Study Guide

The Plague Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd, Existentialism, Humanism

By Albert Camus

Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd, Existentialism, Humanism

He had a soldierly bearing, very erect, and affected a military style of dressing; his snow-white hair was always brushed to perfect smoothness. Leaning over the balcony he would call: "Pussy! Pussy!" in a voice at once haughty and endearing. The cats blinked up at him with sleep-pale eyes, but made no move as yet. He then proceeded to tear some paper into scraps and let them fall into the street; interested by the fluttering shower of white butterflies, the cats came forward, lifting tentative paws toward the last scraps of paper. Then, taking careful aim, the old man would spit vigorously at the cats and, whenever a liquid missile hit the quarry, he would beam with delight. (1.3.18)

The old man finds meaning in his life only by performing a meaningless action. Tarrou is drawn to this man because, although his actions are insignificant, he consciously chooses to do them and is therefore able to delight in what would otherwise be banal.

His hair isn’t as well brushed as usual, and he looks less alert, less military. You can see he is worried. After a few moments he went back into the room. But first he spat once—on emptiness. (1.3.23)

Spitting on emptiness seems the ultimate acceptance of the absurdity and triviality of life.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. (1.5.3)

Given that many label The Plague to be Camus’s humanist work, this is an interesting line. Humanists believe that all people are good and valuable; they seek rational ways of solving problems. The sentiment expressed here is clearly anti-humanist – Rieux thinks they are too blind/stupid/ignorant to see that horrible things – like plagues – exist in the world. We’ll need to ponder this for a bit.

Also, he had the walk of a shy young priest, sidling along walls and slipping mouselike into doorways, and he exuded a faint odor of smoke and basement rooms; in short, he had all the attributes of insignificance. (1.6.20)

Grand lives a life of insignificance – at first. We will later see how the man grows as a result of his experiences in The Plague.

An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach. (1.8.25)

People die everywhere in meaningless tragedies – Oran is not the only place to suffer from the world’s indifference.

When Rieux entered the room, the old man was sitting up in bed, at his usual occupation, counting out dried peas from one pan to another. On seeing his visitor he looked up, beaming with delight. (1.8.68)

The asthma patient passes his life with the most meaningless and trivial occupation – yet, like Tarrou’s cat-spitting neighbor, he delights in his pursuits.

When Rieux next met Castel, the Prefect’s remark was still rankling.

  • "Orders!" he said scornfully. "When what’s needed is imagination." (1.8.94-95)
  • This is the first of two instances when we hear the term "imagination" in regards to fighting the pestilence (the second is uttered by Tarrou in an argument for volunteer teams). The Plague reminds us that, to prepare and act adequately, we have to be aware of more than just the present moment. We have to be conscious of possibilities – we have to imagine.

    Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. (2.1.1)

    This doesn’t sound terribly different from pre-plague Oran, does it?

    Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. (2.1.14)

    There’s Camus’s favorite word again – indifference. The universe, he tells us, is in different to our suffering, just as this particular sky is indifferent to the people of Oran.

    But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices—in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally. (2.1.14)

    The irrationality of the weather represents the indifference of the universe to human suffering.

    Yet they were still not sensational enough to prevent our townsfolk, perturbed though they were, from persisting in the idea that what was happening was a sort of accident, disagreeable enough, but certainly a temporary order. (2.2.3)

    The citizens of Oran deceive themselves in order to cope with the plague. Rather than first accepting and subsequently fighting the pestilence, they blind themselves with false assurances that this will pass quickly.

    Naturally the picture-houses benefited by the situation and made money hand over fist. They had one difficulty, however—to provide a change of program, since the circulation of films in the region had been suspended. After a fortnight the various cinemas were obliged to exchanged films, and after a further lapse of time, to show always the same program. In spite of this their takings did not fall off. (2.2.6)

    People waste their lives in repetition – before and after the outbreak of the plague.

    Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is." (2.2.46)

    This is a central tenet of Camus’s philosophy: acceptance of suffering and absurdity. However, acceptance doesn’t mean passivity – we can still fight, as Rieux does, against the horrors of the world.

