French novelist, essayist and playwright, who received the 1957 Nobel
Prize for literature. Camus was closely linked to his fellow
existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s, but he broke with him over
Sartre's support to Stalinist politics. Camus died at the age of
forty-six in a car accident near Sens, France. Among his best-known
novels are The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947).
"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a
telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours
sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have happened yesterday."
(from The Stranger)
Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, into a working-class family.
Camus's mother, Catherine Hélène Sintés, was an illiterate cleaning
woman. She came from a family of Spanish origin. Lucien Auguste Camus,
his father, was an itinerant agricultural laborer. He died of his wounds
in 1914 after the Battle of the Marne - Camus was less than a year old
at that time. His body was never sent to Algeria. During the war,
Catherine Hélène worked in a factory. She was partly deaf, due to a
stroke that permanently impaired her speech, but she was able to read
lips. In their home "things had no names", as Camus later recalled. But
he loved his mother intensely: "When my mother's eyes were not resting
on me, I have never been able to look at her without tears springing
into my eyes."
In 1923 Camus won a scholarship to the lycée in Algiers, where he
studied from 1924 to 1932. Incipient tuberculosis put an end to his
athletic activities. The disease was to trouble Camus for the rest of
his life. Between the years 1935 and 1939 Camus held various jobs in
Algiers. He also joined the Communist Party, but his interest in the
works of Marx and Engels was rather superficial. More important writers
in his circle were André Malraux and André Gide.
In 1936 Camus received his diplôme d'étudies supérieures from the
University of Algiers in philosophy. To recover his health he made his
first visit to Europe. Camus' first book, L'ENVERS ET L'ENDROIT (1937),
was a collection of essays, which he wrote at the age of twenty-two.
Camus dedicated it to his philosophy teacher, Jean Grenier. The
philosopher Brice Parain maintained that the little book contained Camus'
best work, although the author himself considered the form of his
By this time Camus' reputation in Algeria as a leading writer was
growing. He was also active in theater. In 1938 Camus moved to France.
Next year he divorced his first wife, Simone Hié, who was a morphine
addict. From 1938 to 1940 Camus worked for the Alger-Républicain,
reviewing among others Sartre's books, and in 1940 for Paris-Soir. In
1940 he married Francine Faure, a pianist and mathematician.
During WW II Camus was member of the French resistance. From 1943 he
worked as a reader and editor of Espoir series at Gallimard publisher.
With Sartre he founded the left-wing Resistance newspaper Combat,
serving as its editor. His second novel, L'ÉTRANGER (The Stranger),
which he had begun in Algeria before the war, appeared in 1942. It has
been considered one of the greatest of all hard-boiled novels. Camus
admired the American tough novel and wrote in The Rebel (1951) that "it
does not choose feelings or passions to give a detailed description of,
such as we find in classic French novels. It rejects analysis and the
search for a fundamental psychological motive that could explain and
recapitulate the behavior of a character..."
The story of The Stranger is narrated by a doomed character, Mersault,
and is set between two deaths, his mother's and his own. Mersault is a
clerk, who seems to have no feelings and spends afternoons in lovemaking
and empty nights in the cinema. Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov from Crime
and Punishment (1866), he reaches self-knowledge by committing a crime -
he shoots an Arab on the beach without explicit reason and motivation -
it was hot, the Arab had earlier terrorized him and his friend Raymond,
and he had an headache. Mersault is condemned to die as much for his
refusal to accept the standards of social behavior as for the crime
itself. "The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live,
without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without
hope, without illusions, and without resignation either. He stares at
death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He
experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man." (from
Sartre analysis of Mersault, in Literary and Philosophical Essays, 1943)
In the cell Mersault faces the reality for the first time, and his
consciousness awakens. "It was as if that great rush of anger had washed
me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled
with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart
open to the benign indifference of the universe." Luchino Visconti's
film version from 1967 meticulously reconstructed an Algiers street so
that it looked exactly as it had during 1938-39, when the story takes
place. But the 43-year-old Marcello Mastroianni, playing 30-year-old
Mesault, was considered too old, although otherwise his performance was
In 1942 also appeared Camus' philosophical essay LE MYTHE DE SISYPHE.
It starts with the famous statement: "There is only one really serious
philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not
life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in
philosophy. All other questions follow from that." Camus compares the
absurdity of the existence of humanity to the labours of the mythical
character Sisyphus, who was condemned through all eternity to push a
boulder to the top of a hill and watch helplessly as it rolled down
again. Camus takes the nonexistence of God granted and finds meaning in
the struggle itself.
