This is now the time in Oran when everyone shares the same fear, the same knowledge of exile. Some are unprepared, especially when they realize the town is locked down and they cannot leave, or those they love cannot enter. Letters are forbidden because of potential contamination, so telegrams become commonplace. Sadly, though, such messages become more and more trite. The lack of regular communication is enervating for many.
Some people do not like those they are quarantined with, while others realize how dear formerly neglected family members are. As for activity and business, the plague brings the complete opposite—weariness, lethargy. It also brings a sense of exile, as if there is a void. People wait and see, just by chance, if a train is coming, but there never is one and they sadly return to their prison.
What makes the exile hardest is not knowing when it will end. Some fix on a date in their mind but they must keep extending it. They fall into despondence and feel as if they cannot endure, but then come out of it. Life is dull and slow; the denizens of Oran “drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories” (73). They “live in company with a memory that serves no purpose” (73), for the past is tinged with regret, the present is unbearable, and the future is uncertain.
Exile is even more of a burden for those who do not live in Oran but are caught there during the plague. Such people wander the streets forlornly, stuck in their imaginations. Those parted from lovers realize they have a hard time conjuring up their lover’s face, adding to their distress.
There is also the sense of being abandoned, which adds to the futility of the situation. The sun and the rain govern their moods, their caprices. They cannot rely on their neighbors for solace, and communication seems stunted. No one is talking about the exact same thing. Language is not sufficient to convey the totality of grief and despair; all that can be used are trite, ordinary phrases.
Oran is completely cut off from the world in terms of trade as well, and the harbor and boulevards are quiet. Though such potent indicators of the plague’s presence loom, the townspeople “apparently found it hard to grasp what was happening to them” (77). They are worried and irritated, and tend to blame the authorities. The numbers of the dead do not seem to be comprehensible.
People keep going to cafes for a time, but as the Week of Prayer nears, things begin to look gloomier. Traffic and the food supply are more tightly controlled, electricity is reduced, gas is rationed, and many shops begin to close. For a time there are more people on the street as if it is holiday, and people do start frequenting movies and bars more. The changes happen so swiftly that people cannot believe they will be permanent, and thus everyone continues to focus on their personal feelings.
Cottard and Rieux meet, and Cottard as usual is full of anecdotes about people he knows who are afflicted. He himself is fit, he proclaims, and is in good spirits. This is the same day Grand tells Rieux about himself, for the first time becoming voluble when Grand points out a photo of Mme. Rieux. When Rieux says she is in a sanitarium outside of town, Grand comments that the situation is actually lucky. Grand tells his own story of marrying young and abandoning his studies for work, and the dissolution of the marriage due to growing silence, his own distraction, and Jeanne’s fatigue with her unhappiness. She left him and he cannot stop thinking about her.
Later that evening Rieux visits the hospital, and when he is leaving he encounters Rambert. They exchange pleasantries and Rambert asks if Rieux can help—he has left his wife in Paris and he misses her desperately and needs to get out of Oran. His presence here is accidental and he hopes Rieux can give him a certificate saying he does not have the plague so he can try again to get out.
Rieux is sympathetic but can do nothing. Rambert understands Rieux’s position, though he is frustrated. He claims he will find a way out somehow, and walks quickly away to the hotel where he is staying.
Rieux ponders the young man’s comment to him that Rieux lives in a world of abstractions, and decides that yes, there is a certain element of abstraction, “of divorce from reality, [which] entered into such calamities” (88). He has a thorough routine, sees patient after patient after patient with the plague, does his regular rounds, and almost collapses with exhaustion. The families of the afflicted wear him down with pleadings and screams and protests as loved ones are taken away, and as tragic as it is, it is also monotonous. Rieux knows this, knows that there is “a bleak indifference steadily gaining on him” (91). He feels he has grown out of pity because it is no longer useful; his days will be easier because of this.
