Study Guide

The Plague Duty

By Albert Camus

Duty

Then hurriedly he begged her to forgive him; he felt he should have looked after her better, he’d been most remiss. (1.2.21)

Rieux is Mr. Responsible when it comes to the citizens of Oran, but he neglects his wife in order to do so. This looks like a classic case of abstraction – he chooses the idea of duty (for the good of society) over the concrete case of duty (for the good of the individual) staring him in the face.

He merely replied, without looking at the police officer, that "a secret grief" described it well enough. The inspector then asked him peremptorily if he intended to "have another go at it." Showing more animation, Cottard said certainly not, his one wish was to be left in peace. (1.4.30)

Cottard has skipped out on his duty as a citizen and become a criminal; this makes him an exile in the normal world but a free man during the plague.

If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. If not, one would know […] what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it.

The doctor opened his window […]. There lay certitude; there, in the daily round. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done. (1.5.8-9)

Rieux states that the way to combat the plague is very clear: you just have to do your job. But is he referring to his job as a doctor, or as a citizen? Does Rieux fight the plague as a medical professional, or as a merely decent man?

That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear. As for the "specially equipped" wards, he knew what that amounted to: two out-buildings from which the other patients had been hastily evacuated, whose windows had been hermetically sealed, and round which a sanitary cordon had been set. The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised." (1.8.75)

While Rieux and his colleagues struggle to do their duty, the Prefect and other government authorities are lying down on the job. But do we blame them for the events that follow?

The truth is I wasn’t brought into the world to write newspaper articles. But it’s quite likely I was brought into the world to live with a woman. That’s reasonable enough, isn’t it?

Rieux replied cautiously that there might be something in what he said. (2.2.35-36)

Rambert manipulates terms like "duty" and "obligation" to justify what The Plague seems to label as cowardice.

"I’ve drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers. Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let’s sidetrack officialdom. In any case the authorities have their hands more than full already. I have friends in many walks of life; they’ll form a nucleus to start from. And, of course, I’ll take part in it myself." (2.7.34)

Tarrou obviously holds a sense of duty to help fight the plague; but he doesn’t seem to know why he feels this way. His following conversation with Rieux is his attempt to understand his obligation.

"So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague. (2.7.42)

For Rieux, duty is a matter of common sense. If you’re sane and aware, you either fight the plague or run away like a coward. It’s that simple.

Rieux said that […] if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort […]. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself in Providence completely. (2.7.56)

Rieux explains that he fights the plague not in spite of his atheism, but rather because of it. If God isn’t around, someone has to take a stand in his place.

"Out with it, Tarrou! What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?"

"I don’t know. My code of morals, perhaps."

"Your code of morals? What code?"

"Comprehension." (2.7.94-7)

While Rieux cites his atheism as the reason for his taking a stand against the plague, Tarrou simply lists "comprehension." We know this guy is big on awareness, so it seem that to him, as well as to the doctor and to Grand, simply being conscious of the plague leads easily to the logical conclusion that they have to fight it.

From this angle, the narrator holds that, more than Rieux or Tarrou, Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said yes without a moment’s hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. […] When Rieux thanked him with some warmth, he seemed surprised. "Why, that’s not difficult! Plague is here and we’ve got to make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were so simple!" (2.8.4)

Grand sees duty the same way the other men do; not a something heroic or grand, but simply as part of being a man in the world.

"Look here, Monsieur Cottard, why don’t you join us?"

Picking up his derby hat, Cottard rose from his chair with an offended expression.

"It’s not my job," he said. Then, with an air of bravado, he added: "What’s more, the plague suits me quite well and I see no reason why I should bother about trying to stop it." (2.9.174-6)

Cottard uses the same logic to refute his duty that Rieux, Grand, and Tarrou use to justify and interpret it. The problem may come, yet again, to a simple problem of terminology. What does it mean for something to be someone’s "job?" Does this refer to profession? To obligation? And what defines those very terms? The ambiguity of language once more has serious repercussions in The Plague.

"You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to be absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency." (2.9.241)

Rieux is honest in his dealings with Rambert. Rather than glamorize his work to convince the journalist to help, he gives him the straight answer.

"What do you mean by ‘common decency’?" Rambert’s tone was grave.

"I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job."

"Your job! I only wish I were sure what my job is!" There was a mordant edge to Rambert’s voice. "Maybe I’m all wrong in putting love first."

Rieux looked him in the eyes.

"No," he said vehemently, "you are not wrong." (2.9.242-6)

Here’s an idea for you: Rieux is jealous of Rambert. In fact, Rieux isn’t a selfless healer at all – he’s just trying to avoid having to take care of his wife. Tending victims of the plague is his excuse for not tending the woman who needs him most. He envies Rambert’s conviction and the strength of his love for his "wife" in Paris. Do you agree?

"I suppose you don’t know that Rieux’s wife is in a sanatorium, a hundred miles or so away."

Rambert showed surprise and began to say something; but Tarrou had already left the room.

At a very early hour the next day Rambert rang up the doctor.

"Would you agree to my working with you until I find some way of getting out of town?"

There was a moment’s silence before the reply came.

"Certainly, Rambert. Thanks." (2.9.253-8)

Faced with the example set by others, Rambert realizes his duty is in fact to the town. Of course, he’s still going to leave town ASAP, but it’s a step in the right direction. Rieux, being himself, doesn’t judge Rambert, either, for any of his decisions.

"Then why don’t you stop my going? You could easily manage it."

Rieux shook his head […]. It was none of his business, he said. Rambert had elected for happiness, and he, Rieux, had no argument to put up against him. Personally he felt incapable of deciding which was the right course and which the wrong in such a case as Rambert’s.

[…]

"Perhaps […] I, too, would like to do my bit for happiness." (4.2.10-14)

More evidence for our Rieux-doesn’t-want-to-take-care-of-his-wife theory. Not only is he complicit in Rambert’s illegal escape by his silence, but now he’s actively helping the man by alerting him to growing suspicions. Because Rieux can’t do for his own wife what Rambert is doing for his, he seeks love and happiness in this vicarious manner.

"Doctor," Rambert said, "I’m not going. I want to stay with you."

[…]

"And what about her?" His voice was hardly audible.

Rambert said he’d thought it over very carefully, and his views hadn’t changed, but if he went away, he would feel ashamed of himself, and that would embarrass his relations with the woman he loved.

Showing more animation, Rieux told him that was sheer nonsense; there was nothing shameful in preferring happiness." (4.2.69-73)

Is it just us, or is Rieux actually trying to convince Rambert to cut and run? You could continue with our previous claim that the doctor is trying to live through Rambert, or you could argue that, far more nobly, Rieux is trying to make sure the man is pure of heart. It is not enough for him to stay in Oran, but he must stay in Oran for the right reasons.