It’s the morning of April 16. (The narrator will continue to make a big deal out of being factual by telling us what exact date it is.) Rats are dying in Oran. Lots and lots of rats. And while live rats are disgusting themselves, dead ones under your feet are even more so.
Dr. Bernard Rieux (who we gather is important) steps out of his surgery and onto a dead rat on the landing. The building concierge (M. Michel, who we gather is not important) keep discussing the rats.
The concierge argues that, since there are no rats living in the building, some prankster must have brought it in from outside.
This isn't convincing, but we understand that he’d rather keep his job and that rats strewn about the place make him look not super-awesome.
That evening, Dr. Rieux sees a big rat coming towards him in the corridor outside his door.
Rieux is all "what up?" and that rat is all "nothing, just dying," which it proceeds to do in a gruesome way, with blood spurting out of its mouth and so forth.
The incident reminds Rieux of his wife. Generally, this would be a not-so-good sign for a marriage, but in this case the explanation is that Dr. Rieux’s wife has been ill for a year and is leaving the next day for the sanatorium.
Rieux enters his apartment to find his wife lying (resting) on the bathroom floor.
The next morning at his surgery, it seems the young prankster has dumped yet another three dead rats in the hallway. The concierge is scrutinizing everyone in the hopes of catching the devious fellow.
Dr. Rieux begins his rounds on the outskirts of town, where the poor people live. Not surprisingly, the journey is riddled with dead rats.
His first patient is an old, asthmatic Spaniard, who claims the rats are coming out because they’re dying of hunger.
Turns out, everyone and their mother has a theory for why the rats are dying. It’s the new hot topic.
With Rieux’s wife leaving for the sanatorium, his mother intends to come to take care of the household chores.
Rieux puts his wife on the train and bids her good-bye. He feels momentarily guilty about taking care of his patients more than he takes care of his own wife. Oh, and for sending her away on a train in her time of greatest need.
As he’s leaving the train platform, he runs into M. Othon (the police magistrate) and his son, and they all agree that the rats are no big deal while a man passes by with a case full of dead rats.
That afternoon, a young journalist named Raymond Rambert shows up with the intention of interviewing Rieux about the horrible living conditions of the Arab population in Oran.
(A brief Historical Context Lesson: Oran is in Algeria, on the northwest corner of Africa and on the edge of the Mediterranean. It was colonized by the French and at the time this story takes place (1940s) was still French territory. There was a good deal of racism rampant in the area, as the French considered themselves to be above the Arabs.)
Rieux says the conditions are "not good." He’s clearly a man of few words.
No, wait, he’s a man of many words. He questions around to see if Rambert really wants the truth, or if he’s trying to make things look better than they are for some biased publication.
Biased publication it is. Rieux is done with this guy. He’s sick of a world that "compromises the truth."
But he manages to end the conversation on an amiable note; if Rambert wants a good story, he should look into these rats.
Rambert is all, "Good idea!"
Rieux encounters a man named Jean Tarrou, who thinks this rat business is odd and who we suspect will soon be important.
When Rieux runs into the concierge, the man does not look well (almost like he’s been stricken down by a plague of sorts). Rieux figures the man is just stressed out.
The next morning, April 18, Rieux’s mother shows up on the train. The rats don’t seem to worry her at all.
They do, however, significantly concern Rieux by now. He calls up this guy named Mercier at the police station and tells him to get on it. As in, now.
It only goes downhill from April 18 on. Rats start dying everywhere, including in disturbing and public places like schoolyards. They pile up in heaps. Worse, the rodents actually die in front of people. As in, they come out, do a little dance, and fall dead with a little shriek.
The wealthy folks also doesn't appreciate that the rats are dying in the nice parts of town, too, instead of respectfully confining to themselves to the slums.
Finally, the government decides to do something about it. Sadly, that something is public talk radio, which doesn’t exactly soothe the fears of the town with their report that 6,231 rats were collected in April 25.
Everyone finds this menacing, except the old Spaniard patient of Dr. Rieux, who is somehow "gleeful."
On April 28, 8,000 rats were reported. Everyone panics (because 6,231 is fine, but 8,000 is horrifying). The next day, however, the bureau reported that all is A-OK.
On this same A-OK day (April 29), Dr. Rieux sees the concierge "dragging himself along, his head bent, arms and legs curiously splayed out, with the jerky movements of a clockwork doll." Either he is trying to learn the moves to "Thriller" (unlikely), or he’s getting some kind of nasty sickness.
The concierge, who we gather is elderly, is leaning on the arm of one Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest.
Rieux, being a doctor, runs his hand over the base of Michel’s neck, where a "hard lump, like a knot of wood" has formed. He sends the man off to bed and says he’ll check in on him soon.
While reading his wife’s telegram from the sanatorium at lunch, one of Rieux’s former patients (whom he helped for free, since the guy was poor) calls and asks for help – the man next door to him, he says, has had an accident.
Rieux rushes out to the outskirts of town where the man who called him, a clerk named Joseph Grand, shows him the gruesome scene inside the small house.
On the wall, a man has written in red chalk, "Come in, I’ve hanged myself."
The rope is still on the ceiling, but empty, as Grand took the guy down just in time.
"The guy" is a plump man now lying down on the bed. His eyes are bloodshot and in his groaning breath Rieux can hear the sound of dying rats.
The doctor gives him an injection and says he’ll have to tell the police, which makes the suicidal man (named Cottard, we discover) not so happy. He says he just had a fit, but it’s passed now.
On a cheerier note, Rieux notices on his way out that the rats have disappeared. Indeed, that seems to be the buzz about town: no more rats.
Now we can all sit back and have a good laugh about it, and – no, wait, not so much. Rieux’s next patient is vomiting pinkish bile, has a temperature of 103, is all lumpy-feeling, and has two black patches on his thighs. And he feels like he’s being burned alive by "the bastard."
This is not a good time to be a doctor (or person, at that) in Oran. Rieux calls a colleague, Richard, who has found similar issues ("swollen ganglia" – Google Image this sucker, it’s crazy) in his patients.
The next day the concierge, Michel, is delirious and yelling about "them rats." Then he dies.