The first month of the plague ends; there is a dip and then a terrible revival of the disease. There is also a dramatic sermon from Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest. The ecclesiastical authorities have prepared to use their own weapons against the plague and organize the Week of Prayer. Though Oran’s townspeople are not particularly devout, many turn out for these events. They are willing to make slight changes to their daily experiences, and will show this new devotion, but at this point in time they are still of the mind that they and their families will be spared, that plague is not “the very tissue of their existence” (93).
The day Father Paneloux takes the pulpit is one of violent rain and heavy humidity. The Cathedral is hot, stuffy, and silent. Paneloux is stocky and of medium height, has rosy cheeks and steel-rimmed spectacles, and orates with an impressive voice. He begins telling the congregation that the plague is from God. Without sparing anything, he proclaims that people think God will always forgive them, will always let them be comfortable. However, they are now learning their lesson from this evil. This is the hour for serious thought, and they must realize that this same pestilence “slaying you works for your good and points your path” (98). He gives words of consolation, and the people think he is done. Then, though, he adds something he read from an old chronicle of the Black Death about sending up a prayer of love even amidst the darkness, and he hopes they will all do so as well.
It is hard to tell if the sermon affects people—some people feel as if a punishment has been levied on them, some go about their business as normal, some try to break out of the town. This last group is compelled to some foolhardy acts because they feel like criminals.
At this time panic becomes more widespread in Oran, and it seems like there are more examples of madness. Grand and Rieux are walking one evening and observe a “lunatic at large” (101), as Grand puts it. The men grab a drink, sitting in a café as whispers permeate the night air.
Grand sighs that at least he has his literary work, and urgently confesses to Rieux that it has to be flawless—the publisher must read the manuscript and marvel at its perfection. Rieux says nothing, but listens to the eerie whispering of the plague outside.
The men leave the bar and begin walking home. Grand energetically confides in Rieux how monumental every word choice in his writing is, how a “but” and an “and” convey so many different things. He becomes a bit ashamed of his outburst, but when they reach his home he invites the doctor in to look at his manuscript.
Inside Rieux bends over the manuscript, and says he’d like Grand to read it to him. Grand is embarrassed and pleased, and confesses he is having a lot of trouble with the opening line (which is all he has actually written). He reads it: “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne” (104). He asks Rieux what he thinks, and Rieux says he’d like to hear more. There is no more, though, and Grand frets that it is only a rough draft. It does not quite hit the mark, and he could never hand it in as is.
Suddenly the men hear running outside, and see two men trying to get to the gates. Many of the townspeople are trying to escape in the evenings, and sometimes there is violence.
Rambert is still trying to get out, and has had innumerable frustrating meetings with officials who peddle their ideas and refuse to countenance the young man’s assertion that his case is special. He encounters overworked officials, liars, triflers, red-tapers, too-busy-and-too-important people, and more. All of this does keep his mind off the plague for a time, but any hopes he has of official release eventually vanish.
The next phase for Rambert is intense lethargy. He drifts aimlessly about, reading newspapers hoping for good news, and looking like “a mere shade among the shadows” (109). He stands around at the railway station even though no trains come or go. He reminisces to Rieux of Paris, which is associated with his wife.
After that downpour on the day of Father Paneloux’s sermon, the heat pummels the town with a vengeance. Discouragement settles in. The police have to deal with restlessness and violence, as it seems like discontent is on the rise amongst the citizens. New regulations are issued regarding the criminality of trying to leave the town, and there are more patrols on the street. The sense that the hot weather will worsen the plague is burdensome, as the summer is now clearly arrived. Summer would also normally bring more leisure and élan, but now there is nothing to look forward to—“plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure” (113).
Tarrou keeps his notes of the days. He mentions peppermint lozenges are gone because people think they can ward off contagion. The old man mourns the loss of cats to spit on. The hotel manager is mournful as he sighs that the tourist trade is ruined. M. Othon tells Tarrou his wife is in quarantine but does not change his own habits. As for the sermon, Tarrou thinks that at the beginning and end of a pestilence there is always room for words, but during the middle there is only silence because there is only truth. He also mentions visiting Rieux’s asthma patient, a housebound man by choice who lives a routinized existence gleefully free from interest in anything.
