Study Guide

The Plague Criminality

By Albert Camus


"I always say," the woman began, "if they clapped all that scum in jail, decent folks could breathe more freely."

She was too much startled by Cottard’s reaction—he dashed out of the shop without a word of excuse—to continue. (1.8.27-8)

Since we don’t know anything about this woman, we can assume she represents some sort of general or popular opinion: namely, that criminals need to be locked up.

"Only I’ve been reading that detective story. It’s about a poor devil who’s arrested one fine morning, all of a sudden. People had been taking an interest in him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him in offices, entering his name on index cards. Now, do you think that’s fair? Do you think people have the right to treat a man like that?"

"Well," Rieux said, "that depends." (1.8.50)

Two things are painfully clear from this passage: first, that Cottard is more interested in himself than protecting the rights of criminals everywhere (as Tarrou is), and Rieux, yet again, is unable to commit himself fully to an opinion one way or the other. Apparently, objectivity necessitates timidity.

"I should tell you, however, that they’re thinking of using the prisoners in the jails for what we call the ‘heavy work.’"

"I’d rather free men were employed."

"So would I. But might I ask why you feel like that?"

"I loathe men’s being condemned to death." (2.7.28-31)

We later find out about Tarrou’s reasons, but what’s more interesting is that he doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that all men, criminals or not, are condemned to death.

"Quite the contrary. Criminal cases of what we call the first instance are growing rarer. In fact, almost my only work just now is holding inquiries into more serious breaches of the new regulations. Our ordinary laws have never been so well respected."

"That’s because, by contrast, they necessarily appear good ones," Tarrou observed. (2.9.70-1)

Tarrou reminds us that laws, too, are subjective.

"What does that matter? It’s not the law that counts; it’s the sentence. And that is something we must all accept."

"That fellow," said Tarrou when the magistrate was out of hearing, "is Enemy Number One." (2.9.73-4)

Tarrou resents the magistrate for his blind faith in the system of justice, and his ignorance of the humanity of those men he would so easily condemn.

"It’s something that happened ages ago," he began. "Somehow they’ve dug it up. I thought it had all been forgotten. […] And I felt pretty sure they’d end up by arresting me."


"And is that the reason," Tarrou asked, "why you had the bright idea of hanging yourself?"

"Yes. It was a damn-fool thing to do, I admit." (2.9.185-202)

Why does Cottard attempt suicide? It seems as though he doesn’t feel guilty as much as he feels afraid of getting caught.

Cottard protested that he’d never wanted the plague, it was pure chance that it had broken out, and he wasn’t to blame if it happened to make things easier for him just now. (2.9.209)

In Tarrou’s world of people vs. pestilence, on which side does Cottard fall? He refuses to fight the plague, and he’s certainly in passive favor of it, but does this put him on the side of the pestilence?

"I suggested to him," Tarrou continues, "that the surest way of not being cut of from others was having a clean conscience." (4.1.16)

It’s important to note that while Tarrou abhors the death penalty and befriends Cottard, he’s far from a pro-criminal stance. The man clearly has a strict moral rubric, even if he refuses to aggressively force it upon others (like Cottard).

"I hope Jacques did not suffer too much."


"No," Tarrou said. "No, I couldn’t really say he suffered." (4.5.19-21)

Tarrou remarks at one point that lying takes a good deal of effort at his age and is not worth the exertion. With that established, we have to really consider the fact that he blatantly lies to M. Othon here to save the man mental anguish. This is even more interesting when we remember how much Tarrou despises judges (and in fact anyone involved in criminal prosecution). This means that Tarrou, despite the intensity of his emotions, is able to look beyond the roles people play into society and see them as real people with real emotions – more, he would claim, than a judge could do for a criminal.

"Poor Monsieur Othon!" Tarrou murmured as the gate closed behind them. "One would like to do something to help him. But how can you help a judge?" (4.5.30)

Tarrou gets a wee bit preachy here. Rather than admit that his feelings for the judge are subjective, he takes the stance that the magistrate, simply because of his position, cannot possibly be saved. This is possibly the furthest we ever see Tarrou from his stance of objective detachment.

"What happened in a court had always seemed to me a natural, as much in the order of things, as a military parade on the Fourteenth of July of a school speech day. My notions on the subject were purely abstract, and I’d never given it serious thought." (4.6.19)

Tarrou’s initial abstract notions of the court are identical to the way Rieux describes his own initial impressions of the medical field.