"A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images," Camus
wrote. He admired Sartre's gift's as a novelist, but did not find his
two sides, philosophy and storytelling, both equally convincing. In an
essay written in 1952 he praises Melville's Billy Budd. Melville,
according to Camus, "never cut himself off from flesh or nature, which
are barely perceptible in Kafka's work." Camus also admired William
Faulkner and made a dramatic adaptation of Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun.
In 1946 Camus spent some time in New York, and wrote: "I don't have a
precise idea about New York myself, even after so many days, but it
continues to irritate me and seduce me at the same time."
"It is not rebellion itself which is noble but the demands it
makes upon us."
(from The Plague, 1947)
In 1947 Camus resigned from Combat and published in the same year his
third novel, LA PESTE, an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. A
small town is abruptly forced to live within narrow boundaries under a
terror - death is loose on the streets. In the besieged city some people
try to act morally, some are cowards, some lovers. "None the less, he
knew that the tale he had to tell could be one of a final victory. It
could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly
would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and
its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all
who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences,
strive their utmost to be healers."
Before his break with Sartre Camus wrote L'HOMME RÉVOLTÉ (1951),
which explores the theories and forms of humanity's revolt against
authority. The book was criticized in Sartre's Temps modernes. Camus was
offended and Sartre responded with a scornful letter. From 1955 to 1956
Camus worked as a journalist for L'Express. Among his major works from
the late-1950s are LA CHUTE (1956), an ironic novel in which the
penitent judge Jean-Baptiste Clamence confesses his own moral crimes to
a strager in an Amsterdam bar. Jean-Baptiste reveals his hypocrisy, but
at the same time his monologue becomes an attack on modern man.
At the time of his death, Camus was planning to direct a theater
company of his own and to write a major novel about growing up in
Algeria. Several of the short stories in L'EXILE ET LA ROYAUME (1957)
were set in Algeria's coastal towns and inhospitale sands. The
unfinished novel LA MORT HEUREUSE (1970) was written in 1936-38. It
presented the young Camus, or Patrice Mersault, seeking his happiness
from Prague to his hometown in Algiers, announcing towards the end of
the book "What matters - all that matters, really - is the will to
happiness, a kind of enormous, ever-present consciousness. The rest -
women, art, success - is nothing but excuses." In LE PREMIER HOMME
(1994), the story of Jacques Cormery, Camus charted the history of his
family and his lycée years. The manuscript was found in the car, a Facel
Vega, in which he died on January 4, 1960.
Type of work: Novel
Author: Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Type of plot: Impressionistic realism
Time of plot: The 1940s
Locale: Oran, Algeria
First published: La Peste, 1947 (English translation, 1948)
In The Plague, Camus places his characters in a scene of
widespread death and horror in order to follow their responses and
record their answers to the age-old question: "Why are we here?" As the
bubonic plague sweeps through an Algerian port town, Camus focuses on
the mind of a doctor, Bernard Rieux, whose decision in the face of
hopeless calamity is to at least do what he can to alleviate human
suffering for a few moments and to continue to hope for the possibility
of future joy.
Bernard Rieux (ber-nar' ryoe'), a physician and surgeon in Oran, where a
plague is claiming as many as three hundred lives a day. Dr. Rieux, a
thirty-five-year-old man of great patience, fortitude, and
unselfishness, represents the medical profession during the long siege
of disease and deaths which strike rich and poor alike and from which
there is no reprieve. The plague means failure to Rieux because he can
find no cure or relief for the sufferers. His attitude is characterized
by his regard for his fellowmen and his inability to cope with injustice
and compromise. Very much involved with mankind, he explains that he is
able to continue working with the plague-stricken population only
because he has found that abstraction is stronger than happiness. He is
identified at the end of the book as the narrator of the story, and his
account gives the pestilence the attributes of a character, the
antagonist. Events of the plague are secondary to philosophies as he
pictures the people's reactions, individually and collectively, to their
plight. These run the range of emotions and rationality: escape, guilt,
a spirit of lawlessness, pleasure, resistance. During the plague
individual destinies become collective destinies because the plague and
emotions are shared by all. Love and friendship fade because they ask
something of the future, and the plague leaves only present moments. As
the pestilence subsides, relieving the exile and deprivation, there is
jubilation, followed by the stereotyped patterns of everyday living.