Tarrou’s other observations include the hour at daybreak when the victims of the night and the cries of death of the new day are quiet; it is as if plague is taking a breath. There is a new paper called The Plague Chronicle, which starts off by providing information and updates but soon becomes a vehicle merely to promote “new, ‘infallible’ antidotes against plague” (119). People begin contorting themselves to avoid others, staying only in their cars. Some people alleviate their despair by buying many things, which shows “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity” (120). People still go to restaurants (but wipe everything down assiduously), Tarrou notes, and spend money freely. In the evening when there is slightly cooler air, the mood is elevated, but that is brief.
In the early days, Tarrou explains, people clung to religion for succor, but now that the plague is entrenched they seem more apt to seek out and give into pleasure. Tarrou says he is like them in that respect, but death means nothing to him.
Rieux is happy to have his mother with him, but everything else is burdensome. The death rate is rising, the second serum from Paris is less effective than the first, and the plague is becoming pneumonic.
Tarrou visits Rieux and gets right down to his purpose. He says frankly that in about a fortnight or a month the doctor will serve no purpose anymore, and that the sanitary department is inefficient. Rieux wholeheartedly agrees. Tarrou continues that he was thinking of a sort of conscription of healthy men to help out. Rieux says this was put forth but the response was weak. Tarrou replies that he can reach out to people more effectively, and he has a plan to get helpers ready to go. He asks for official support, and Rieux gives it. He asks, though, if Tarrou has weighed the dangers.
Tarrou thinks for a minute and asks what Rieux thought of Paneloux’s sermon, and if he thinks the plague can have a good side because it opens men’s eyes. Rieux is impatient and says all ills in the world can do that but when you see the misery plague brings you would not think that line of thought. He then asks again about Tarrou weighing the consequences.
Again Tarrou is quiet and asks if the doctor believes in God. Rieux sighs that he does not know what that means, but there is a gulf between himself and Paneloux, for the latter is an academic and does not see the suffering that Rieux does up close.
Rieux stands and says they should drop the subject. Amiably, Tarrou agrees but asks why the doctor shows such devotion if he does not believe in God. Rieux replies that no one actually believes in an all-powerful God and throws themselves on Him completely, and neither does he. Tarrou asks why he is in this profession and Rieux feels an impulse to unburden himself to this eccentric man who seems very much like him. Rieux admits he entered it “abstractedly” at first but then it changed when he began to see people scream and die.
Rieux muses that it might be better for God if people refuse to believe in Him and struggle against death and not raise their eyes to Him, even if Rieux’s own victories are slight. Tarrou sees that for Rieux, the plague is nothing less than “a never ending defeat” (128). He asks what taught the doctor this, and Rieux replies, “Suffering” (129).
Tarrou and Rieux leave Rieux’s place, both on their way somewhere else. It is almost eleven in the evening, and darkness and silence fill the streets. Rieux tells Tarrou to come to the hospital tomorrow for an injection, and tells him bluntly his chances of surviving are one in three. Tarrou shrugs that one hundred years ago a plague swept Persia and the only man who survived was the one who washed the dead bodies. Rieux acknowledges that they know nothing on the subject.
Before parting, Rieux asks Tarrou why he is taking a hand in this. Tarrou says it is his code of morals, and when Rieux asks what code, he replies, “Comprehension” (130).
The narrator explains that he does not want to overstate the importance of the sanitary groups. He does not believe that callousness and apathy are the norm and such actions like this stand out. He wants to be objective as well as approving.
The people who join the squads feel like it is the only thing they can do; they see the plague as something afflicting everyone. Yes, they are risking their lives but they feel that this is a fight they must be part of. While Castel plods away at making anti-plague serum, Grand acts as a general secretary of sorts to the squads. To the narrator, Grand is “the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups” (134).
