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The Plague

Camus wrestles with his questions of Existentialism in The Plague through another character as well: Father Paneloux. With Paneloux, Camus attempts to reconcile Existentialism and Christianity. Toward the beginning of the novel, Paneloux is a steadfast Christian. He proclaims in his first great sermon during the epidemic that the plague is God-sent, brought upon the evildoers of society to punish them for their sins. He later involves himself in the struggle against the plague, helping men such as Rieux and Tarrou, and putting his faith to the test. The test reaches its utmost when the characters are forced to watch the slow, tortured death of an innocent child. How could something sent to punish sin afflict a child? The child had done no wrong, yet the group cannot do more than to sit and wait helpless as the child dies before them. Shortly after this event, Paneloux begins to write another sermon. This one differs from the first. He reflects in his sermon on what he has witnessed. “And, truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it” (Beginning of Part 4). Paneloux goes on to explain his reason. “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” (Woelfel 109). Although Paneloux attempts to reconcile Christianity with Existentialism, he nonetheless fails. Paneloux dies. He, as well as symbolically, his attempt, receive the label which the doctor Rieux records on a card: “Doubtful case.”

Rieux becomes himself one of the first people in the town to recognize the plague for what it is, and he helps to lead the fight against it. “Rieux is an authentic rebel in ‘fighting against creation as he found it,’ in actively struggling against the injustices of the human condition” (Woelfel 98-99). Rieux is no ordinary rebel; he is also a doctor. As a doctor, Rieux’s exposure to not only the dangers of the plague but also to its horrors is more than most must endure. Rieux faces this in his job before him each day. “In order to make his rounds and to isolate the people who are infected he has to repress the pity and sympathy he feels for them” (Cruickshank 110). It may seem then that Rieux goes against Camus’ beliefs on indifference. Rieux’s actions can indeed be seen as self-enforced indifference. For “indifference, properly cultivated, can be a stoic value” (Parker 5). Rieux cannot afford to show compassion for each of his patients. He must detach himself in order to perfrom his duties. “No resource was left him but to tighten the stranglehold on his feelings and harden his heart protectively” (Camus 172). Yet Rieux does not keep his feelings locked up within a fortress. After he talks with Tarrou, he lets himself become more open, more vulnerable. Nothing he could have done would have made it any easier to bear witness to the death of an innocent child.

Rieux does not stake a claim to the same peace that Tarrou seeks. Rieux knows that the fight he fights can never end. “Rieux knows that the plague bacillus never dies and that the day would come when ‘it would raise up its rats again and send them to die in a happy city’ ” (Erickson 84). Riuex, like the plague bacillus, lives on as the disease slows and the epidemic ends, for the time being, anyhow.

If in The Plague, there is one person who most represents most people, it is Rambert. Rambert is a journalist. Rambert finds himself trapped in the city of Oran, trapped with all the other people. He believes, though, that this is truly not his concern. He does not belong. He is an outsider. The woman he loves lives beyond the city walls, and he believes this is where he should be. He spends much time talking Rieux. And as they talk, he begins to think. He considers his motivation for leaving the city: personal happiness. “‘There’s nothing shameful in preferring happiness.’ ‘ Certainly, but it may be shameful to be happy by oneself’ ” (Camus 188). Rambert awakens to the truth which he had been facing all along . Rambert decides to drop his attempts to escape: he is part of this people, he is no longer an outsider. They must all stay together to fight the plague. Rambert gives the fight his best efforts as well. Grand is also a character who fights against the plague. He is faced with all the same facts as everyone else. Nonetheless, Grand joins in the fight. Grand, like the rest, is not viewed as a hero. “That, too, is why it was natural that Grand, who had nothing of the hero about him, should now be acting as a sort of general secretary to the sanitary squads” (Camus 122). In his own ways, Grand does what he can to contribute to the fight against indifference.

Albert Camus saw Existentialism as a key to eliminating the problem of indifference toward human suffering from society. His novel The Plague is his written attempt to show this. The Plague can be understood on multiple levels of meaning. “This work of simple realism presents, on different levels, a symbolical transparency, where each reader has been able to find something to satisfy his preoccupation of the moment, whether metaphysical, ethical, or historical” (Maquet 75). The novel can be viewed as an allegory to the Nazi occupation of France during W.W. II. The novel can be symbolic in general, with the objects of the symbols not specific events or items but general, dealing with humanity. But most importantly, the novel deals with the fight against indifference. “It is quite true that in a way The Plague presents a perfect situation in which all human beings can unite to fight the inhuman” (Doubrovsky 161). This perfect situation is not limited to the storybooks. Every man can give meaning to his life by doing good. Existentialist or not, Camus philosophies carry important values that surpass any amount of explanation, and with these values in mind, Camus wrote The Plague.


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