The following essay was written in Fall 2019 for an interdisciplinary course on Existentialism. In the course we read some of the works of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Simone Weil. This essay is an exploration of The Plague by Albert Camus. Enjoy 🙂
In 1947, Albert Camus published his novel The Plague. This work continued his pattern of writing an essay, novel and play on a particular subject or in cycles. The Plague is part of his second cycle known as The Cycle of Revolt. In many ways, The Plague is a direct response to the social, cultural, and moral dilemmas of France in the wake the Nazi regime during World War II. Many citizens no longer found real answers in the Catholic religion nor in the traditions of the French government. Camus’ novel serves as a literary and philosophical work that explores the effects of an oppressive scourge on a populace and how one’s life should be lived in the face of that oppression. However, Camus makes a conscious choice to not include Nazis or a militaristic, Nazi-esque regime. In The Plague, Albert Camus uses a plague of sickness to display moral challenges to the reader through the lives of the Oran population with a focus on key existentialist concepts. In Camus’ efforts, the human factor in matters of cruelty and accountability is removed in exchange for gainful exploration of Force in this highly applicable narrative work.
The Plague conveys the responses of the residents of Oran in three ways: accommodation, alignment, and resistance. The majority of the people in Oran merely accommodated to the isolation and death of the plague. When the quarantine first began, the people of Oran outwardly showed frustration at their situation. The entire town felt what the narrator describes as “undoubtedly the feeling of exile… that irritational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time” (Camus 71). But as the plague proved to have a more long-term hold on the lives of the Oran populace, the “had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead” (Camus 72). The majority of the populace continued to live in the same way that they did outside of the plague. They relied on what existentialists call habits. Habits are mindless, substances routines performed by someone. Although the plague had isolated many from their loved ones, they still “drifted through life rather than lived”, sometimes in excess (Camus 73). For example, every café in Oran nightly held residents drinking copious amounts of alcohol for as long as alcohol remained in Oran. Habits like this meant that the majority of the populace did not reflect on the important lessons that could be gained from the plague.
Accommodation meant that the residents of Oran chose to submit themselves to the plague as its victim and live as a prisoner detached from the affliction of those killed indiscriminately by the plague. At the end of the plague’s hold on Oran, those who chose to accommodate the plague quickly expunged the experiences of fear and lonely from their minds. They chose to deny the existence of the absurd “world in which men were killed off like flies, or that precise savagery” that enveloped their lives from April to January of that year (Camus 298). They gained nothing from this moral challenge.
Some residents of Oran aligned themselves with the plague. Among these few was Father Paneloux. Father Paneloux immediately aligns himself with the plague when he welcomes it as a clear sign of God’s will in a sermon to the residents of Oran. Father Paneloux states in his sermon that the plague is God’s way of purifying those “that hardened their hearts against Him” (Camus 97). Paneloux welcomes this “fatal hunt” as an opportunity for complacent Christians to accept this punishment and recommit themselves to God (Camus 96). Paneloux continues in this belief until the night of Rieux’s first trial of Castel’s anti-plague serum. The serum is tested on the small child of M. Jacques Othon, the magistrate in Oran. After an arduous night of Paneloux, Rieux, Castel, and Tarrou watching the child resist death all night before losing to the power of the plague. The child’s death and Paneloux’s conversation with Rieux cause the Jesuit priest to reevaluate his first sermon. The narrator noticed in Paneloux that “from the day on which he saw a child die something seemed to change in him” (Camus 220). The death of an innocent child did not align with his beliefs that the plague was God’s punishment on sinners.
After much reflection, Paneloux delivers a second sermon to Oran. In this sermon, Paneloux wrestles with the idea of human suffering and learning from the plague. To Paneloux, suffering of Othon’s son was a test of faith in God. In one’s belief in God, they had to fully accept the absurdity or unknowable nature of the world and, by extension, the logic of what Sartre calls the divine intelligence. Given that man was in a time “of extreme calamity” God demands that men “must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing” (Camus 224-225). Paneloux shares his decision to continue to align himself with the oppressive plague because he believes that he must welcome the entirety of what is ordained by the divine intelligence. This extension goes to his refusal to seek medical treatment when he becomes sick. Father Paneloux choose to suffer his final hours without the consult of a physician’s expertise. He clutches the crucifix and dues with his back turned away from everyone. Those who choose to align themselves with the plague and justify its nature through religion or something similar like Paneloux allow bad faith to isolate them from others. Paneloux acknowledges that death was unstoppable and chooses to accept death alone. People like Paneloux who aligned become victimizers with the plague. They refuse to resist their circumstances and fault to become part of a community of responsible subjects.
