The Plague by Albert Camus Literature Essay Example
A man is considered a perfect creature in the universe. The depth of internal human world, abilities to feel, think and make choice create the illusion of absolute freedom of the people. There is no doubt that the nature has poured boundless opportunities onto the man, but often person becomes a hostage of his or her individual emotions and thoughts. This catch is the most dangerous for humans, because it suppresses the will of men. In other words, people’s capabilities can deprive them of their freedom. It is an absurdity of the human being that is the crucial precursor for almost all events and phenomena in the life of a certain person s well as in the whole world. Such intimate conversation between the man and her or his internal personality leads to self-discovery and cognition of life and provokes a manifestation of unexpected traits generating unpredictable situations. Numerous questions that people raise in this private dialog make them face the only one really important choice between good and evil. Eventually, the question of an individual choice becomes the issue of collective importance. That is why any initiative, good and especially bad, is contagious like an infection that certainly affects all those who have weak immune systems and appear in the zone of its actions. Thus, it is no accident that Albert Camus chooses the plague disease as the main allegory in his eponymous novel in order to disclose the issues of life in the historical context of his time. This paper seeks to research the novel’s symbolism, its deep meaning through the disclosure of the personality of the leading characters, analyzing the historical background and author’s use of absurdism as an effective instrument of problem actualization.
It is hard to address the novel’s implication substantively and analyze its main figures without the understanding of the central and defining metaphor of plague. Taking into account the fact that the novel was written in the period of World War II and Nazi invasion of France, an allegory of Nazism is rather overwhelming (Vulliamy). Moreover, in Letter to Roland Barthes Camus claims that the plague “has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism…” (Purdue 9). The hint of the mentioned allegory is present in the novel’s text, too:
“There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” (Camus 18)
When the War takes place on the certain territory, everybody and everything around is defined by it. Thus, the analogy of war state can be noticed in the Camus’ novel The Plague, where all spheres of life are under the influence of the disease in Oran city. Recognizing all aspects of the threats felt with his own heart, the author wanted to reflect the atmosphere of obsession and stuffiness that his contemporaries were wrapped in the 1940s.
However, even the author’s clear explanation of the plague’s symbolism does not relieve the novel of its versatility. Nazi phenomenon is only a cumulative metaphor that consists of numerous cause-and-effect relations among human beings. All the aspects of the primary symbols – the wrong choice between good and evil, ignorance that spawned tyranny, emotional emptiness, apathy, despair and internal protest in the society – are depicted in the novel. Nazism, also illustrated as the plague disease, may be interpreted as a universal evil that anyhow exists everywhere regardless of time, because the man is its carrier. Therefore, one can see that the author fears not evil (or Nazism) in itself placing the person in front of this inexorable reality of human nature. The author’s main thought is that evil does not exist in separation from the men and, what is more important, even those who are not ill are carrying the disease in their hearts.
Camus does not leave his to attention different phenomena of the plague, such as ignorance and indifference, aloof. Moreover, Camus considers the first one as the crucial precursor of all evil: “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” (Camus, 64).
Moreover, here Albert Camus again appeals to the historical context in his novel: “…the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and, therefore, claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness” (Camus 65).
By the means of absurdism, the author emphasizes possible threats, philosophical aspects of issues and their importance for the whole humanity. Camus uses the situations of inevitability and irruption of death that aggravate men’s feelings that make people ponder and provoke appropriate responses. These different reactions and the style of behavior are based on characters’ personalities.
It is worth to admit that the novel has no certain narrator. This fact allows the reader to notice that the author wanted to be objective when depicting diverse ethical positions of his heroes. However, he did not abstain from expressing his personal considerations in the novel. Thus, numerous assertions of the novel’s leading character Dr. Bernard Rieux are accordant to the Camus’ point of view and sound as a dispassionate voice of reason in such unreasonable times. Thus, the doctor is the first person who has realized the signs and consequences of the disease. When the community refuses to name the things by their real titles and the society is afraid of panic because of the word “plague”, Dr. Rieux emphasizes:
It’s not a question of the term I use; it is a question of time…It doesn’t matter to me how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population wouldn’t be wiped out; for then it would be. (Camus, 25)
Bernard Rieux is faithfully doing his job from the first day of the epidemic, while others are considering their individuals needs and choosing the ways of life under the threat of plague. Moreover, the doctor does not exalt his activity. He rightly believes that everyone should do their work well: “I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding that original” (Camus, 62).
From these daily duties of the doctor, one can see a significant meaning of the action. It is Rieux whose example was followed by others characters. He leads them to his unshakable conviction that it is impossible to recognize the threat and not to struggle with it, even when there are no results in this resistance:
“But your victories will never be lasting; that is all.”
