Albert Camus’ The Plague, takes place in the desert town of Oran, Algeria, in northern Africa. It is the perfect setting for this story to take place. The ordinariness of Oran is contrasted with the extraordinary business of the plague. Sprintzen points out that “There is a mythic significance of Oran. Given the previous description of the quality of Oranian life, the selection of Oran as the location for the outbreak of plague should not come as a surprise”(Sprintzen 38). In Oran, life for its inhabitants has lost meaning. The plague offers them a chance to give meaning back to their lives. The plot of the story is revealed in five parts, over which we see the characters undergo changes. Through the Oranian’s attitudes towards death in The Plague, they go through stages, which leave them with a final hope for life.
As the novel starts, the Oranians are completely unaware of what is happening or what is about to happen around them and therefore cannot possibly be aware of the coming plague. The opening portion describes men’s individual actions in a city as yet not officially touched by the plague. Riley believes that “First the people of Oran, and they are not extraordinary in this way, are characterized as making no effort to reach the true nature of each other, and, unaware of the reality of their world and it other inhabitants, they are unfit to become easily aware of the coming plague” (Riley 93). The main focus of every person in Oran is himself. Everyone in Oran wishes to be an individual, to have none of the problems of the rest of the world. Sprintzen observes that “The people don’t want to be stuck in the same boat with someone else; each believes one man’s problems are his own, while they truly affect everyone”(Sprintzen 84). The emphasis on the habits which have been formed and cultivated by the “soulless” people of Oran are significant. Vital living can be stifled by habits. Todd suggests that “It is at this point that one should revolt against his stultifying pattern of living. Recognition of bottomless death makes a habit-bound life even more absurd”(Todd 165). Considering that they are completely unaware of anything around them, it is easy to see that the disease captures the city completely by surprise; no one is prepared for it. Doctors gather to discuss the matter. They have trouble naming the disease at first, and refuse to accept it for what it is. This reflects the whole attitude of the town, as the citizens do they very same thing. Doctors in particular are the first attempt to combat the disease. The individual efforts are valiant but have a negligible effect. An epidemic is a problem, which belongs not to a person but to people. It becomes apparent, however that it cannot merely be “one” who must oppose the plague. No matter what the doctors do one their own, they cannot stop the dying. The number of victims lost to the plague climbs higher and higher. Sprintzen writes “The Plague does, beyond any possible discussion, represent the transition from an attitude of solitary revolt to the recognition of a community whose struggles must be shared”(Sprintzen 103). Yet slowly at first, people begin to die, and the citizens of Oran take notice. The residents of Oran do not need to worry about looking for society and its common welfare, as each of them is wrapped up in his own concerns. The citizen’s awareness of the plague, however, changes all of this. At the end of Part one, Plague is proclaimed.
The second part of the book begins with the statement that “from now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us.” Once the town gates are shut, the individual actions, emphasized in the first part of the book, give way to the more universal feelings of fear and separation shared by all. The town and citizens have moved to a point of awareness of the plague and whats going on around them. Riley claims that “Then the brutal statistics awaken them, and they psychologically gird for battle”(Riley 93). Throughout part one, there is a sense of urgency and frustration. Death is seen throughout the novel and we are among the few to realize what is happening as the toll increases. The frustration, however, is not wholly a life and death matter. Now, besides lives, there are values, which are being destroyed. Rhein declares that “But Camus is structuring an irony. Death does not seem as important as knowledge does”(Rhein75). We do not feel horror when the plague is acknowledged; the horror of the disease had already saturated us. We can see its ugly symptoms-the heaps of rats’ bodies and the blood-and pus-swollen sores. The plague is already very real to the characters and to us. Spritzen observes that “When the designation is officially announced the news seems good, for it means that although death, for awhile, is the victor, at least ignorance has been defeated. We read of the acknowledgement of the plague with a sense of relief. Truth has victory. A lucid evaluation of the crisis has been achieved, the enemy has been revealed and can now be confronted”(Spritzen 72). We now see Oran’s new environment and the adjustment of the townspeople toward it. They are taken by surprise and caught unprepared. Riley comments that “This new environment of Oran is like a world turned upside down-by accident, loved ones are away from the city, there are no letters, no telephone calls, no word from the Out There”(Riley 93). Few Oranians adjust to