Study Guide

The Plague Truth

By Albert Camus


The town itself, let us admit, is ugly (1.1.2)

The narrator, in presenting an "objective" narrative, fills it with subjective observations that he tries to pass as fact.

These somewhat haphazard observations may give a fair idea of what our town is like. However, we must not exaggerate. Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and the life in it. But you can get through the day without trouble, once you have formed habits. And since habits are precisely what out town encourages, all is for the best. (1.1.6)

The narrator’s description of the town is supposed to be an "observation," and observation without exaggeration at that. How do his accounts compare to Tarrou’s in this vein?

To some, these events will seem quite natural; to others, all but incredible. But obviously, a narrator cannot take accounts of these differences of outlook. His business is only to say: "This is what happened," when he knows that it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace, and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth of what he writes. (1.1.8)

A narrator cannot record different opinions accurately, he can only record "what happened." It follows then, that the narrator quickly reveals his identity as Rieux as soon as he delves into the doctor’s mind.

The present narrator has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses (thanks to the part he played, he was able to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring into this chronicle,); and lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands. He proposes to draw on these records whenever this seems desirable, and to employ them as he thinks best. (1.1.9)

The narrator uses terms like "data" to give the illusion of factuality and objectivity. This is ironic, since the narrative quickly proves how useless language is with its flexible definitions.

When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment, he kicked it to one side and, without giving it a further thought, continued on his way downstairs. Only when he was stepping out into the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing, and he turned back to ask the concierge of the building to see to its removal. (1.2.1)

The use of dates is yet another tool to give the narrative credibility and the illusion of journalistic integrity.

Personally, he had thought the presence of the dead rat rather odd, no more than that; the concierge, however, was genuinely outraged. On one point, he was categorical: "There weren’t no rats here." In vain, the doctor assured him that there was a rat, presumably dead, on the second floor landing; M. Michel’s conviction wasn’t to be shaken. (1.2.1)

It seems the truth is always up for debate: false convictions are hard to shake.

Rieux replied that these conditions were not good. But, before he said any more, he wanted to know if the journalist would be allowed to tell the truth. (1.2.44)

Here is yet another hint that Rieux is the narrator; they share the same obsession for journalistic truth.

He had put the question solely to find out if Rambert could or couldn’t state the facts without paltering with the truth.

"I’ve no use for statements in which something is kept back," he added. "That’s why I shall not furnish information in support of yours.

The journalist smiled. "You talk the language of Saint-Just." (1.2.48-49)

Rambert mocks Rieux’s passion for objectivity and truth as idealistic.

To tell the truth, he was rather perturbed; did the doctor think it meant anything serious? Rieux couldn’t give a definite opinion. (1.2.67)

Rieux is always ready to admit when he doesn’t know something. The narrator eventually says that the worst kind of ignorance is that of a man who thinks he knows everything and is therefore closed to learning. This, at least, is one vice Rieux could never be accused of.

Things went so far that the Ransdoc Information Bureau (inquiries on all subjects promptly and accurately answered), which ran a free-information talk on the radio, by way of

  • publicity, began its talk by announcing that no less than 6,231 rats had been collected and burned in a single day, April 25. (1.2.73)
  • The announcing of facts changes the nature of the plague and the reality of people’s lives.

    The narrator proposes to give the opinion of another witness on the period that has been described. Jean Tarrou…Good humored, always ready with a smile, he seemed an addict of all normal pleasures without being their slave." (1.3.2)

    Look at the narrator’s word choice ("witness") used to create the illusion of objectivity.

    Tarrou’s description of Dr. Rieux may be suitably inserted here. So far as the narrator can judge, it is fairly accurate.

    "Looks about thirty-five. Moderate height. Broad shoulders. Almost rectangular face. Dark, steady eyes, but prominent jaws. A biggish, well-modeled nose. Black hair, cropped very close. A curving mouth with thick, usually tight-set lips. With his tanned skin, the black down on his hands and arms, the dark but becoming suits he always wears, he reminds one of a Sicilian peasant.

    "He walks quickly. When crossing a street, he steps off the sidewalk without changing his pace, but two out of three times he makes a little hop when he steps on to the sidewalk on the other side. He is absentminded and, when driving his car, often leaves his side-signals on after he has turned a corner. Always bareheaded. Looks knowledgeable." (1.3.43-45)

    Since Rieux is the secret narrator he cannot objectively describe himself; that’s why he uses Tarrou’s journal to do so. He seems to be forgetting that, in choosing this description of himself, he removed the possibility of objectivity.

    But these extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason. True, the word "plague" had been uttered; true, at this very moment one or two victims were being seized and laid low by the disease. Still, that could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. (1.5.7)

    Rieux’s thought that the plague would come to an end as a result of the way men think of it is the complete opposite of objectivity. In fact, he’s going so far as to suggest that the way we think about reality can change reality.

    Richard said it was a mistake to paint too gloomy a picture, and, moreover, the disease hadn’t been proved to be contagious; indeed, relatives of his parents, living under the same room, had escaped it.