Rieux and Tarrou find comfort in listening to Grand talk about his literary project, to which he still dedicates himself even as plague rages. He provides his new options, which include “one fine morning in May” rather than the “month of May” and “glossy” for the horse. He decides he likes “flower-strewn” instead of “flowery,” but then becomes dejected because there are too many “s” sounds. Grand becomes absentminded in his real work as he deals with the sentence and the sanitary squads, and seems even more tired than Rieux. Yet he still works diligently on the plague statistics, bringing his totals up to date and using graphs and charts to present the data. He is truly an “insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal” (137). Rieux is aware of this daily effort of Grand’s, and it grates on him that the verbal comforts and lauding being sent in from outside Oran cannot encompass Grand’s efforts.
Rambert realizes that there is no means of getting out that is legal, so he begins to reach out in another way. He sounds a few waiters at the cafes, but this goes nowhere.
One night to his good fortune he meets Cottard at Rieux’s place and confesses his sadness about failing to get out. By this time Cottard is heavily involved in smuggling ventures and is making a lot of money. He tells Rambert he had his own offer to get out but he did not take it because he likes it here. He offers to help Rambert instead.
Cottard invites Rambert out for an afternoon walk. This is the hour of the day when “the plague lay low” (141) and “betrayed its presence only by negative signs” (141). The men walk down by the docks to a small café. They sit down and Cottard asks a small man who comes up to their table where Garcia is, for he wants him to know this friend of his. The small man smiles knowingly and asks if Rambert is in business too. Cottard says yes. When the man leaves after telling them to come back in the evening, Rambert asks what business, and Cottard tells him frankly that it is smuggling.
That evening they return and meet the dark and tanned Garcia. Cottard tells him Rambert has a wife in Paris and wants to get away. Garcia tells Cottard, as if Rambert was not there, that Raoul is his man and he’ll get in touch with him. Finally he says for Rambert to meet at the corner of the customs barracks in the upper town the day after tomorrow. Rambert thanks Cottard, who tells him it’s nothing and, ambiguously, maybe someday Rambert will put in a good word for him.
Two days later the two of them head to the barracks. On their way Rieux and Tarrou, driving in Rieux’s car, pause to say hello. When asked if he wants a ride, Rambert says no, he has an appointment. The doctor can tell what he means by looking at him.
A moment later, the magistrate, Monsieur Othon, walks over to them. Introductions are made. Othon sighs and asks the doctor if the epidemic will get worse. Rieux replies he hopes it will not. Tarrou asks if the magistrate’s work is more now, and he says that criminal cases are actually lessening a great deal.
After Rieux and Tarrou drive off, Rambert and Cottard see Garcia approaching. They are in a crowd of mostly women, carrying goods they want smuggled out. Armed sentries guard the gate.
Raoul, a strong and well-dressed man, then approaches. He suggests a walk, and Garcia need not come. He tells Rambert it’ll be ten thousand and for him to meet for lunch tomorrow at the Spanish restaurant near the dock. Rambert agrees.
The next day, Rambert arrives at the restaurant. There are mostly Spanish men there, and Raoul is sitting in the back. He is with another man as well, who is thin and ill-shaven with an equine face. Raoul says this man will put him in touch with two friends who will introduce Rambert to sentries. This does not mean he can leave right away, but the contacts will be set up.
Conversation is hard between them at first, but when Rambert brings up football, the horse-faced man lights up and they discuss many aspects of the sport. He says his name is Gonzalez as they bid adieu.
The next two days seem endless to Rambert. He calls on Rieux, who mentions the lack of equipment and manpower. Rambert tells him about his worries that his wife is growing older and he must be with her.
Tarrou joins them and says Father Paneloux has agreed to work with them on the squads. Rieux says he is glad the man is better than his sermon. Tarrou believes most people are, but they have to be given the chance.
