Study Guide

The Plague Religion

By Albert Camus


Most of those who took part in the Week of Prayer would have echoed a remark made by one of the churchgoers in Dr. Rieux’s hearing: "Anyhow, it can’t do any harm." (2.3.3)

Mmm…religion doesn’t really work that way in The Plague. As Father Paneloux will later declare, his church is an all-or-nothing deal. The fact that the citizens of Oran treat it so dispassionately is yet another testament to their growing apathy.

"Calamity has come to you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it." (2.3.5)

Father Paneloux serves to remind us of one of the purposes religion serves: explaining senseless tragedy. We’re not sure this particular explanation goes over so well, but still.

"My brothers," he cries, "that fatal hunt is up, and harrying our streets today. See him there, that angel of the pestilence, comely as Lucifer, shining like Evil’s very self! He is hovering above your roofs with his great spear in his right hand, poised to strike, while his left hand is stretched toward one or other of your houses. Maybe at this very moment his finger is pointing to your door, the red spear crashing on its panels, and even now the plague is entering your home." (2.3.12)

Speaking of finger pointing…But really; Paneloux is using a lot of "you" and not a single "we," which flies in the face of the revelation that others have arrived at: everyone is in the same boat.

"You fondly imagined it was enough to visit God on Sundays, and thus 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. […] Now you are learning your lesson." (2.3.15)

Paneloux accuses the congregation with peculiar terminology; he declares they have neglected their duty to God. This makes for an interesting comparison to Tarrou and Rieux’s belief that each man has an inherent duty to other men.

"It gives us a glimpse of that radiant eternal light which glows, a small still flame, in the dark core of human suffering. And this light, too, illuminates the shadowed paths that lead toward deliverance. It reveals the will of God in action, unfailingly transforming evil into good. […] This, my friends, is the vast consolation I would hold out to you." (2.3.17)

This sounds like abstraction at its best. Rieux would offer action and practicalities, where Paneloux offers words and grand ideas. The Plague argues that this sort of passive reaction is useless.

To Tarrou, who had shown surprise at the secluded life he led, he gave the following explanation, more or less. According to religion, the first half of a man’s life is an upgrade; the second goes downhill. On the descending days he had no claim, they may be snatched from him at any moment; thus he can 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 told Tarrou that God did not exist, since otherwise there would be no need for priests. (2.6.21)

The old man’s use of religion is just as irrational as Paneloux’s claim that the plague is God’ s will – he uses religious beliefs to defend his lifestyle, but then says there is no God. However, this does raise the interesting point that religion and belief in God are two very distinct matters.

"Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth—with a capital T. But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence." (2.7.50)

Rieux condemns religious men not for being religious men, but for speaking in abstractions from a lack of experience.

Rieux said that […] if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort […]. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself in Providence completely. (2.7.56)

Rieux explains that he fights the plague not in spite of his atheism, but rather because of it. If God isn’t around, someone has to take a stand in his place.

The old woman went to Mass every morning. "Don’t you believe in God?" she asked him.

On Rambert’s admitting he did not, she said again that "that explained it." "Yes," she added, "you’re right. You must go back to her. Or else—what would be left you?" (4.2.23-4)

Those who are religious in The Plague seem to identify a hollowness in those who are not. In this woman’s eyes, because Rambert doesn’t believe in God, he must need to fill his life with something else (like the love of this woman in Paris).

When for the third time the fiery wave broke on him, lifting him a little, the child curled himself up and shrank away to the edge of the bed, as if in terror of the flames advancing on him, licking his limbs. A moment later, after tossing his head wildly to and fro, he flung off the blanket. From between the inflamed eyelids big tears welled up and trickled down the sunken, leaden-hued cheeks. When the spasm had passed, utterly exhausted, tensing his thin legs and arms, on which, within forty-eight hours, the flesh had wasted to the bone, the child lay flat, racked on the tumbled bed, in a grotesque parody of crucifixion. (4.3.24)

Not exactly the subtlest religious imagery we’ve ever read, but OK. To start, you’ve got all the flames, which reminds us of Hell, but the "crucifixion" bit at the end is what really gives it away.

In the small face, rigid as a mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest […]. Paneloux gazed down at the small mouth, fouled with the sores of the plague and pouring out the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages of mankind. He sank on his knees, and all present found it natural to hear him say in a voice hoarse but clearly audible across that nameless, neverending wail:

"My God, spare this child!"

