Summary of Part Two
Once the town gates are shut, everyone is in the same boat and cannot pretend that business will go on as usual. This leads to a state of deprivation. Supplies and activities and movement are restricted. Lovers and family members will become separated, both those at a distance who may not come to the town under quarantine, or family members in the same town who may not associate with the sick. This is a shock, for the narrator admits all are “duped by our blind faith in the near future” (p. 68). Many, at first, try to petition for special circumstances to leave town or to have visitors. All are denied. Even letters and phone calls are not allowed. Only telegrams can be sent, and the messages are too short to convey feelings.
Frustration becomes a natural state as no one knows how long the plague will last. They can only live for the day. The people are prisoners, but they consider the situation a temporary accident. They try to keep up appearances, even though rationing is in force. People still frequent cafes and the picture shows, though they have to watch the same movies over and over.
The clerk Grand's story is told. He married a poor girl, Jeanne, whom he loved, but unfortunately, Grand was shy and could not express his love to her. He worked hard, like many husbands: “you work so hard that it makes you forget to love” (p. 82). He has nothing to say to her, and she leaves him. Grand loses faith in himself and in life and always mourns his lost wife.
Raymond Rambert, the Paris journalist, visits Rieux, hoping to get a certificate of good health from him so he can leave and go back to Paris to his new bride. He is in love and cares nothing for plague. It is an accident that he was caught in Oran, he says. Rieux says he cannot give the certificate because he does not know if Rambert has the plague or will come down with it. Rambert accuses the doctor of not caring about people.
Five hundred people a week are dying, and though Rieux sees the justice of Rambert's desire to go to his wife, he has to do his duty. There are now auxiliary hospitals, and Rieux works around the clock with the victims, lancing their buboes (swollen glands) and injecting serum. He is most exhausted in dealing with the families who refuse to let their loved ones go to the hospital, knowing they will never see them again. After many scenes, the doctors are accompanied by the police who forcefully remove the sick and put the other family members in quarantine. The doctor soon becomes numb and indifferent in his fatigue.
Meanwhile, Father Paneloux preaches a special sermon on the plague during the Week of Prayer. The priest says God is trying to get their attention. It is a punishment for sins. Instead of comforting the people, the sermon marks the beginning of widespread panic. People try to escape the gates that are fortified by guards who shoot. Rambert continues to see all the officials in town to make a deal for himself.
A heat wave brings a rise in deaths to one hundred a day. The town becomes lawless, with more police in the streets. No one is allowed to swim in the sea. People begin to try superstitious remedies to avoid plague. They spend heavily and the young still parade in the streets in a reckless mood of seeking pleasure. Instead of going towards God, they go towards trivial distractions. The plague changes and becomes pneumonic, now affecting the lungs.
Tarrou visits Rieux and suggests organizing a volunteer corps to help the doctors. Rieux replies that it would be a danger to the workers. Tarrou argues that men should be given a chance to do something noble. Rieux admits he does not believe in God; he is fumbling in the dark trying to relieve suffering. Tarrou organizes his sanitary squads whose members risk their lives to serve the community. Old Dr. Castel begins working on a plague serum, and Grand continues keeping the plague records. Grand, Rieux, and Tarrou become friends and spend their evenings together. Rambert continues to try to get out of town, now meeting with Cottard, who seems to have underground ties with smugglers who are making money on getting illegal goods into town.
Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert have an argument on human nature, with Rambert saying that love is the greatest ideal. He will risk everything for his love. Rieux tells him “there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency” (p. 163).Rambert gives in and offers to help Dr. Rieux until he can get out of town.
Commentary on Part Two
Characters are compared and contrasted in their motives, ideals, and ways of reacting to the crisis. The narrator brings home the hopelessness of the situation, as communication is cut off. Loneliness sets in. There is a “sensation of a void within which never left us” (p. 71). People suddenly reflect on the ones they love and find their love “has never risen about the average” (p. 75). At this stage, most are caught up in the egoism of their own situations, like Rambert, who does not believe he has anything to do with Oran's trouble and wants to get back to his wife. We hear about Grand's failed marriage because he was unable to express his love to his wife. The narrator brings in a bit of comedy with Grand's shy confession he is trying to write a love novel to get his wife back. He is stuck on the first sentence which he keeps rewriting. He wants it to be perfect. Rieux is separated from his wife who is ill and dying, yet he works unsparingly to fight the plague and relieve suffering whether or not it is a losing battle. Tarrou comes in as an unlooked for support to Rieux, organizing volunteers to help out. This is a dangerous mission, and as Rieux tries to explain, it may not be heroic, but it is a decent thing to help one's fellow humans in distress.
Rieux is contrasted to Father Paneloux who preaches on the meaning of the plague as God's punishment for sins. Rieux says he does not believe in God. He does not have time to think about it; he has to act. Everyone seems to trust Rieux and confides in him. Tarrou is attracted to Rieux as an example of the best of human nature. His diary is a search for answers to his many questions on how to live. The doctor seems to act nobly without illusions. Tarrou thinks most humans have the ability to be unselfish, but they often act in a selfish way out of ignorance. Rambert is the character who is most obviously converted from a purely selfish point of view to a broader perspective of the common fate of humanity. Cottard is the closest to an “evil” person, wholly concerned with making money on the plague by being a smuggler. He is hiding from a crime and rejoices in the plague.
Text: Camus, Albert, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International Books, 1991.