Study Guide

The Plague Freedom and Confinement

By Albert Camus

Freedom and Confinement

Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what first strikes one about the town of Oran. (1.1.1)

The ordinariness of Oran stands in direct conflict with the unique situation and isolation that the plague brings to the town.

The telegram informed Rieux that his mother would be arriving the next day. She was going to keep house for her son during his wife’s absence. When the doctor entered his apartment he found the nurse already there. He looked at his wife. She was in a tailor-made suit, and he noticed she had used rouge. He smiled at her. (1.2.19)

There are all kinds of exile in The Plague, among them the personal exile Rieux is preparing for (from his wife) and his apparent emotional exile (also from his wife. Seriously, could he be more distant from her?).

Meanwhile, however, he informed the doctor that he really knew very little about Cottard, but believed him to have private means in a small way. Cottard was a queer bird. For a long while their relations went no further than wishing each other good-day when they met on the stairs. (1.4.11)

Cottard lives in exile even before the plague. He is truly a man alone in the world, lacking the intimacy of normal human interaction.

"What struck me as queer was that he always seemed to want to start up a conversation. But he should have seen that I was busy with my work" Grand turned to Rieux and added rather shyly: "Some private work." (1.4.20)

Cottard wants to break out of his isolation, but the rest of the world is unresponsive to his attempts to integrate into society.

Cottard seemed to have a preference for gangster films. But the thing that had struck him most about the man was his aloofness, not to say his mistrust of everyone he met. (1.8.9)

Cottard’s separation from society is clearly the source of his troubles.

Since his attempt at suicide, Cottard had had no more visitors. In the streets, in shops, he was always trying to strike up friendships To the grocer he was all affability; no one could take more pains than he to show his interest in the tobacconist’s gossip. (1.8.12)

Cottard is isolated by his actions, but nonetheless he shows himself to be a man of sympathy by trying to give to others the friendship and affability he has been denied.

Cottard sat down and replied rather grumpily that he was feeling tolerably well, adding that he’d feel still better if only he could be sure of being left in peace. Rieux remarked that one couldn’t always be left alone. (1.8.47)

Cottard cannot integrate into society because he is guilty and wishes to be alone.

"I was thinking of people who take an interest in you only to make trouble for you." When Rieux said nothing, he went on: "Mind you, that’s not my case. Only I’ve been reading that detective story. It’s all 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 card indexes. Now, do you think that’s fair? Do you think people have a right to treat a man like that? (1.8.48)

Cottard worries about people taking too much of an interest in him. This is clearly ironic since he suffers in many ways precisely because no one takes an interest in him.

Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and—together with fear—the greatest affliction of that long period of exile that lay ahead. (2.1.1)

The feeling of exile ends up creating camaraderie between the citizens of Oran. Well, that’s the positive way to look at it. The negative interpretation is that common confinement strips the citizens of their individuality; they are all alike in their imprisonment from their loved ones and from the rest of the world.

But once the town gates were shut, everyone one of us realized that all, the narrator include, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have had too adapt himself to the new conditions of life. (2.1.1)

The new conditions of life are ones of community and selflessness: it is the condition of being cut off from the self for the perpetuation of the whole.

It might indeed be said that the first effect of this brutal visitation was to compel our townspeople to act as if they had no feelings as individuals. (2.1.2)

The plague takes away individuality and yields only the common condition of suffering. In this way, the people are personally confined – pigeonholed, actually – to common roles.

For actually the closing of the gates took place some hours before the official order was made known to the public, and, naturally enough, it was impossible to take individual cases of hardship into account. (2.1.2)

People of Oran are at first unaware of being shut in. In fact, it is only the knowledge of their confinement that makes it so difficult to bear. The condition itself is not nearly so bad as the implications it carries for the future.

One of the most striking consequences of closing the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-bye on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by out blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking—all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another. (2.1.2)

The narrator repeatedly stresses this personal element to the citizens’ confinement. To him, this is the most striking effect of the plague.

