Many people who are reading this novel for the first time at the present moment, with a new kind of plague sweeping the world, are surprised by how well Albert Camus’s 1947 work reflects our experience. I was. But a little reflection showed me another angle on it. If you can look for differences between things—between the present and the past, for instance—you can also look for similarities, and those aren’t hard to discover in this case. Maybe, in fact, we should expect to find that others have lived through what we’re living through. Infectious diseases have marched back and forth across the planet throughout recorded history, and they’ve usually worked in similar ways, appearing like unprovoked and seemingly unconquerable invaders, who lay waste for a while before being repulsed, only to return a little later. With the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we’re living through history turned back upon itself, for epidemics and pandemics, you might say, used to be endemic; the biggest difference may be that our current pestilence has so far descended upon us only once.
Historian Fernand Braudel devotes a small section of The Structures of Everyday Life, the first volume of his study of ordinary life before the industrial revolution, specifically to plague, and he reports some astonishing figures and appalling anecdotes, which are, as often as not, like now, only worse. In the 16th century, Orleans experienced plague 22 times; it recurred in Amsterdam every year from 1622 to 1628. At the first sign of it, the rich would typically leave town, and the authorities often did as well; Braudel notes that “in France, whole parlements emigrated” and adds that Montaigne, the mayor of Bordeaux at the time, abandoned his post during the 1585 epidemic. Cities ceased their bustle; Florence in 1637 was essentially shut down—“no business activities and no religious services.” The dead piled up, sometimes in the streets, where they were gnawed by dogs, and they had to be gotten rid of by any means possible; at Genoa in 1656, corpses were loaded onto boats that were taken to sea and burned.
Even after the 18th century, when it began to subside in the West, plague hardly vanished. Marseilles endured a major outbreak in 1720, it appeared twice in the Balkans in the first half of the 19th century, it remained endemic in parts of China and India, and it turned up in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s.
Oddly, Camus appears to have decided to situate his novel’s outbreak in that city before it actually occurred there—recurred, rather, since plague had afflicted Oran in the past. Braudel says it came back in 1942; Wikipedia (without linking to or even fully naming a source) says it was 1944. One might suppose, on the basis of this book, that Camus had lived through it himself—that’s what I thought at first—but he had moved to Oran in early 1941, partly to gather material for a plague novel, and seems to have returned to France before the disease appeared.
The Plague didn’t result directly from experience, then, but it wasn’t pure invention either. He already knew the city of Oran, having grown up in Algeria, and he knew tuberculosis—which resembles the pulmonary form of plague and is sometimes called the White Plague—from the inside, having been diagnosed as a teenager. Daniel Defoe may have had more work to do in imaginatively reconstructing the 1665–66 onslaught of plague in London decades after the fact, in A Journal of the Plague Year. But how writers know what they know isn’t always a simple matter. However it came about, Camus’s novel feels remarkably familiar. The disease arrives by stealth, heralded only by rats (which thankfully we’ve been spared), but it soon takes hold; the authorities, who at first equivocate and hesitate to act, come around and close off the city from the outside world. The tally of new deaths rises and keeps rising; the dead begin to accumulate so quickly that they must be disposed of in pits outside of town, and then in an incinerator; efforts to find a treatment or a cure continue to prove fruitless. Through the eyes of the story’s main character, Dr. Rieux, we witness many dismaying scenes in which the unmistakable symptoms (a good deal more unpleasant than anything caused by today’s coronavirus) of a new sufferer are reviewed before the victim is sent off to quarantine, from which, much of the time, there is no return.
As translator Robin Buss renders the text, Camus repeatedly describes the emotional experience of the characters in terms of imprisonment or, more often, exile and separation, whether from pleasures as simple as walks outside the town and swimming in the sea or from loved ones who are elsewhere or simply gone. “This abrupt separation,” the narrator observes, “without any halfway state and with no predictable future, left us disconcerted, unable to react against the memory of that presence, still so close, yet already so far away, that now filled our days.” Time changes its tune: “if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.” Some of Oran’s residents will soon find themselves numbed: “the time had yet to come when the plague would seem to them like the very shape of their lives and when they would forget the existence that they had led in the days before.” Some give up, such as those who, having been told by the town’s priest that “you have deserved it,” conclude that “nothing was any use and…we should go down on our knees.” Others—including Rieux and the handful of men who choose to work with him—contend the opposite, that “one must fight, in one way or another, and not go down on one’s knees,” because “this business concerns all of us.”
