The Plague: Theme
The Human Condition
The terrible year of the bubonic plague in Oran becomes an allegory of the human condition itself. The plague is only a more visible manifestation of the conditions humans live under all the time. People in general disbelieve in pestilence, which is not “a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away” (I, p. 37). The response of the people to plague is the denial of evil, or the denial that things are out of human control. In fact, life does not conform to human wishes. People are caught off guard as they are in war or any overwhelming circumstance that threatens life. Death and misfortune can strike the innocent, the guilty, children, and adults by chance. This condition of mortality “rules out any future” (p. 37).
One result of the plague is separation of loved ones, through death or quarantine. It is as though everyone is alone, under some cosmic quarantine. Loneliness and separation become the way most people live, as in the case of M. Grand. To the thinking person, there is no God looking out for the welfare of the masses: “each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned . . . sapp[ed] them to the point of futility” (II, p. 75).
Life appears random. Like Rambert, people declare they are innocent and that there is some mistake. They do not deserve plague or quarantine or bad fortune. But there is no appeal, for all are in the same boat. Rambert at first believes he is special, and finally, he must give in to his common humanity. The worthy are not rewarded and the evil are not punished. During the plague, Cottard thrives with his criminal activities, while an innocent child dies. This view of life is usually labeled as “existentialism,” though Camus denied the label. Existentialism is a philosophy that describes the powerless state of humans in a meaningless world.
In such a situation as a war or plague, ideals and philosophies do not help. Each must act as he or she can. Rambert for a long time believes he has free will and can act heroically to get out of his predicament, but Rieux accepts from the beginning that life is unjust; he does not expect miracles or favors. Humans live with “that sensation of a void within which never left us” (II, p. 71). This emptiness and lack of connection to any code or explanation that gives relief is the human condition. Rieux tells Rambert, “I know it's an absurd situation, but we're all involved in it, and we've got to accept it as it is” (II, p. 86).
Though humans seem to be the pawns of chance, knocked about by fate and other people, they have the capacity for love and unselfish concern for others. In the story, we are shown romantic love, married love, family love, and love for humanity. Even during plague conditions, the young are out in the streets, attracted to one another, believing that their romances are charmed and their love immortal. Rambert, the newly married man, argues with Rieux about the nobility of his heroic attempt to escape to be with his wife. Love is surely the one noble emotion to stake one's life on.
Rieux, the doctor, is pledged to heal and to public service. It is ironic when Rambert accuses him of having no heart for lovers, because Rieux is all heart. He drives himself day and night to care for the dying, not as a machine, but with an appreciation of the life in others. He notes the individual characteristics of those around him and deals with their cases with the wisdom he has learned from wide acquaintance of human nature. He rarely condemns someone, not even the selfish Cottard. Rieux understands the toll on the spirits of the citizens, separated from those they love, helpless to do anything to save the lives of wives, children, or parents. Rieux, as contrasted to Rambert, does not try to leave town to attend to his own wife who is dying. He may have saved her life and yet he stayed to care for the plague victims. This is a love that goes beyond personal considerations. Rieux loves the life in others as well as in himself.
Rieux says the plague becomes a measure of love, for all suddenly become aware of where their love had fallen short: “we reconcile ourselves more or less easily to the fact that ours has never risen above the average” (II, p. 75). The most noble love is shown to be for the whole of humanity, for all people, rather than one's chosen. Even the magistrate, M. Othon, becomes ennobled by the death of his child, to turn to the poor, and return to the quarantine camp voluntarily to serve others and to give his life for them. The sacrifices made by Rieux, Grand, Tarrou, and others are held up as the kind of love that makes humans distinctive and triumphant over all circumstance.
Awareness vs. Sleep
Tarrou tells Rieux “we all have the plague” (IV, p. 252). All humans suffer from the external violence of nature in the form of death, and their own internal violence in which they knowingly or unknowingly contribute to the deaths of their fellow humans. Tarrou does not claim to be innocent, and he knows “I'm not qualified to pass judgment” (IV, p. 253). He can only pledge “we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment” we cause harm to others. He is in exile from society because he refuses to kill in the name of religion or society. He declares a new morality of awareness: “The good man . . . is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention” (IV, p. 253). Tarrou wants inner peace and finds it through sympathy with others; he wants to become a saint without believing in God. It is better to be on the side of victims, he thinks, than on the side of the pestilences. He comes to see it may even be better to be a healer like Rieux. Tarrou's idea of sainthood involves not only sympathy but awareness. Most people are asleep out of ignorance of what is going on around them. They are creatures of habit. They do not want to know very much: “The town was peopled with sleepwalkers” (III, p. 183). They do what society demands without thinking. They believe they have free will but do not really.
Tarrou and Rieux discuss how the plague can either put people to sleep even more, or it can wake them up. Rieux says, “What's true of all the evils of the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves” (II, p. 125). The aware and sympathetic person does not contribute to death but instead acts to enhance life for everyone. Rieux admits that he does not exactly know how to do this. He is not trying to be a hero. He is “fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out” (II, p. 126).
Tarrou and Rieux are the most aware and honest characters in the book, and their conversations are the crux of what Camus wants to convey about the human condition. It must be faced open-eyed, and one must try to stay awake enough not to contribute to evil but to the common good. Though the priest Paneloux also wants to help, he does so with platitudes and doctrines that fail to solve problems. The narrator concludes that “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding” (II, p. 131). Tarrou says his moral code is “Comprehension” (II, p. 130). Even though the narrator finds humans more good than bad, their ignorance is their downfall: “there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness” (II, p. 131).