Study Guide

The Plague Mortality

By Albert Camus

Mortality

But at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business, the uninspiring surroundings, the sudden nightfalls, and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there. Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place (1.1.5)

How fitting. A town that refuses to let people die inside its walls falls victim to a plague and has its gates shut.

He saw a big rat coming toward him from the dark end of the passage. It moved uncertainly, and its fur was sopping wet. The animal stopped and seemed to be trying to get its balance, moved forward again towards the doctor, halted again, then spun around on itself with a little squeal and fell on its side. (1.2.2)

This is exactly the manner in which people will later die – pre-death pirouette and everything. The Plague suggests that men are made equal to animals by their common mortality.

He wasn’t thinking about the rat. That glimpse of spurting blood had switched his thoughts back to something that had been on his mind all day. His wife, who had been ill for a year now, was due to leave the next day for the sanatorium in the mountains.(1.2.3)

Indeed, Rieux makes this connection himself.

His wife was thirty, and the long illness had left its mark on her face. Yet the thought that came to Rieux’s mind as he gazed at her was: "How young she looks, almost like a little girl!" (1.2.5)

We are reminded that sickness and disease do not discriminate; the young and the old alike are afflicted.

"The rats?" he said. "It’s nothing."

The only impression of that moment which, afterwards, he could recall was the passing of a railroadman with a box full of dead rats under his arm. (1.2.41-42)

This sets up a pattern in The Plague of unfounded statements being met by portentous responses (check out Father Paneloux’s second sermon, when the doors of the church blow open).

Even in the busy heart of the town you found them piled in little heaps on landings and in backyards. Some stole forth to die singly in the halls of public offices, in school playgrounds, and even on café terraces. Our townsfolk were amazed to find such busy centers as the Place d’Armes, the boulevards, the promenade along the waterfront, dotted with repulsive little corpses. (1.2.72)

It looks as though death also doesn’t discriminate between the busy, upscale centers of town and the dirty outskirts.

It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. (1.2.72)

Gross. And also some serious imagery of the town itself being like a human body – subject to the same illnesses and decay.

Only the old Spaniard whom Dr. Rieux was treating for asthma went on rubbing his hands and chuckling: "They’re coming out, they’re coming out," with senile glee. (1.2.73)

Repeatedly in The Plague we see elderly characters unfazed by the pestilence. Some are indifferent, such as Mme. Rieux or Marcel and Louis’s mother, and others are downright gleeful, such as the old asthmatic patient. What is it about old age that protects these characters from fear?

As he walked down the stairs, Rieux caught himself glancing into the darker corners, and he asked Grand if the rats had quite disappeared in his part of the town. (1.2.103)

Yet another structural recurrence is established: the calm before the storm.

Certainly it "cooked you," but exactly like a fever. Indeed, the whole town was running a temperature; such anyhow was the impression Dr. Rieux could not shake off as he drove to the rue Faidherbe for the inquiry into Cottard’s attempted suicide. (1.4.8)

Cottard’s suicide attempt is remarkably timed. While the town begins to struggle against death with all its might, Cottard tries to walk straight into it.

A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. (1.5.3)

Given that many label The Plague to be Camus’s humanist work, this is an interesting line. First of all, humanists believe that all people are good and valuable; they seek rational ways of solving problems. The sentiment expressed here is clearly anti-humanist – they are more vulnerable to defeat because they refuse to recognize pestilence and take precaution accordingly. However, this is only anti-humanist if you assume that Camus is on the side of the narrator. If the narrator is held up in ridicule, as a negative example (which we know is true of the narrator’s claim to be objective), then the statement is ironic and in fact a defense of humanism. Our heads hurt.

He recalled that some thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast throughout history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. (1.5.5)

Here’s where we get into the popular argument that The Plague is an allegory for war. Perhaps Camus is suggesting that we allow wars to occur because we can’t really comprehend what it means for millions of people to die.

Ten thousand dead made about five times the audience in a biggish cinema. Yes, that was how it should be done. You should collect the people at the exits of five picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means. Then at least you could add some familiar faces to the anonymous mass. But naturally that was impossible to put into practice; moreover, what man knows ten thousand faces? (1.5.5)

This is an essential humanist problem: how to care about man when it’s too easy to make him into an idea instead of a being? Even more difficult, how to care about death when you don’t individually know those who are dying? If suffering can not effectively be communicated through language, then Dr. Rieux’s narration is doomed to fail in its attempts to express his experiences.

On leaving Cottard the doctor noticed that he was thinking of Grand, trying to picture him in the midst of an outbreak of plague—not an outbreak like the present one which would probably not prove serious, but like one of the great visitations of the past. "He’s the kind of man who always escapes in such cases." Rieux remembered having read somewhere that the plague spared weak constitutions and chose its victims chiefly among the robust. (1.6.19)

Rieux thinks that Grand will survive the plague because he is insignificant. Yes, this is irrational, but hey, so is an existential world.

"There," Castel said, "I don’t agree with you. These little brutes always have an air of originality. But, at bottom, it’s always the same thing." (1.8.43)

Castel is referring to different strains of the plague. All these varieties of pestilence, he argues, are really the same thing, probably because of the common death they cause. This is similar to the way humans are rendered equal by their common mortality.