Few residents in Oran choose to resist in the face of the plague’s moral challenges. These few exemplify the lessons of Albert Camus’ existential thought. The most notable of these resisters is Rambert. Rambert is a journalist who was reporting on a story at the time of the plague quarantine. Rambert was separated from his wife because of the plague and actively resisted his situation. First, he attempted to get an exception to the quarantine for himself because “he was a stranger to [Oran] and, that being so, his case deserved special consideration” (Camus 106). When his argument changes nothing, he turns to the criminals in Oran to smuggle him out. Rambert is introduced to Gonzales and starts on a long process of waiting and hiding. Gonzales and his allies have to find or create the right opportunity for Rambert to escape. Rambert joins Rieux and Tarrou in their efforts to combat the plague while he waits. Rambert decides to stay in Oran until the end when the opportunity to escape Oran comes.
Rambert’s journey during the plague shows two different levels of resistance. First, Rambert resists on his own. He initially lacks a sense of connection to Oran and its people. In this, Rambert refuses to acknowledge the communal struggle of all to resist death. He had isolated himself in defiance just as Mersault did in The Stranger. In Rambert’s estrangement, he acted in bad faith and sought solutions that led to no progress. Rambert does not become a fully realized resister in the existential sense until he spends time as part of the people fighting the plague a St. James Infirmary. Rambert refuses happiness and an easy escape from the oppression of the plague because “‘it may be shameful to be happy by oneself’” (Camus 209). Rambert then states that the issue of the plague was “‘everybody’s business’” (Camus 209-210). Rambert becomes what Tarrou later describes in the novel as someone who is trying “‘to be a saint without God’” (Camus 255). Those who resist the plague refuse to be victim or victimizer. They constantly reflect and choose the best thing to do in their effort to fight against the common limitation that all humans share, death. Resister push against the limits placed upon them in life and strive to become the subjects of their own project in community with others. They acknowledge that “there would be more victims, because that was in the order of things” (Camus 255). Those who choose to resist the plague rise to be better in the face of the plague’s moral challenges in a fulfillment of existential ideas.
Camus’ choice of a plague of sickness to challenge the morality of the people of Oran and display existentialism in practice creates a detached view of human’s hand in cruelty and accountability while providing an exploration of Force in a novel that can still be applied to modern life. The Plague was written as a narrative-focused guide life in the face of the indiscriminate violence of the Nazi regime. Albert Camus was directly affected by the Nazi Germany. The Nazi occupation of France caused Camus and many other French to flee in fear. Camus knew the capability of man to commit acts of cruelty. Camus knew that man was accountable for his or her actions. His choice to display oppression without the human factor in that fails to show the full spectrum of complexity involved in choosing to resist oppression.
Camus avoids the moral consequences of necessary violence against an oppressing army of soldiers due to their convictions. Camus minimizes the horror of people dying by the hands of others as was common in the gas chambers of the Nazi camps, for example, by changing that cruel act into a merely degrading part of the necessary precautions of fighting the plague bacillus (Camus 177-178). An important part of readers’ concerns at the time were in a search for answers in how to deal with oppressive men and Camus ignores this when he turns that plague-like regime into an example of Force.
Camus’ exploration of oppression as Force adds an element of complexity to plight of people living in a situation similar to that of the residents of Oran. Force is a term used by Simone Weil in her essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force”. Weil defines as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit… it makes a corpse out of him” (Weil 163). Weil continues that there is also a kind of “force that does not kill” but “[i]n whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into stone” (Weil 165). In the essay, Weil describes how a man wielding force victimizes or oppresses another and turns them into a victim. Weil states that Force can change hands for no reason, turning victims into victimizers or vice versa. Camus explores the dual nature of Force in The Plague. First the plague bacillus itself is a literal example of a force that kills. The plague bacillus indiscriminately kills men and turns them into corpses. Also, the oppressive atmosphere that the plague creates allows for opportunities for people to wield Force or be oppressed by Force.
Using the examples that I have already provided for accommodation and alignment with plague, this complexity can be seen through the majority of Oran and through Father Paneloux. The accommodating masses of Oran have become victims of the Force that does not kill. They have become “a compromise between a man and a corpse” (Weil 168). They have died spiritually but not physically. Father Paneloux, in his alignment with the plague is a victimizer that becomes a victim. Paneloux wields religion to bring pressure onto the people of Oran. He has turned their affliction into an object devoid of humanity. Paneloux in his sermons represses them “to nothing in a single instant” (Weil 167). When Paneloux becomes sick, he is acted upon by the force that kills. He has become someone who is not yet dead, but existentially destroyed. This exploration of Force by Camus makes it clear that anyone can have their turn at being the oppressor. As the narrator, revealed to be Rieux, states “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good” (Camus 308). Force can change hands. This gained complexity makes The Plague a work that can be applied to even our current political climate.
In The Plague, Camus explores Force at the cost of a direct human factor that aligns with World War II’s direct situation. Camus displays the concepts of bad faith, habit, accommodation, alignment, and resistance. This choice to focus on an oppressive force minimizes human cruelty and accountability while also allowing space for audiences of any era to understand that oppression can be brought about by anyone. The only way to stop oppression is by resisting it, and death, with others.