by Albert Camus
Dr. Bernard Rieux
Dr. Bernard Rieux is Mr. Responsible. He goes out day after day in the midst of a deadly infection to save lives while risking his own in a dashing display of heroism and – oh, wait. That’s just the thing Rieux insists he isn’t doing. Over and over we hear him say that his is not a tale of extraordinary heroism; it is the tale of a merely decent man doing his job.
Of course, Rieux didn’t greet the plague on day one with this kind of clarity. He met it with, well, actually, he didn’t meet it at all. Rieux had incredible difficulty even contemplating the plague to begin with. After all, he said in Part I, "a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead." What then of ten thousand deaths? Ten million?
Rieux identifies a key problem with the world as a whole: the inability to comprehend the suffering of others. The only solution, he says, would be to pile up the dead bodies where everyone could see them, and even then a man would have to know each of the dead individuals for the lesson to really hit home that they were, in fact, people.
Does the doctor solve this problem? Not entirely. But he does sidestep it somewhat in his decision that his only "certitude" lay in doing his job "as it should be done." The interesting question, of course, is exactly what "job" he’s referring to.
Why to the job of saving lives, you say. OK, sure, but is that Rieux’s job as a doctor, or is it his job as a citizen of Oran? As a human being? Grand, Tarrou, Rambert – these men are not doctors, yet they fight the plague as Rieux does; that’s an argument for his working as a man, not as a doctor. But, if you want to justify Rieux not taking care of his wife, you have to say he’s doing his duty as a doctor, not as a man.
It’s possible that we can’t answer this question because Rieux himself doesn’t know the answer. He speaks often of duty and logical obligation, but he doesn’t exactly clarify from where this obligation stems. At times, in fact, he doesn’t even seem to know why he has chosen this particular route; "that is what I’m doing," he tells Rambert, "yet why I do not know."
Come to think of it, we hear Rieux utter these words quite a bit. Cottard asks him if a man can be arrested while in the hospital; Rieux responds that it depends on the circumstance. Cottard wants to know if it’s fair for a condemned man to be exploited in the public eye; Rieux doesn’t know. He declares he wants to "defend" the citizens of Oran, but when Tarrou asks against whom, Rieux responds that he "[hasn’t] a notion."
Of course, there are two ways to interpret these sort of answers; either Rieux is ignorant and indecisive, or he is wise in the sense that he doesn’t fancy himself possessing knowledge that isn’t really his. As the narrator, Rieux comments that the worst kind of ignorance man can have is to not know his own ignorance; when this is the case, the man shuts himself down from learning more and is therefore a lost cause.
Which seems to be the last label we could possibly apply to Dr. Rieux. While he does admit that which he does not know, he is quick to assert that which he does know. It is Rieux who spurs the authorities to action at the first outbreak of the plague. Recognizing the futility of words, Rieux focuses instead on language. It doesn’t matter, he says, whether or not they refer to the pestilence as the plague, as long as they act as though it is the plague. Camus clearly portrays Rieux as the voice of reason among the crowd, at least at this point in the novel.
Camus’s voice can also be heard in Rieux’s conversations with Father Paneloux. His reasoning that he acts not in spite of his atheism but because of it – because there is no God to protect man and man himself therefore must step up – is right in line with humanist sentiment. Yet the doctor struggles with humanism for most if not all of the novel. He finds that he must harden his heart to the reality of suffering – he must turn to abstraction instead of to concrete example – in order to do his job day to day. Yet, at the same time, he cannot live solely in a world of ideas. It’s quite the predicament, and the tension it causes stretches for most of The Plague.
All right, all right, we’re getting to the big stuff. So how ‘bout that ending!? Rieux is the narrator!? Crazy. Granted, we got a lot of hints, like the fact that the narrator WENT INTO RIEUX'S HEAD AND HIS HEAD ONLY throughout the entire novel, but hey, we won’t say we didn’t get a little thrill when the big moment of revelation came. Reading The Plague over again with this little nugget in mind (yes, you should read it again. Now, if possible. We’ll still be here when you get back.) certainly changes things. When we think about Rieux, we have to think about all those incisive observations the narrator makes throughout the course of the novel. There’s a wealth of stuff to mine if you’re writing an essay that has anything to do with this guy. (Not the least of which is his claim that man can hope for nothing more than love; we were particularly enamored of that one.) So go get it.