On the day of the appointment, Rambert enters the cathedral and spends a few minutes there. He emerges and sees Gonzales, who tells him that the men he was supposed to meet did not show. Rambert sighs. Gonzales suggests the same place tomorrow.
Rambert follows up, and Gonzales brings two young men, whom he introduces as Marcel and Louis. They seem to be brothers. They tell Rambert their guard duty lasts a week and begins in two days, and they have to watch for the best night to get him out. There are other guards and they have to be careful.
Rambert returns to his hotel, where he encounters Tarrou, who is also staying there. Rambert invites him and Rieux to a drink at the hotel at eleven. Tarrou is doubtful Rieux will agree, but both men do indeed show up. The hotel bar is crowded with drinkers. They talk about the sanitary squads and Rambert’s plans.
The next day, Rambert goes to the restaurant but neither Gonzales nor the two men show. He is disconsolate and feels his desire for his wife blaze up. He visits Rieux to ask where to find Cottard. Rieux tells him to come tomorrow at ten thirty, for Tarrou also wants to meet Cottard there.
The next day before Rambert arrives, the men discuss various plague-related issues, such as one patient who recovered, and the need for all to apply themselves equally to the rules in town. Tarrou wonders at Cottard’s opinion that the plague suits him quite well and he does not know why he ought to try and stop it. He then says he’d forgotten—Cottard does not want it to stop because he’d be arrested. Cottard almost screams hearing this and asks who told him. Tarrou, surprised, says Cottard did. He says he and Rieux don’t care what he’s done, and for him to sit down again.
Cottard sighs and says “it” was ages ago. It was not serious like murder and was just a mistake. Tarrou and Rieux don’t press, but Tarrou chides gently for him not to “propagate the microbe deliberately” (159). Cottard protests he’d never do that and didn’t want the plague but it has made things easier.
Rambert enters. He learns from Cottard that he does not know where Gonzales is so they ought to go to the café. They go there the next day, leave a message for Garcia, and meet him the following day. Garcia says he does not know what has become of the others. Rambert realizes he will have to start over again.
He meets with Gonzales, who suggests another meeting with the young men, but they are not found. Tarrou encounters him at the hotel and is struck by his face. He and Rieux visit Rambert later, who pours them drinks and tells them that the men will not come. When they say that they might, Rambert replies scornfully that they do not see that the plague means “the same thing over and over and over again” (161).
Rambert also says he would join the campaign against the plague but does not want to risk his skin again after the Spanish Civil War. He says he will die for love but not for an idea. Rieux replies quietly that “man” is not an idea. Rambert, blazing, says it is, and they’ve lost the capacity for love.
The exhausted Rieux says he is right, but says there is no heroism in this, only common decency. When Rambert asks what that means, Rieux says doing his job. Rambert wonders if he is wrong in putting love first, but Rieux tells him he is not. Rambert muses that the two of them have nothing to lose in all this because they do not have love, and it’s easier to be on the side of angels.
Rieux drains his drink and tells Tarrou to come with him. Before Tarrou leaves, he turns to Rambert and tells him Rieux’s wife is in a sanitarium one hundred miles away.
Chagrined and impressed, Rambert rings up Rieux the next morning and asks if he can work with him until he gets out of town. Rieux pauses and says of course he can.
In Part Two, the gates of Oran are closed and the people are now trapped inside, grappling with the inconceivable reality of the plague. In the first part of the plague, people try to hold onto what seems normal—communicating with loved ones, especially if they are separated, and “strolling about the town as usual and sitting at the tables on café terraces,” (79), going to the movies, and generally acting as if they are on holiday. Even though they are reading the news, “our townsfolk apparently found it hard to grasp what was happening to them” (77). The changes they experience “had been made so precipitously that it wasn’t easy to regard them as likely to have any permanence” (80).
