Dr. Rieux finds a dead rat at his doorstep in the tiny port city of Oran in Algeria. Soon, more dead rats turn up. Even sooner, people are dying of the plague. Authorities order the people to stay indoors. This, in a nutshell is what The Plague by Albert Camus is about. Talking about a plague when we are already going through a pandemic of our own seems counterintuitive.
However, since Coronavirus has taken a firm grip on our minds and our TV news channels since the month of March, Camus’ The Plague has shot to stardom status once again. Many critics would term the book prophetic or call Camus a seer who predicted this virus outbreak. But this is far from the truth. The Plague must be contextualized in terms of his absurdist philosophy that emphasised on an essential meaning that all human lives possess despite the seeming meaninglessness of our lives and condition. He uses the metaphor of the plague to talk about the human condition extensively.
Others have also called the novel as a commentary on Nazism (the book was published in 1947, two years after WWII ended) and how Camus has equated the plague to fascism. I believe, however, that the book stays away from any ideological leanings and rather comments on the fragility of the human way of life.
The actions and reactions of the people and the authorities in the novel resonate with how the world is handling the COVID-19 outbreak as well. The novel focuses on four main characters that show us how people are dealing with the outbreak of the plague in the novel both individually and collectively.
A plague or an epidemic forces us to suspend our lives for certain duration and to confront our present, to question and rethink much like one of the characters in the novel, Jean Tarrou. He is a visitor to the city of Oran and records all the events happening in the city during the plague. He is much like a philosopher who thinks, thinks, and over thinks but is unable to find a reasonable moral solution or cause of the plague.
Through this character, Camus tells the readers about both the naturalness and unnaturalness of the plague. It feels unnatural and strange for the people of Oran to have the plague affecting so many of them. This is also similar to how we today feel about coronavirus and its powerful spread. However, throughout the novel, Camus also emphasises that it is natural for diseases to spread, natural to be part of human suffering, and that in fact the disease is what is the normal in this and not the other way round. It is as he says at the end of the novel, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.”
This is not to say that Camus was a nihilist and that he believed that there is no meaning other than humans suffering. Rather, he asserts that because this is a constant in our lives and that such diseases and other problems are bound to ravage us, we must respond to them through kindness and decency and not through fear mongering or hatred. This is why Tarrou’s search for a moral causation to this plague is futile. One must not look for causes to find meaning but rather look at our own behavior to find meaning amidst this new normal.
Dr. Rieux counterbalances Tarrou as the former believes that there is no such moral voice/cause or meaning to the epidemic. Rieux does at the beginning also think of the plague as unnatural but then once it progresses, he believes in taking immediate action. He does not think in abstract terms. He does not glorify human suffering or his own tireless efforts. He continues to do his duty as a doctor. He is at the forefront of the efforts of curing the increasing number of plague patients. But he sees his efforts as part of a common decency one must have in such situations: “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”
I think we must learn from Dr. Rieux a vital lesson. While we are in lockdown, we must ruminate over our own actions as individuals and as a nation as well. Are we being decent to others? Are we actually lending out any helping hands to others or are we busy hoarding and cribbing over a privileged bored Netflix binge holiday? We must ask ourselves why we continue to hold racist ideas and prejudices toward people of our own country. And as more and more cases come up, especially in certain areas of Delhi, we must question why our religious prejudices are being pandered to even during such a crisis when we must be fighting the pandemic together, without any divisions or fault lines.
Cover Image: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. [wikimedia]