"The only picture I carried away with me of that day’s proceedings was a picture of the criminal. I have little doubt he was guilty—of what crime is no great matter. That little man of about thirty, with sparse, sandy hair, seemed to eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he’d done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry and he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right…I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood—he was a living human being." (4.6.20)

Tarrou is probably not conscious of it, but he describes the criminal with the same imagery – that of an owl – with which he earlier described M. Othon, the police magistrate. While he refuses to confine the criminal to his role of "criminal," he repeatedly did as much to the magistrate; the connective imagery reminds us of as much.

"As for me, it came on me suddenly, in a flash of understanding; until then I’d thought of him only under his commonplace official designation, as ‘the defendant.’" (4.6.21)

Tarrou has his finger on the classic existentialist concept of roles. Kierkegaard argued that man’s true essence is always covered up by a series of masks, societal roles that we play (like teacher, student, mother, son, friend, and so on). The difficulty lies in removing the masks to get at the humanity underneath, which Tarrou claims he has done with this criminal.

"I hardly heard what was being said; I only knew that they were set on killing that living man, and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side." (4.6.21)

Tarrou later describes the world as a battle between two roles: victims, and pestilences. (He later adds a third category, "healers," but we’ll get to that in a bit.) He uses this two-pronged rubric to side with the criminal. Because they are both living, breathing men, they must be on the same side. To kill another human, then, would be to side with the pestilences. It’s as bad as being the plague. Sort of.

"In his red gown he was another man, no longer genial or good-natured; his mouth spewed out long, turgid phrases like an endless stream of snakes." (4.6.22)

Great, so while Tarrou has managed to break the criminal out of his societal role, he has now sequestered his father into one. The red robes = Kierkegaardian masks, as we discuss a bit more in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory."

"I realized he was clamoring for the prisoner’s death, telling the jury they owed it to society to find him guilty; he went so far as to demand that the man should have his head cut off. […] It fell to him […] to be present at what’s politely termed the prisoner’s last moments, but what would be better called murder in its most despicable form." (4.6.22)

Tarrou perhaps suffers from a Rieux-like case of oversimplification: the world is black and white, there are only victims and pestilences, so any man killing any other man is clearly murder.

"I, who saw the whole business through to its conclusion, felt a far closer, far more terrifying intimacy with that wretched man than my father can ever have felt." (4.6.22)

Hrm…all right, we’re stuck. You guys tell us – why does Tarrou feel such an intimate kinship with the condemned man? Is it, perhaps, because we are all condemned to die, in one way or another?

"Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing-squad? […] You’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know the firing-squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that; those are the things that are never spoken of. For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o’nights, mustn’t they? Really it would be shockingly bad taste to linger on such details, that’s common knowledge." (4.6.28)

In this rather intense passage, Tarrou accomplishes two tasks. First, he conveys to Rieux (and therefore to the reader) the intensity of his hatred for death of any kind, as well as justifying that hatred with powerful imagery. Second, he condemns those of us who would sweep these images under the rug, who would ignore them because of their sheer intensity. Death, he argues, is something we have to look in the face. If we as a society are going to condemn men to die at our own hands, we must at least be willing to watch the bloody results of our decisions.

"In any case, my concern was not with arguments. It was with the poor owl; with that foul procedure whereby dirty mouths stinking of plague told a fettered man that he was going to die, and scientifically arranged things so that he should die, after nights and nights of mental torture while he waited to be murdered in cold blood. My concern was with that hole in a man’s chest." (4.6.29)

No abstraction for Tarrou. While a man arguing his case could very easily turn to ideas, Tarrou stays with the concrete, with this one particular man, with this one hole in this one chest.

But there was at least one of our townsfolk for whom Dr. Rieux could not speak, the man of whom Tarrou said one day to Rieux: "His only real crime is that of having in his heart approved of something that killed off men, women, and children. I can understand the rest, but for that I am obliged to pardon him." (5.5.4)

Tarrou’s description of Cottard is an interesting one. He has already established that all men cause the deaths of others, and that our only course is to be as "innocent" a "murderer" as possible. Cottard, it would seem, doesn’t fit the bill. He’s a murderer like everyone else, but being somewhat complicit – at least emotionally – in the plague’s attack, he is far from an innocent one.

Rieux had a brief glimpse of the small man, on his feet now, in the middle of the road, his arms pinioned behind him by two police officers. He was still screaming. A policeman went up and dealt him two hard blows with his fists, quite calmly, with a sort of conscientious thoroughness.

"It’s Cottard!" Grand’s voice was shrill with excitement. (5.5.18-9)

Unable to escape to make a go of it in the real, plague-free world, Cottard simply reverts to what he has convinced himself is his societal role: a criminal.