Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
No, we’re not kidding. Tarrou describes a man he sees dining as "a well brought-up owl." Several chapters later, we discover that the "owlish paterfamilias" is in fact M. Othon, the magistrate for whom Tarrou has nothing but contempt. That’s all well and good until Tarrou’s "Here’s the story of my life" conversation with Rieux, in which he reveals that the condemned criminal – for whom he had nothing but compassion – "looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light." Now that is odd; Tarrou hates the magistrate for his occupation yet loves the condemned man because he is condemned – and yet he compares both of them to owls.
There are a few different directions to go with this, the first and, actually, most boring being that all men are equal and in fact all animals equal because everyone is mortal. This is why two seemingly different men can both be compared to the same creature. Not too exciting, we know.
More interesting is the probable fact that Tarrou doesn’t realize he’s made these men similar by his comparisons. While he does recognize the criminal’s humanity, he is so blinded by Othon’s role in society – that of a magistrate – that he can’t see beyond these roles. Fortunately for us, his subconscious can. Some element of Tarrou must recognize that, regardless of position, both men possess a vital, genuine humanity. It is therefore not unreasonable for them to share similar qualities, or to evoke similar imagery for Tarrou.
Of course, there is still the big question: why the owl? But we’ll let you take it from here.