this. For most of the citizens there are two ways of coping with the quarantine. At first some people surrender; others invent diversionary escapes. Knapp notes that “Of particular interest is how the plague binds men together and then, ironically, cuts them apart and rebinds each man within himself. Each man is as trapped as his neighbor; no one has special consideration under the plague’s regime. There is an immediate leveling of social distinctions”(Knapp 80). All of the citizens are equally in trouble, but they cannot comfort one another because they have never done so before. They have never expressed traditional emotions, and thus it is frustrating and useless to speak of the extreme emotions that the plague produces. The people talk past one another. They are trapped in Oran and in themselves. Dr. Rieux suggests that the Oranians are lucky. Bloom comments that “This is a strange statement, but it has its genesis in Camus’ fondness for irony. The Oranians are lucky because their suffering is selfishly and limitedly personal. Because no one feels great compassion, they escape the deepest distress”(Bloom 112). In Part two we see a concern of the role of the Church during the plague-what its attitude was and how it battled Oran’s murderous enemy. Rhein points out that “Here Camus presents Religion versus Plague. The Church has defined: the plague has a beginning and, ostensibly, an end. It has originated in the sin of Oran, its purpose is punishment, and its termination is dependent upon repentance”(Rhein 142). Father Paneloux is the priest in Oran. Throughout the novel he delivers two sermons. Bloom comments that “The first one is given in part two and affirms that the plague is a punishment sent by God and that the people of Oran must repent and do penance”(Bloom 109). After the Sunday sermon, Oran begins noticeably to change; Rieux says, “panic flares up.” At the root of Oran’s panic is probably the resurgence of fresh deaths. Death has vivid bloody traces; it is visual. A sharp rise in its death will stir panic before preaching will. The plague is no longer an irritant or even a coming danger. It is a fact and it has firmly embedded itself around Oran’s perimeter. The suburbs have continually felt its growth and have become part of “a tightening belt of death that draws together toward the center of the city”(Knapp142). Moreover, the disease is no longer merely “plague.” It begins to have a diversity and an adaptability belonging to the philosophy of adapting and surviving. The plague has separated Oran from the outside and many of the Oranians from their loved ones, but it has begun to unite men of different temperaments and philosophies and to create a feeling of common humanity among them.
In this third section, no isolated actions are described. The individual revolt of the first week of the plague is replaced with a vast despondency in which nothing is left “but a series of present moments.” Riley states that “In this third part of the novel the citizens of Oran are crushed both physically and psychologically; their bodies die, and so do their minds and hearts; they are ready to surrender, and their hearts are emptied of love”(Riley 93). Rhein agrees when he says “Whereas in the early days of the plague the people of Oran had been struck by the host of small details that had ment so much to them personally and had made their lives unique, they now took an interest only in what interested everyone else; they had only general ideas, and even their tenderest affections now seemed abstract, items of the common stock”(Rhein 52). Part three is a short, intense chronicle of the crisis weeks in Oran, “the time when two natural powers-the plague’s rising fever and the midsummer sun-incinerate the city’s prisoners. No longer is there active revolt. The panic-generated energy of part two is gone”(Knapp 156). Depression has struck the population. Oranians now have the task of withstanding the fever and the summer heat. There are mass burials of all that the plague has struck. Plague makes direct kills on some citizens; but on others it is more devious. Spritzen suggests that “The latter must battle on several fronts: fear, panic, and a feeling of exile and separation drain love from the heart; the senses are physically assaulted; the mind suffers major losses of hope and logic”(Spritzen 286). Even imagination fails finally to recall separated loved ones, just as a memory eventually succumbs. There is a trance-like adaptation to the plague. Horror reaches a point that fails to horrify any longer; it becomes a kind of monotonous norm, a habit. The Oranians live for the present, but are so sad and spiritless that they cannot inject their living with meaning. The changes within the people and within the city are important elements in this section. The plague, for example, is no longer concentrated in the outer districts. Suddenly it strikes the center of Oran, at its heart. Rhein comments that “We see Irony when we realize that plague initially isolated Oran from the outside world. Then, once inside the city, after it had given the town if not a responsible solidarity, at least a united sense of common trouble, it viciously attacked not individuals, but groups and caused members to be individual quarantined isolation”(Rhein 76). We see many more burials and then the worst is over. When the city can withstand no more, the plague begins to level off.
