Study Guide

The Plague Love

By Albert Camus


Perhaps the easiest way of making the town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die. In our little town (is this, one wonders, an effect of the climate?) all three are done on much the same lines, with the same feverish yet casual air. The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits (1.1.3)

Right away, the narrator chooses love as one of the three basic elements of a person’s life. The packaging of these actions – loving, working, and dying – is an interesting one, and can be used as a tri-colored lens through which to view the entire novel.

The passions of the young are violent and short-lived; the vices of older men seldom range beyond an addiction to bowling, to banquets and "socials," or clubs where large sums of money change hands on the fall of a card. (1.1.3)

Nice – the passion of young love is implicitly compared to gambling on games of chance. Clever, isn’t it?

I’m so glad to be with you again, Bernard," she added. "The rats can’t change that, anyhow. (1.2.65)

Rieux’s mother makes the point that love is stronger than suffering.

He was one of those rare people, rare in our town as elsewhere, who have the courage of their good feelings. What little he told of his personal life vouched for acts of kindness and a capacity for affection that no one in our times dares own to. (1.6.24)

Grand has the courage to be loving even when others are afraid to express such feeling.

People bound together by friendship, affection, or physical love found themselves reduced to hunting for tokens of their past communion within the compass of a ten-word telegram. And since, in practice, the phrases of one can use in a telegram are quickly exhausted, long lives passed side by side, or passionate yearnings, soon declined to the exchange of such trite formulas as: "Am well. Always thinking of you. Love." (2.1.3)

Love cannot be expressed easily through short phrases – the experience of love is far different than and in fact not at all dependent upon the language we have for it.

They weren’t one of those exemplary married couples of the Darby-and-Joan pattern; on the contrary, the narrator has grounds for saying that, in all probability, neither partner felt quite sure the marriage was all that could have been desired. But this ruthless, protracted separation enabled them to realize that they could not live apart, and in the sudden glow of this discovery the risk of plague seemed insignificant. (2.1.5)

The plague may cause suffering, but it also inflames feeling of love.

To come at last, and more specifically, to the case of parted lovers, who present the greatest interest and of whom the narrator is, perhaps, better qualified to speak—their minds were the prey of different emotions, notably remorse. For their present position enabled them to take stock of their feelings with a sort of feverish objectivity. And in these conditions, it was rare for them not to detect their own shortcomings. What first brought these home to them was the trouble they experienced in summoning up any clear picture of what the absent one was doing. They came to deplore their ignorance of the way in which that person used to spend his or her days, and reproached themselves for having troubled too little about this in the past, and for having affected to think that, for a lover, the occupations of the loved one when they are not together could be a matter of indifference and not a source of joy. (2.1.13)

Parted lovers turn on themselves – perhaps to distract themselves from turning a critical eye on the absent other?

For at the precise moment when the residents of the town began to panic, their thoughts were wholly fixed on the person whom they longed to meet again. The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal. (2.1.16)

Love makes bearing the plague easier because it serves as a distraction.

You get married, you go on loving a bit longer, you work. And you work so hard that it makes you forget to love. (2.2.16)

What were those three actions identified in the first chapter? Oh, right: work, love, and death.

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)

What were those three actions identified in the first chapter? Oh, right: work, love, and death.

He wished nothing better than that Rambert should be allowed to return to his wife and that all who loved one another and were parted should come together again. Only the law was the law, plague had broken out, and he could only do what had to be done. (2.2.50)

While Rieux and Rambert initially make different decisions, their reasoning is the same. Rieux says he needs to do his job – that is, be a doctor. Rambert, likewise, needs to "do what ha[s] to be done," it’s just that in his case, what has to be done is be with his "wife."

"Yes, the hour has come for serious thought. You fondly imagined it was enough to visit God on Sundays , and thus you could make free of your weekdays. You believed some brief formalities, some bendings of the knee, would recompense him well enough for your criminal indifference. But God is not mocked. These brief encounters could not sate the fierce hunger of His love. He wished to see you longer and more often; that is His manner of loving and, indeed, it is the only manner of loving. (2.3. 15)

Apparently love can be destructive as well – at least in religious rhetoric.