Eventually, though, things begin to sink in. Idleness and lethargy prevail. As summer sets in and the death rate rises, the town begins to shut down even more. While summer was usually “welcomed…in with pleasing anticipation” now “plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure” (113). People hope for an end to the epidemic, of course, but if that is not possible, a quick cure for the afflicted: the narrator mentions how the Plague Chronicle, which set out to “inform our townspeople, with scrupulous veracity, of the daily progress or recession of the disease…to publish the latest orders issued by the authorities…very soon came to devote its columns to advertisements of new, ‘infallible’ antidotes against plague” (119). And if the people cannot control the actual disease, they can divert their thoughts by pursuing pleasure, dressing lavishly, and spending money freely.
One of Camus’s most potent insights is the relationship of people to time itself—to memory, to their place within a narrative. Many like to dwell in the past but find that memory “serves no purpose” and “had a savor only of regret” (73). Others look to the future, but its opacity inflicts wounds. The future is more or less canceled, held in permanent abeyance. There is only the present, for by mid-August “the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone” (167).
Amid the narrator’s general comments on the people as a whole are the stories of individual characters: Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, Paneloux, Grand, and Cottard. Critic Eugene Hollahan has a compelling study of these main characters, considering them on a spectrum of abstraction to imagination. Both of those terms will be familiar to the careful reader of the text, for Rambert accuses Rieux of “[living] in a world of abstractions” (87) and Rieux laments the Prefect’s regulations when what is really needed is imagination. Abstraction is, Hollahan writes, “willed detachment from the common human lot,” which can only be overcome “by the development and employment of sympathetic imagination.” When one imaginatively identifies with suffering, they travel the path of sympathy and move from “isolation to communion, from detachment to involvement.” The imagination is what helps the possessor gain insights into reality, but “is also a problematical power which can lead a person astray, or which, at first, does not automatically suit every situation.”
The first category of characters are those who are completely detached, and they are “a pathetic lot.” The concierge cannot look at the situation of the rats even somewhat realistically. The old asthma patient, consumed by his habits and routines, is selfish and whining. Cottard, “most repulsive among the insulated characters,” is hiding his shameful past and essentially reveling in the suffering of others because it means he is not going to be apprehended. He becomes a smuggler and profits from the plague, and is so alienated from mankind that at the end of the novel he is removed from it after going mad.
The next category are those characters involved with humanity, who “lack the vivid, sensational appeal of those who remain detached.” Richard and Castel work dutifully in their positions, the former working so hard he eventually succumbs to the plague and the latter diligently focusing on a serum. Rieux is the best example, though, for “in no sense does he waver in his fight against the plague” and does so “without entertaining abstract hopes of victory or eschatological reward.”
The final category is those who are somewhere in the middle, and who fluctuate between detachment and involvement. There is Grand, a sympathetic failure wrapped up in his own sad life and literary endeavors. Yet he works hard on the sanitary squads, demonstrates “the indomitable will to survive,” and makes a fresh start with his manuscript and his marriage. Paneloux is another, even better example. He is very learned man who, in his first sermon, tells the people that the plague is a scourge from God and they must heed the ways they’ve sinned. Over the next few months, though, he joins the sanitary squads and witnesses the suffering of the sick, becomes closer friends with Rieux, and witnesses the horrifying death of the Othon boy. He keeps his faith, choosing not to escape into religion but to make the hard choice of accepting God even though his physical body wastes away. There is also Tarrou, the “tortured intellectual” who “demands too much of life” and whose desire to achieve sainthood “indicates his own deep tendency toward abstraction and transcendence.” He helps form the sanitary squads, assists Rieux, and suffers himself, but “is never able to resolve the divisions of his own mind so as to travel the path of sympathy to its end.” Finally, Rambert: the character whose storyline unifies the novel and who represents “the dreary struggle between each man’s desire for personal happiness and the abstractions of the plague.” He tries desperately to get out, ruing his own imprisonment in the town, and thinks mostly of his own wife. After working on the sanitary squads, befriending Rieux and Tarrou, and comprehending Rieux’s own sacrifice of love, he ultimately decides to stay, choosing involvement over detachment.