Moreover, the epidemic seemed to be on the wane; on some days only ten or so deaths were notified. Then, all of a sudden, the figure shot up again, vertically. On the day when the death-roll touched thirty, Dr. Rieux read an official telegram that the Prefect had just handed him, remarking: "So they’ve got alarmed at last." The telegram ran: Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town. (1.8.99)

Again we see this common theme of brief recession followed by resurgence. The plague – and the death it causes – follow no reasonable or logical path.

From now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. (2.1.1)

This drives home the point that every man is made equal by death.

But the gaunt, idle cranes on the wharves, rip—carts lying on their sides, neglected heaps of sacks and barrels—all testified that commerce, too, had died of plague. (2.2.1)

Death comes in many forms and affects both people and their constructs.

Nobody as yet had really acknowledged to himself what the disease connoted. Most people were chiefly aware of what ruffled the normal tenor of their lives or affected their interests. (2.2.2)

The citizens at first view the plague selfishly. They are more interested in how it affects them personally than in how to fight against it for the good of the community.

To begin with, the Prefect took measures controlling the traffic and the food-supply. Gasoline was rationed and restrictions were placed on the sale of foodstuffs. Reductions were ordered in the use of electricity. Only necessaries were brought by road or air to Oran. Thus the traffic thinned out progressively until hardly any private cars were on the roads; luxury shops closed overnight, and others began to put up "Sold Out" notices, while crowds of buyers stood waiting at their doors. (2.2.4)

The plague brings all kinds of loss, not just physical death.

To tell the truth, there was much heavy drinking. One of the cafes had the brilliant idea of putting up a slogan: "The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine." (2.2.7)

Fear of death is irrational, as are the common reactions to that fear.

Since this first onslaught of the heat synchronized with a startling increase in the number of victims—there were now nearly seven hundred deaths a week—a mood of profound discouragement settled on the town. (2.6.2)

The way the narrator interprets and therefore presents the weather has much to do with the current state of death and disease in Oran.

A system of patrols was instituted and often in the empty, sweltering streets, heralded by a clatter of horse hoofs on the cobbles, a detachment of mounted police would make its way between the parallel lines of close-shut windows. Now and again a gunshot was heard; the special brigade recently detailed to destroy cats and dogs, as possible carriers of infection, was at work. And these whipcrack sounds startling the silence increased the nervous tension already existing in the town. (2.6.4)

Infected cats and dogs are shot; infected people are later quarantined (with other potentially sick people, which doesn’t really help your chances of survival). Death does indeed render men equal to animals.

The incessant sunlight and those bright hours associated with siesta or with holiday no longer invited, as in the past, to frolics and flirtation on the beaches. Now they rang hollow in the silence of the closed town, they had lost the golden spell of happier summers. Plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure. (2.6.5)

The plague brings physical death, sure, but the narrator also focuses on the mental anguish it causes the citizens of Oran.

To Tarrou, who had shown surprise at the secluded life he led, he had given the following explanation, more or less. According to religion, the first half of a man’s life is an upgrade; the second goes downhill. One the descending days he has no claim, they may be snatched from him at any moment; thus he an do nothing with them and the best thing, precisely, is to do nothing with them. He obviously had no compunction about contradicting himself, for a few minutes later he told Tarrou that God did not exist, since otherwise there would be no need for priests. But from some observations which followed, Tarrou realized that the old fellow’s philosophy was closely involved with the irritation caused by the house-to-house collections in aid of charities, which took place almost incessantly in that part of the town. What completed the picture of the old man was a desire he expressed several times, and which seemed deeply rooted; the desire to die at a very advanced age. (2.6.21)

The Spaniard doesn’t want to die, but he also isn’t afraid of death. He just may be the ideal man for Tarrou (or maybe even for Camus): he accepts his own death, but would still struggle to fight against it.

"In spite of the growing shortage of paper, which ash compelled some dailies to reduce their pages, a new paper has been launched: the Plague Chronicle, which sets out to inform out townspeople, with scrupulous veracity, of the daily progress or recession of the disease, to supply them with the most authoritative opinions available as to its future course. […] Actually this newspaper very soon came to devote its columns to advertisements of new, ‘infallible’ antidotes against plague. (2.6.23)

Irrationally, the citizens of Oran use a scarce resource (paper) to publish bunk about the plague. Commerce has manipulated even death and disease for profit.

In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. (2.6.30)

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but the people of Oran demonstrate that, in fact, there are just really, really good parties in foxholes.

Tarrou agreed that he’d predicated a disaster, but reminded him that the event predicted by him was an earthquake. To which the old fellow replied: "Ah, if only it had been an earthquake! A good bad shock, and there you are! You count the dead and living, and that’s an end of it. But this here damned disease—even them who haven’t got it can’t think of anything else. (2.6.8)

It looks like the mental defeat caused by the plague is worse than the physical defeat (i.e., death).