Rieux’s face darkened.
“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.” (Camus 63)
Even when the plague recedes, Bernard Rieux may be the one who recognizes the fleetness of success, meaning that the disease can return with all its consequences at any time. Such consideration demonstrates the farsightedness of the author and sound like a warning. Thus, the author presents the personality of Rieux as a moral compass for other characters and readers emphasizing the importance of perpetual collective resistance.
Tarrou is the first follower of Dr. Bernard Rieux. Although his convictions were not as deep and strong as those of his friend, Tarrou was highly competitive. Tarrou is one of two figures who were not the citizen of the city and were obviously consumed by the feeling of detachment. However, he to the struggle because of the understanding that the threat is facing the community. Moreover, he identifies himself as a member of this community. Tarrou initiated the creation of voluntary sanitary squads that assisted with the efforts against the plague and coordinated activities. This character is abstruse enough because of the vagueness of his internal motivation that inspires Tarrou to involve himself in the business of his not native land. Tarrou responds to Rieux’s question in the following way:
“I don’t know. My…my code of morals, perhaps.
Your code of morals. What code, may I ask?
‘Comprehension.” (Camus 66)
Rambert is another hero who does not belong to the local community. A journalist is stranded in Oran, like Tarrou, but he tries to escape from the city. He does not consider himself part of the community and strives to go home where his wife lives. Rambert participated in the Spanish Civil War. He fought on the side that lost and lost his faith in heroism. The only thing Rambert appreciates is love, as he considers that it is worth to live and die for its sake. The recognition of threat comes to Rambert almost at the end of the novel with the Phantom of diseases. It seemed that he found the symptoms of plague on his body. His comprehension was reinforced by the information about the similar situation in Dr. Bernard Rieux’s family. Rambert concludes that it is shameful to look for individual happiness in the time of collective resistance. Through the characters of Tarrou and Rambert, Albert Camus leads the readers to understanding that nobody can remain aloof the struggle despite his or her nationality, place of living and other individual circumstances.
A civil servant and aspirant novelist Grand is another character that joins the struggle later. He decides to act without any hesitation by carrying out light duties. The author does not present such position as a norm, but admits that Grand was too old for significant tasks. It sounds like a hint to the socialist maxim, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” (Cannon 12). Despite such situation, the author characterized him as a rare person who does not fear expressing his good feelings in contradiction to others inhabitants of the town.
Jesuit priest and the head of Oran Catholic fellowship Father Paneloux was the only character who refused to participate in the resistance. Through his sermons, the reader can decipher the thought that the plague is the punishment for Oran citizens for their worldly sins:
“Yes, the hour has come for serious thought.
You believed some brief formalities, some bendings of the knee, would recompense Him well enough for your criminal indifference.” (Camus 47)
It is Father Paneloux who speaks about the good side of the plague. He emphasizes that at the moment of emergency people are more predisposed to serious considerations about their way of life than usual. Thus, the epidemic of the plague is a good opportunity for people to rise above themselves.
Categorical views of Father Panleoux have been shaken after the death of Othon’s son. During his new sermon, he said that people must believe everything or deny everything, but nobody dares to prefer denial, especially the priest. That is why Father Panleoux accepted the disease as his faith and refused to participate in the resistance.
Albert Camus juxtaposes the characters of Dr. Bernard Rieux and Father Paneloux. According to Rieux:
“Panleloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that is why he can speak with such assurance of the truth – with the capital T.” (Camus, 62)
By diverse approaches to life, God and disease, the author discloses the dichotomy between science and religion which are the source of “numerous corollaries of duality, like reason and faith, empiricism and metaphysics, epidemiology and dogma, humanism and Christianity.” (Reilly 298)
The final character who chooses his own way of resistance is Cottard. His first appearance on the pages of the novel that of committing suicide. A former criminal is afraid of being arrested. Thus, this character is the only one who was happy because of the plague epidemic. Such situation delays all other important functions of municipality besides the struggle with the disease. Moreover, he continues to use the situation for his selfish purposes. Cottard is an individualist who seeks personal gain in the midst of the breakdown in social order. Obviously, in the condition of common misfortune, such position looks pernicious and anti-social.
As the reader may realize, each character has his personal vision of the problem and employs an appropriate response. However, all figures may arrive at the common truth that lays in the collective activity for the sake of communal welfare. Thus, the characters in the novel may be identified as three types: the involved, the detached, and the undecided (Cannon 10). Such distinction leads the reader to the obvious comparison between the characters’ responses and real social tendencies. Camus determines and diagnoses the primary effects of the disease. By the means of these symptoms of the illness the author reflects the social issues.
