World War II has gone down in history as one of the deadliest, most brutal, and inhumane wars of all time. It even outshines it predecessor, which was thought to be the “war to end all wars”, yet not even twenty five years later, a new threat by humanity to humanity emerged. With the death toll well into the millions, it was highly influential on many people, including the author of The Plague, Albert Camus. The Plague was published in 1947, just after the war had ended, and its contents would delicately reopen a freshly healed wound in France’s history. In The Plague, Albert Camus uses allegory to illustrate morality, death, disease, and isolation in connection with his experiences during the war as well as using the characters to convey his morality and emotions throughout wartime and post-war France.
For context, Albert Camus was born in French Algeria in 1913. During his career as a writer, Camus returned to Algeria, more specifically, the city of Oran in 1941 to collect material for a novel he was writing about the plague. However, during his stay in Oran he had a severe case of tuberculosis, causing him to return to central France (Judt). In 1942, the Allied Forces landed in Northern Africa. A great sign of the decadence that Nazi Germany would soon enter. However, soon after, Germany retaliated by invading and occupying southern France (Judt). This was devastating for Camus, as it meant that his family in Algeria were cut off from him. His strife would not end there because soon he was swept up into the French resistance. The war made Camus into an icon, a symbol of intellectual resistance against the Nazis, who were infamous for their propaganda, book burnings, and intellectual oppression/ brain washing. This is largely in part due to his role as an editor for an important war time news paper called “Combat” (Judt). As a result, when he published the novel in 1947, it was a huge success and received little backlash for its allegorical reference.
Connections between the war and The Plague can immediately be seen with the general plot of The Plague: The city of Oran succumbs to an outbreak which is deemed to be the bubonic plague after a number of rats pour into the streets and die. The authorities are soon forced to put the entire city under quarantine because of the undeniable evidence that a serious epidemic is taking a stranglehold on the city. The citizens begin to act selfishly, but they soon realize that they are all apart of the community and they need to join together to beat the epidemic. Soon, the plague subsides and life resumes as normal, but not without taking many to the grave with it. It is not very hard to see the symbolism of the elements in The Plague. The rats, who spread the illness causing the city to be quarantined, and the plague itself are representative of the Germans and Collaborationists. The quarantine and the isolation from loved ones it causes is symbolic of Camus’ home country of Algeria being cut of from France. Oran, the quarantined city, is representative of Paris, and Dr. Rieux (along with Tarrou and Rambert) are an allegory for the French resistance fighters (Haroutunian). The extent to which the war influenced Camus can be seen when Dr. Rieux “recalled that some thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast throughout history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination” (Camus 19). Here Camus talks through Dr. Rieux about how insignificant the death toll of any one event is to someone until they experience death first hand and after they have experienced it so much.
However, The Plague can be read with a deeper meaning, connecting to his own experiences with tuberculosis with the character’s experiences with the plague. Although Camus’ bout of the illness in 1941 is very significant, Camus had a very long history with it: He frequently caught it throughout his life as a result of his poor living conditions. The illness was frequently deadly, and it plagued Camus’ life, causing him much pain and isolation (Haroutunian 312). In the early 30’s it resulted in the loss of his ability to play football (soccer) and swim, both of which he was very passionate about, and it also caused him to be shunned by society in a “fearful quarantine” Haroutunian 312). Later, in 1939, Camus was denied enlistment into World War II because of the disease. Haroutunian notes that when you replace “plague” with “tuberculosis”, parallels such as the “forced isolation”, the “hush-hush attitude of the Municipality”, the separation from loved ones, and the “optimism and despair in the face of long illness” can be drawn between the plague in the novel and Camus’ experience with tuberculosis. The clinical description of tuberculosis also parallels that of the plague “especially in the pulmonary forms with hemoptysis (the coughing of blood)” (Haroutunian 313). As a result of this, one can draw the connections between the suffering of the character’s due to the plague and Camus’ personal suffering due to tuberculosis.
Camus used a lot of the characters as a method to convey his thoughts and emotions, but the main three include Rambert, Dr. Rieux, and Tarrou (Judt). Rambert was primarily used to represent his moral perspective. Rambert, a self centered man who, having been cut off from his wife in Paris, is attempting to escape the quarantine, comes to realize just before his departure that he is a part of the community despite his self-centeredness, so he decides to stay in Oran and join a health team to help combat the plague. This parallels Camus’ initial denial of enlistment into the war, but eventual uptaking after the Germans invade France.
Dr. Rieux, the narrator of the novel who remains anonymous the majority of the time, serves as a way for Camus to express his emotions which he felt throughout the writing of the novel. Facing and suffering from a crisis, Dr. Rieux faces the issue head on even becoming a leader. This parallels Camus’ wartime efforts, with him becoming an intellectual leader whom many looked to for polished world views (Judt). However, caused Camus to be both exhausted and depressed, as he often did not have a lot to share (Judt). He expressed his through Dr. Rieux: “The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in, though he had much liking for his fellow men and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth. ” (Camus 6).
With Tarrou, Camus went more in depth with his morality. Tarrou moved away from his father because of his distaste for his father’s advocacy of the death penalty. Tarrou’s feelings on the death penalty reflect those of Camus, which he vehemently opposed after the war had ended. The symbolism for Camus’ morality goes further. At one point, Tarrou talks about how he feels guilty for causing the plague because he supported the actions and principles that led to the outbreak. This can be seen as a parallel to Camus’ feeling about his role in the Algerian branch of the French Communist Party. Similar to his post-war opposition to the death penalty, he soon turned against Marxism and Communism for embracing revolution. He even went as far as to say that Marxists and Communists were guilty of ignoring the absurdity of life with their wholesale transformation of society (Aronson 4). This rejection of communism is reflected in Tarrou’s rejection of “anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others’ putting him to death” (Camus 123).
Although Camus’ character’s in The Plague appear to be full of symbolism and depth, others argue that Dr. Rieux’s fight against the plague is “undramatic and stubborn” (Brée 99). Brée, also states that “Self-analysis, in fact psychological analysis of any kind, disappears from the novel since the struggle is carried outward and symbolized by the characters’ relation to the plague” (99).
The Plague by Albert Camus is widely regarded as a classic, allegorical tale of the Nazi occupation of France. Even from the surface, connections between Camus’ experience with the war can be drawn, and with context such as Camus’ medical history and life story, further connections can be drawn between his experiences and emotions. Camus’ experiences such as being cut off from family because of the Nazi occupation of France, tuberculosis, and his emotions during this time are all paralleled through his novel The Plague.
- Judt, Tony. “A Hero for Our Times.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2001, www.theguardian.com/books/2001/nov/17/albertcamus?scrlybrkr=70496b57.
- Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 10 Apr. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.
- Brée, Germaine. “Albert Camus and the Plague.” Yale French Studies, no. 8, 1951, pp. 93–100. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2929136.
- Haroutunian, Lulu M. “Albert Camus and the White Plague.” MLN, vol. 79, no. 3, 1964, pp. 311–315. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3042843.
- Camus, Albert. The Plague. 1948.