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Oran, peaceful and unprepared, is overcome by Bubonic plague.
Separation, isolation and indigence become the common lot of distinct characters
whose actions, thoughts and feelings constitute a dynamic story of man
imprisoned. Prior to the closing, people went about their business as usual,
almost oblivious to the plague. When Oran was shut off from the world, its
residents had to adapt to the new conditions of life. Men reacted to the
terrible visitation in different ways, according to their beliefs and characters.
I believe their reactions were based on their personality and their experience
during the plague. Each react to the circumstances of the plague in a unique way,
and emerge from the plague with his own new perspective of life and its values.
The residents of Oran are as travelers on a long, straight, boring road.
They came upon the plague as a traveler comes upon an unexpected fork in the
road. Some veer left, some right. A few are unaffected by (or unaware of) the
fork in the road, and proceed straight ahead with their lives with very little
change in habit. These persons lift themselves above the desperation and focus
their actions on the grueling responsibility of making life better for
themselves and others.
The greatest affliction the citizens of Oran suffer when visited by the
plague is not fear but the sense of separation, the loneliness of exile, the
pain of imprisonment. The plague has an affect on most everyone in Oran. Some
become better people, some worse. Grand, Rambert and Paneloux are all markedly
changed afterward. Dr. Rieux and Tarrou are virtually unaffected. Cottard
undergoes but a temporary metamorphosis.
Monsieur Cottard is a criminal hunted by the law. A silent, secretive,
plump little man, he comes to Oran to hide from prosecution. M. Cottard is
basically a man lacking in morals, drive and direction, a, " a traveling
salesman in wines and spirits."
He tries unsuccessfully to hang himself when life seems hopeless. Prior
to the plague, he had an aloofness and mistrusted everyone. When the plague
descends upon the city, he develops an altruistic side. He sets out to help
people. He becomes more amiable as the plague progressed through the population.
He tries to take control of his life but becomes discouraged by circumstances.
Rather than dealing with the circumstances effectively, he allows them to
dominate his life. When the plague passes, and his philanthropic efforts are
outmoded, he looses his humanitarian side and starts randomly shooting. The
plague gave him only a temporary suspension from prosecution and the plague had
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unchanged by the plague. He is the same moral-less, direction-less, undriven man
he was following the plague as he was going into the plague.
Joseph Grand is a petty official. He is not motivated by ambition, and
therefore never achieved success in life. Rieux said of Grand, "He had all the
attributes of insignificance." In spite of his lack of success, he persists in
his search for perfection, the perfection of an insignificant aspect of life --
the first sentence of his book. His motive for writing the book seems to be his
difficulty in expressing himself, he "couldn't find his words." He leads a
dreary, quiet life until the plague seals off the city from the outside world.
He is odd and eccentric, but is among the first to volunteer to help with the
plague. During the plague, he does his best to assist his fellow man, doing
this out of a heartfelt responsibility. During this period of trial, he gains
an insight into his writing project and into the reasons why his marriage failed.
Grand succumbs to the plague, but recovers. Rieux sees Grand as having a weak
constitution, and believes he will therefore probably survive the plague. I
would rather believe he survives because he heard his calling in helping the
plague victims for the sake of humanity. Grand is an aging man with little to
show for his many years. He is still searching vainly for a purpose in life. The
plague gives him this purpose. He gains an understanding of his life from his
volunteer work. He emerges from the plague a better man, a man with a better
understanding of his life's purpose.
Father Paneloux, a learned and militant Jesuit priest, interprets the
sudden plague as just punishment for the sins of the city. He lectures his
congregation on the ills of sin and exhorts his belief that they deserve this
affliction. His sermon comes from a black and white, right or wrong way of
thinking. Paneloux enrolls in the plague fighter's battalion, and his
perception of the plague visibly changes. However, he still does not see the
plague as unjust, but rather as merely God's will. He demands his congregation
accept and embrace the plague as an unexplainable curse. In the end, he seems
to will his own death in order to join the ranks of the victims. He seeks not
to identify with the victims to better understand their plight, but rather to
become a martyr and saint.
Camus saw organized religion as an overbearing, dictatorial, oppressive
saddle on the people and used Paneloux to illustrate this viewpoint. For all his
education, Paneloux does not exhibit an understanding of his fellow man. His
narrow-minded interpretation of the plague as God's punishment for man's
indiscretions is typical of organized religion's strong-arm control of the
population. Paneloux was changed emotionally following Othan's son's death, but
his sermon demonstrated that his religious beliefs still directed his vision for
Raymond Rambert comes to Oran an egotistical, self-centered hackneyed
journalist. He attempts to leave the city by any means possible. I don't
believe it was so much because of the plague nor to return to his 'wife,' but to
escape the isolation of quarantine. His conscience and morals finally surface
and he voluntarily remains to assist Dr. Rieux with his patients. The plague
changes Rambert from a hack journalist into a responsible adult. I think Rambert
is the most changed individual to survive the plague. I don't think even he
realized what a basically good and moral person he was prior to the plague. The
fact that he voluntarily remains in Oran to help Dr. Rieux demonstrates an
innate moral being lurks deep in the self-centered Raymond Rambert of April. His
volunteer work changes him further into the more humanitarian, worldly person
that emerges the following February. Rambert survives precisely because he only
Dr. Bernard Rieux fights the plague with great compassion because that
was what he was trained to do. He is not seeking heroism, but rather is
compelled to relieve the suffering simply because he is a doctor. The plague
has little affect upon him because his concern is for his patients, not himself.
By concentrating on his mission, Rieux takes control of life and fights out of
compassion, not anger or despair. He believes, "The thing is to do your job as
it should be done." He is a good, moral person going into the plague, and is
basically the same person following the plague. It was inspiring to see that he
is not disillusioned by the events of the plague.
Jean Tarrou comes innocuously to Oran to escape life and its despair.
Yet he realizes his responsibility towards others and acts on that
responsibility. Tarrou tries to take control of the situation, and his own life,
by organizing the volunteer corps to help fight the plague. He sees the plague
as all the evils that plague humanity. Tarrou seeks not just to help the
victims, but to become a hero, as saint. He is the plague's final victim. He
dies because his efforts were centered on becoming the hero. Tarrou's motives
are not humanitarian in nature, as they may appear on the surface. He is driven
more by a desire to appear a humanitarian. Tarrou is not truly changed by the
These men reacted to the plague in different ways, according to their
internal beliefs and values. I believe those who underwent change were
basically good persons who had yet to find their hidden goodness. Rieux, Tarrou
and Paneloux emerged basically unchanged following the plague. Rambert and Grand
were changed into better people because of the plague. Cottard underwent a
temporary change, but was really the same person after the plague. Each react to
the circumstances of the plague in a unique way, and emerge from the plague with
his own new perspective of life and its values.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971.
Carey, Gary. Notes on The Plague. Lincoln, Nebraska: Cliffs Notes, Inc., 1994.