Madame Rieux (ryoe'), the doctor's wife. The victim of another ailment,
Mme. Rieux is sent away to a sanitarium before the town is quarantined.
Her absence from Rieux points up his unselfishness in staying on in
Raymond Rambert (re-mon' ran-ber'), a journalist from Paris. Assigned to
a routine story on Oran, he is caught in exile when the city is
quarantined because of the plague. Rambert, wanting to return to his
wife, resorts to various means in order to escape. A non-resident, alien
to the plight of the people, he personifies those who feel no
involvement with the problems of others. When escape from the city
becomes a reality for him, Rambert declines his freedom and accepts
Rieux's philosophy of common decency, which amounts merely to doing
one's job. In this instance Rambert's job, according to Rieux, is to
fight the plague. The journalist becomes a volunteer on the sanitation
Father Paneloux (panloo'), a Jesuit priest who represents the
ecclesiastical thinking of people caught in the crisis represented by
the plague. Preaching on the plague, he compares the present situation
with the pestilences of the past and tells his parishioners that they
have brought the plague upon themselves through their godlessness.
Placing the scientific and the spiritual in balance, Paneloux and Rieux
debate whether the man of God and the scientist can consort in
contending with adversities. The two men are closer in their thinking
than Rieux, a self-proclaimed atheist, and Paneloux, a heretic in some
of his preaching, will concede. Paneloux is among those who succumb to
Jean Tarrou (zhan' ta-roo'), an enigma to his associate among the
volunteers in fighting the plague. Addicted to simple pleasures but no
slave to them, Tarrou has no apparent means of income. Little is known
of his background until he tells Rieux of his beginnings. The son of a
prosecutor, he had been horrified by the thought of the criminals
condemned because of his father. He himself has been a political
agitator. Tarrou becomes a faithful helper to Rieux, and as a volunteer
he records the social aspects of the plague. In telling of the plague,
Rieux borrows from these records. After the worst of the pestilence has
passed, Tarrou dies from the plague.
Joseph Grand (zho-zef gran'), a municipal clerk. Characterized by all
the attributes of insignificance, Grand has spent twenty-two years in
his job, to which he was temporarily appointed. He is unable to escape
from his imprisonment because he cannot find the words with which to
protest. He announces early in his acquaintance with Rieux that he has a
second job, which he describes as a "growth of personality." The
futility of this avocation, writing, is epitomized by Grand's continuing
work on the first sentence of a novel which he anticipates will be the
perfect expression of love. He dies after asking Rieux to burn his sheaf
of papers, manuscripts with only an adjective or a verb changed from one
writing to the next.
M. Cottard (Ęá-tar'), a dealer in wines and liquors, treated by Rieux
after an attempt at suicide. His undercover deals and unsettled life are
sublimated or furthered by his keen delight in gangster movies. He
survives the plague, only to go berserk during a shooting affray with
Dr. Richard (re-sha1), chairman of the medical association in Oran. He
is more interested in observing the code of the organization than in
trying to reduce the number of deaths.
M. Othon (6-ton'), the police magistrate. His isolation after
contracting the plague shows Rieux's impartiality in dealing with plague
Jacques Othon (zhak' á-ton'), the magistrate's son, on whom the new
serum is tried. The lengthy description of young Othon's illness
illustrates the suffering of the thousands who die of the plague.
Madame Rieux (ryoe'), the doctor's mother, who comes to keep house for
her son during his wife's absence. She is an understanding woman who
reminds Tarrou of his own childhood and elicits his philosophical
discussion of man's role in life.
Garcia (gar-se'a), Raoul (ăŕ-îîĂ), Gonzales (gon-sa'les), Marcel (mar-sel'),
and Louis (lwe'), the men involved in Raymond Rambert's contemplated
escape from Oran. The intricacies of illegality are shown as Rambert is
referred from one of these men to another. From Garcia, an accomplice of
Cottard, to Marcel and Louis, guards at the city gate, each one must
have his stipend, until finally the cost of escape becomes exorbitant.
For a few days Dr. Bernard Rieux gave little thought to the strange
behavior of the rats in Oran. One morning he found three on his landing,
each animal lying inert with a rosette of fresh blood spreading from the
nostrils. The concierge grumbled about the strange happening, but Rieux
was a busy doctor, and just then he had personal cares.