But the wail continued without cease. (4.3.30-32)

Camus seems to drive home his point that prayers and religion are useless in an indifferent world of suffering. Paneloux’s cry is met with a further wail from the tortured child, which is as close as you’re going to get to divine intervention in this novel.

"I understand," Paneloux said in a low voice. "That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand."

Rieux straightened up slowly. He gazed at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all the strength and fervor he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head.

"No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put up to torture."

A shade of disquietude crossed the priest’s face. "Ah, doctor," he said sadly, "I’ve just realized what is meant by ‘grace’." (4.3.50-53)

Great – Paneloux realizes what is meant by "grace." Too bad he doesn’t let us in on the secret. Good thing we looked it up. In Christianity, grace is sometimes defined as unconditional belief in God. Clearly, Rieux’s belief is conditional, since he uses the horrors of the plague as evidence that God does not exist.

"It [grace] is something I haven’t got; that I know. But I’d rather not discuss that with you. We’re working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters." (4.3.55)

Rieux identifies a commonality between himself and Father Paneloux. The motivation, he seems to say, doesn’t matter – they are united in their common ends: fighting the plague.

Paneloux held out his hand, saying regretfully:

"And yet – I haven’t convinced you!"

"What does it matter? What I hate is death and disease, as you well know. And whether you wish it or not, we’re allies, facing them and facing them together." Rieux was still holding Paneloux’s hand. "So you see"—but he refrained from meeting the priest’s eyes—"God himself can’t part us now." (4.3.62-4)

An interesting line to hear from an atheist, isn’t it? Short of Rieux experiencing a momentary religious conversion (unlikely), we think this is more to do with language. In his attempt to communicate with Father Paneloux, Rieux adopts the priest's religious terms to describe the kinship that surely in his own mind is secular.

Since joining Rieux’s band of workers Paneloux had spent his entire time in hospitals and place where he came in contact with plague. […] And constantly since then he had rubbed shoulders with death. […] But from the day on which he saw a child die, something seemed to change in him. And his face bore traces of the rising tension his thoughts. When one day he told Rieux with a smile that he was working on a short essay entitled "Is a Priest Justified in Consulting a Doctor?" Rieux had gathered that something graver lay behind the question. (4.4.1)

Rieux earlier accused the priest of being unable to speak of "truth with a capital T" because he hadn’t looked death in the face. Paneloux, since joining Rieux, has obviously become a different man; but does he still try to speak of "truth with a capital T?" Check out his second sermon and see.

Moreover, most people […] had replaced normal religious practice by more or less extravagant superstitions. Thus they were readier to wear prophylactic medals of St. Roch than go to Mass. (4.4.3)

Superstition in this case seems to be a strings-free form of a religion.

He spoke in a gentler, more thoughtful tone than on previous occasion, and several time was noticed to be stumbling over his words. A yet more noteworthy change was that instead of saying "you" he now said "we." (4.4.6)

Indeed, Father Paneloux has been changed by his experiences with the plague. He, like Rambert, seems to have realized that the plague is the problem of everyone in Oran.

All trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted and how best he could turn it to account. (4.4.7)

Paneloux pulls the old "all is for the best" technique. The Plague seems to present this as irrational.

And, truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child's suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it. (4.4.9)

Father Paneloux is trying to justify the senseless suffering of Jacques Othon by using religion; the way that the narration presents this argument is mocking to say the least.

Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when, to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? […] No, he, Father Paneloux […] would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony […].

It crossed Rieux’s mind that Father Paneloux was dallying with heresy in speaking thus. (4.4.9-10)

The heresy to which Rieux refers is Paneloux’s refusal to blindly justify the boy’s suffering and death. While he does go on to adamantly defend Christianity, Paneloux is definitely toeing the line here; and it does get him into the trouble with the Church, as we’ll soon see.

True, the agony of a child was humiliating to the heart and to the mind. But that was why we had to come to terms with it. And that, too, was why—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. Thus and thus only the Christian could face the problem squarely and, scorning subterfuge, pierce to the heart of the supreme issue, the essential choice. And his choice would be to believe everything, so as not to be forced into denying everything. (4.4.12)

Father Paneloux seems to be defending his religion simply because his "back is to the wall." It seems as though he’s been cornered into believing in God, rather than volunteering to do so. This goes against the existentialism notion of radical freedom – that everything, everything is a choice.

