Study Guide

The Plague Language and Communication

By Albert Camus

Language and Communication

He had put the question solely to find out if Rambert could or couldn’t state the facts without paltering with the truth. "I’ve no use for statements in which something is kept back," he added. "That’s why I shall not furnish information in support of yours.

The journalist smiled. "You talk the language of Saint-Just." (1.2.48-9)

We see that each person speaks their own language, and thus fails to communicate with others, at least to some degree.

The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with truth. (1.2.50)

The narrator examines the language a man uses in order to understand that man and his emotions.

"Well," Richard said. "that depends on what you mean by ‘normal’." (1.2.115)

The Plague would remind us that all words are subjective and in fact shift in meaning.

His notebooks comprise a sort of chronicle of those strange days we all lived through. But an unusual type of chronicle, since the writer seems to make a point of understatement, and at first sight we might almost imagine that Tarrou had a habit of observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope. (1.3.3)

That Tarrou describes people "through the wrong end of the telescope" puts to question the factual integrity of his observations. Since Rieux relies on these journals to write his narrative, that too is put to question. Alternatively, one could argue that Tarrou’s detachment – his wrong-end-of-the-telescope perspective – is what actually allows for his objectivity. He’s not emotionally or otherwise involved, therefore he can be factual.

For example, after describing how the discovery of a dead rat led the hotel cashier to make an error in his bill, Tarrou added: "Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in the dentist’s waiting room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to the lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course by standing all the way; by lining up at the box office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth. (1.3.20)

The irony here is that Tarrou uses a formal, logical rubric of language to come to an absurd and illogical conclusion.

"You see, doctor, I’ve been told that a knowledge of Latin gives one a better understanding of the real meanings of French words." (1.4.14)

This is an ironic statement – a main argument of The Plague is that there are no "real meanings" of words.

When discussing the possible motives for the attempted suicide, Grand showed an almost finical anxiety over his choice of words. Finally, he elected for the expression "a secret grief." (1.4.17)

Grand’s struggle with language reminds us that, while language is in fact inadequate, we still need it to function. It is as wrong to spend hours debating a conjunction as it is to toss out words like "normal" or "duty" without a second thought.

"You know," the old doctor said, "what they’re going to tell us? That it vanished from temperate countries long ago."

"Vanished? What does that word really mean?" Rieux shrugged his shoulders. (1.4.43-44)

By using the word "vanished" to describe a plague that quite obviously has not vanished, the men have stripped it of its meaning.

The word "plague" had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise—since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. (1.5.1)

The word "plague" is such a powerful one because of the connotations of fear it carries.

A word was echoing still, the word "plague." A word that conjured up in the doctor’s mind not only what science chose to put into it, but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes, from which were rising the sounds of mild activity characteristic to the hour; a drone rather than a bustling, the noises of a happy town, in short, if it’s possible to be at once so dull and happy. (1.5.6)

While we’re debating words, what’s up with "happy?" Rieux uses it again in the very last line of the novel…

"Well," he said, "perhaps we’d better make up our minds to call this disease by its name. So far we’ve been only shilly-shallying. Look here, I’m off to the laboratory; like to come with me?"

"Quite so, quite so," Grand said as he went down the stairs at the doctor’s heels. "I, too, believe in calling things by their name. But what’s the name in this case?"

"That I shan’t say, and anyhow you wouldn’t gain anything by knowing."

"You see," Grand smiled. "It’s not so easy, after all!" (1.6.5-8)

Rieux is entirely contradictory here. He claims we ought to call things by their name, but then refuses to do so a second later. We could write him off as hypocritical, but we can also read this passage in a way that makes sense. Rieux’s claim that "you wouldn’t gain anything by knowing" suggests that language is futile. Indeed, as he later explains, labeling the plague doesn’t mean anything per se. When he says he wants to "call this disease by its name," he wants to do so only to incite action. Since Grand isn’t the one who needs to be incited to action, indeed knowing the name "plague" would gain him nothing.

Rieux had already noticed Grand’s trick of professing to quote some turn of speech from "his part of the world" (he hailed from Montélimar), and following up with some such hackneyed expression as "lost in dreams," or "pretty as a picture." (1.6.11)

Grand, realizing the futility of the language he uses, tries to justify it with his geographical origins. Nice try, but no cigar.

And lastly—this was the real trouble—Joseph Grand couldn’t find his words.

This peculiarity, as Rieux had noticed, was really the key to the personality of our worthy fellow citizen. And this it was which always prevented him from writing the mildly protesting letter he had in mind, or taking the steps the situation called for. (1.6.22-3)

The narrator identifies Grand’s inability to communicate as the source of all his troubles in life – his poverty, his stagnant lifestyle, his wife having left him, and his general passivity.

"The question," old Castel cut in almost rudely, "is to know whether it’s plague or not." (1.7.11)

Castel thinks that knowing the word will make things different. Silly rabbit.

"It has small importance whether you call it plague or some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing of half the population of this town." (1.7.17)

Rieux realizes that actions matter, not words.