"And I, too, am no different. But what matter? Death means nothing to men like me. It is the event that proves them right." (2.6.31)

Tarrou declares that death is meaningless, but that that very conclusion is only confirmed by the act of dying, which is not so great, especially since you can’t gloat about your victory (because you’re dead). Not only does this eventually prove true in Tarrou’s own death, but Rieux recognizes and comments on that fact at the end of the novel.

"And then I had to see people die. Do you know that there are some people who refuse to die? Have you ever witnessed a woman scream "Never!" with her last gasp? Well, I have. And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it." (2.7.63)

Interestingly, it is the determination of man in his struggle against death that hits home for Rieux.

These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men’s duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all. (2.8.4)

The plague, like death, is the concern of everyone. The Plague argues that, because of this commonality, we all must struggle together against the horrors of the world.

No longer were they individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. (3.1.1)

Mankind’s collective destiny is shaped by loss and death. Which is a good thought to have in your back pocket, should you ever find yourself caught in a debate over mankind’s collective destiny.

About the same time we had a recrudescence of outbreaks of fire, especially in the residential area near the west gate. It was found, after inquiry, that people who had returned from quarantine were responsible for these fires. Thrown off their balance by bereavement and anxiety, they were burning their houses under the odd delusion that they were killing off the plague in the holocaust. (3.1.5)

The irrationality invoked by a fear of death is a destructive one. Not unlike death itself. How fitting.

It cannot be denied that, anyhow, in the early days, the natural feelings of the family were somewhat outraged by these lightning funerals. But obviously in a time of plague such sentiments can’t be taken into account, and all was sacrificed to efficiency. And though, to start with, the moral of the population was shaken by this summary procedure—for the desire to have a "proper funeral" is more widespread than is generally believed—as time went on, fortunately enough, the food problem became more urgent and the thoughts of our townsfolk were diverted to more instant needs. So much energy was expended on filling up forms, hunting around for supplies, and lining up that people had no time to think of the manner in which others were dying around them and they themselves would die one day. (3.1.13)

The presence of the plague reveals the frivolity of ceremony, ceremony which makes an abstraction of death’s cold reality.

In a patch of open ground dotted with lentiscus trees at the far end of the cemetery, two big pits had been dug. One was reserved for the men, the other for the women. Thus, in this respect, the authorities still gave thought to propriety and it was only later that, by the force of things, this last remnant of decorum went by the board, and men and women were flung into the death-pits indiscriminately. Happily, this ultimate indignity synchronized with the plague’s last ravages. (3.1.16)

The Plague suggests that such an "indignity" is actually frivolous; all men, and in fact all creatures, are made equal by their common mortality; gender has no meaning in death anyway.

In the period we are now concerned with, the separation of the sexes was still in force and the authorities set great store by it. At the bottom of each pit a deep layer of quicklime steamed and seethed. […] The naked, somewhat contorted bodies were slid off into the pit almost side by side, then covered with a layer of quicklime and another of earth, the latter only a few inches deep, so as to leave space for subsequent consignments. On the following day the next of kin were asked to sign the register of burials, which showed the distinction that can be made between me and, for example, dogs; men’s deaths are checked and entered up. (3.1.16)

Unlike dogs, men’s deaths are recorded, but again this is a useless formality. Death renders all creatures equal.

The first step taken was to bury the dead by night, which obviously permitted a more summary procedure. The bodies were piled into ambulances in larger and larger numbers. And the few belated wayfarers who, in defiance of the regulations, were abroad in the outlying districts after curfew hour, or whose duties took them there, often saw the long white ambulances hurtling past, making the night bound streets reverberate with the dull clangor of their bells. The corpses were tipped pell-mell into the pits and had hardly settled into place when spadefuls of quicklime began to sear their faces and the earth covered them indistinctively, in holes dug steadily deeper as time went on. (3.1.17)

The true disposal of dead bodies is hidden by night to shield the living from the horrors of death. At first.

What with the gunshots echoing at the gates, the punctual thuds of rubber stamps marking the rhythm of lives and deaths, the files and fires, the panics and formalities, all alive were pledged to an ugly but recorded death, and, amidst noxious fumes and the muted clang of ambulances, all of us at the same sour bread of exile, unconsciously waiting for the same reunion, the same miracle of peace regained. (3.1.31)

Death brought by the plague is compared to that of a war zone.

"Yes, yes," he said ,"you, too, are working for man’s salvation."

Rieux tried to smile.

"Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first. (4.3.57-59)

Paneloux and Rieux are actually aiming for the same end; it’s just that Paneloux gives it an abstract term while Rieux views it concretely.

"From that day on […] I took a horrified interest in legal proceedings, death sentences, executions, and I realized with dismay that my father must have often witnessed those brutal murders." (4.6.23)

Death in any form horrifies Tarrou; he sees no nuanced shades of grey, but rather views the world in this stark picture of black-and-white, victims and pestilence.

All night Rieux was haunted by the idea of Grand’s death. But next morning he found his patient sitting up in bed, talking to Tarrou. His temperature was down to normal and there were no symptoms other than a generalized prostration.

[…]

By nightfall Grand could be considered out of danger. Rieux was completely baffled by this "resurrection." (4.7.32-35)

Grand’s recovery is as irrational as the death of everyone else.