Albert Camus - The Plague (Summary)

I just completed reading Albert Camus work - The Plague. This is the second book by Camus that I have read after his best know work 'The Stranger'. The Plague is a story of the plague that reaches epidemic levels before dying out in small coastal town Oran in French colonial territory of Algeria. It chronicles the lives of people caught up in that quarantined city and narrates the lives of doctors, lovers, trapped tourists and ordinary day people in-midst of the horrible tragedy.

The novel starts with occasional dying out of rats in Oran. Soon thousands of rats start dying, leading to panic and hysteria in the city. The civic authorities unaware of the seriousness of the situation start half-hearted measures. In some days, human deaths follow. Rieux (the main character) is convinced that plague is taking hold of the town. As more people die, the authorities start desperate measure and the town is sealed off. No one can enter or leave the town and all other services are restricted. These measures have an effect of an exile on the citizens who feel as if trapped and isolated. Rieux is friends with Rambert (a journalist who was visiting Oran but is trapped in the city now), Tarrou (a vacationer), Paneloux (the town priest), Cottard (a former criminal who attempted suicide but is smuggling goods now) and Grand (a ageing civil servant obsessed with composing a perfect sentence). Rieux's wife is under treatment in a difference city for some grave illness. The book accounts for the feeling of isolation that is all pervasive and the despair that gives rise to emotional collapse. Paneloux using masterly oration chides people that this plague is God's will and its time for all to turn to church. Tarrou comes up with the idea of the health teams that will aid the civic authorities. Rieux and Grand joins him in these teams. Rambert initially desperate to flee the city (to be with his wife in Paris), later feeling ashamed, joins these health teams. Paneloux also joins. As the situation worsens, even more desperate measures follow. People are shot while fleeing, mass funerals are conducted and occasional looting happens. Rieux and the health teams work tirelessly. Slowly as the winter chill starts, the plague starts to loosen its grip over the city but not before Paneloux and Tarrou die of it. Grand is infected but makes a surprise recovery. The town's quarantine is lifted. Cottard is arrested for his past crimes and Rambert is reunited with his wife. Rieux is informed that his sick wife is dead while Grand goes back to composing his sentence.

The storyline is fairly straightforward. It is story of lives of people who got caught up in the epidemic sweeping the town. As with situation, you have all kind of people behaving in all kind of ways. Some turn to God, others to crime and fatalism, some to a higher purpose and others rise to the occasion and do what is correct. The book makes no notion about what is correct and what was wrong. It is a narration of events filled with narrator's point of view. The theme of separation from either the loved ones or from one's daily habit is recurring throughout the book. This feeling of separation leads to hopelessness pervading everyday lives were people now attempt to live the moment as it comes and not looking out for the hopes of future for the exile could be endless. Besides their thoughts, their personal freedom (like the beaches that they enjoyed previously) also gets restricted. Absurdity of human life (on which Camus writes repeatedly), the idea of a absent Benevolent and rational God or that human lives having any higher purpose is the other prominent idea of the book. The plague is the irrational executioner that will come after anyone irrespective of who they are how they live their lives. The lack of control over our lives and our destiny, the randomness of life and death. In all this, death and suffering however absurd they might be seem is the only certainty that awaits us all. And in this constant overhang, one has to live life and give meaning to life by living it. Life is not sacred, the act of living is sacred and worth fighting for, even in the face of insurmountable plague. Another aspect of the story was that of health teams and even tough they did not achieve much, but the resistance they offered was worth it, not for some grandiose idea of heroism or bravery but for a simple fact that it was a noble struggle and defiance against death. For even a rat when pushed to a corner, will fight it out/ We for all the 'isms' and spirit, can definitely accomplish more.

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