Madame Rieux was going away from Oran. She suffered from a lingering
illness, and Rieux thought that a sanatorium in a different town might
do her some good. His mother was to keep house for him while his wife
was absent. Rambert, a persistent journalist, cut into his time. The
newsman wanted to do a story for his metropolitan paper on living
conditions among the workers in Oran. Rieux refused to help him, for he
knew an honest report would be censored.
Day by day the number of dead rats increased in the city. After a time
truckloads were carried away each morning. People stepped on the furry
dead bodies whenever they walked in the dark. Rieux's first case of
fever was the concierge who had grumbled about having to clean up the
rats on the stair landing. He had a high temperature and painful
swellings. Rieux was apprehensive. By telephone inquiries he learned
that his colleagues had similar cases.
The prefect was averse to taking any drastic action because he did not
want to alarm the population. Only one doctor was sure the sickness was
bubonic plague; the others reserved judgment. When the deaths rose to
thirty a day, however, even officialdom was worried. Soon a telegram
came instructing the prefect to take drastic measures, and the news
became widespread; Oran was in the grip of the plague.
Rieux had been called to Cottard's apartment by Grand, a clerk and
former patient. Grand had cut down Cottard just in time to prevent his
suicide by hanging. Cottard could give no satisfactory reason for his
attempt to kill himself. Rieux was interested in him; he seemed rather
an eccentric person.
Grand was another strange man. For many years, he had been a temporary
clerk, overlooked in his minor post by succeeding bureaucrats who kept
him on without investigating his status. Grand was too timid to call
attention to the injustice of his position. Each evening he worked hard
on his manuscript and seemed to derive much solace from it. Rieux was
surprised when he saw the work. In all of those years, Grand had only
the beginning sentence of his novel finished, and he was still revising
it. He had once been married to Jeanne, but she had left him.
Tarrou was an engaging fellow, a political agitator who had been
concerned with governmental upheavals over the whole continent. He kept
a meticulous diary in which he told of the ravages and sorrows of the
plague. One of his neighbors was an old man who each morning called the
neighborhood cats to him and shredded paper for them to play with. Then,
when all the cats were around him, he would spit on them with great
accuracy. After the plague grew worse, the city authorities killed all
cats and dogs to check possible agents of infection. The old man,
deprived of his cats as targets, stayed indoors, disconsolate.
As the blazing summer sun dried the town, a film of dust rolled over
everything. The papers were meticulous in reporting the weekly deaths.
When the weekly total, however, passed the nine hundred mark, the press
reported only daily tolls. Armed sentinels were posted to prohibit
anyone from entering or leaving the town. Letters were forbidden. Since
the telephone lines could not accommodate the increased traffic, the
only communication with the outside was by telegraph. Occasionally Rieux
had an unsatisfactory wire from his wife.
The disposal of the dead bodies presented a problem. The little cemetery
was soon filled, but the authorities made more room by cremating the
remains in the older graves. At last two pits were dug in an adjoining
field, one for men and one for women. When those pits were filled, a
greater pit was dug, and no further effort was made to separate the
sexes. The corpses were simply dropped in and covered with quicklime and
a thin layer of earth. Discarded streetcars were used to transport the
dead to the cemetery.
Rieux was in charge of one of the new wards at the infirmary. There was
little he could do, however, for the serum from Paris was not effective.
He observed what precautions he could, and to ease pain he lanced the
distended buboes. Most of the patients died. Castel, an older physician,
was working on a new serum.
Father Paneloux preached a sermon on the plague in which he called
Oran's pestilence a retribution. Monsieur Othon, the judge, had a son
under Rieux's care by the time Castel's new serum was ready. The serum
did the boy little good; although he did show unexpected resistance, he
died a painful death. Father Paneloux, who had been watching as a lay
helper, knew the boy was not evil; he could no longer think of the
plague as a retribution. His next sermon was confused. He seemed to be
saying that man must submit to God's will in all things. For the priest,
this view meant rejection of medical aid. When he himself caught the
fever, he submitted to Rieux's treatment, but only because he had to.
Father Paneloux died a bewildered man.
Rambert, because he was not a citizen of Oran, tried his best to escape.
Convinced that there was no legal means of leaving the city, he planned
to leave with some illicit smugglers. Then the spirit of the plague
affected him. He voluntarily stayed to help Rieux and the sanitation
teams, for he realized that only in fighting a common evil could he find
Tarrou had left home early because his father was a prosecutor; the
thought of the wretched criminals condemned to death because of his
father's zeal horrified him. After he had been an agitator for years, he
finally realized that the workings of politics often resulted in similar
executions. He had fled to Oran just before the plague started. There he
found an answer to his problem in organizing and directing sanitary
Cottard seemed content with plague conditions. Wanted for an old crime,
he felt safe from pursuit during the quarantine. When the plague eased a
little, two officers came for him, but he escaped. He was recaptured in
a street gunfight.
