by Albert Camus
Tools of Characterization
Whoa, Mama, this is a big deal in The Plague. In fact, one of the main philosophical points of the novel is that words are meaningless and man in fact can only be defined by his actions. So let’s take a look: Rieux and Tarrou take a stand against the plague, yes, very good; and Grand fights the plague on top of his day job, OK; Rambert’s change of heart has no meaning until he acts accordingly and joins the volunteer anti-plague effort, great; and Cottard is made a criminal not by his fear of arrest but by his criminal actions, namely shooting everyone. Looks good to us.
Sex and Love
Well, more "love" than "sex," sadly. The way characters feel about love is one of the biggest ways Camus differentiates them from one another – and how we see characters evolve. Rambert is the best example; he is first defined by his love for this woman in Paris. It dictates his actions and overrides all his other feelings of duty. Rieux struggles with the same questions but is defined by his decision to place duty over personal love. His ultimate revelation about hope – that man can only hope for love – is used as a tool to indicate his character’s transformation. Grand, too, is driven by his feelings for his absent wife Jeanne, and his ability to finally write her a letter at the end of the novel reveals his own growth as a character.
What each person does for a living is a big part of his character in The Plague. Given the philosophical nature of the novel, this is most likely a commentary on societal roles and the boundaries they place on individuals. But enough; let’s get to the examples. Rieux is a doctor and is thus defined by Tarrou as a healer. Cottard is a black-market merchant and molds himself into the very poster child of shady criminality. Characters like Tarrou can’t see past the fact that M. Othon is a judge; the Prefect doesn’t even get a name outside his title, and Father Paneloux is as much a slave to his position as the citizens of Oran are confined to their homes.
Speech and Dialogue
Speech in The Plague is tricky to assess because the whole text is the story as told by Dr. Rieux. Any dialogue is automatically filtered through him, and thus the entire text is colored by his speech. However, more complicated still is the fact that Camus wrote this book in French. Since we’re reading an English translation, unfortunately we can’t really comment on subtleties of French speech or dialogue. What we can say is that this text is primarily narrative, and that the style of that narrative tells us quite a bit about Dr. Rieux. The narrator tries to be factual, detached, and observant. He uses dates and oddly formal language, and he speaks about himself in the third person. The narrator’s dialogue is distinctive and clearly indicative of his motives.
Grand’s Grand Clichés
The type of speech we do recognize as different is the type that our narrator (and filter) declares explicitly to be, well, different. Grand claims he uses "speech from ‘his part of the world’ (he hailed from Montélimar)," but in fact he’s just ineloquent. It’s clear that he uses clichés to express himself because pre-packaged formulas are easier than the effort required to construct his own phrases. His defense about Montélimar is really just an excuse.
Paneloux’s Religious Rhetoric
Paneloux’s two sermons are remarkably different from his day-to-day speech with Rieux (which on its own is remarkably unremarkable). He speaks with greater intensity, chooses his words more carefully, and ends up with words of greater emotional weight and of a higher level of abstraction. This seems a lot like Camus mocking religion, which is par for the existentialist/absurdist/humanist course.