Study Guide

The Plague Part 4, Chapter 1

By Albert Camus

Part 4, Chapter 1

  • The plague rages on relentlessly in the months of September and October; there is little to do but "mark time" (much like the Spaniard and his peas, eh?).
  • Rieux and his friends are of the "enough already" camp, as are we. Sigh. Also, indifference seems to be the common theme among these men,
  • Rambert’s hotel has been converted to a quarantine station; he’s still helping Dr. Rieux, but he hasn’t given up hope for his own get-away.
  • No one even bothers to listen to the radio or news anymore; the narrator compares this to the feeling of a fighter in a "great war" who no longer even hopes for that one, decisive battle.
  • Grand keeps himself going by imagining the week off he will take once the plague is over, a week he can devote to his "work in progress" (that sentence about the horsewoman, essentially).
  • Because Grand always talks about his wife (Jeanne) to Rieux, the doctor soon returns the favor and discusses his own invalid wife.
  • Rieux’s wife continues to send telegrams saying she is doing just fine and not to worry; but he doesn’t believe her. He wishes he were around to help her recover, as the loneliness must be horrible for her.
  • Tarrou seems to be holding up, but the narrator knows from his diary entries that the man’s "curiosity" has "lost its diversity." Now, it seems, Tarrou is interested only in Cottard.
  • On the other hand, Dr. Castel is not doing so well. When he finally finished the new serum, they tried it on M. Othon’s son. During this trial, Rieux notices the age and exhaustion that shows so clearly on his friend Castel’s face.
  • Rieux himself is so exhausted that his sensibility often gives way to his emotion. He has to work consciously to "harden his heart."
  • He realizes that his job is no longer to cure; it is instead to diagnose.
  • The narrator argues that Rieux’s fatigue is a blessing in disguise; if he were more alert, he might be sentimental. This is something he can’t afford in his work.
  • Meanwhile, everyone hates him, since all he does is drag their loved ones off to quarantine or the grave.
  • Rieux comments that for most people, "the most dangerous" effect of the exhaustion is that it makes them "slack" and "supine."
  • Yet one man remains neither discouraged nor exhausted: Cottard.
  • Cottard’s been avoiding everyone, but he does spend time with Tarrou, since 1) Tarrou knows all about his case and 2) Tarrou is a good person to spend time with – he’s a great listener.
  • This, the narrator explains, is why Tarrou’s journal entries at the time focus on Cottard.
  • Such entries detail that Cottard is "blossoming out" in "geniality," that the man is somehow under the impression that, if in danger of the plague, he is immune to all other possible ailments.
  • The journal argues that what seems to cheer Cottard is the thought that he’s in the same boat as everyone else; the man would rather find camaraderie in disaster than be alone in safety.
  • Of course, Cottard is also cheery that the plague has put a stop to police investigations of any kind (which mean he’s safe from being found out for that mysterious crime he did).
  • Tarrou tries to tell him that the surest way out of isolation is to have a clean conscience.
  • Cottard replies that, if this is true, then everyone is always in isolation from everyone else (implying that no one ever has a clean conscience.).
  • In fact, he adds, the best way to make people bond together to is to "give ‘em a spell of plague."
  • Tarrou quite incisively refers to Cottard as an "accomplice" of the plague. This man has a way with words.
  • Of course, despite everyone dying, the leisure business is booming in sunny old Oran.
  • This pleases Cottard. He thinks people should realize how good they’ve got it during the plague.
  • Tarrou, in his journals, notes that Cottard has an "insight" here: people may be drawn to one another, but inherent mistrust keeps them apart. (Especially if your name is Cottard and you’re worried that everyone you meet is a police spy.)
  • The deal is, Tarrou argues, Cottard is used to living as everyone is living now: with the fear that, at any moment, his life may be snatched from him. In all likelihood, Cottard likes the camaraderie of everyone else finally being in the same position as he.
  • This is exactly why Tarrou spends time with him; he’s hard to understand and worth the effort.
  • The narrator informs us that Tarrou’s journal entries end with an interesting story, so-called because it illustrates the "feverish atmosphere" of the period.
  • Here we go: Cottard and Tarrou go to the Opera House one night to see Orpheus (an opera written by Christoph Gluck in the mid 1700s). Of course, they’ve been playing the same opera for several months, but no one seems to care.
  • Everyone still dresses in their finest for the performance, despite the circumstances (or, you could argue, because of them).
  • The first act goes down as usual, with Orpheus lamenting the death of his wife Eurydice.
  • In the second act, however, Orpheus gets a little creative while begging Hades, Lord of the Underworld, to let his wife come back to life. By creative, we mean jerky movements and odd noises.
  • Finally, in the third act, when Orpheus and Eurydice have their big duet, Orpheus staggers about and finally falls down, a victim of the plague.
  • The crowd, seeing the actor’s death, proceeds to show – by their exit of panic, running, and screaming – a great example of why it is illegal to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.