    "It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions." (1.7.18-19)

    Rieux is more interested in practicality than with correctly identifying the facts. Why, then, is he so concerned with objectivity as he narrates?

    "That’s your theory, anyhow. Actually, of course, we know next to nothing on the subject." (1.8.44)

    The Plague draws a distinction between theory and knowledge.

    Thus the bare statement that three hundred and two deaths had taken place in the third week of plague failed to strike their imagination. For one thing, all the three hundred and two deaths might not have been due to plague. Also, no one in the town had any idea of the average weekly death-rate in ordinary times. The population of the town was almost two hundred thousand. There was no knowing if the present death-rate were really so abnormal. This, in fact, the kind of statistics that nobody ever troubles much about—notwithstanding that its interest is obvious. The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that the public opinions became alive to the truth. (2.2.3)

    Facts, numbers, and statistics do little to convey the true humanity of something. This puts to question how a person can best describe the reality of something – especially of suffering – to a person who has not experienced it. Is objectivity really the best way to do this?

    The doctor glanced up at the statue of the Republic, then said he did not know if he was using the language of reason, but he knew he was using the language of the facts as everybody could see them—which wasn’t necessarily the same thing. (2.2.52)

    If facts and reason aren’t necessarily the same thing, how are we to read this "factual" account?

    Though he knew little of the literary world, Rieux had a suspicion that things didn’t quite happen in it quite so picturesquely—that, for instance, publishers do not keep their hats on in their offices. But, of course, one never can tell, and Rieux preferred to hold his peace. (2.4.22)

    Not sure of what is correct, Rieux holds his tongue rather than speaking.

    "Is he a saint?" Tarrou asked himself, and answered: "Yes, if saintliness is an aggregate of habits." (2.6.22)

    Tarrou seems to think that all statements must be qualified with an "if." Something is only true based on the conditional provision of something else. How does that fit with the narrator’s claims of objectivity?

    It is Tarrou once again who paints the most faithful picture of our life in those days. Needless to say, he outlines the progress of the plague and he, too, notes that a new phase of the epidemic was ushered in when the radio announced no longer weekly totals, but ninety-two, a hundred and seven, and a hundred and thirty deaths in a day. (2.6.6)

    The narrator thinks Tarrou paints the "most faithful picture" – yet that is subjective opinion, even while the narrator tries to make it seem objective through concrete numbers of daily deaths.

    "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)

    Paneloux has his opinion about "truth" because he has not experienced the range of life and humanity; Dr. Rieux has seen death and suffering and so is better equipped to discuss it. How then, is the reader supposed to understand the "truth with a capital T" about Oran if we have not experienced such matters ourselves?

    His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: 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; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. (2.7.56)

    This comment makes more sense in light of Paneloux’s second sermon, when he discusses the difference between fatalism and active fatalism. Rieux is right that the priest refuses to "thr[o]w himself on Providence completely," but while Paneloux uses active fatalism to justify fighting the plague, Rieux uses it to undermine the man’s faith. It looks like any one school of thought can be put to use to varying ends.

    "I’ve no more than the pride that’s needed to keep me going. I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing." (2.7.60)

    Rieux oversimplifies everything in his quest for truth. There are only three basic actions, there are only three basic types of people, all he has to do is his job, etc. Simplifying the truth may make it easier to attain, but is this a wise course of action?

    But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over importance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. (2.8.2)

    Good can only come through knowledge, and despite good intentions, people are made monsters by their ignorance.

    No, the real plague had nothing in common with the grandiose imaginings that had haunted Rieux’s mind at its outbreak. It was, about all, a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well. That, it may be said in passing, is why, so as not to play false to the facts, and still more, so as not to play false to himself, the narrator has aimed for objectivity. (3.1.23)

    The reality of the plague is entirely different from Rieux’s imaginings; the narrator admits as much in an attempt for objective credibility.

    "Ah," Rieux aid, "a man can’t cure and know at the same time. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job." (4.2.80)

    Again with the oversimplification. Rieux blinds himself from the complications of the plague – and thus protects himself from its mental anguish – by putting his head down and just doing his job.

    This chronicle is drawing to an end, and this seems to be the moment for Dr. Bernard Rieux to confess that he is the narrator. But before describing the closing scenes, he would wish anyhow to justify his undertaking and to set it down that he expressly made a point of adopting the tone of an impartial observer. His profession put him in touch with a great many of our townspeople while plague was raging, and he had opportunities of hearing their various opinions. Thus he was well placed for giving a true account of all he saw and heard. (5.5.1)

    Here is where Camus’s message about objective truth hits home; Rieux is made foolish by repeatedly insisting that he’s telling the objective truth. Yet just as his own experiences during the plague outbreak taint his perception of the events that have transpired, so does any person’s experiences in the world prevent his ever knowing objective truth.

    And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should not bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustices and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. (5.5.41)

    Rieux’s conclusion is the least objective statement ever. Or at least throughout the course of The Plague. He declares the humanist point of view that man is good, valuable, and worth saving.