Study Guide

The Plague Time

By Albert Camus


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 activities Tarrou describes aren’t terribly different from those of the people he condemns. The difference, however, lies in the level of consciousness obtained by a given person. By being aware, Tarrou argues, one can give meaning to any action.

When a war breaks out, people say: "It is too stupid; it can’t last long." But though a war may well be "too stupid," that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so wrapped up in ourselves. (1.5.2)

Here the narrator takes the absurdist’s side. People try to understand the passing of time according to reason, but they are wrong to assume any sort of rational meaning lies in the process. Rather, the narrator asserts, the passing of time lacks all logic, therefore stupid events can last for ages.

Looking from his window at the town, outwardly quite unchanged, the doctor felt little more than a faint qualm for the future, a vague unease. (1.5.4)

Rieux knows that terrible events are about to pass; yet he feels no more than a "vague unease." The doctor repeatedly suffers from an inability to comprehend reality.

Even before you knew what his employment was, you had a feeling that he’d been brought into the world for the sole purpose of performing the discreet but needful duties of a temporary assistant municipal clerk on a salary of sixty-two francs, thirty centimes a day. (1.6.20)

Grand exists in a very temporary world. His inability to see any sort of distance into the future paralyzes him with inaction.

But this "temporary" state of things had gone on and on, the cost of living rose by leaps and bounds, and Grand’s pay, in spite of some statutory rises, was still a mere pittance. (1.6.22)

The description of time passing while Grand stood by and watched is not dissimilar to the time period of The Plague and the way the citizens of Oran stand passively by.

At Cottard’s request the doctor stopped his car beside one of the groups of children. They were playing hopscotch and making a great deal of noise. One of them, a boy with sleek, neatly parted hair and a grubby face, stared hard at Rieux with bright, bold eyes. The doctor looked away. Standing on the sidewalk Cottard shook his head. He then said in a hoarse, rather labored voice, casting uneasy glances over his shoulder:

"Everybody’s talking about an epidemic. Is there anything in it, doctor?"

"People always talk," Rieux replied. "That’s only to be expected." (1.8.59-61)

Rieux draws a distinction between the future and what people fear the future may bring.

It was undoubtedly a feeling of exile […], that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time […]. In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had to speedily abandon the idea. (2.1.8)

This is an incredible image. The narrator describes Oran’s state of exile, but does so in terms of time, not in terms of space. After all, the citizens can’t really be in geographical exile – they’re stuck in their homes. Instead, they are temporally exiled from both the past and the future, stuck in a state of the forever-present. The use of the word "exile" suggests that this is a foreign state; clearly, people are used to living anywhere but the present moment. (This is also consistent with the description we received of Oran in the opening chapter.)

Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress. (2.1.10)

Again, Camus uses geographical terms to describe motion through time.

They caught themselves thinking, "A good thing if I get plague and have done with it!" But really, they were asleep already; this whole period was for them no more than a long night’s slumber. The town was peopled with sleepwalkers, whose trance was broken only on the rare occasions when at night their wounds, to all appearances closed, suddenly reopened. (3.1.29)

This is big-deal Camus stuff. Time is wasted, he says, when people are not aware of themselves and their actions. The metaphor of sleepwalking is the perfect image to get across his point about consciousness. If you’re into this sort of thing, Shmoop Camus's The Stranger, in which the protagonist comes to a similar conclusion.

"Does that mean it’s starting all over again?" Tarrou asked Rieux. (4.7.42)

Tarrou’s question is best seen in the context of the end of the novel, where Rieux indeed declares the plague will start again. The suggestion is that any event repeats, that in fact time itself is cyclical.

For the sensation, confused perhaps, but none the less poignant for that, of all those days and weeks and months of life lost to their love made them vaguely feel they were entitled to some compensation; this present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting. (5.4.4)

Look back at Part I, Chapter Five, where the narrator discusses how people rather stupidly think time should speed up and slow down according to rational thinking. Looks like no one learned anything from the plague, doesn’t it?

Such people had had, like Rieux himself, the rashness of counting overmuch on time; and now they were parted forever. (5.4.14)

The Plague would remind us that we can neither count on time to be reasonable nor control it in any way. Rieux, perhaps, fell victim to one or both of these errors in thought.

And indeed as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightenment of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city. (5.5.43)

Unlike much of Oran, Rieux has learned from his experiences. Since he cannot depend on the future for improvement or even consistency, he knows to live with the constant knowledge that his life may at any point be taken from him. Interestingly, this was the condition of the plague that everyone else believes they have escaped. The passing of time, then, is as great a threat as the plague.