Albert Camus — The Plague

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.

One of the sentences in The Plague that really struck me, though the book proves, not necessarily true even in the story itself. The Plague takes place in 1940s Oran, a bland town in Algeria, where one day is much like the last, until rats begin dying by the hundreds, gradually inciting a panic among the citizens. Officials are slow to respond and when they do, unknowingly end up exacerbating the effects of what is to come: an epidemic of the plague, first bubonic, then pneumonic. Still slow to realize the enormous gravity of the situation, the town’s officials bungle things until finally, Oran is sealed off. The townspeople are left to deal with the illness cut off from the world, with Dr. Rieux, a tourist named Tarrou, and a civil servant named Grand organizing a large portion of the efforts to combat the plague and make sure the town can survive. It is also how others are affected by the plague: Rambert, cut off from his wife, plots an escape; Cottard, a small-time criminal is suddenly everyone’s best friend.

This is a novel about many things: about exile, love, suffering, about humanity, etc. etc. Camus always seemed to be frustrated when people would try to find existentialist themes in the novel, though there are many sentences within it that can be interpreted with multiple meanings. This is one of my favorites of his, though: there are several very beautiful paragraphs amid the crushing despair of the plague’s spread; the psychological examination of how different people react to the plagues is extremely well-done. A sometimes eerie but always fascinating book to re-read. The menace of the last few sentences:

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.


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