Understanding Albert Camus' The Plague

Understanding Albert Camus' The Plague

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Understanding The Plague  

The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is a triumph of literary craft. Camus created a commentary on the way humans react to trying situations and circumstances in his fictional city of Oran in North Africa. The reader is presented with Oran as a city of several hundred thousand people. All of whom seem to take life for granted. The people of Oran ar constantly driven by business or money and only stop for life's finer pleasures on the weekends. A fairly accurate parallel to today's world. When an outbreak of plague begins in Oran, nobody pays attention at first. When the problem becomes too big to be ignored, the city is taken somewhat by surprise and placed under quarantine. The city remains isolated from the outside world for over a year, and when the outbreak reaches its peak, hundreds are dying every day.

The main characters in the story are Dr. Rieux, Cottard, Tarrou, Grand, and Rambert. Rieux is the narrator (although he does not reveal himself as the narrator until the end of the story). Through Rieux's eyes and Tarrou's Journal entries , Camus depicts a personal and completely lifelike view of a major catastrophe. The was Camus creates such a quiet masterpiece of literature is not by reading death statistics and important events; it is by his focus on the individuals involved in the crisis.

The most striking feature of the novel is actually very sublime. The way Camus approaches the unthinkable catastrophe of the plague is actually the opposite of the way the media in society today reports and enjoys to hear about such catastrophes. It is much easier to deal with disasters in numbers. Today's public wants to hear a comforting '250 dead today' instead of hearing about the people who died agonizing deaths and the people who love them, being forced into quarantine before the bodies are cold. Camus forces the reader to see the brutal realities of the plague, not merely in blood and gore, but also in the subtle and profound changes that occur in the people of Oran. The way Camus does this is by his never-ceasing emphasis on individual people and not the masses of the town as a whole.

At the beginning of the novel, people were reluctant to recognize the plague as something that would change their lives. They thought it was simply a passing inconvenience.

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Camus shows the transition in public attitude, not by simply stating that the attitude of the town had changed when the death toll reached such and such a figure. Instead Camus relates an anecdote from Tarrou's diary about an old man who spat on cats at a certain time each day. When the cats all died of plague, the old man could not practice his normal routine habit. He went out and looked for his lost pattern of life every day for a few days after the disappearance of the cats, but soon locked himself in his room and became a recluse. On the surface, the story seems harmless enough, but looking deeper (subtext), it shows that people lives are being interrupted in a very personal, individual way by the plague, whether they like it or not. The people, like the old man, look around for a few days for their lost way of life. They find that the plague has changed their lives and that they cannot control it.

It is as if the plague was a mathematical constant, treating humans like variables. Camus understands that people are all alike enough to react a certain way to the plague and that major trends are reflected in the lives of individuals. Camus follows this theme through the entire book, showing the broad sweeping effects of the plague on the citizens of Oran by using stories from their lives, taking time for character development. The characters in The Plague are stereotyped to fit the major (and minor) groups of personalities which must exist in a 'civilized' society, and the way those personality groups react in a disaster. That more than anything is what lies at the heart of The Plague. Despite human tendency to treat disasters impersonally and talk about the broad changes in the attitude of the masses, Camus shows these changes as they actually happen, through life. Life, not the death that the plague brings is the point of Camus' novel, and not only life, but the life of an individual and how the individual can change or reflect a change in society as a whole.

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