The Plague

The Plague Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Motif: Weather

Oran is an intense place, full of blazing sun, torrential downpours, heavy humidity, howling winds, and tempestuous seas. The weather governs the citizens' moods, emotions, and movements, and Camus often uses it in order to enforce the drama of a scene or the mood of the city. Paneloux's sermons are accompanied by storms while Rieux's evening walks are eerily silent but for the sound of the plague in the susurration of the wind.

Allegory: Fascism

The novel is often read as an allegory for fascism, chronicling the way in which the "disease" of the ideology ebbs and flows in history, taking hold in insidiously subtle fashion and infecting nearly all who come in contact with it. Almost impossible to resist, it forces those in its milieu to either ignore it, embrace it, or resist it—all responses that may bring death and will certainly bring despair.

Symbol: Rats

Rats are commonplace creatures, many in number, similar to each other, and marked by both cleverness and crassness. In the novel, they begin dying in ignominious fashion, crawling out into the street to bloodily expire. The number of the dead increases. Their death cries fill the streets. They are harbingers of what is to come, but they also symbolize the people themselves. The people will also die in great numbers, filling the streets with their cries and filling up the morgue and the cemeteries with their bodies. The people lose all sense of singularity, of memory and history; they are no different than animals, subject to the whims and vicissitudes of a callous nature.

Symbol: The Othon Boy

When the Othon boy is dying, Rieux is struck by this aspect of the scene: "the child lay flat, racked on the tumbled bed, in a grotesque parody of crucifixion" (215). Camus has the boy symbolize Jesus, another innocent sacrificed. The boy has committed no sins, as Jesus did not, yet dies nonetheless. Both deaths galvanize their "followers," forcing them to come to terms with God, the meaning of life, and wherein possible salvation lies.

Symbol: Water

When Tarrou and Rieux go for an evening swim in the ocean, there are heavy overtones of baptism. The water is calming and cleansing to them; they delight in being free from the town and the plague and their cares. When they emerge, they are refreshed and rejuvenated, their friendship sealed and their souls given a needed reprieve.