By mid-August it is clear the plague has “swallowed up everything and everyone” (167). There is only a collective destiny, not individual; emotions of fear and deprivation prevail.
A high wind rises and fills the streets with dust and silence. The plague, once mostly centered in the outer districts, now attacks the business district. The sound of ambulances clanging is ubiquitous. The only thing people can tell themselves is that others have it worse off.
A few fires begin to break out, set by those returning home who are under the false impression that they are destroying the plague. There is a high mortality in the town jail, and prisoners and guards alike are afflicted. Guards who die begin to get a military honor, but the military objects and it turns into a “plague medal.” Monks, who are used to living in tight-knit communities, now have to go out into society to live in isolation.
A wave of small-scale revolutionary violence breaks out, with some trying to push past the guards and others impulsively giving vent to their terror and rage. Martial law is thus imposed, with a curfew and other regulations. At night when the city is in complete darkness, “Oran seemed a huge necropolis” (171), a “defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice” (172).
One of the worst things about the situation is the inability to have meaningful burials and funerals. Elaborate ceremonies are suppressed; sentiments are exchanged for efficiency. The only thing that takes people's minds off of such issues is a problem with the food supply.
Over time, coffins run out and only a few begin to be used and sanitized in between. When men and women die, they are initially thrown into separate death pits, but eventually this distinction vanishes as well. The small cemetery is soon filled, and walls are knocked down and neighboring land encroached upon to bury the bodies. Such burials often happen at night now.
All of the activities surrounding graves and burials requires labor, and such laborers die in high numbers. Yet it is not hard to find labor because for some “poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear” (176).
At its culminating point, Rieux is grateful that some of the most extreme solutions have not been used, but if there is another rise in the death rate, then “men would die in heaps, and corpses rot in the street, whatever the authorities might do, and the town would see in public squares the dying embrace the living in the frenzies of an all too comprehensible hatred or some crazy hope” (179).
The narrator rues his inability to offer something spectacular at this point—some heroic deed or feat like those in chronicles of the past. Yet the reality is that there is nothing less “sensational than pestilence” (179) and it is monotonous. It is “a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well” (180).
People seem to be wasting away emotionally and physically, with memories plaguing them but imagination failing them. All emotion seems trite; there is nothing exalted. They feel sadness and suffering, yes, “but they had ceased to feel their sting” (181). There are a few glimmers of hope in the beginning but those, as well as everything else, fade away. People live in the present moment only. It is discomfiting when one accidentally falls into planning for the future, or taking pleasure in things, only to realize how pointless it is. Such a person naturally falls back into the sloughs of despondence.
Overall, those of Oran are nondescript, just like everyone else. They “lost every trace of a critical spirit, while gaining an air of sang-froid” (183). Choices vanish, and everyone does the same thing.
Those who had stood out because they’d lost love are now no longer curiosities or privileged creatures. The calamity has hit everyone and is everyone’s business. Love persists but “in practice it served nothing; it was an inert mass within us, sterile as crime or a life sentence” (184).
For the narrator, the most potent moment comes in the early evening, when people are in the streets but are doing nothing but “marking time” and creating a “never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end” (185).
In the shortest part of the novel, the narrator describes with unfettered frankness just how consuming the plague has become. It defines every moment of people’s lives, which seem stripped of their individuality. The plague does not distinguish between rich and poor, guard and prisoner. Important rituals such as burials are indelibly altered. Emotions are blunted, the people’s movements lethargic. Occasionally they are prompted to abrupt, explosive action, such as a few would-be escapees challenging the sentries at the closed gates, but the city is more or less a “necropolis,” a silent, solemn city of the dead.
One of Camus’ most potent observations is how feeble and ill-equipped language is to convey the reality of the plague. The critic Macs Smith suggests that “Language in Oran is corrupt” and “Plague demonstrates its failure.” The Prefect and other administrators argue over what to call the disease. With the closing of the city gates, real letters are replaced by the telegram, and communication becomes trite. The professions of solidarity from the outside fall on deaf ears. The Plague Chronicle devolves from a paper intended to provide information and comfort to a peddler of quack treatments. The bulletins put out by the government are quotidian and ineffectual. Grand’s obsession over the perfect word choices for his opening line to a novel about a world of which he has no understanding is absurd and futile. Critic Edwin Moses adds, “Language seems simply incapable of conveying any sense of the ordeal of plague,” and “The sense of exile that for Camus is so basic to the human condition is in large part due to this ability to speak and be understood…the words themselves are worn out.”
Related to the conversation about the ineffectuality of language is the particular complexity of the narrative. Why doesn’t Camus just narrate it in his own voice? Why does Rieux not announce himself as the narrator from the beginning? What are the problems with his narration? Does it ultimately succeed? Moses’ article on the subject takes on these questions and more, concluding that the choices Camus made are largely the right ones. He explains how if Camus used his own voice, he’d be adopting a Paneloux-like style of lecturing. Having any external narrator is problematic, for “if the narration is to have any hope of communicating successfully, it must give the sense of having been hewn out of the plague-experience.”
As for using the “exemplary character” as narrator, Camus had to navigate specific concerns. The narrator would have to be grounded in the “common experience” and “have to be passionately involved with the townspeople.” He’d also have to be superior to them in some ways “or else he would have nothing worthwhile to teach.” Camus chose not to have Rieux use the “I” form of narration because “a narrator who is supposed to be the brother to all mankind cannot be 'I.'” He also helps the reader bridge the gap between the words and the emotional force of those words by having Rieux be an everyman struggling to tell the story. Additionally, Rieux had to not fully remain anonymous because “a narrator who merely tells of his deep commitment to his fellows will not be able to convince the reader of his emotional qualifications.”
Rieux gains the reader’s appreciation and trust due to the very fact that he is not a literary man. He makes small mistakes, such as breaking into the narrative and naively thinking he has fully disguised himself. He claims to be fully objective, which he is not, and relies on the diary of another observer. Yet through all of this he is humble and self-effacing and “is anything but a conscious artist,” meaning “his humility shines through his words, and his naïveté is transmuted into faith.” Critic David Stromberg agrees, writing that while Rieux does not always adhere to the narrative code he said he set out for himself, “he may still win the reader over in part because the limited derivations from this narrative ‘program’ do not on the whole detract from his emphasis on, and compliance with, that program’s principles: solidarity and the suppression of the personal 'I.'”