Will Parker is a first year medical student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In his 1947 novel, The Plague, French author Albert Camus explores what the flourishing of a microbe in many human hosts—and the response to that outbreak—can teach about the human existential condition. Through his characterization of the actions and philosophies of two main characters, Rieux and Rambert, Camus pits a tolerant humanitarianism against a stridently romantic individualism. A third characterization, that of the Yersinia pestis (the plague microbe) outbreak itself, helps frame this conflict with a symmetry that lends power to a possible philosophical synthesis, though it does not resolve it explicitly.
The protagonist of the novel is a physician, Bernard Rieux, who works hard to fight against the plague epidemic from start to finish. This quote from the narrator (who is later revealed to be Rieux) captures his dedication and the philanthropic attitude that underlies it well: “The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague” (p. 115-116, 1962 Time Reading Program special edition). As the novel continues, Rieux never balks at his increasing medical and sanitary duties, even as the plague outbreak death toll rises. Nor does he complain when the accompanying quarantine keeps him from his chronically ill wife (who left the city before the plague outbreak).
Camus foils Rieux with another character, Rambert. The latter is a journalist marooned in Oran (the French Algerian setting of the novel) after the plague quarantine begins. In contrast to Rieux, who from the first dedicates himself to fighting the plague, Rambert whiles away the first few parts of the novel trying to finagle a way through the quarantine regulations. Unfortunately for him, stolid bureaucracy and then criminal unreliability frustrate his attempts to escape the city and return to his girlfriend. In several conversations with Rieux (the two become friends as the narrative progresses), Rambert tries to justify his desire to escape to his exhausted friend. In one particularly passionate discussion, Rieux and Rambert outline their rival philosophical positions. Rambert rejects the idea of mimicking Rieux’s selfless behavior, arguing such work would be meaningless heroism without love: “Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love,” he says. In response, Rieux merely supports Rambert’s efforts to try to escape the quarantine and reunite with his girlfriend, emphasizing, though, that his own behavior is motivated by duty rather than heroism: “You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency... the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency” (p.142).
Camus juxtaposes those concepts, romantic love and duty, throughout the book. Rieux makes notes about the romantic couples of the city both before, during, and after the plague. As the plague ends, for example, he approvingly describes the joyful reunion of many couples separated by quarantine, noting that “...it was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward” (p. 262). Poignantly, Rieux says so at a point in the plot not long after he gets news of his own wife’s death (p. 254). Despite this devastating romantic loss, the physician-narrator plays down his own emotional response: “Regarding his personal troubles and his long suspense,” the narrator says about himself at the near the end of The Plague, “his duty was to hold his peace” (263).
The driving philosophical conflict of the book, then, lies within these explorations of selfless duty and romantic love: is Rambert right to seek out his own happiness in love (making Rieux wrong for not making attempts to visit his own ailing wife before her death)? Or is Rieux’s sometimes maddeningly selfless and tolerant humanitarianism the correct path?
Camus never explicitly answers this question, but his characterization of a bubonic plague pestilence helps shed light on it. While Camus doesn’t explain much of the microbiology of the pathogen beyond its identity as plague (p. 30) (Y. pestis, is a gram-negative, facultative anaerobe, that needs to enter a host cell in order to reproduce), he does—in a literary way—characterize the epidemiology of the outbreak. When first confronting the idea of the bubonic plague breaking out in his city, Rieux imagines an almost poetic, somewhat romantic spread of disease and chaos, a picture informed by stories of ancient Greeks battling for room to burn their plague-killed corpses during an outbreak: "A picture rose before him of the red glow of the pyres mirrored on a wine-dark, slumbrous sea, battling torches whirling sparks across the darkness, and thick, fetid smoke rising toward the watchful sky. Yes it was not beyond the bounds of possibility…” (p. 54). When summarizing the actual reality of the plague after the fact, though, Rieux finds his initial impression badly mistaken. The plague, far from being terrifying and romantic, was methodical, organized, and untiring. “No, the real plague had nothing in common with the grandiose imaginings that had haunted Rieux’s mind at its outbreak,” says the narrator (Rieux), “It was, above all, a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well” (p. 156).
That last description could be just as well applied to Rieux’s dogged work fighting the plague as it could the disease itself. A symmetry exists here: the qualities of the best work against the natural evil of disease in The Plague, and the outbreak itself, have much in common.
Of course, the achievement that the methodical, enduring Rieux fights for, and appreciates, is the opposite of the misery-wreaking pathogen: it is the joy and romantic fulfillment of people like Rambert. Thus, The Plague never dismisses either character’s driving philosophy. It places value on self-focused human happiness (especially romantic happiness) while simultaneously arguing for the need for humanitarians to protect that happiness—and in so doing sometimes forgo their own fulfillment—when the times call upon them to do so. It’s a well-balanced moral insight from Camus.