In many ways, then, Camus’s novel rings true to what’s going on today. As an old Latin expression has it, it’s easy to feel that “this story is about you.” And that’s so despite many differences: the people of Oran have no internet or Zoom calls and have trouble even getting letters out; we, on the other hand, are mostly forbidden to gather, as they can throughout their epidemic, in restaurants or bars, cinemas or opera houses.
The book is encouraging in part because it’s a story that comes to an end. Eventually the day comes when a treatment works; eventually the count of new deaths stops climbing and starts to fall; eventually the city gates reopen. We can’t be sure yet that days like that will arrive for us, that SARS-CoV-2 will be beaten back as almost all the previous invaders have been (HIV, to name one, has never been repulsed), but the novel makes it easier to believe. In another respect, though, The Plague is admonitory, a fable, a parable—historian Tony Judt, in an afterword to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, calls it an allegory, as do others. For many present-day readers, this may be harder to discern, especially if you assume—as the back cover text seems to invite—that it’s specifically about French resistance to the Nazis during the occupation of World War II. (Incidentally, the time setting is given only as “194–,” and the war doesn’t explicitly appear in the novel.) Caught up in its literal narrative, you may have trouble, as I did at first, seeing much in the novel’s figurative dimension. How can a mere disease, which is unchosen, tell us anything about politics and history? Judt’s answer is that this misses the point: “The allegory may have been tied to Vichy France but the ‘plague’ transcends political labels. It was not Fascism that Camus was aiming at…but dogma, conformity, compliance and cowardice in all their intersecting public forms.”
In other words, the novel’s moral point of view is complex. Camus is less interested in dispensing blame, or praise, than he is in finding ways to understand. Many people cite a line from near the end of the book, in which Rieux says, “There is more in men to admire than to despise.” But the novel includes a profiteer, who is neither admired nor despised by Rieux and his partners. And it includes a figure who, having seen the light, changes his stance and joins the medical team, one of whom says, “Everyone is like that. You just need to give them the opportunity.” That line subtly invites us to consider what happens when the opportunity isn’t given. In Shaw’s Saint Joan, someone declares flatly that those who do not understand are condemned; here, you might say, everyone is culpable, but no one is condemned.
Other views are out there. Virginia Heffernan, looking at plague literature in an essay for Wired, sees The Plague as a critique of conformity that also has something to do with commerce and the value of the ecstatic over the mundane. Jill Lepore, surveying the field for The New Yorker, declares that in Camus’s novel “the plague is, of course, the virus of Fascism” but also that “the plague is man.” Orhan Pamuk, in a New York Times opinion piece, grants that Camus gives readers “a glimpse at something other than politics…, something intrinsic to the human condition” but says nothing else about the novel. Jacqueline Rose, in a long commentary on The Plague for the London Review of Books, provides a wide-ranging and sensitive, though not uncritical, assessment. She considers today’s finger-pointing with regard to the coronavirus and concludes, on the basis of Camus’s novel, “We are all accountable for the ills of the world.” But I favor Tony Judt’s as the fullest and most straightforward appreciation of what Camus and his novel are up to. Judt’s afterword is online, having been published as a standalone piece in November 2001 by The New York Review of Books.
If, as we must hope will happen, SARS-CoV-2 recedes, the novel’s account of responses to an epidemic will become less familiar to readers, but Camus’s other plague will still be out there, maybe camped in the darkness on the edge of town, maybe surreptitiously working its way among us again. Thus The Plague will always resonate. In the conclusion of Judt’s afterword, using a telltale image of alarm, he praises Camus’s own final words.
“The closing sentence of Camus’s great novel rings truer than ever, a firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting: ‘[Rieux] knew that…the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely…it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing…it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and…perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.’”