Study Guide

Jean Tarrou in The Plague

By Albert Camus

Jean Tarrou

So Tarrou’s big deal issue is that he’s against the death penalty. Like, really against the death penalty. Thanks to Freud we can look to his childhood for an explanation, and thanks to Camus’s verbiage we have about twenty pages over which to do so. But even after trailblazing the untamed bushes of Tarrou’s courtroom incident, we have to say, we were a little at a loss. He saw a guilty man prepare to die, he saw his father condemning the man, and he felt an intimate affinity to…the condemned criminal.

What? We understand the whole "death is wrong" thing, Tarrou, we can follow you there. But why would you possibly feel kinship with a hardened criminal over your own father?

Chances are, this has something to do with death. (It’s Camus; everything has to do with death.) One of the big revelations in Camus’s work The Stranger is that death makes all men, in fact all creatures, equal. Tarrou seems to tap into this notion more than any other character in The Plague, and we’re going to go ahead and use that fact to explain the bizarre aforementioned occurrence.

Ready? Tarrou doesn’t feel kinship with the condemned criminal because he’s a criminal; he feels kinship with the condemned criminal because he’s condemned. Knowing that the man is going to die makes Tarrou suddenly realize that he is just that – a man. Previously he could write him off with labels like "criminal’ or "the defendant," but the very awareness of this guy’s mortality tips Tarrou over the edge of apathy and into a heightened consciousness. That’s where the intimate affinity lies: this man is going to die; Tarrou is doing to die. They share this mortality, therefore they share a kinship.

Great. But this is where Tarrou starts to lose us again. He perhaps oversimplifies things when he goes on to claim that the world is either pestilence or man, and you choose which side to fight on. Sure, you can’t help but accidentally cause the death of others, but the best you can do is to pay attention, all the time, and avoid causing too many deaths. You have be, as he says, an "innocent murderer."

This is a little much to comprehend, as is Tarrou’s further claim that man everywhere suffers from the plague. This certainly adds a new dimension to the novel (and brings us back to Defoe’s quote in the epigraph, so you should go check out "What's Up With the Epigraph?"). If everyone has the plague all the time, the lessons of Oran can’t just go on the back burner until pestilence breaks out in our back yard. They are actually directly applicable to daily life, right now, at this moment. Those lessons, Tarrou would argue, are to be constantly aware, to have "the least lapses of attention" and to always fight on the side of man, against suffering and plague.

Which brings us (and Tarrou) to his third category: healers. Tarrou speaks with reverence of types of people in The Plague: healers and saints. While he doesn’t yet consider himself either, he seems to be striving for both. The notion of a "healer" is pretty straightforward, so we’ll leave that one to you and go ahead and look at "saint" instead.

There are only two men to which Tarrou assigns the label of potential saint: his neighbor, a.k.a. the cat-spitting man, and Rieux’s old asthmatic patient, a.k.a. the Spaniard. It’s important to note that Tarrou doesn’t actually call either of these men a saint, at least objectively; he merely considers them candidates. Saintliness is difficult to define, in particular for a man who doesn’t believe in God.

OK…so if Tarrou doesn’t believe in God, why is he using a religious term like "saint"? Our solution, which is by no means the only one, is that Tarrou means the term in a secular manner. After all, The Plague has made the argument that all language is subject to manipulation, so why can’t this word be as well? Moving on, once Tarrou decides this is the word he wants, he has to define it. It is with the Spaniard that he recognizes the malleability of the word; yes, he affirms, the Spaniard is a saint, if saintliness is the aggregation of habit, which the old man has down pat. But this is useless logic; by this mode of thinking, one could assign the word "saint" to anyone. Is that stock broker a saint? Yes, if saintliness is buying and selling stocks. Is that squirrel over there a saint? Yes, if saintliness is the gathering of acorns. Get the picture?

Tarrou seems to get the picture as well, since he seems toward the end of the novel to have grasped some objective meaning to the word. "Perhaps," he writes in his journal, "we can only reach approximations of sainthood. In which case, we must make shift with a mild, benevolent diabolism." (FYI, "make shift" means "make do.")

Perhaps what drew Tarrou to these two men in the first place – the cat-spitting neighbor and the asthmatic patient – was the way they dealt with time. Time, after all, is the first issue we see Tarrou really address in his journal; it’s obviously a concern of his. At the beginning of the novel he recommends doing meaningless things with one’s time in order to stay conscious of it. He then witnesses such meaningless actions performed by these two men and has to decide whether or not that’s the route for him.

If Tarrou does change by the end of the novel, we should look for that change right around the time he dies. (What? Don’t give us that look. Fictional characters have a habit of going all profound and revealing before they kick it.) Indeed, Tarrou does get a bit prophetic, ending his journal with a note that he fears the time of day when courage is lowest. Next thing you know he’s on his deathbed trying to "make a good end of it." Rieux later comments that man found peace, but found it only in his death, which isn’t so helpful. In fact, Tarrou’s death altogether isn’t helpful. It’s stupid, actually. Stupid and senseless. The plague is finally receding, things are finally looking up, and then Rieux’s good friend – the man responsible for fighting the plague in the first place – goes and dies. Tarrou’s death is perhaps the strongest example The Plague puts forward of the irrational nature of suffering and the indifference of death to circumstance. It’s supposed to be a stupid and senseless event; that’s Camus putting the nail in the coffin.