Book Review: the Plague by Albert Camus

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June 27, 2012

Book Critique of Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE

In reading Camus’ The Plague, I found myself easily attaching personal significance to the many symbolic references and themes alluded to in this allegorical work. Some of the most powerful messages woven throughout the novel seem to all speak to conflict or imbalance between two ends of a spectrum. The ideas of apathy vs. concern, solidarity vs. isolation, freedom vs. imprisonment (intellectually and physically), individual moral responsibility vs. the power of the collective, as well as the potential abuse of the power that government and religion have over the masses. When the rate of human deaths in Oran starts to cause reason for concern among Rieux and the town doctors, the Prefect needs to choose how to balance alerting the public to the epidemic, while not causing alarm or hysteria. He chooses to remain silent initially. This is our first glimpse at an ethical dilemma in the book, and one where the choice to not act was as powerful as taking action. The silence allowed more time for more people to be infected and the deaths mounted. Should the doctors have acted independently from the Prefect? Should Rambert, the journalist, have used his position to spread the word via the newspaper? Could they have done so in a way that would have been “heard” by the public without confirmation from the Prefect? Or would the doctors or media’s speaking the truth have caused chaos, or worse: disbelief and therefore a “tuning-out” of the public?

As time passes and more people start to die, the word “plague” is finally used. Despite the Rieux’s previous experience in dealing with a plague in China and France, the news still seems to come as a surprise. It seems to be a primal defense tactic to protect oneself from the shock of a perceived or actual threat, and to instead cling to optimism at all costs…even to the point of denial. The following quotes speak to this theme: “In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard…he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence” pg. 32

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise” pg. 32
“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves” pg. 32
While Rieux was caught in a state between awareness and denial, the townspeople were in the grip of apathy, denial and cockiness (they forgot their “modesty”, as Camus says). They simply could not wrap their head around something so pervasive and overpowering as the Plague. They continued their travel, business and social plans despite finally having heard the news. This lack of action on the part of the townspeople highlights another shortcoming in humans in that we allow ourselves to so easily slip back into complacency and apathy, even after (or at the same time, but in a different context) expressing rage and disapproval over the pain and suffering of others and vowing “never again”.

This public lack of concern or engagement caused more time to pass, resulting in mounting death tolls, and soon the town has to be sequestered to contain the spread of the epidemic. Was the news delivered “too little, too late”? Would any choice of when or

how to deliver the news have mattered to the apathetic, self-absorbed public? How does one generate in others a true interest in a subject that doesn’t directly affect their own narrow circle of experience? Is it only when calamity strikes close to home that we are awakened and moved into action? Consider the following quote: “Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak of such assurance of the truth with a capital T” pg. 116 Father Paneloux, the town priest, does not personally face a Plague-related death until much later in the story. Till that time comes, he uses the plague to support his ideological religious propaganda. He calls...
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