"It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not." –Daniel Defoe
Who is this man Defoe? What is this about? Well, first of all, Daniel Defoe wrote fictional book in 1722 called A Journal of the Plague Year about, yes, that’s right, a plague that ravages London the 17th century. It’s likely that Camus used this as a reference – or, you know, as some comforting bedtime reading. Much like the narrator of The Plague, the storyteller of A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t reveal his identity until the very end, and even then only with his initials. But more than homage to another writer with similar tastes for subject matter, this epigraph, like all good epigraphs, gives us a hint about how to read this novel.
Actually, this quote doesn’t come from A Journal of the Plague Year. It comes from the preface to Volume III of Robinson Crusoe, also written by Defoe. And its discussion of representation immediately tips us off that, sniff sniff, we can smell an allegory headed our way. One type of imprisonment is being used to represent another type of imprisonment. In this case, the citizens of Oran being trapped in their plague-ridden town is one form of imprisonment. This literal imprisonment represents the imprisonment we all endure if we muck about the world without the proper level of consciousness.
The epigraph also says this representation is "reasonable." Is it reasonable? Well…that depends. The epigraph does something that we run into over and over throughout the course of The Plague: it makes a statement, only to call that statement into question immediately by qualifying it subjectively. Huh? What we’re saying is, The Plague makes a big deal out of language being inadequate, and also about truth being subject to debate. The epigraph reflects that very predicament.
That’s a lot of work done by two little lines; Camus must have known what he was doing.