in that they are wrapped up in themselves and cannot believe in pestilences. They think everything is still possible for them, though a few have died. It does not make sense that the future could be canceled.
Rieux feels a sense of unease and tries to remember what he knows of the historical plagues. He tells himself a few cases don’t make an epidemic, and he must stick to observed facts.
Looking out the window as evening is falling, he hears the mild activity of the hour that is the noise of a peaceful town. It is both dull and happy, and the old horrors of charnel houses and piled up bodies and people dying in the streets seem impossible. Only the sea sounds ominous as it “told of the unrest, the precariousness, of all things in this world” (40).
Yes, he knows the word “plague” has been uttered, but perhaps it will stop or can be stopped. It will likely die out. He contents himself that he has certitude in his daily rounds, and that is enough right now.
Grand and Cottard come by Rieux’s place. Grand in his position at the Municipal Office has access to the fever figures, which he tells the doctor are going up. Rieux asks if they want to accompany him to the laboratory and they agree.
It is dusk and the streets are becoming a little busier. Grand says he has to leave to do some work, and Cottard tells Rieux that Grand always does work of his own after dinner. Curious, Rieux asks Grand what it is but it remains ambiguous. Grand hurries away.
Cottard asks the doctor if he can come and see him and ask his advice about something, and Rieux replies that he can come at the end of tomorrow afternoon.
After Cottard leaves, Rieux finds himself musing on Grand. He seems to be a man who escapes such cases like plagues, and remembers reading somewhere that victims were always more robust. Grand seems like a mystery to him somehow, for he is tall and thin with clothes too large and a “walk of a shy young priest” (44). He has many traits of insignificance and clearly seems cut out for the bureaucracy. He has indeed been working comfortably in his position for many years, never getting promoted but living a pleasant life. He makes little but has time for his hobbies. His main issue, as Rieux knows, is that he has trouble finding his words. He is often quiet and hesitant, and does not advance in society because of this drawback. Yet he is one of those people who has “the courage of their good feelings” (46) and Rieux likes him quite a bit. It is hard for Rieux to imagine a plague could fall on a place where people like Grand are found—“obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities” (47).
Thanks to Rieux, the health authorities convene at the Prefect’s office. Castel and Rieux fret that there is no serum in the district. When the gathering is convened, Castel bluntly says it is plague. Other doctors protest and Richard says not to be alarmist.
When asked for his opinion, Rieux concurs but says there are a few dissimilar things. Waiting and seeing, though, is ill-advised, as infections are spreading. Richard ventures that it does not seem contagious but Rieux replies that contagion is not absolute and some have died and precautions must be taken.
The Prefect wonders about a professional declaration that the epidemic is plague and Rieux replies that it must be made. Richard adds that it seems Rieux’s description verified it, and asks Rieux if he is convinced it is plague. Rieux replies that it does not matter the term used, but things must be done.
The doctors argue and palaver, and finally decide to take the “responsibility of acting as though the epidemic were plague” (51). This garners approval. Rieux sighs that he does not care how it is phrased but that something is done. On his way home he sees a bloodied woman screaming in agony.
Small official notices start to appear in public, but the wording is such that the public is clearly not meant to be alarmed. Advice for extreme cleanliness is offered, and people who feel ill are to report fever cases immediately and permit isolation of sick family members.
Grand and Rieux meet, and Grand tells Rieux that Cottard has become extremely amiable of late. He is no longer aloof as he once was, and seems to be wanting to make himself agreeable to everyone everywhere. He gives lavish tips and says odd things to Grand such as, “He’s a nice fellow, and he’d make a good witness” (54). He sometimes gets in a rage, though, and has begun reading the conservative paper in the town. Cottard had also pushed Grand to tell him about his project, which seems to be a book of some sorts. Cottard remarked to Grand that being a literary man was easier because authors have more rights than regular people. Rieux suggests the situation with the rats addled Cottard’s brain, but Grand gravely says he believes Cottard has something serious on his conscience.
Later, Rieux and Castel commiserate on the serum not being here yet. Rieux realizes to his own surprise that he is somewhat afraid.
Rieux visits Cottard, who seems to have been waiting in the dark for the ring at the door. He is gloomily saying that some people seem to only take an interest in you just to make trouble, and mentions a story he is reading about a man arrested for no reason. Rieux suggests he go outside for a walk.
The two men look outside the window as evening falls on the town. Smells and sounds permeate the air but today this hour to Rieux “seemed…charged with menace” (58).
Rieux asks Cottard to turn on his lights. Cottard does, and asks if he fell ill if he’d be put in the hospital, and if people in hospitals or nursing homes could be arrested. Rieux says it depends. Cottard asks if Rieux will give him a lift into town.
