We’re not the only ones who feel uncomfortable about these isolation camps; the rest of Oran does, too, and morale is drooping.
November is coming to a close and it’s raining, so Tarrou thinks this a good time to have a heart-to-heart with Dr. Rieux.
Around ten at night he suggests that they visit the old Spaniard, Rieux’s asthmatic patient, of weird-pea-transference fame.
With what we’ve seen of this guy so far, we’re not too surprised to find the odd asthmatic patient is somewhat gleeful in his anticipation of the town populace getting fed up and having "a fine old row."
Tarrou and Rieux, presumably after exchanging "Can you believe this guy?" glances, step outside for some fresh air on the terrace.
From this vantage point they can see…lots of other terraces, as well as the sea and the lighthouse that’s still functioning at the mouth of the Oran Harbor. They feel oddly peaceful, as though the plague hasn’t reached this one spot.
Tarrou is all, "My friend, I’m about to embark on some inappropriate self-disclosure," and Rieux is all, "Have at it, buddy."
To be fair, his first line does suck you right in: "I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here."
Tarrou clarifies that, even so, his life was what other people would consider awesome, as he was rich and good with the ladies.
He continues by saying his having plague makes him just like everyone else; it’s just that some people aren’t aware they have plague, and some people are aware but "feel at ease in that condition."
Now for his childhood. His father was an important prosecuting attorney, his mother a shy woman he’d rather not discuss.
His parents got along fine, he says, and his dad "behaved as one should" when he engaged in infidelities.
Anyway, his dad did have one peculiarity: while he never took many trains himself, he knew the exact times of all arrivals and departures of, well, every train ever. He memorized the timetables. On purpose.
Tarrou got along just grand with his Dad and his body of odd knowledge.
Anyway, he’s going to stop digressing now. The point of his story is, when he was seventeen, his father, being a big, important prosecutor, had him come listen to a big, important case he was arguing in court.
Tarrou figured his dad wanted him to admire the profession and take it up himself. So he went.
Yet, all he remembers to this day is the picture of the criminal. The man was guilty, he is sure, and the crime itself doesn’t matter.
In fact, the "little man" of "about thirty" was so eager to confess, so "horrified" at what he had done, that Tarrou could pay attention to nothing else.
He looked like a "yellow owl," Tarrou says, "scared blind by too much light." The point is, Tarrou could clearly see that the man was "a living human being."
Until that point, he explains to Rieux, he only thought of him abstractly as "the defendant." He knew the court was intent on killing the criminal, and somehow he ended up on the side of the bad guy.
Then his father rose to speak, or more specifically, to prosecute. No longer did he seem like a good man to his son; he seemed like a different person in his red, prosecutor’s robes, a man thirsty for this criminal’s death.
With Tarrou’s father being good at his job and the criminal being guilty, the defendant was executed. Tarrou sees it as murder.
From then on, Tarrou was disgusted with the whole thing. He noticed every time his father woke early to attend an execution.
He was so horrified, in fact, that he left home. When his father inquired after him, he responded that he’d kill himself if forced to return. (The boy had some strong feelings, clearly).
After that he only saw his father on the brief occasions he visited his mother. Now, both his parents are dead.
So Tarrou met up with some radicals and went around protesting the death penalty in rallies.
Then he saw a man shot by firing-squad in Hungary. It’s not the kind of thing you picture in your head, he says – the squad stands only a yard and a half away from the condemned man and shoot so many bullets into his heart that they leave a gaping hole the size of your fist.
That was about the time that Tarrou realized he had plague, and had had it for most of his life. He’s been bringing about others’ deaths – albeit indirectly – for many, many years.
Those who were most plague-stricken, he thinks, are the men in red robes, the men of the legal system who have a "monopoly" on the death penalty.
This is why, he says, this current epidemic (the actual plague, in Oran) has taught him nothing new. All he knows is that they have to fight against it, which is why he was so gung-ho about instigating those volunteer sanitary teams.
All he knows, he declares to Rieux, is that "we must keep an endless watch on ourselves" so as not to breathe the infection onto others. (He also argues that everyone has the plague already, which isn’t so very consistent, but we’re cutting the guy some slack.)
The good man, he says, is the man with the fewest "lapses of attention."
The plague is the reason we all feel weary, Tarrou argues. It’s a weary business to have the plague, but it’s a wearier business to try to beat it, especially since the only thing that can set us free is death.
Despite all this discourse, Tarrou maintains that he is in fact modest and not qualified to judge anyone.
Essentially, this is the greatest halftime speech ever. Tarrou says in this world there are pestilences, and there are victims, are it’s our job to avoid teaming up with the pestilences.
But tell us, Tarrou, what is it that causes all the troubles of the world?
Language. We don’t have clear, plain language. So Tarrou’s solution is to always speak and act as simply and clearly as possible.
Not that he’s deluding himself; he knows he’ll end up indirectly causing the deaths of others, no matter what he does, but he’s just trying to be "an innocent murderer."
Still, in addition to those two sides he spoke of before – the pestilences and the victims – he does see a third category: healers. Not that he is one at the moment, he says, but he’s working on it.
No, actually, what he really wants is to become a saint. The only problem is, as Rieux points out, it’s hard to be a saint when you don’t believe in God.
Yes, Tarrou affirms, this is in fact quite the predicament,
Now it’s Rieux’s turn to talk. He says he feels more in common with the defeated than with saints; heroism isn’t really his shtick. He’s just concerned with "being a man." (Although really, he’s talking about being a person, as in man vs. plague, not as in man vs. female.)
Tarrou decides after some deliberation the absolutely best course of action for the moment is to…go for a swim.
So they head to the beach. Rieux notices on the face of his companion a "happiness, a happiness that forgot nothing, not even murder."
Just think of this as a mental health day. The guys are just taking a break from their never-ceasing work to frolic about in the ocean, "isolated from the world, at last free […] of the plague.