Grand caught the fever but miraculously recovered to work again on his
manuscript. Tarrou, also infected, died in Rieux's house. As the colder
weather of January came, the plague ended. Rieux heard by telegram that
his wife had died.
The streets became crowded again as lovers, husbands, and wives were
reunited. Rieux dispassionately observed the masses of humanity. He had
learned that human contact is important for everyone. For himself, he
was content to help man fight against disease and pain.
In the decade and a half that followed the end of World War II, as the
West strived to repair the physical, psychic, and spiritual damage
wrought by that conflict, the voice of Albert Camus, with its reasoned
yet passionate affirmation of human dignity in the face of an "absurd"
universe—an absurdity made palpable by the Nazi horror— was one of the
major artistic, philosophical, and moral sources of strength and
The Plague is the most thorough fictional presentation of Camus' mature
thinking. In earlier works—notably the play Caligula (1938), the novel
The Stranger (1942), and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)—Camus
articulated his concept of the "absurd." Man is absurd because he has
neither metaphysical justification nor essential connection to the
universe. He is part of no divine scheme and, since he is mortal, all of
his actions, individual and collective, eventually come to nothing. The
only question, then, is how can man deal with his absurdity?
Camus' answer lies in his concept of "revolt." Man revolts against his
condition first by understanding it and then, in the face of his cosmic
meaninglessness, creating his own human meanings. In the previously
mentioned works, Camus explored the problem in terms of the individual;
in The Plague, Camus extends his moral and philosophical analysis to the
question of man as a social creature. What, Camus asks, in the face of
an absurd universe, is man's relationship to, and responsibility for,
The paradox that lies at the center of Camus' revolt concept is that of
heroic futility. One struggles in spite of—even because of—the fact
that, ultimately, one must lose. If the idea of the absurd denies man's
cosmic meaning, it affirms his common bond. Since all men must die, all
men are brothers. Mutual cooperation, not self-indulgence, is the
logical ethic that Camus derives from his absurd perspective. To give an
artistic shape to these convictions, Camus chooses a "plague" as an
appropriate metaphor for the human condition, since it intensifies this
awareness of man's mortality and makes the common bond especially clear.
Camus carefully divides the novel into five parts which correspond to
the progression of the pestilence. Parts 1 and 5 show life before the
plague's onslaught and after its subsidence. Parts 2 and 4 concentrate
on the details of communal and personal suffering and, in particular, on
the activities and reactions of the main characters as they do battle
with the disease. Part 3, the climax of the book, shows the epidemic at
its height and the community reduced to a single collective entity,
where time has stopped, personal distinctions are lost, and suffering
and despair have become routine.
The story is narrated by Dr. Bernard Rieux, who waits until almost the
end of the novel to identify himself, in a factual, impersonal, almost
documentary style. His account is occasionally supplemented by extracts
from the journal of Jean Tarrou, but these intrusions, while more
subjective and colorful, are characterized by a running irony that also
keeps the reader at a distance. Both narratives, however, are juxtaposed
against vivid, emotionally charged scenes. This continual movement back
and forth between narrative austerity and dramatic immediacy, and from
lucid analysis to emotional conflict, gives The Plague much of its depth
Three of the principal characters—Rieux, Tarrou, and the clerk Joseph
Grand—accept their obligation to battle the epidemic as soon as it is
identified. Rieux is probably the character who comes the closest to
speaking for Camus. As a medical doctor, he has devoted his life to the
losing battle with disease and death, and so the plague is simply an
intensification of his normal life. From the outset he accepts the
plague as a fact and fights against it with all the skill, endurance,
and energy he can muster. He finds his only "certitude" in his daily
round. There is no heroism involved, only the logic of the situation;
and even after the plague has retreated, Rieux has no conviction that
his actions had anything to do with its defeat. Yet Rieux learns much
from his experience and, as the narrator, his is Camus' final word on
the meaning of the ordeal.
