on 22 February 2014
Brilliant though the short novel The Outsider is (and for that matter The Fall too), in my view this is Albert Camus' masterpiece in which he really expands and expounds at greater length his view of the human condition, how to live with and overcome the Absurd and find meaning in purely human terms. This is a beautifully written (though sometimes a little horrifying given the nature of the threat) novel in which the narrative depth and breadth of vision approach that of Joseph Conrad at his best, which for me is a high a recommendation as you can get. The characters are believable and you grow to really care about them as together they fight the plague. It's also quite a page turner at times. In short, this is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
on 28 April 2015
Haven't read this since I studied it for 'A Level' French. A real classic of French literature which is based on a town Camus actually had lived in - the allegory of the Nazi Occupation as a plague is subtly portrayed and the characters are portrayed brilliantly.
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 Nobel 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!
The Plague is easily one of the best ten novels ever written, far surpassing even the erstwhile classic The Stranger. Whereas we examine an uncommonly cold-hearted man in a normal world in the pages of The Stranger, in this novel it is a harsh outside world which closes in on a group of fascinating characters. It is in this much more developed context that Camus' most remarkale notions of humanity, life, and existence can be fleshed out and communicated more effectively. The lessons of good, normal lives in a world gone mad are much more instructive and meaningful than the observations in The Stranger of a man gone mad in a normal world.
A word to the wise: when large numbers of rats come out of the woodwork and commence dying nasty, bloody deaths in the streets and houses, public health is in danger. In the port city of Oran, the population ignores the signs of danger and only grudgingly admits that an epidemic, a form of the bubonic plague to be exact, has taken root in their city. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, is a doctor who finally helps convince the authorities to take extreme measures in the interest of public safety and to eventually close the gates to town. Over the course of the novel, we get to observe the manner in which Dr. Rieux, his companions, and prominent men of the community react to the worsening plague and its social consequences. Dr. Rieux has just sent his unhealthy wife off to a sanitarium before the plague breaks out, and he must suffer her absence alongside the stresses of working 20+ hours a day trying to save people's lives while accomplishing little more than watching them die horrible deaths. Dr. Rieux's attempts to make sense of everything is a basic pulse of the story; an atheist, he cannot find happiness even in the plague's departure, determining that he did what he had to do in fighting the disease with all his might, yet remembering the deaths of so many friends and strangers and knowing that the pestilence could come back at any time. His friend Tarrou supplies much of the knowledge we glean about the reactions of society as a whole as month after month of isolation continues in the face of death's greedy fingers. His journal records small but important facts about all manners of men, yet he himself cannot be said to find ultimate peace. We first encounter M. Cottard after he has hanged himself and been saved before death. A criminal type yet not a bad man, his initial worries over inquiries into his suicide attempt fade away as the plague's grip on Oran tightens. He emerges from a self-imposed exile to actually become a communicating member of society; he alone seems to enjoy the plague because it makes everyone else like him, forced to live each day with the fear of a brooding, horrible fate. Then there is M. Grande, one of my favorite characters in all of literature. A simple civil service employee, he devotes himself to volunteer work computing plague statistics and the like while still continuing his fervent efforts at writing a novel. Grande's wife left him years earlier because he got too wrapped up in his work and lost the words to communicate his love for her; he began writing a novel in an attempt to find those words. With great devotion and commitment he works on his writing, determined to produce a perfectly crafted novel, one where each word is meaningful and necessary for the story--in short, one that will inspire the future publisher to introduce it to his publishing house cohorts with the phrase, "Hats off, gentlemen." After untold months of dedicated effort, Grande has yet to get the first sentence to sound exactly right; he engages all of his efforts into perfecting this one sentence, sure that the rest of the novel will fall into place after it is perfected.
These main characters are all fascinating character studies. Not all of them live to see the plague's end, but each of them struggles to find meaning in his own experience. One character continues living because that is what is required of human beings, to go on fighting for life in a meaningless world; one man seeks to become a saint of sorts by helping his fellow man fight the pestilence; another finds life after the plague to be unbearable, etc. The overriding message I was left with at the end is that life is worth living despite the arbitrary cruelties of an unforgiving world because there is more good in man than there is evil. I found that the book delivered in fact a rather darkly uplifting celebration of the human spirit; one's loved ones give life its meaning in a hostile world. The Plague succeeds in ways The Stranger never can because the characters in this novel are utterly human and represent diverse aspects of the lives of each of us.
on 18 January 2013
In short, a city is subject to plague and isolates itself resulting in many reactions among its populace both to the isolation and the random unpredictable injustice of the disease, but through it all groups of diverse people band together to fight on despite the fact that, as one character notes, "victories will never be lasting".
We readers meet a fascinating 'cast' of characters who reveal ever more about themselves, and in reflection about ourselves, under the pressures of the plague. From the admirable and compelling characters of Rieux and Tarrou, the transformation of Rambert, to the pitiful character of Cottard and the various other characters we see a broad spectrum of people that on the whole reminds us that there is more to admire about humanity than to dislike.
