No antidote for Camus novel The Plague

the plague

One hundred years ago this fall philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus was born in French Algeria.

Although best known today for his work The Stranger, Camus wrote several important books, was involved in the French Resistance during World War II and was an active human rights proponent.

The second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, after Rudyard Kipling, Camus died in car crash in January 1960 at age 46, less than three years after winning the award.

One of Camus’ masterpieces is The Plague, a 1947 novel set in the Algerian city of Oran.

In Camus’ work, an outbreak of bubonic plague sweeps the coastal community, which is sealed off as a health measure, trapping hundreds of thousands for months as the death toll steadily mounts.

The Plague ponders the vagaries of fate and the conflict between man’s innate tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, even when none may exist.

The book, believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population in the middle of the 19th century following French colonization, is illustrative of Camus’ stripped-down style. 

The Santa Cruz Fort, Oran, Algeria.

The Santa Cruz Fort, Oran, Algeria.

Camus’ description of the ravages of the plague on those inhabiting the town jail – whether jailer or jailed – is both simple and brilliant: 

“The plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone, from the warden down to the humblest delinquent, was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in the prison.”

When you find a sentence that taut and powerful, it becomes readily apparent how a talented literature professor can devote an entire semester to a single book.

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3 thoughts on “No antidote for Camus novel The Plague

  1. I read Camus’ Plague again in 2004 while convalescing from surgery. Kind of grim, I admit, but I had always wanted to re-read it (since my first attempt in high school when my world focus was admittedly severely limited — even after reading about WWII and the horrors associated with that.)

    I noticed the second time around that my interpretation of Camus’ meaning was significantly different for me in the intervening years. Today, I recognize the story as an allegory, using a dearly virus running rampant in a world gone mad and man’s attempt to deal with it. The ‘virus,’ of course can be a metaphor for any of the deadly ills that we have brought upon ourselves through selfishness, greed, hatred, prejudice, moral perversion….

    The story could have been written in any age because it describes the indifference of man, his refusal to want to see the evil that exists in his midst, to take responsibility for it or to try to do anything about ridding society of it.

    Thanks for re-visiting this great book for me, CBC.

    • Alice,

      Your illusion to allegory in The Plague is interesting. Apparently, the book has been seen by many as an allegory for what happened to France in World War II, where few took the Nazi threat seriously before the invasion in 1940, people grew apathetic as the body count rose higher and, of course, their was a great celebration once the country was liberated.

      You’re on the mark when you write that the story could have been written in any age. The elements are all too common, whether we’re talking about genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago, the US government wiping out Indians in the 19th century or the way minorities were treated in the South and other parts of the nation for much our country’s history.

      And thank you for your kind words, Alice. If only we had been able to apply our understanding of the world today to the books we read in high school and college, right?

      • Yes, that would be ideal, CBC. Unfortunately, that is not the way things work. We need to “live,” to experience evil and goodness (Godliness), success and failure, joy and sorrow to gain perspective. If that journey to adulthood does not produce moral values that recognize our responsibilities to ourselves and to our fellow human beings then we become vulnerable to evil in all its forms.

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