Yes, everyone sleeps at that hour, and this is reassuring, since the great longing of a unquiet heart is to possess constantly and consciously the loved one, or, failing that, to be able to plunge the loved one, when a time of absence intervenes, into a dreamless sleep timed to last unbroken until they day they meet again. (2.5.9)

The parted lovers try to manipulate time to ease their sorrow; this, of course, isn’t possible.

"Oran, we’re with you! they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together—"and that’s the only way. They’re too remote." (2.8.34)

This is an important concept in The Plague; empathy can’t be had from a distance, since, as Rieux has already established, it’s difficult to comprehend suffering unless you’re in the thick of it. It is interesting that he chooses these two actions – loving and dying – to express his thought; they are two of the three actions (the other being work) that were listed at the start of the novel.

"Man isn’t an idea, Rambert."

Rambert sprang off the bed, his faze ablaze with passion.

"Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that’s my point; we—mankind—have lost the capacity for love. […] Let’s wait to acquire the capacity […]. Personally, I look no further. (2.9.237-9)

Rambert sees abstraction as the enemy, as the penalty, even, for losing love. He claims that love roots us in reality, makes us concrete and palpable, whereas without it, we become mere abstractions.

They had lost love’s egoism and the benefit they derived from it. Now, at least, the position was clear; this calamity was everybody’s business. (3.1.31)

Love makes the citizens feel as though they are privileged above others, but the plague makes the town a level ground.

For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors—the sole voice of cities in ordinary times—had ceased, was the drumming of innumerable soles time to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from our hearts. (3.1.32)

Rieux has spoken before of his heart having to be hardened in order for him to do his job well. Here again he says that "blind endurance" has "ousted love from" the hearts of Oran. But is he telling the truth? Rieux’s reaction to Jacques’s death was hardly a "hardened" one devoid of love. At what point in the novel does Rieux experience this loss of emotion, and at what points does it return? Where does he stand at this point in Part III?

"Forgive me Rambert, only—well, I simply don’t know. But stay with us if you want to." A swerve of the care him break off. Then, looking straight in front of him, he said: "For nothing in the world is it worth turning one’s back on what one loves. Yet that is what I’m doing, though I do not know." (4.2.78)

This is Rieux’s predicament. If there are three basic actions – loving, working, and dying – and one must choose between the first two, what’s a doctor to do? Rieux justifies his decision to work by claiming it is his duty, but Rambert’s counter-argument, that he is put on this earth to love a woman more than he is put on this earth to do his job, is tough to get around. Rieux says here that he just doesn’t know, but does he answer the question by the end of the novel?

If only he could put the clock back and be once more the man who, at the outbreak of the epidemic, had had only one thought and one desire: to escape and return to the woman he loved! But that, he knew, was out of the question now; he had changed too greatly. The plague had forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn’t think away, and which like a formless fear haunted his mind. Almost he though the plague had ended too abruptly, he hadn’t had time to pull himself together. Happiness was bearing down on him full speed, the event outrunning expectation. Rambert understood that all would be restored to him in a flash, and joy break on him like a flame with which there is no dallying. (5.4.5)

This gets back to Rieux’s hardened-heart predicament. Rambert now has to shake off his indifference – and quickly – before his "wife" returns. It would seem here that the conditions needed to survive the plague are NOT the conditions needed to function in the regular world, which puts quite the contradictory kink in the argument that The Plague is a lesson in day-to-day living.

They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love. (5.4.14)

Love is the one thing people can strive for in an indifferent world. This is meant neither to be uplifting nor condemning – it simply is.

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)

Just as the citizens of Oran were made similar by their suffering and isolation, so too can they find camaraderie in the common sentiment of love.

Cottard, Tarrou, the men and the women Rieux had loved and lost—all alike, dead or guilty, were forgotten. Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people were "just the same as ever." But this was at once their strength and their innocence, and it was on this level, beyond all grief, that Rieux could feel himself at one with them. (5.5.41)

The tragedy of loving is that death is inevitable; therefore loss and exile from loved ones is also unavoidable.