It was undoubtedly a feeling of exile […], that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time […]. In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had to speedily abandon the idea. (2.1.8)

This is an incredible image. The narrator describes Oran’s state of exile, but does so in terms of time, not in terms of space. After all, the citizens can’t really be in geographical exile – they’re stuck in their homes. Instead, they are temporally exiled from both the past and the future, stuck in a state of the forever-present. The use of the word "exile" suggests that this is a foreign state; clearly, people are used to living anywhere but the present moment. (This is also consistent with the description we received of Oran in the opening chapter.)

Always a moment came when we had to face the fact that no trains were coming in. (2.1.8)

As is generally the case, a train isn’t always just a train. These trains represent everything Oran no longer has – free trade, communication, travel, and any sort of contact with the outside world.

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. (2.1.11)

In exile, as in prison (not that we would know), one has a memory (and therefore a past) but no hope (and therefore no future). The result is that no one uses that memory of the past to enact change for the future – it’s simply useless.

Moreover, in this extremity of solitude, none could count on any help from his neighbor; each had to bear the load of his troubles alone. If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him. (2.1.15)

It’s interesting that Oran’s exile from the outside world results in confinement and alienation within the town’s walls.

Plague was posting sentries at the gate and turning away ships bound for Oran. No vehicle had entered the town since the gates were closed. From that day onwards on had the impression that all cars were moving in circles. (2.2.1)

The isolation of Oran seems to create a state of stasis rather than progress. Because they are in temporal exile, there is no future and no past – they simply circle around over and over in the unchanging present.

"But confound it," Rambert exclaimed, "I don’t belong here!" (2.2.32)

Rambert tries to maintain his individuality in the face of the crisis by claiming he is a stranger in town. The point of the narration, however, is that every man is similarly exiled from every other man, similarly lives in isolation. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; you’re a stranger everywhere you go.

Thus week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some, like Rambert, even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. (3.1.1)

Take a look at this passage in the context of Tarrou’s later claim that man is always living with plague, it’s just that some are unaware and some are OK with that as is. What does it mean to contrive to be free, as opposed to really be free? Tarrou would argue that awareness is the key difference. Does The Plague seem to agree with this diagnosis?

Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the cross currents of revolt and fear set up by these. (3.1.1)

Again, it is not so much the confinement itself, but rather the thought that they have been exiled that bothers the people of Oran. Abstractions, anyone?

That evening hour which for believers is the time to look into their conscience is the hardest of all hours on the prisoner or exile who has nothing to look into but the void. For a moment it held them in suspense; then they sank back into their lethargy, the prison door had closed on them once again. (3.1.29)

Introspection comes with a price tag in times of imprisonment; the act of thinking is the most beleaguered process for the citizens of Oran.

"When I suggested to him," Tarrou continues, "that the surest way of not being cut of from others was having a clean conscience, he frowned. ‘If that is so, everyone’s always cut off from everyone else.’ And a moment later he added: ‘Say what you like, Tarrou, but let me tell you this: the one way of making people hang together is to give ‘em a spell of plague.’" (4.1.16)

The citizens of Oran are not only isolated from the rest of the world, but emotionally exiled from one another.

Rieux agreed, merely adding that the long separation was beginning to tell on him, and, what was more, he might have helped his wife to make a good recovery; whereas, as things were, she must be feeling terribly lonely. (4.1.5)

Is Rieux really more exiled from his wife now than he was before she left? Or is he just exiled in a different way?

At the end of the plague, with its misery and privations, these men and women had come to wear the aspect of the part they had been playing for so long, the part of emigrants whose faces first, and now their clothes, told of the long banishment from a distant homeland. Once plague had shut the gates of the town, they had settled down to a life of separation, debarred from the living warmth that gives forgetfulness of all. (5.4.11)

The citizens of Oran have become so used to confinement that they have forgotten what it is like to function without bars on the window, so to speak. Yet, ironically, they didn’t really get out of Oran much before the plague started.

All the same, following the dictates of his heart, he has deliberately taken the victims’ side and tried to share with his fellow citizens the only certitudes they had in common—love, exile, and suffering. (5.5.2)

The narrator began the novel speaking of love, work, and death, and now it's love, exile, and suffering. Hmm…