By the means of characters’ configuration, the author tries to depict the social order that existed when he lived. Behaviors, thoughts and words of the main characters of the novel are a reflection of responses of bureaucratic government, dogmatic religion, and scientific medicine. By describing the activity of Oran government, Albert Camus tried to reflect its historical ineffectiveness in the face of the threat.
Thus, the actions against the assessors were compiling, counting, and suggested declaration only on paper:
“The measures enjoined were far from Draconian and one had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public.” (Camus 16)
The primary goal was not to provide safety for the population, but to avoid panic. Therefore, the society only emphasized the ostensibility of doing something, but was far from effective measures. Apparently, the government as the social institution falls short in guiding the citizen in fighting the epidemic of the plague.
It is impossible to remain aside the author presenting the role of religion in the society. As a rule, almost all believers raise their heads forward to heaven at the crucial moment. The faith in God is a natural, significant and fundamental part of the human life. However, Camus between the lines of his novel calls everybody to understand that the answers people seek in religion are in their own souls and minds. It is enough to plunge into meditation, make efforts to analyze own actions, learn and fill the internal emptiness to avoid ignorance. Such approach cannot be called atheistic. Most likely, it provokes a rejection of “beliefs because of habit” and going to the church because religious order asks to do so. At the same time, Camus once more emphasizes the importance of spiritual, internal and emotional components of religion for the whole society.
It is religion that provokes the person to reveal his or her good sides, such as love, compassion. It awakens the high aspirations in the people that lead to important actions. Moreover, actions are the best manifestation of faith. Dr. Bernard Rieux’s words about his belief in God may create a false impression of Camus’ atheism, but he calls to the collective activity, reflecting the truth of faith. Moreover, the novel is written like a monolog. It cannot be an accident, because the conversation between the person and God takes place in the form of a monolog, which is the way to self-discovery. Such cognition happens faster when facing the irruption of death that. It is again the moment of absurdist measures.
An attentive and knowledgeable reader can easily notice the echo of medical transformations that had the place in the mid-20th century and were characterized by the fast development of technologies and instruments. These scientific advances brought a lot of changes to the field medicine, and not only practical, but also emotional. Patients became data; treatments became algorithms; hospitals became institutions; the government became the financier (Bonk 5). Therefore, the novel is a reflection of such social order.
Almost throughout the whole novel one of the leading characters Tarrou is counting the victims of the plague. An especially bright example of medical equanimity is the description of a funeral processions that became shorter and shorter with the growth of disease and finally transformed into the formality.
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The people’s “freedom” is one of the central philosophic questions in The Plague. Suddenly, Oran citizens became prisoners of their native city and were in complete dependence on the disease that determined all their actions. However, at the beginning of the novel, the author provides the reader with the hint that these people are not free until their city is under total quarantine. They live according to their habits and establish beliefs that the plague has captivated their lives much faster than the disease. The emptiness in the people’s hearts that is caused by the lack of freedom may be noticed from the first lines. The author expresses it by trying to underline the close interrelation between an individual’s internal world and the universe:
How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves, a thoroughly negative place, in short? (Camus 1)
The characters’ inner vision was so strong that people having received the evidence of the disease refused to recognize its existence. Only when the first human death occurred, the community began to realize the possible threat and its consequences:
“But other members of our community, not all menials or poor people, were to follow the path down which M. Michel had led the way. And it was then that fear, and with fear serious reflection, began.” (Camus 12)
The author’s thought that “no one ever be free so long as there are pestilences” sounds like the philosophic conclusion. Moreover, there is opportunity to reach freedom only when people achieve the extreme limit of emergency. This author’s thought provokes the reader to make an analogy between the limits and the instrument of absurdism used in The Plague. Maybe it is the only effective measure that can grasp the truth in urgent questions.
After all, one can admit that The Plague can be read and interpreted in diverse ways. Literally interpretation brings an explanation of concrete terms of a specific plague using symbolical approach that leads to the understanding of the abstract terms of mythical plague. The world community used to overwhelmingly see this novel as the chronicle of the European struggle against Nazism that was the biggest plague during his Camus’ period. Certainly, this historical context is precious heritage of the world literature. Although cruel, this lesson for the new generations may save the humanity from the repeating the same mistakes. Albert Camus puts accent on the social order in his country by presenting the leadings character. Each of them belongs to the different stratum of society and has an appropriate response to the events surrounding him. Emphasizing the things people should consider, the author discourages people from individualism, but encourages activism, at least when facing the common threat.
However, Albert Camus’ philosophy of absurdity by the means of different disclosed sides of people’s life rises actual issues of moral choice which is an extremely important phenomena for understanding human nature. This question is eternal and urgent at all times, for all representatives of society and in all emergencies. Albert Camus’ interpretation of timeless philosophical issues of life is a secret key to the sacral doors of being.