Oran is a small town like any other; populated by people who seem to be engaged in a busy nothingness. Happy in their everyday life, not overly spectacular in one way or another. Then one day rats start showing up in frightening numbers, dead or dying in a horrific manner. It isn’t long before this sickness spreads to the human population and soon this town is shut off from the rest of the world, quarantined and left to deal with it on their own. Our anonymous narrator attempts to report the events in an observational and unbiased manner and is successful in their reporting but is not entirely able to remove the element of human nature; the fear, the desperation to return to normality and absent loves, the despair at death and too, the prevailing nature of humanity itself.
Albert Camus was a Nobel laureate, philosopher and contemporary of that other famous literary philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. This allegorical tale is a platform on which Camus is able to present his main philosophical ideals, key of which is that of man seeking to find meaning and significance in his life and finding none. That is not to say that a life without meaning is all for nothing, but that being happy in your life and the way that you live it should be reward enough and does not need any further significance attributed to it. These ideas are laid out clearly. In fact many of Camus’ philosophies are put directly into our narrator’s mouth:
But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over-importance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worst side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill . The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.
The allegory of The Plague is that of Nazi Germany’s invasion of France, Oran being France and the plague itself being the Nazi occupation that effectively cut France off from the rest of the world for a time, of which Camus lived through. This is an interesting premise to set, that of isolation in terror, because Camus is able to use it to demonstrate his philosophies, those developed based on his own observation. It is an interesting setting to observe just what men and women do to cope and continue on. There is almost a dismissive tone in describing the residents of Oran before the plague hit, almost condescendingly stating that their happiness is mundane and based on ignorance of anything better. But what comes out of their ordeal is an acceptance of what has happened, that there is nothing or no one to blame and that death is unavoidable for everyone. They may survive the plague but in the end everyone dies. That it is the idea of community, finding comfort in those suffering along side you and doing what you can to comfort them in return.
The enjoyment I got from this book was actually reading it alongside reading of Camus’ ideas and philosophies. From here it would be good to move onto some of Sartre’s work and others from our more modern philosophers. At a very basic level, this is an interesting story, relevant even now with flu pandemics being touted every cold season. A reader would be hard-pressed not to come away with food for thought, which in my personal opinion, is what a great book should do.