Is The Plague the greatest novel of the second half of the twentieth century?
I’m not sure, but the 1947 existentialist classic by Albert Camus is entertaining and powerfully written. And these days, it’s got special appeal, which is why sales of the book have skyrocketed since the pandemic hit.
Camus Knew What Environmentalists Want to Ignore
Environmentalists have claimed that unsustainable modern development along with accelerating climate change has made pandemics more likely.
Cutting down trees and destroying habitat for such wildlife as the pangolin, a species of anteater that may have been the source of the novel coronavirus in China, puts such animals in closer touch with humans and makes it easier for future diseases to jump across species. Weird weather from climate change can accelerate the migration of species. And frequent air travel makes it quicker for epidemics to spread around the world and become pandemics.
It’s certainly plausible to conclude that the sins of modern economic growth may have played a role in major outbreaks of the 20th and 21st centuries, from the Asian Flu of 1957-1958, to the start of AIDS in 1981, to H1N1 in 2009.
But it’s wrong to cast too much blame on modern life as the cause of the coronavirus pandemic or any epidemic. Widely spread disease outbreaks were a recurring feature of human life long before bulldozers started taking down rainforest in China or business travelers started carrying viruses across the Pacific at the speed of frequent flyer miles.
A short list of the greatest hits of epidemic history will feature the Plague of Athens in 430 BC, the Antonine Plague of 165 AD, the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD, the Black Death that started in Europe in 1346, the numerous plagues that hit the New World during European conquests of the 16th century, the Great Plague of London in 1665, the Philadelphia Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793 and the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-1920.
You could say that Camus predicted Covid. But he was not some kind of Nostradamus of epidemiology. After a study of plagues from the past, he simply concluded like a good humanist that there would always be pandemics.
Solving environmental problems and reducing air travel may reduce the chance of global disease outbreaks in the future. But it’s hubris to imagine that anything modern science and environmental protection can do will ever protect humanity from any future pestilence. Despite all our technology and wealth, humans remain a frail species unable to escape Death the Great Leveler much better than our naked ancestors could. Camus knew that too.
More importantly for us, Camus predicted that people who should have known better would always be caught by surprise when the next outbreak hit.
Scoundrels and Heroes in Quarantine
The novel’s setting in the coastal city of Oran in Algeria, at the time still under French colonial rule, stands in for almost anyplace under quarantine.
You know something’s wrong when the rats start coming out, and dropping dead, foaming blood at the snout. Yet, nobody wants to use the word “plague” and the authorities are careful not to alarm the populace. But when all the rats are dead, people start to drop in the streets, hot with fever. When the ill start to sprout buboes, swollen lymph nodes in their armpits and groin, it becomes harder and harder to pretend that the culprit is not bubonic plague. As the pestilence spreads, on the day the death toll reaches 30, the Prefect receives a telegram: “Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.”
Trapped in a quarantine whose end is not in sight, citizens go through all the first stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining and depression — before they finally reach the acceptance that while the disease rages, almost everything is different, and we just don’t know when, if ever, things will go back to normal.
The message of The Plague is that you should resist, even if resistance proves futile.
Whatever new serums doctors develop and administer to the sick, the plague still kills two out of three people it touches. Isolation for the infected and quarantine for their families may slow the spread of contagion, but nobody knows for sure if public health measures actually do any good. Despite the best efforts of experts and dedicated volunteers alike, the pestilence rages on for months, piling up corpses until mass graves are full and crematoria must be fired up.
Resistance to the plague is not about success but rather the nobility of the attempt.
Camus depicts two paths of resistance that diverge. Characters who look out only for their own benefit, for example by trying to flee the closed city or trading on the black market, come out as morally deluded. It’s only the people who join the community effort to save lives and reduce suffering who put up the kind of resistance that makes life worth living in a time of plague.
That’s a big lesson for the people in today’s pandemic who are insist on looking out for their own freedom by refusing to wear masks or continuing to gather in groups in person. But they’re probably not reading Camus anyway.
For doctors and nurses, service workers who can’t stay home, and everybody else who risks their life to help others and keep society going, Camus would offer a nod of approval.
Of course, as with all things good or ill, the plague has its end. Just as suddenly as it arrived in the spring, by January the disease begins to disappear. New cases drop by the week. Finally, in one agonizing day the last man fights and loses his own personal battle against the infection.
And then it’s over. The authorities open the city gates, trains pull back into the station and ships call again at the port, loved ones are reunited, people take stock of their losses and mourn the dead, and everybody who’s left pops a bottle of champagne.
Celebrate and Forget
At the end of the book, amidst general rejoicing and a sense of relief, Camus reminds the reader that plague will be patiently waiting in the shadows to return some day.
As he listens to cries of joy from his fellow citizens, the narrator remembers “that such joy is always imperiled.”
He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
Take this literally or take it as a metaphor. Epidemics come and go. But even if it’s been so long since the last outbreak that it seems like ancient history, modern civilization is never too advanced to avoid the ancient visitation of disease. And when it comes again, you can count on everybody acting as if it had never happened anywhere ever before.
At the same time, we don’t need to wait for the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis, or the novel coronavirus for that matter, to infect our hearts with the corruption that any of us may carry if we are not vigilant.
As one of the novel’s most enigmatic characters, Tarrou, explains, we all suffer from a figurative plague of thoughtless cruelty if we just live our lives for our own sake and fail to see all people as our fellow humans and work to resist the injustices that afflict them.
“To make things simpler, Rieux, let me tell you that I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here,” Tarrou explains to the book’s narrator. “Which is tantamount to saying, I’m like everybody else. Only there are some people who don’t feel it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know and want to get out of it.”
For Tarrou, the plague is a condition of moral blindness that allows ordinary people to treat other people as objects, to allow fellow citizens to suffer violence, discrimination and persecution. In the midst of fighting a bacterial plague, Tarrou seeks to inoculate himself against this moral plague, a more dangerous foe.
“That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done.”
This 10-minute video explainer on The Plague from the School of Life is well worth watching: