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Changed Perspectives from Threat of Imminent Death,
This review is from: The Plague (Vintage International) (Paperback)
The Plague is about love, exile, and suffering as illuminated by living around death. What is the meaning of life? For many, that question is an abstraction except in the context of being aware of losing some of the joys of life, or life itself. In The Plague, Camus creates a timeless tale of humans caught in the jaws of implacable death, in this case a huge outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria on the north African coast. With the possibility of dying so close, each character comes to see his or her life differently. In a sense, we each get a glimpse of what we, too, may think about life in the last hours and days before our own deaths. The Plague will leave you with a sense of death as real rather than as an abstraction. Then by reflecting in the mirror of that death, you can see life more clearly.
For example, what role would you take if bubonic plague were to be unleashed in your community? Would you flee? Would you help relieve the suffering? Would you become a profiteer? Would you help maintain order? Would you withdraw or seek out others? These are all important questions for helping you understand yourself that this powerful novel will raise for you.
The book is described as objectively as possible by a narrator, who is one of the key figures in the drama. That literary device allows each of us to insert ourselves into the situation.
Let me explain the main themes. Love is expressed in many ways. There is the love of men and women for each other. Dr. Rieux's wife is ill, and has just left for treatment at a sanitarium. Rambert, a journalist on temporary assignment, is separated from his live-in girl friend in Paris. Dr. Rieux's mother comes to stay with him during his mother's absence, so there is also love of parent and child. The magistrate also loses his son to the plague after a desperate battle. Separations occur because of the quarantine on Oran, which causes love to be tested. What is love without the other person being present? The characters find that their memories soon become abstractions. But they reach out to establish new love with each other. Tarrou, who is also caught in Oran, decides or organize a volunteer corps to help with the sick and dead. Rambert decides to stay in Oran to help after having arranged to escape the quarantine. The survivors find succor in increasing closeness with each other. Rieux and Tarrou become close, almost like brothers. Even Rieux's patients become people with whom he develops an emotional bond, even though the waves of death become an abstraction as he can do little to avert them. The priest figure also helps to explore the notion of love for God and God's love for us. The exile theme is reinforced by the quarantine. People cannot leave Oran. The disease itself causes that exile to become worse. If someone in your household becomes ill, each well person has to be quarantined. So you may be living in a tent in the soccer stadium wondering what is happening to the rest of your family. Cottard is a criminal who is on the run from the authorities. He is in despair as the plague begins, and tries to kill himself. The distractions of the plague keep the authorities from troubling him, so the period of the plague is an exile from his criminal past.
Suffering is easy to explain. Bubonic plague came in two forms in the book. Both brought painful and rapid death, with few reprieves. There is high fever, painful swelling or difficulty in breathing, and enormous pain. Those who tend the suffering also suffer, from the enormous workloads, the sense of futility, and the fear that they, too, will be next.
Camus does a nice job of pointing out that these themes also recur in everyday life. We just don't see them very clearly. The people in Oran live in an ugly city that deliberately built itself away from the beauty of the ocean on a sun-scorched plateau plagued by winds. They take little time to enjoy each other or the ocean, because they are caught up with making money. Commerce is their passion. So they cut themselves off from love, in an exile of spirit, which causes them to shrivel and suffer emotionally even before the plague comes. Tarrou also describes is own sense of the plague in everyday life when he discovers that his father is a prosecuting attorney who helps bring criminals to the justice of a firing squad. Even that faint connection of not trying to stop the legal killing causes Tarrou to feel like he carries the plague within him.
The book is masterful in its use of metaphor. In the beginning, dying rats and small animals presage the plague attacking humans. At the end, their return presages the return of normal life to Oran. The scenes alternate between illuminating the main themes in the context of the physical plague and the emotional plague. Religion is used as a bridge between the two, raising the fundamental question about what God's purpose is in unleashing the plague. The priest is fully tested in his love of God through this development, which is one of the most moving parts of the book.
I have read the book both in French and in English, and found this translation to be a perfectly appropriate one. There are few nuances that you will miss by reading this in English. Obviously, if you read French well, you should read the book in its original form.
This book is an excellent example of why Albert Camus was named a Novel Laureate in Literature.
After you read this great novel, I encourage you to consider the subject of complacency. That's the author's ultimate target. Where are you complacent in ways that cost you love, closeness with others, and happiness? What else is complacency costing you? How can you help others learn to overcome complacency in loving, happy ways without the spectre of death to help you?
Enjoy a more wonderful life by refocusing on what is most important!