the Modern Library version of Camus' The Plague (1947)

The Plague (La Peste)

  • Author:  Albert Camus  (1913  –  1960)
  • Rank:  #51
  • Published:  1947  (tr. 1948)
  • Publisher:  Librairie Gallimard
  • Pages:  278
  • First Line:  “The unusual events described in this chronicle occured in 194- at Oran.”
  • Last Line:  “He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linin-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
  • ML Edition:  #109  (1962); College Edition paperback
  • Film Version:  1992
  • First Read:  Spring, 1995

The Novel: Albert Camus was something that is almost unheard of.  He was a philosopher who managed to synthesize his philosophy into coherent, even brilliant, literary works.  In The Plague and The Stranger he managed to impart that philosophy on the world without interfering with the literary aspects.  He is what Ayn Rand wishes she could have been (except that her philosophy was inane babble and her novels are badly written, overly long and just plain crap).  In The Plague, he manages to impart a look at the human condition and the distance with which we view tragedy in the story of how a plague sweeps through the town of Oran in Algeria.

It begins with the rats.  It begins so quietly was just a dead rat on the doorstep of the doctor, but soon is so much more than that.  Within 20 pages we have progressed to this point: “He was dragging himself along, his head bent, his arms and legs curiously splayed out, with the jerky movements of a clockwork doll.”  But this is no longer a rat; rather this is the concierge of the doctor’s building.  Soon, even the though the town resists the idea at first, it becomes obvious that there is an outbreak of the plague and the telegram comes in: “Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.”  The isolation begins – the emptiness from outside.

Look at the way that Camus treats his subjects, with both utter passivity and a rather oblique sympathy: “For instance, if it happened that one of them was carried off by the disease, it was almost always without his having had time to realize it.  Snatched suddenly from his long, silent communion with a wraith of memory, he was plunged straightway into the densest silence of all.  He’d had no time for anything.”  Or the way a line like “At the bottom of each pit a deep layer of quicklime steamed and seethed.” works on both the literal and the metaphorical.

It all seems to come down to this: “Love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”  Dr. Rieux learns that, fighting against the plague, a journey in which he eventually triumphs, but at the cost of much of the town, of his friends, of his wife.  Though we don’t learn it until the final pages, he is our nameless narrator, keeping this chronicle “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

But even though he comes out in the end, comes out nearly broken, but alive enough to make his mark, to remind people of a time when rats would rise again and die in a happy city, we are also reminded of these fateful words from the middle of his chronicle, the words that seem to sum up the very essence of Camus’ novel and his philosophy:

For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors – the sole voice of cities in ordinary times – had ceased, was but one vast rumor of low voices and incessant footfalls, the drumming of innumerable soles timed to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted loved from all our hearts.

translation note:  All quotes are from the Stuart Gilbert translation