Plague and Death
The plague is personified throughout the book as a terrible opponent, stronger than humans, or even the forces of heaven. Its scale is attested to in the metaphors of the whole town being in a fever, and the town being a “huge and alien lazar house” (II, p. 74). Sunset settles on the town like a “red winding-sheet” (II, p. 121). Oran becomes a “huge necropolis” or city of the dead (III, p. 171). It seems like a “lost island of the damned” (III, p. 168). The buildings are “huge, inert cubes” in “lifeless squares” presenting the face of a “defunct city” (III, p. 172).
Father Paneloux speaks of the plague as a giant and random “flail” of death swung by God over the town (II, p. 97). He calls it a scourge of God's enemies, as in the case of God sending a plague to the Pharaoh of Egypt. This is the way Father Paneloux tries to make the plague related to God, but other metaphors give the plague a mind of its own. The plague plays “tricks” “diverting attention” from its seriousness (II, p. 75). It fools people by making them think they will recover and then it attacks more fiercely. It is not controlled by anyone. It constantly shifts in its symptoms and place of breaking out. Because of the swollen glands that make the limbs stretch out, the victims die “in a grotesque parody of the crucifixion” (IV, p. 215). The plague lives on the lives of animals (the rats) and humans: “the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone” (III, p. 167). It is a monster that breaks up families and creates isolation, loneliness, and despair. Loved ones cannot be together at the moment of death, and the corpses are shoveled first into individual graves, then mass graves, and finally cremated by truckloads.
The plague first comes from animals, and they are the first victims. Thousands of dead rats in the streets are the first portents of the disease. The rats had been in sewers and hidden, but they are the symbol of the corruption in the town that is becoming sick: “It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails” (I, p. 16).
Several characters are compared to animals or obsessed with animals. The old man who abuses cats by spitting on them from the roof soon has no diversion as the cats disappear in the plague. Tarrou observes in his diary a strange family in his hotel where the father looks like “a well brought up owl” while his wife is “a black mouse” and the boy and girl are “dressed like performing poodles” (I, p. 28). For Tarrou most people are ignorant and unthinking animals, totally unaware of their precarious situation in life. The owl father is outraged by having a dead rat in a three star-hotel. He treats his family as if they have no feelings, and they respond to his aggression as poodles and mice.
The unpredictable criminal Cottard is compared to a wild boar, and one of his underground contacts is referred to as “Horse-face” (II, p. 148). Rambert the reporter is a caged animal trying to burst out of the city. The city is compared to a snail facing the sea, condemning the people to a slow, listless death. Sometimes the plague turns people into animals whose hands form claws and bestial screams are forced from them. They do not die in human dignity. The animal metaphors show the unconscious behavior of people who are progressively further dehumanized by the plague. In picturing the dead bodies being thrown into quicklime, the narrator says the only difference between a man and a dog is that the death of a man is recorded.
The people of Oran are shown doing battle with the plague. Cottard taunts, “The plague has the whip-hand of you and there's nothing to be done about it” (II, p. 157). Rambert “fought to prevent the plague from besting him” (II, p. 139). People, however, become “prisoners of the plague” (II, p. 70). Rieux discusses with Tarrou whether it is better to “struggle with all our might against death” and refuse to appeal to a God who sits in silence? (II, p. 128). He calls his fight with the plague “a never ending defeat” (II, p. 128). Father Paneloux calls the plague a red spear wielded by God pointing the way to salvation, a paradox that allows him to give God the upper hand in the battle. This implies, however, that the plague is God doing battle with humans. The only thing humans can do is “fight the plague” to save as many as possible (II, p. 133). The plague stops all progress and activity, dictating new and hopeless patterns. The cars move in circles because they are not allowed to leave town. The ships cannot leave harbor. The same movies play over and over. The waiting room at the train station becomes a metaphor of the life of the people who wait but can go nowhere. Movement is random and purposeless, and people drift. Even when the plague finally leaves, Rieux gives it the victory. So many are dead it is like “the last disastrous battle that ends a war and makes peace itself an ill beyond all remedy” (V, p. 290).