The deadening immobility described in part three lies in violent contrast to the vibrant descriptions of individual actions that make part four the most moving and significant section of the book. Riley comments that “In part four the Oranians learn how to fight; they learn that their resistance must be organized; they learn that only by fighting beside and for one another do they have any hope of surviving themselves”(Riley 93). The lethargy refuses to lift itself from Oran. The townspeople continue to exist for the moment at hand, but see their present without a context. When a new serum, to treat the plague, is brought out to be tested on Othon’s boy, there is a sense of hope for the citizens of Oran. However, if the serum is not effective, it is possible that the plague will prove to be victor. After the boy dies, there is a general blank depression, but there is also a bit of optimism. In this section we see another change when Paneloux delivers his second sermon. Bloom states that “The second sermon affirms that the plague is not sent by God; it is part of an evil which is present in the universe and which the Christian must confront. This sermon is filtered through the scepticism of Rieux who is sitting in the Church”(Bloom 109). When All Souls’ day comes up for the Oranians we see a lack of men and women carrying flowers. Remembrance of death is no longer a once-a-year day. Dying has assumed such major proportions that one can almost say that life seems the exception. When winter approaches the plague still does not abate. Riley comments that “Winter fails to freeze the plague germs but not the city’s walls. Chinks begin to appear, metaphorically”(Riley 141). Part four closes with the ambiguity of the rats’ return, but the implications are clear: rats are able to live again in Oran. The plague has begun its retreat.
The brief fifth section of the novel deals with the end of the plague, the reunion of lovers, and the complete return to the individual feelings and actions that made up the introductory section. Riley adds that “When in part five the plague leaves, the survivors, despite their tendency to isolate themselves once again, are keenly alive; and they have learned how to live better”(Riley 93). While Oran has successfully defeated the plague there is no immediate rejoicing for the citizens. Rhein observes that “Oran does not begin to jubilate immediately at the first signs of the plague’s waning. Hope has become so slender that it cannot bear the weight of sudden happiness. It must be strengthened with caution and a degree of fear”(Rhein 125). After being held like prisoners, the Oranians, like most would, attempt a number of wild escapes. Their new freedom is almost overwhelming. Spritzen suggests that “Oran had certainly been prison-like and the most escape attempts occur during the last weeks of the sentence; temptation increases until common sense is overpowered”(Spritzen 287). Riley adds, “It is evidence that men are able to once more live without breathing death onto one another. Man is free to once again effect his own exile if he wishes. The plague has given him a chance for examination of his values; he must now rebuild his future in terms of what he has learned”(Riley 93). Life is being returned to the people and once again they can afford a variety of “silverscreen illusions.” After all, the return to life after the gates are opened will have all the outer aspects of Before. Yet even this will be an illusion. Every person will carry scars of the plague and each Oranian will have somewhat of a new dimension as an individual. Throughout the chronicle Rieux has commented on the townspeople’s failure before the plague to attain a more varied, joyous, appreciative sense of life. Now, he sees lovers wishing to slow their new moments into slow motion so as to savor all of its thrill. For the present human love is violently rekindled.
Throughout The Plague we see both the town of Oran ans its citizens change along with various stages of the Plague. It seems to go through stages of unawareness, awareness, death, commitment and life. This way we see a change that occurs from the beginning of the novel from an unawareness of whats happening about them to a new sense for life. While the plague may have destroyed the town and many lives within it, it offers the Oranians a chance to give meaning back to their lives.