Albert Camus’ novels The Plague and The Fall both have significant things to say about the human condition, though they take somewhat different strategies for telling them. The Plague uses a wide variety of characters, with no explicit narrator until the end, to tell the story of an entire town’s struggle against an infectious plague that wreaks havoc on the town of Oran. In The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence is the clear narrator, the book taking the form of long monologues that brings the reader into the conversation with him. The characters of The Plague, however, are all at least earnest in their convictions, and transparent in their motivations, even though that often leads to conflict between them.
Clamence is a jovial, yet haunted figure, always looking for flaws in other people while ignoring the flaws in himself. When he meets someone, he tries to size them up and figure them out, in this way putting a distance between him and them. Due to his job as a judge-penitent, he is able to find loopholes that allow him to succeed in life and get away with doing unethical things. A transient figure, he never stays in one place for too long, for fear that people will find out that he is just as much of a fraud as he realizes he is. What’s more, he manages to remain completely unrepentant of terrible actions he has performed, and cannot bring himself to cry at his own mother’s funeral (Camus Journal, p. 51).
Compare Clamence’s selfishness to that of Doctors Reiux and Tarrou in The Plague, who selflessly toil day and night, giving up all sense of safety or happiness or comfort, all for the sake of potentially saving the lives of the people of Oran. Despite the fact that they recognize the futility of their actions, as death will come for these patients eventually, they recognize that life only has meaning when death is being staved off. This sense of ethics and pragmatism is much less comfortable, but far more noble, than Clamence’s mercurial wanderings. If Clamence were to appear in Oran at the time of the plague, he would quickly make his way out of the town while still maintaining a guise of friendliness; he may even pretend that he is going to get help, when in reality he would just make a run for it.
In a way, Clamence is similar in this respect to Reiux, who has to put on a brave face for the victims of the plague, and force an emotional distance between then, so as not to get too close to them. For Reiux, it is because he cannot bear to be emotionally hurt by the eventual death and anguish of his patients; for Clamence, he simply is not interested in anyone but himself (or anyone who can help him boost his ego). Though they do so for different reasons, both Reiux and Clamence place a similar importance on not letting people get too close.
Clamence and Reiux deal with the issue of a world without purpose in different ways. Clamence uses his position as a judge penitent to ascribe himself as his own personal God; he also goes around telling people to recognize their own unconditional guilt, understanding that innocence is impossible, but there is no salvation through God, as he is dead. This is in stark contrast to Father Paneloux, the priest of Oran, who uses the plague itself to strengthen his belief in God. Though he is shaken from time to time, he comes to the conclusion that God’s will is abosolute, and must be accepted no matter what – even if it means the death of many innocents through a plague. Despite his desire to live, he desires to obey God’s will even more, choosing to let the disease take its course without medical help once he contracts it. This is a far nobler, if still misguided, perspective than Clamence’s, who thinks that he is personally responsible for the salvation of mankind by the end of the book.
Comparing the characters of The Plague with The Fall’s Clamence, it is clear that Clamence operates as a narcissistic, transient menace, operating without connection to people, and willing to ignore the unethical things he has done in order to live with himself. The citizens of Oran, however, have to live with the plague, and choose that moment to behave as a community, many working together to find a way through to the end of the epidemic. This level of solidarity and cooperation is something that Clamence, being the master of his own world, could never understand.
Camus, Albert. The fall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Toronto: Coles, 1980. Print.
Schrahe, Svenja. “Solidarity of the Absurd.” Camus Journal, 2010.