It is this pulling together in the face of an unpredictable adversary that underlined, for me, the "take home" lesson of the novel. Never sure of any final victory against nor escape from the plague most people choose to fight it anyway, to work together rather than against each other.
There is much written about The Plague as an allegory relating to the occupation of France in WW2 and of the symbolism. Many will read it because they are to do so as part of a literature course but I would recommend it anyway - it reads well and is thought provoking and interesting, well written (well translated anyway!) and if you don't know the outcomes then it does make one want to find out what happens to the various characters.
A great book indeed and one I am very glad I have read!
As a proper young existentialist, I read this in high school and loved it as a statement on the meaninglessness of life. But when I returned to it nearly 30 years later, this time in the original language, I felt a far deeper sense of awe at the characters and their interactions, all of which lead to their growth, even if in sorrow. WHile their dilemma is something I will probably never experience, I identified strongly with the characters and their philosophical dilemmas, this time as a middle-aged man whose life course is set and who has his own family and love. The French is spare, but utterly clear, giving the book a mournful texture in its North African context.
The book is so rich that I do not believe one can pin down or define the principal themes: we all interpret it from the perspective of ourselves and where we stand at the time that we read it and they are ever changing. I believe that that is what defines a true classic: it is universal yet endlessly reflects back to the reader's subjectivity.
on 27 September 2014
You can read this as a gripping page-turner or as an exposition of Existentialism. In either event or both, it's highly recommended. Camus writes well, managing to evoke the real feel of old Oran under French rule. Most highly commended. If you like this, try 'L'etranger' by the same author.
The Plague is probably Camus's greatest novel, a wonderful allegory of the Nazi occupation during World War II- it extends its philosophies from Myth of Sisyphus/The Outsider towards a more interesting realm of existentialism- thus, The Rebel is a companion to this text (and would result in the big fall out with Sartre).
As with his other works, this is seemingly simple, perfectly written and completely engaging- as with Kafka's The Castle- a timeless work. In the 3rd paragraph alone he decries the existence we would call the free market (work to shop etc) and thus predates books like Fight Club in that theme. The way this book builds is brilliant- tying in with Bergman's The Seventh Seal: death always there and unavoidable, it chooses its victim with a vague bias...
I don't know if existentialism is out, or whether Camus is in- what I can say is that he is a great writer- much greater than the secondhand associations with pseud's like The Manic Street Preachers- who quote him frequently, as if his genius could sink in by association (though to be fair Scott Walker, The Fall The Cure & Echo and the Bunnymen have made great stuff Camus-inspired). This is one of the most interesting approaches to World War II in cultural form- something that most people now only know through Hollywood entertaiment such as Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor (sic) & Schindler's List.
The Plague is one of the great novels of the 20th century and a book that is more than welcome in this new edition (and both introduction and translation make this a much sounder purchase than the budget edition a pound or so cheaper).
on 7 July 2016
In the town of Oran, rats begin to appear - in the houses, in the streets and scrabbling around the dustbins. But the creatures bring with them a deadly plague that consumes and contaminates the population, forcing them into their beds, to the hospitals and finally the morgue. The central character, Dr Rieux, strives in his own way to make a difference, to combat the medical and psychological effects of the disease. With the aid of a few friends, he observes how each individual responds in different ways - with fear, isolation and apathy, while others surrender themselves to whatever is to become of them.
There's no plot as such, and much of the book focuses on the organisational aspects of dealing with an outbreak, such as collecting the dead rats, arranging beds for the sick and dying, and placing the town under quarantine.
Although there are some beautifully written passages in 'The Plague', the characters are generally a little wooden and don't really do much to promote themselves to a hopeful reader. Much of the dialogue is tedious and I was often distracted by a text that would have benefited from a bit of editing (though this may have been more to do with the translation).
So, on the whole, I found it a bit of a slog and I'm afraid the only thing I felt on finishing it was relief. Sure, it's interesting and thought-provoking, particularly if you take on board the apparent allegory of the French struggle under the Third Reich, however, there was a cholera epidemic in Oran in 1849, which resurfaced several times (to a lesser extent) after the turn of the century, and as Camus knew about this, who's to say what the real story is?
If you're into existentialism and absurdist ideas, maybe this one will do it for you. I'm sure I'll dip into the work of Albert Camus again, but he's no longer at the top of my reading list.
on 24 September 2014
I wanted to like this novel - I really did. But I found the story clinical and unstimulating. It focused far too narrowly on the civic aspects of a plague - how to shut down a town, how to set up hospitals, how to police the masses, etc. There's no plot to speak of - just the actions of a few key characters who are supposed to represent human archetypes e.g. "the one who only wants to help others", "the one who only wants to help himself", "the one who gives up", "the one who fights" and so on. Apparently this book is an allegory about the Nazi occupation of France... but this didn't come through to me at all. If the book cover and afterword hadn't claimed such political symbolism, it never would have crossed my mind. In the end, I couldn't wait to get to the final page... where, incidentally, there's one of the best closing passages I've read in a long time. But by then it was too little too late.