Lyceum — The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus tells the story of the inhabitants of the town of Oran afflicted by the plague and its citizens. The book is centered around Dr. Bernart Rieux a medical doctor and the people around him, in their effort to cure the pestilence. Camus places the book in the 1940s but it’s believed that the novel is based on the cholera epidemic in Oran which killed a large part of the population in 1849. As mentioned by the narrator the book is an objective description of the events that took place during the epidemic. It’s a stunning book.

Albert Camus received the Noble Prize for Literature, the second youngest in the world at the time at the age of 44. He was many things, soldier, philosopher, journalist, and a celebrated author. Philosophically Camus’s views have given rise to the philosophy of absurdism and he is considered to be an existentialist, even though he rejected the term throughout his lifetime. He was politically active after the second world war, which he had fought in, and expressed his views in apprehension of Soviet Russia. I have never read an author as articulate as Camus, as a friend of mine put it when I mentioned the same to him,

Camus has a way with words which almost no other author has or had

His use of the language is dead accurate. He freely uses epithets and adjectives but they never feel forced, always in service to the chronicle. As someone who has been writing these summaries for a while now, it’s awe-inspiring.

The central conversation here is about freedom and human suffering. The residents crave their freedom when forced to stay quarantined in their homes. As Camus describes their daily life early on, he questions whether they were free, or slaves to their habits unconsciously. The separation of quarantine forces them to scavenge memories to remember their love, friendship, and daily life which they took for granted and now crave incessantly. The book is often read as a war allegory of the German occupation of France in the Second World War.

The quarantine has left the town cut off from the outside and it’s this petri dish of an enclosed town that Camus uses to explore his philosophy. There are three central philosophical ideas in the book humanism, existentialism1, and the theory of the absurd2 that Camus helped define. The central cast of characters is a mix of people from different walks of life, civil servants, doctors, journalists, and escaped convicts. Their experiences, perspectives, arguments with each other delve deep into Camus’ own philosophical ideas and their interplay. An atheist, Camus did not believe that death, suffering, and human existence had any intrinsic moral or rational meaning. The expectancy of a rational world when consistently faced with the reality of our irrational world seems absurd. He believed that human life is an irrational, absurd, and illogical death sentence.

The plague descended on a town of people who were happy in the comfort of their habits and oblivious to how lucky there were. The plague is a grotesque illness, excruciatingly painful, usually marking its victims for death, quarantining, and often infecting their families. Extreme, senseless unreasonable suffering, not only of the patients and their families but of the terrified residents, the duty-driven doctors, the town administration, about their bleak futures.

Throughout the book we see the population evolve. In the first days of the plague, everyone regarded their own personal suffering as unique and are indifferent to the common suffering. But as the memories of the past fade and time wears them down, they begin to share in the collective suffering. More people, start joining and helping in the anti-plague effort. And we see the fragmented town start to come together and resist the plague. As futile as their efforts are, this, according to Camus is the only way to live. A noble, meaningful struggle even when faced with never-ending defeat. The only way to live is to fight on.

I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.

I think I do a terrible injustice to the book summarizing it this way, this summary comes not only from my own reading of the book but also from various articles and other summaries of the book online. There are other things that I would have liked to mention, concerning the theology in the book, symbology, and perhaps extrapolate Camus’ philosophical thoughts better, but I’m not articulate enough at the moment to pen them down right now. Camus stands as one of my favorite authors after this and his next book, right next to Orwell. It’s a brilliant book, dark, yes, but ultimately hopeful.

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