"Please answer me quite frankly. Are you absolutely convinced it’s plague?"

"You’re stating the problem wrongly. It’s not a question of the term I use; it’s a question of the time."

"Your view, as I take it," the Prefect put in, "is this. Even if it isn’t plague, the prophylactic measures enjoined by law for coping with a state of plague should be put into force immediately?"

"If you insist on my having a ‘view,’ that conveys it accurately enough." (1.7.28-31)

Though Rieux would seem action-oriented, he does spend time discussing the nature of their argument: what is the right way to "state the problem," etc.

"It doesn’t matter to me," Rieux said, "how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be." (1.7.34)

Rieux’s belief that the terminology is irrelevant stems from the fact that terms are always subjective. Just as Tarrou later defines the word "saintliness," so these men must define the term "plague." Since the terms are flexible, why worry about using them at all?

Grand seemed at a loss. He couldn’t say that Cottard used to be unamiable; the term wouldn’t have been correct. But Cottard was a silent, secretive man, with something about him that made Grand think of a wild boar. (1.8.9)

While Grand can’t find his words, the narrator seems more than happy to help. What happens when we apply the lesson that language is inadequate or incorrect to The Plague itself?

"I know!" Cottard exclaimed. "You’re writing a book, aren’t you?" (1.8.30)

The notion of Grand writing a book is laughable, to say the least. But what we find comic, Rieux finds to be endearing. After all, Grand is proclaimed the hero of the novel (if there were to be a hero, which there isn’t).

"Why, because an author has more rights than ordinary people, as everybody knows. People will stand much more from him." (1.8.35)

Cottard believes that a writer has more rights, probably because he has a command of language.

Words like "special arrangements," "favor," and "priority" had lost all effective meaning. (2.1.2)

Language is often a way to gauge reality in The Plague; because these specific words have lost their meaning, we know that the plague has leveled the town and that all citizens are now equal.

Even the small satisfaction of writing letters was denied us. It came to this: not only had the town ceased to be in touch with the rest of the world by normal means of communication, but also—according to a second notification—all correspondence was forbidden, to obviate the risk of letters’ carrying infection outside the town. (2.1.3)

The plague cuts off communication via letters, but how effective was communication to begin with, before the plague came to town?

"While we loved each other we didn’t need words to make ourselves understood. But people don’t love forever. A time came when I should have found the words to keep her with me—only I couldn’t." (2.2.18)

Words are needed for understanding, yet words are limited. Sounds like we’re all isolated as individuals without a real ability to connect, subject-to-subject, with anyone else (paging Sartre).

All he gathered was that the work he was engaged on ran to a great many pages, and he was at almost excruciating pains to bring it to perfection. "Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction!" (2.4.23)

Grand obsesses over picking the right words for his literary masterpiece when ironically, there are no right words.

"That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride—the horse is trotting, on-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean?—the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: "Hats off!’" (2.4.42)

Grand’s struggle reminds us that words always fail to express what another person is feeling and thinking. Perhaps then, this is the point of Rieux’s striving for objectivity. Since he can’t possible express emotions, he’s going to stick to facts.

"Is he a saint?" Tarrou asked himself, and answered: "Yes, if saintliness is the aggregation of habits." (2.6.22)

Tarrou’s statement seems ridiculous, but not when we remember that most important words have been called into question in The Plague. In fact, the problem with language is that we have to define each term we use – using other ill-defined terms, of course. The result is that any term is rendered meaningless, as demonstrated here. Rieux then is correct to conclude that taking action is the only solution.

"Do you believe in God, doctor?"

Again, the question was put in an ordinary tone. But this time Rieux took longer to find his answer.

"No—but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding that original." (2.7.46-48)

At times it seems as though Rieux uses the whole "language is meaningless" thing as a defense to avoid difficult arguments.

But it could be expressed only in the conventional language with which men try to express what unites them with mankind in general; a vocabulary quite unsuited, for example, to Grand’s small daily effort, and incapable of describing what Grand stood for under plague conditions. (2.8.33)

Language, the narrator argues, is often an exercise in connecting with others. People use language to try to make their experiences universal. But the plague in Oran cannot be expressed this way – it is an individual experience of suffering.

"I’d come to realize that all our troubles sprang from our failures to use plain, clear-cut language. So I resolved always to speak—and to act—quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track. That’s why I say there are pestilence and there are victims; no more than that." (4.6.33)

Tarrou identifies what The Plague has been hinting at thus far in the narrative – that language is the real problem here. However Tarrou confuses simplicity of language with simplicity of thought. In trying to make clear his language, Tarrou tries to narrow the world into two very simple words: "pestilence" and "victims." This is an impossibly narrow-minded interpretation, even if the language is clear.

"He was a man who knew what he wanted."

[…]

"Well, he never talked just for talking’s sake." (5.5.30-32)

The Spaniard recognizes Tarrou’s control over his own expression; this suggests that Tarrou was successful in his attempt to "always speak clearly," and in fact he may be the only character in The Plague who communicates successfully.