From the title, you know this book is about a plague. This particular plague happens in a Algerian port town called Oran in the 1940s. The story is narrated to us by an odd, nameless narrator strangely obsessed with objectivity, who tends to focus on a man named Dr. Bernard Rieux.
The mess starts when rats everywhere die. And not just a few rats; we’re talking big honkin’ piles of rats. This concerns Dr. Rieux, but not as much as the weird way in which the rats die (with some manic spinning and not a little spurting of blood). Before the general panic sets in, we meet some of our cast of characters: Rieux’s invalid wife, who is quickly sent away to be treated while his mother comes to take her place, and a nameless old asthmatic Spaniard, a patient of the doctor who is also quite the odd duck and is positively gleeful about this rat business.
While we are still waiting for general panic to set in, we meet a young reporter named Raymond Rambert who’s sniffing about town for a story. After this brief introduction, Rambert stays out of the story for a bit, as does a wealthy visitor named Jean Tarrou whom Rieux briefly bumps into around the same time.
General panic sets in shortly after the rats stop dying publicly (probably because there are none left) and the people start dying instead. Before we get too excited about all the action, the narrator pulls in the reins and has us take a look at things through the journal of the mysterious and wealthy Jean Tarrou. These journals become the second way (in addition to the narrator’s exposition) that we get information about Oran and the plague.
Oops – we gave that one away. Yes, in fact, the illness and death we're witnessing is caused by THE plague (also known as Black Death, the Black Plague, or Bubonic plague). The only issue is that no one wants to call it the plague, so the authorities keep beating around the bush as more and more people die. Meanwhile we meet two new characters: Cottard, who has just unsuccessfully tried to kill himself, and Grand, his neighbor (and friend to Rieux) who has just saved Cottard from killing himself. Grand is an odd duck (a common theme in these parts) because of his unbelievable level of ineloquence. The man can’t compose a decent sentence with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and three speech writers. Grand obsesses over word choice to the point of verbal paralysis. More on this guy later.
Dr. Rieux and his colleagues Dr. Richard and Dr. Castel badger the authorities into taking action, which backfires as the town is now quarantined from the rest of the world. Nice going. Cottard meanwhile is acting rather suspicious, as he’s trying to make friends with everyone and is painfully afraid of policemen and any talk of criminals getting punished.
Conditions worsen and more people die. Grand starts writing a book, which is really one sentence that he just can’t get right, and expresses a desire to write a letter to his wife Jeanne, who left him before the plague hit. Speaking of missing wives, journalist Rambert is itching to get out of town since 1) he totally doesn’t live here and 2) this girl (who he calls his "wife") is waiting for him in Paris. Rambert tries all sorts of string-pulling to get himself out of Oran, but the authorities are having none of it.
Father Paneloux, Oran’s friendly neighborhood priest, delivers a sermon in this time of need about how the plague is everyone’s fault and they all deserve this suffering and pestilence. People start freaking out about the skyrocketing death tolls (up to 700 a week). The citizens retreat to their various homes and morale is at an all-time low.
Tarrou, a mysterious guy, records more journal entries. One family he observes is that of M. Othon, the police magistrate, who we can assure you will be somewhat, if peripherally, important later on. Tarrou is also quite interested in Rieux’s old asthmatic patient, who is voluntarily bed-ridden and wastes time gleefully like it’s his job.
Good ol’ Tarrou decides he’s had enough of all this death and suffering, so he meets with Rieux and convinces the doctor to help him raise teams of volunteers to fight the plague. Lengthy philosophical discussion ensues, which has a knack for happening all over this novel. The volunteer teams in place, the narrator stops to tell us that this isn’t heroism, merely the action of men who know how to do their jobs and duties.
We check in with Grand’s book, which has progressed not at all from its first line. The narrator declares that if his story were to have a hero – which it does not – Grand would be it because of his simple heart and ideals or something like that. (He’s been an asset to the anti-plague effort.)
Rambert, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to leave Oran legally and so decides to escape illegally. Cottard, our resident criminal and shady-guy extraordinaire, decides to help. The two go through a series of meetings with other shady guys, the upshot of the whole deal being that making arrangement to leave town takes a while. When Tarrou suggests one night that Cottard stop being shady and start helping them fight the plague, Cottard reveals that, actually, he’s quite happy with the plague, as he’s making a lot of money on the black market and also, the police are too busy fighting pestilence to arrest him for that thing he did that one time which he won’t tell us about. (Turns out, that’s why he tried to commit suicide; he was afraid of being arrested and going to jail.)
Rambert starts feeling guilty about running away like a coward, so he helps with Rieux and Tarrou’s volunteer sanitation teams while he continues to plot his escape from town. Martial law has been declared, which is a clear indication that life is sucking big time in Oran. There are now so many bodies that the cemeteries are full, most houses/hotels/buildings in general have been converted to hospitals or isolation camps, and the plague has evolved into a more deadly and more contagious strain. The light at the end of the tunnel is nowhere to be seen. After a lengthy philosophical discussion with Rieux (we told you that keeps happening), Rambert decides on the night of his would-be escape that he’ll stay in Oran and help fight the plague. One of Rieux’s colleagues devises a serum that does exactly jack for a small boy – the son of police magistrate M. Othon – who suffers extensively and dies of the plague, much to everyone’s anger and God-cursing disappointment. Father Paneloux gives another sermon, this time revealing how much he's struggling in his faith after having seen an innocent child die. Shortly later, Paneloux himself dies, although Dr. Rieux is unable to determine whether he died of the plague or some other illness.
Tarrou, being mysterious and all, has repeatedly suggested that he hates such men as M. Othon, the friendly local magistrate. Now that we’re nearing he end of the novel, he figures this would be a good time to tell Rieux why this is so. Which brings us to The Story of Tarrou’s Life: born, liked mom and dad, was OK with dad being a prosecutor, saw dad condemn a man to the death penalty, was no longer OK with anything, left home, and is still adamant agitator against the death penalty.
Several pages of philosophical banter later, the plague is still kicking Oran’s butt. In fact, Grand falls victim to the plague and everyone expects him to die. He doesn’t. Grand’s recovery seems to mark an upswing for the town – the anti-plague serum starts working and the plague is officially in recession, with fewer people dying every day!
Unfortunately, while fewer people are dying, people are still in fact dying. Such people include M. Othon (sad), Jean Tarrou (catastrophically sad), and Rieux’s absent, invalid wife (we didn’t really know her that well). Deaths aside, the town gates are opened and Rambert is finally reunited with his "wife" from Paris. Rieux is alone, reveals that he was the narrator this whole time (gasp!), and says his intentions in writing this account were to ready us should we ever contract the plague, and to record the lessons learned by suffering.
Of course, the novel was riddled with incredible nuggets of beautifully crafted philosophical gold, but you’ll have to read a bit more than this plot overview to get at those.