    "No," Rambert said bitterly, "You can’t understand. You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions." (2.2.51)

    Rambert accuses Rieux of making cold realities into grand ideas, suggesting that it’s easier to deal with an abstract notion of "suffering" than it is to look at four movie theaters’ worth of dead bodies (of people that you knew) piled up on your doorstep. When you seek to protect "society" over the individual, Rambert argues, you sacrifice the real for the ideal.

    Yes, the journalist was right in refusing to be balked of happiness. But was he right in reproaching him, Rieux, with living in a world of abstractions? Could the term "abstraction" really apply to these days he spent in his hospital while the plague was battening on the town, raising its death toll to five-hundred victims a week? Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it. (2.2.66)

    Rieux does admit in the plague that his heart has been hardened to the suffering he witnesses. The question is, is abstraction a tool to fight the plague, or is it the enemy, as seems to be suggested here?

    Once the epidemic was diagnosed, the patient had to be evacuated forthwith. Then indeed began "abstraction" and a tussle with the family, who knew they would not se the sick main again until he was dead or cured. (2.2.69)

    Here it seems that abstraction is a tool; by turning himself off to the misery of each family, Rieux finds the strength to continue. He focuses not on real suffering, but on the abstract idea of "doing what needs to be done."

    Then came the second phase of conflict, tears and pleadings—abstraction, in a word. In those fever-hot, nerve-ridden sickrooms crazy scenes took place. But the issue was always the same. The patient was removed. Then Rieux, too, could leave.

    There followed objurgations, screams, batterings on the door, action by the police, and later armed force; the patient was taken by storm. Thus during the first few weeks Rieux was compelled to stay with the patient until the ambulance came. (2.2.70)

    On the other hand, abstraction distracts from the issues at hand; in this case, tears and pleadings mask the real problem – death.

    Yes, plagues, like abstraction, was monotonous; perhaps only one factor changed, and that was Rieux himself. Standing at the front of the statue of the Republic that evening, he felt it; all he was conscious of was a bleak indifference steadily gaining on him as he gazed at the door of the hotel Rambert had just entered. (2.2.73)

    Rieux does indeed change over the course of the novel; he becomes more indifferent to the horrors of the plague. Yet this goads him onward, rather than rendering him passive or apathetic. How can he maintain the will to stop suffering if he is indifferent to that very suffering?

    To fight abstraction you must have something of it in your own make-up. But how could Rambert be expected to grasp that? Abstraction for him was all that stood in the way of happiness. (2.2.74)

    Let’s take this one piece at a time. Rambert wants to be with his "wife," a concrete and clear goal. Abstractions, or grand ideas such as "heroism" or "the good of society" stand in his way. This is why he isn’t willing to deal with ideas in any manner; he can’t see that, in fact, you need to use abstraction – as Rieux does – to fight abstraction. When Rieux says that he uses abstraction, he means that he closes himself off emotionally to the individual suffering of his patients. This is what allows him to do his job, such as quarantine a sick individual, even though it means heartache for a given family.

    "I haven’t a notion, Tarrou; I assure you I haven’t a notion. When I entered this profession, I did it ‘abstractedly,’ so to speak; because I had a desire for it, because it meant a career like another, one that young men often aspire to." (2.7.63)

    Rieux initially saw his profession as an idea, not a concrete reality. Clearly, he’s learned his lesson.

    "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, for losing love. He claims that love roots us in reality, makes us concrete and palpable, whereas without it, we become mere abstractions.

    Whereas in the early days of the plague they had been struck by the host of small details that, while meaning absolutely nothing to others, meant so much to them personally, and thus had realized, perhaps for the first time, the uniqueness of a man’s life; now, on the other hand, they took an interest only in what interested everyone else, they had only general ideas, and even their tenderest affections now seemed abstract, items of the common stock. (3.1.29)

    People lose their humanity when they lose their individuality in the plague.

    And here Paneloux assured those present that it was not easy to say what he was about to say—since it was God’s will, we, too, should will it. (4.4.12)

    The blindness of faith is as absurd as the senselessness of a plague.

    "That it’s illogical for a priest to call in a doctor." (4.4.20)

    If a priest really believes in a powerful, loving God, why would he need a doctor? Paneloux would argue that it’s the difference between fatalism and active fatalism. The latter justifies the desire for medical attention, yet at his death Tarrou does not want assistance from Rieux.