The Metaphorical Significance of The Plague
Albert Camus’ The Plague was first published in France and was an immediate best-seller. Its success and profundity were probably deciding factors in his winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Shortly after publication Roland Barthes, the French critic and philosopher, criticized Camus for what he described as “ignoring history (Maze, 53). Camus’ response is interesting for the way we interpret this novel. In an open letter responding to Barthes, Camus wrote that The Plague had “to be read on a number of levels.” (Maze, 54). This essay will explore these different levels and examine the plague in Oran as a metaphor, a multi-layered metaphor which gives the novel its importance and interest.
On a historical level, the plague that infests Oran is, contrary to Barthes’ assertion, a metaphor which has deep historical meanings. Camus, in his open letter to Barthes, went on to say that The Plague “‘has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against the Nazis.” (Maze, 54). Thus, far from ignoring history, The Plague refers directly to recent European history and the moral dilemmas faced by citizens across Europe whose countries were conquered and occupied by the Germans. Thus, Oran is in a metaphorical sense, Paris – occupied by the Nazis (the plague) and cut off effectively from the civilized world. Camus makes no secret of his political affiliations either: he fought with the French resistance against fascism and to use the bubonic plague as a metaphor for the Nazi regime is to condemn utterly and completely the moral crimes that the Germans under Hitler committed all across Europe. In addition, the reactions of individual characters to the plague represent the different reactions of the French to Occupation by foreign forces. Thus, The Plague is rooted very much in its historical context and serves as a warning about future political tyranny. At the end of the novel, as Maze points out, “the spirit of brutal tyranny has not been conquered. It will always lie dormant in society, waiting for historical pressures to propel it into life again.”(54). In this sense, then, the plague in the novel acts as a metaphor on a political level.
On the other hand, there are elements of the novel which make it timeless in quality. Camus’ choice of bubonic plague – a disease that we associate firmly with the past (indeed, the distant past) and the dispassionate, almost neutral tone that the narrative adopts gives the whole novel a timeless quality, so that there is a case for saying that Oran and what happens to its citizens is a metaphor for human life itself. Indeed, we can go further, and argue that given the city’s isolation from the outside world, the city’s situation is analogous to that of the individual cut off from all other human beings because of his or her individuality – and the cast of characters can therefore be seen as representing the choices we have when faced with the situation described in the novel. Therefore, the characters work on an individual level – showing that different people react differently to such a terrible situation – but they also act as alternative ciphers for the possibilities of behavior open to to the individual human being. In this sense, The Plague is a metaphor for the human condition and represents the death that we must all face. In this sense the novel is deeply philosophical.
Camus is associated with existentialism, a trend in French philosophy made famous by Jean Paul Sartre. Existentialism is essentially an atheistic philosophy that asserts that human life has no meaning beyond that which the individual human gives his or her own life. In its extreme form existentialism was used as an excuse for despair at the state of the human condition and an individualistic posturing, a hedonistic pursuit of individual pleasure in a world where nothing has any meaning. The influence of existentialism might even be responsible, in strange cultural ways, for the counter-culture of the 1960s. However, Camus was not an existentialist in the strict terms defined by Sartre. (Maze, 112). Camus believed in the essential tenet of existentialism – that life has no real purpose or meaning, but this means facing up to an ontological and teleological vacuum, and Camus’ position was softened by his humanism and, perhaps, by his experiences during the Second World War as a fighter against the Nazis. Thus, the characters in The Plague can be judged by the reader according to their reactions to their situation. Camus’ humanistic values mean that we can give ourselves meaning in our lives depending on how we treat others and how we react to adversity. For example, Maze points out that between the existentialist despair of The Outsider (1942 ) and the publication of The Plague Camus has moved from existential isolation “towards solidarity and participation.” (55). Leavy supports this notion, referring to what she calls Camus’ sense of “civic duty” (185) and going so far as to claim that by the time he wrote The Plague Camus
understood in The Plague... the uncomplicated necessity for people to do what they have to do in order to fight the plague and face together that which concerns them all, human decency becomes the manifestation not of human nature... but of Camus’s contention... that ’there are more things to admire in men than to despise’, that the evils in the world help people ‘rise above themselves.’ ( 185).
The evils in the world allow men to rise above themselves? What does this mean when we look at the behavior of individual characters in The Plague?
At the start of the plague most of the citizens of Oran are self-centredly obsessed with their own sufferings and ignore the sufferings of their fellow citizens. They are a long way from Camus’ stated attitude of “solidarity and participation.” None of the attempts to halt the epidemic are successful, but Camus suggests heavily that those who try to do something about the situation attain a kind of moral heroism for attempting to ward off the inevitable – this attitude is a long way from the apparent nihilism of existentialism. The population of Oran have no choice: they are going to die whatever they do and Camus suggests, through the example of certain characters, that in such situations, then human beings can achieve a sort of nobility through resistance rather than capitulation and despair. In terms of the metaphor of human life, therefore, to strive to ameliorate the lives of others and to refuse to give in, to capitulate, achieves a moral heroism which, the novel suggests, is inherently valuable. In this sense Dr. Rieux is one of the characters that we are invited to admire the most: he refuses to give in to the plague and is not obsessed with his personal predicament in being separated from his wife. On the other hand, Raymond Rambert spends all his time in futile attempts to leave the city (in a metaphorical sense – to deny the certainty of his eventual death) and his behaviour is not endorsed by the novel. Jean Tarrou has a lot in common with Dr. Rieux: although he is an atheist, his moral position seems closest to that of Camus himself because he believes that the citizens of Oran give meaning to their lives when they start to help each other and to take part in the admittedly-futile attempt to beat the plague (in metaphorical, philosophical terms to fight against the inevitability of death). Cottard is another generic type of human who profits personally in criminal, black market activities for personal enrichment: he can be seen as working, as a fictional character, on different levels: in the Nazi occupation, Cottard would have collaborated; in the conditions of the plague-struck city of Oran, he solipsistically acts in his own material interests with no thoughts for others; philosophically, he has not admitted the pointlessness of human existence, so he is ill-placed to move on to the higher level of “solidarity and participation.” Dr. Richard is well-meaning but innocuously naive – he delays acting, preferring to wait and see what will happen: unaware of the urgency of the situation (whether it is the Nazi occupation, the plague in Oran or the wider philosophical implications of human mortality), he does not act at all, and achieves, therefore, no meaning. Camus’ greatest scorn, perhaps, is reserved for Father Paneloux – the Jesuit priest. Initially he portrays the plague as a punishment sent from God for the sins of the people of Oran, but faced with such an enormous scale of human suffering, changes his mind and declares it is a simple test by God of the people’s faith. As a man of the church, he has no alternative, unless he is to change his belief, but in the context of the novel and the suffering of Oran, his response is presented as morally redundant.
The plague that Oran suffers from is a metaphor with specific historical connotations – the Nazi occupation of France, but wider more philosophical layers of meaning which examine what it is to be human and what it might mean to give one’s life any sort of meaning in an essentially meaningless world. Camus concludes that the only way to do this is to show solidarity and co-operation, so that, through the better sides of human nature, we can impose a meaning, a fragile, hard-won meaning, on an otherwise meaningless existence. This is an existentialist novel with a humanist twist.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. 1970. London: Penguin. Print.
Leavy, Barbara F. To Blight with Plague: Studies in a Literary Theme. 1993. New York: New York University Press. Print.
Maze, John Robert. Albert Camus: Plague and Terror, Priest and Atheist. 2010. Oxford: Peter Lang. Print.