This had a lesson for us all; we must convince ourselves that there is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We must accept the dilemma and choose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare choose to hate Him? (4.4.16)

The notion of being forced into religion is strengthened in this passage; it’s almost as if Father Paneloux has been religiously exiled, trapped, so to speak, in this one undesirable frame of mind – the all-or-nothing.

"My brothers […], the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours. That is the hard lesson I would share with you today. That is the faith, cruel in men’s eyes, and crucial in God’s, which we must ever strive to compass." (4.4.17)

In some sense, Paneloux’s argument isn’t all that different from Rieux’s. Both argue that suffering serves a purpose: it elucidates the very nature of our lives. Remember when Rieux cited "suffering" as that which taught him all he knows? He wasn’t exactly justifying the torturous death of an innocent child, but still. Suffering may be senseless, but that doesn’t mean it is ineffective.

He paid tribute to the preacher’s eloquence, but the boldness of thought Paneloux had shown gave him pause. In his opinion the sermon had displayed more uneasiness than real power, and at Paneloux’s age a man had no business to feel uneasy.


"It’s illogical for a priest to call in a doctor." (4.4.18-21)

Paneloux is criticized by men of his religion for what appears to be wavering faith in the face of the plague. In their eyes, that he would at all consult with a doctor, rather than leave matters to God, is nearly heresy.

Tarrou, when told by Rieux what Paneloux had said, remarked that he’d known a priest who had lost his faith during the war, as the result of seeing a young man’s face with both eyes destroyed.

"Paneloux is right," Tarrou continued. "When in innocent youth can have his eyes destroyed, a Christian should either lose his faith or consent to having his eyes destroyed. Paneloux declines to lose his faith, and he will go through with it to the end. That’s what he meant to say." (4.4.23-4)

Tarrou recognizes that Paneloux is indeed in a tough position, but has chosen to back God – innocent child dying and all – instead of renounce his faith. At least, this is ostensibly Paneloux’s decision. From what we see of the priest’s death, we have to decide whether or not he is truly committed to his faith.

The lady […] took no thought for he personal security, which was in God’s hands—but […] she felt a certain measure of responsibility for the Father’s welfare while he was under her roof. (4.4.27)

Paneloux’s elderly housemate manages to fulfill her social obligation to Paneloux and her personal, religious obligation to God. Yet Paneloux had trouble finding this balance in his own life.

The only thing she gathered, and it was precisely this that appeared to her so incomprehensible, was that the Father refused to hear of a doctor’s visit because it was against his principles. (4.4.27)

Apparently Paneloux’s paper concluded that it is indeed wrong for a priest to consult a doctor. That, or he had a pre-mortem change of heart.

As she quaintly put it, he looked as if he had been severely thrashed all night long, and more dead than alive. (4.4.29)

We see here the same Christ-imagery that we did at the death of Jacques Othon.

Paneloux showed a little more animation and a sort of warmth came back to his eyes when he looked up at the doctor. Then, speaking with such difficulty that it was impossible to tell if there was sadness in his voice, he said: "Thanks. But priests can have no friends. They have given their all to God." (4.4.34)

This doesn’t seem particularly consistent with Paneloux’s earlier actions and words. From what we’ve seen in the novel thus far, the priest has been more than willing to make friends with Rieux. Does this sudden change of heart reflect enlightenment, or simply fear of death and judgment?

He asked for the crucifix that hung above the head of the bed; when given it, he turned away to gaze at it.

At the hospital Paneloux did not utter a word. He submitted passively to the treatment given him, but never let go of the crucifix. (4.4.35-6)

It is difficult to say whether Paneloux truly believes in his faith or is simply scared of death.

He was found dead, his body drooping over the bedside […]. Against his name the index card recorded: doubtful case.

Doubtful case! Exactly. While the index card technically refers to the priest’s doubtful diagnosis regarding whether or not he had the plague, it also refers to the doubt we (and the rest of the church, and probably Paneloux himself) have as to the nature of his faith.

"It comes to this," Tarrou said almost casually; "what interests me is learning how to become a saint."

"But you don’t believe in God!"

"Exactly! Can one be a saint without God?—that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today." (4.6.38-40)

Tarrou wonders if he can define "saint" in a secular manner. What appeals to him about the word is most likely moral, not religious: the selflessness, the virtue.