The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is a thought-provoking piece of literature. The novel is centered around the fictional Algerian town of Oran. The town is plunged into chaos and suffering when a mysterious plague appears and ravages the citizens who live there pushing them towards the brink of collapse. There are two distinct themes in this novel. The two themes of indifference in death and the value of human life are seen throughout the novel's entirety. Death itself is indifferent in who or what it choses. Life is portrayed as a valuable thing that needs to be preserved. These two themes, however, are really established through symbolism. The theme of indifference is conveyed through the symbolism of the rats, the weather of Oran and the town itself and the death of Jacques Othon. The theme of the preservation of human life and fighting against death is conveyed through the symbolism of the characters of Dr. Rieux, Rambert and Tarrou. Without these symbols, the themes would lose a lot of their meaning.
Suffering and agonizing pain abound throughout this novel. A plague spreads across the town of Oran. The plague, very similar to the Bubonic Plague is first seen in the rats that inhabit the town. It quickly spreads to the citizens and it turns the city into a wasteland of corpses and pain. The plague kills indifferently leading up to the first and most noticeable theme. The theme all of this death and suffering represents is the indifference of death. The plague affects everyone equally. It appears unannounced and can strike down anyone at any given time. It kills without regard to age, sex, social status or ethnic background. The plague leaves people in a state of fear and uncertainty which ultimately ends up in death. This theme of indifference in death is portrayed greatly by symbolism throughout the novel. There are three areas of symbolism that I will focus on that are key to this theme.
These three symbols are: the rats, the weather of Oran and the town itself and the death of Jacques Othon.
The rats are perhaps the most prevalent symbol in the novel that death is indifferent in who or what it choses to take. The rats do not simply symbolize the plague itself, rather, they are symbols of the townspeople of Oran. “He saw a big fat rat coming toward him from the dark end of the passage. It moved uncertainly, and its fur was sopping wet. The animal stopped and seemed to be trying to get its balance, moved forward again towards the doctor, halted again, then spun around on itself with a little squeal and fell on its side” (Camus 7). This quote from the novel shows how the rats are dying. This can be connected to the indifference in death because this is exactly how the people will start to die later in the novel. It seems to indicate that men are made equal to animals by their common mortality. The rats die in streets, buildings and in some of the busiest places in the city and people follow suit. The rats die without any of Oran's citizens really caring at first. The reader's and the citizens' indifference to the dead rats is like the universe's indifference to dead people.
Perhaps a more subtle symbol that can be connected back to the main theme of indifference in dying is the role both the town and its weather play to the novel. The town of Oran is described as very ugly and also as a bad place to die. “But at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business, the uninspiring surroundings, the sudden nightfalls, and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there. Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat” (Camus 5). It is ironic that a town that prides itself upon being a town that you need to be healthy to live in falls victim to a plague. This quote shows that death does not judge by place. Just because Oran is a place that makes invalids feel out of place...