Review of Book The Plague by Albert Camus
By: Michael A. Arnold

It will be one of the defining moments of the 21st century. In 2020 the Coronavirus, COVID-19, a new strain of the SARS virus, spread around the world in just a few months. It had been first spotted in 2019, hence the 19 in the name COVID-19, but it was not until the next year that the virus began to take hold. Those first two months of 2020 were quite surreal: something was very wrong, however much you might have tried to dismiss it, and you had no idea what would happen next. By the 11th of March the outbreak was declared a pandemic, and by then most of the world had gone into lockdown.

In most countries, only essential workers were allowed to leave their home for work, and terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’, working from home, and the requirement to wear masks when going to the became daily realities. Before lockdown you might have dressed nice to go out with friends. Suddenly you were getting all dressed up just to buy beans, milk and coffee.

As Covid-19 ravaged the world, and we spent all our days working from home and hiding from the virus, a book exploded in popularity – mostly through Amazon: The Plague, or La Peste in the original French, a 1947 novel written by the French philosopher Albert Camus. It is easy to see why, the novel is about a cholera outbreak that forces an entire city quarantine and explores how people living in that city react to the outbreak in their own individual ways. A lot of the events in the novel, a lot of the steps taken to contain and control the virus, and even a lot of the attitudes in the novel will sound eerily familiar to people living through the Covid-19 pandemic. In one part of the novel, a hospital van is heard going to pick up an infected person, and the character narrating comments how he barely notices the sound anymore - whereas at the start of the outbreak the sound of ambulance horns filled them with a sense of dread or foreboding.

Set in Oran in French Algeria, this is a novel as much about the characters as it is a philosophical novel or social commentary. It is not like Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, one of Camus’ friends and contemporaries, which is a exploration and explanation of Sartre’s version of existentialist philosophy through fiction. The Plague is firstly a story, but one that has been informed by Camus’ version of existentialism. This does make The Plague more palatable to most readers than Sartre’s Nausea is.

Existentialism, led by people like Camus and Sartre, was extremely popular following the end of WW2. Both men actually had the same sort of notoriety and celebrity as a film star or someone like that, especially Camus who was a very photogenic and attractive person. Do a Google image search of Albert Camus and a famous picture of him smoking a cigarette will come up, and he looks like James Dean. Never before had any philosophy enjoyed such a wide and enthusiastic influence on the public – and it probably will not happen like that again.

Despite its popularity, existentialism was probably not widely understood. Any philosophy is difficult to sum up in short, snappy sentences, and it is not really important to go into much detail about it here. The important thing to understand is that for Camus, life is absurd, and any attempt to understand life is absurd, maybe even delusional – and his branch of existentialism is often called Absurdism.

The major part of Absurdism informing this novel is the idea life is what the individual makes of it, or that people give their own lives meaning in the absence of a higher Truth. This is an important theme, because each character in the novel responds to the plague in different ways. We have the examples of: Dr Bernard Rieux, who is pretty stoic and diligent in trying to help and heal others during the pandemic. He is a very practical kind of person, bravely doing his job. From a philosophical standpoint, Rieux has his meaning to life: helping others, and happily that is who he is. Another character, Cottard (he is not given a last name) becomes more world aware and friendly to others during the pandemic, but he also suffers from violent mood swings and attacks of hopelessness and depression. A lot of the time it seems he is unable to decide who he is and what his life should look like. These two men have starkly contrasting reactions to their situations, and these two are not the only characters in the novel. The different reactions all the characters have are very interesting when you really pay attention to them. This is what makes this novel interesting enough to really recommend it.

The locking off of Oran from the outside world is not exactly like the lockdowns seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, but when reading the novel the two things often feel the same – the texture (a mix of uncertainly, boredom, and even a little bit of fear) is the same, even if the exact details are not. It is easy to see why this novel became so popular during 2020. Camus’ focus on a collection of characters and their very different reactions to the plague are illustrative of not just their personalities but also something about the way wider societies react to a big crisis. Ultimately this book circles around lessons that we owe it to ourselves to not forget.

Let The Contributor Know What You Think!

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...