The streets are now less crowded. Children are playing in doorways and one stares at the men. Cottard asks about the epidemic and Rieux says people always worry. Cottard says it is not what people need here, and when asked what they need, replies gleefully, “An earthquake! A big one!” (59).
Rieux’s rounds the next day weigh on him heavily, whereas once his patients made him feel lighter. His old patient with asthma proclaims that the epidemic is cholera, but Rieux tells him it is not. He knows that poor people do not like hospitals and will not want to go, and he worries for his patients. He hopes the outbreak dies a natural death, as it certainly won’t be helped by the authorities’ measures.
The next day the rules manifest in thirty sick persons reporting themselves. Within three days, the wards are full. Talk arises of an auxiliary hospital. Rieux excises buboes and waits for the serum.
The weather at this time is lovely and all seems well with the world, yet the fever is claiming more and more victims. Rieux calls the Prefect and tells him the regulations do not go far enough, and the Prefect agrees and says he will ask the government for more orders. Rieux later scoffs to Castel that they need imagination, not orders.
New regulations are enforced, with compulsory declaration of fever, disinfection of residences, people in the same house quarantining themselves, etc. The serum arrives but it is not enough.
For a couple days the epidemic seems to wane, then the figure shoots up wildly. Finally Rieux reads a telegram that says, “proclaim a state of plague stop close the town” (63).
Camus’ novel about a modern recrudescence of the plague lends itself to numerous descriptors—grotesque, frightening, compelling, inspiring, and, as of early-to-mid 2020, incredibly pertinent and familiar. This study guide will not dwell over much of the similarities between Camus’ novel and the events that are transpiring seventy or so years later, but Camus’s novel does indeed provide uncomfortably trenchant insights into the way humankind responds to such a deeply disruptive phenomena.
The novel begins with a quick ratcheting up of the tension. The rats of the town of Oran begin exhibiting strange behavior and then die in spectacular sanguinary fashion and in massive numbers. Not long after, the concierge of the central character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, falls ill and dies, and the outbreak rapidly spreads. Rieux and other doctors, such as Castel, are the first to recognize the disease for what it is, and, in notable contrast to the other bureaucrats such as the Prefect, prefer to call it what it is rather than reference it in oblique ways so as to not frighten the public. Rieux’s frustration with the bureaucrats and their concern for naming, regulations, and plodding debate is palpable and understandable.
Despite Rieux, Castel, and Dr. Richard’s acknowledgment of the presence of the plague, they too cannot help thinking that it is going to be short-lived. Camus brilliantly dissects the fundamental impossibility of the human mind to understand something like the microbe, and how it cares not for dreams, the future, money, and power. It seems impossible that a disease could ravage the town when there is “a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning…[and] all seemed well with the world” (61). Impossible, according to Rieux, “that a pestilence on the great scale could befall a town where people like Grand could be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities” (46-47). How could there be plague in a town whose tranquility “is so casual and thoughtless [that it] seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague” (39)? The townspeople are just like all other humans in that they “disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind. A bad dream that will pass away…they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views” (37). Even the pragmatic Rieux tells himself, “It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end because it was unthinkable, or, rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines” (40-41).
Oran, where the plague takes place, is both a singular place and a stand-in for the universal. Critic Irene Finel-Honigman writes of how Camus’ cities impose their own personalities and attributes upon its denizens. Oran is “not in coordination with nature; it is a city which has denied its natural boundaries with the sea and has, therefore, destroyed an essential communion.” It is a living entity, “an enclosed microcosm of the modern urban society where nature is denied and forgotten.” There the people begin to physically decay from the plague as the city itself decays—commerce dies, silence reigns, people live by the caprices of the weather and the microbe. All modern transportation and communication stop and it “becomes a prison world, an unreachable limbo to which all it inhabitants are sentenced.” Finel-Honigman concludes that “the transformation of Oran from a neutral, indifferent city to a victimized, closed, and occupied city becomes the underlying theme in the narrator’s chronicle. Indifference gives way to gradual awareness as the plague invades all neighborhoods and affects all citizens regardless of race.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the aforementioned quote, The Plague is often read as an allegory for fascism’s spread. Camus himself refused to countenance such a claim that he’d written an allegory but admitted the novel was affected by the Nazi occupation he lived through. Critic Macs Smith suggests that focusing on the disease and not the epidemic is the wrong way to read the novel, and that the latter is more appropriate and able to uphold the analysis of the novel as “about” fascism: “An epidemic is marked by its effect on political life. The plague might originate in a bacterium, but its causes and effects are human.” Camus looks beyond the single disease “to a more fundamental kind of sickness.”