Unlike Rieux, whose ideas are the practical consequence of his
professional experience, Jean Tarrou first had the philosophical
revelation and then shaped his life to it. Seeing his father, a
prosecuting attorney, condemn a man to death, Tarrou became enraged with
the inhumanity of his society and turned to revolutionary politics. That
too, he came to realize, inevitably involved him in condemning others to
death. Thus he felt infected with the "plague"—defined as whatever
destroys human life— long before coming to Oran, and it has reduced him
to a purposeless existence colored only by the ironic observations he
jots down in his journal. When the plague arrives, he quickly and
eagerly organizes the sanitation squads; the crisis gives him the
opportunity to side with the victims of life's absurdity without fearing
that his actions will inadvertently add to their misery. Such obvious,
total commitments, however, are not available under normal conditions,
and so Tarrou appropriately dies as one of the plague's last victims.
Both Rieux and Tarrou are too personally inhuman— Rieux with his
abstract view of man, Tarrou with his desire for secular sainthood—to
qualify as heroic. The most admirable person in the book is the clerk
Joseph Grand, who accepts his role in the plague automatically, needing
neither professional nor philosophical justifications, simply because
"people must help each other." His greater humanity is further
demonstrated by the fact that, while carrying out his commitment to the
victims of the plague, he continues to show active grief over the loss
of his wife and tenaciously revolts in his artistic attempt to write the
perfect novel (even though he cannot manage the perfect first sentence).
Among the other principal characters, the journalist Raymond Rambert
opts for "personal happiness"; Father Paneloux presents the Christian
reaction to the pestilence; and Cottard acts out the role of the
Caught in Oran by accident when the plague breaks out, Rambert turns his
energies to escape, exhausting every means, legal and otherwise, to
rejoin his wife. It is in him that the issue of exile or separation from
loved ones is most vividly presented. For most of the novel he rejects
the view that the plague imposes a social obligation on all; he insists
that individual survival and personal happiness are primary.
Furthermore, although Rieux is the book's principal advocate of
collective responsibility, the doctor admits to Rambert that happiness
is as valid an option as service. Even when Rambert finally decides to
remain voluntarily and continue the fight, the issue remains ambiguous.
At the end, as Rambert embraces his wife, he still wonders if he made
the right moral choice.
If Rieux accepts Rambert's happiness as a decent option, he does not
extend that tolerance to Father Paneloux's Christian view of the
epidemic. The Plague has been called the most anti-Christian of Camus'
books, and that is probably correct, although it could be argued that
the ethical values advocated are essentially Christian ones. As a system
of beliefs, however, it is clear that Christianity—at least as
understood by Paneloux—is tested by the pestilence and found wanting. If
the priest's beliefs are inadequate, however, his actions are heroic,
and it is this incongruity between his theological convictions and his
existential behavior that gives his character and fate its special
Near the beginning of the epidemic, he preaches a sermon in which he
proclaims that it is a manifestation of divine justice. Later in the
book, after he has become one of the most active fighters against the
plague and a witness to the suffering and death of numerous innocents,
Paneloux's simple vision of sin and punishment is shaken.
He preaches a second sermon in which he advocates a blind, total
acceptance of a God who seems, from the human vantage point, to be
indifferent, arbitrary, perhaps even evil. Thus driven to this extreme
either/or position, Paneloux finally dies of the plague. Significantly,
he is the only victim whose body is unmarked by the disease; he has been
destroyed emotionally and spiritually because his religious vision was
inadequate to the challenge, and he could not live without that
The most ambiguous character of all is Cottard. As a criminal, he has
lived in a constant state of fear and exile. Unable to endure such
separation, he attempts to commit suicide near the beginning of the
book. Once the plague sets in, and all are subjected to that same sense
of fear and solitude, however, Cottard rejoins humanity and flourishes;
the plague is his natural element. Once it dissipates and he is again
faced with isolation, Cottard goes berserk.
Thus, Camus describes the various human reactions to the
plague—acceptance, defiance, detachment, solitary rejection, social
commitment, criminality. The only value of the epidemic, Rieux admits,
is educational, but the price paid for the knowledge is much too high.
Nevertheless, even in the midst of the ordeal, there are moments of
supreme pleasure and meaningful human connection. Shortly before the
plague's last onslaught that takes Tar-rou's life, he and Rieux defy
regulations and go for a short swim. For a few brief moments, they are
at one with the elements and in natural instinctive harmony with each
other. The interlude soon ends, however, and both men return to the
struggle—Tarrou to die, Rieux to chronicle its passing. He finally
concludes, therefore, that the only victory won from the plague amounts
to "knowledge and memories" and the conviction that men are, on the