Albert Camus’s The Plague: Storytelling in An Epidemic

“The world of appearances is a jumble of shifting perceptions… language is an efficient ordering of the world’s enigmatic abundance. Or in other words, we invent nouns to fit reality. We touch a sphere, see a small heap of dawn-coloured light, our mouths enjoy a tingling sensation, and we lie to ourselves that these disparate things are only one thing called an orange… all nouns are abbreviations.”

— Jorge Luis Borges, “Verbiage for Poems”, On Writing

Albert Camus’s The Plague is an unflinching chronicle of a plague epidemic that besets the town of Oran. Reading it during an actual global pandemic is especially uncanny. First, there are portents of the disease, with rumours beginning to spread about what it is and how serious it could be. Then, people begin to fall victim to the plague; as the daily death toll rises, the town’s leaders implement a growing array of prophylactic measures: quarantining the sick, imposing curfews, transforming schools and other public spaces into quarantine centers and implementing stringent sanitation protocols.

While a physical disease, the plague’s physicality is almost secondary to the philosophical and psychological issues it begs one to contemplate. This is highly ironic given that the narrator, whose identity is only revealed at the end as Rieux, is one of the town’s main doctors fighting the plague daily on the frontlines. Beyond ravaging the sick’s bodies, plague also lays bare the psyche of a population imprisoned and then shaped by an epidemic they can barely comprehend.

The Psychology of An Epidemic

The physical effects of the plague are described in a neutral and detached tone: swollen ganglia, fever, a raging thirst. Despite these horrors, the narrative seems more concerned with the psychological effects the town experiences as a collective specimen under observation. Long before Rieux describes any of the physical symptoms, he notes the way the general mood of the population shifts from loneliness and exile to boredom and resignation; to fear, and then to desensitisation and recklessness. The most minute things, like an announcement by the authorities, cause this pendulum to swing wildly between the opposite poles of hope and fatalism, as all sense of normalcy and stability is rendered unrecognisable beneath what Camus describes as the threshing of the plague’s flail.

While the physical effects of the plague are individualised, quarantined and therefore hidden, the psychological ones cannot be evaded. The town’s collective psyche, like the bodies of the dead, lies bare in the streets through which the plague stalks. Indeed, while Rieux aims at being a chronicler of the town apart from his role as its doctor, his career in the human body exposes him in the way he describes the town’s reactions to the plague: “You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins”.

To describe physical pain, one must invent approximations, must borrow from metaphor: “a raging fever”; “ganglia like lumps of iron”. To translate the shock of an epidemic, so foreign to all normal life, one is limited to the dictionary of the epidemic itself. In a “new normal”, narratives must adapt accordingly, reflecting the attempt at comprehending the incomprehensible.

The Dilemma of Storytelling

Indeed, the dilemma at the heart of The Plague centers around the tensions between abstraction and narrative.

The suffering wrought by the plague is experienced threefold: the physical suffering of the sick, the separation between loved ones (with the abrupt shutting of the town’s gates, many lovers and families are suddenly separated indefinitely, as well as those who have loved ones in quarantine within the town) and the emotional and mental exhaustion front liners experience. Those from the first group have no escape. The latter two, however, escape through the manipulation of perception and narrative. While physical abstraction (from a loved one) causes suffering, mental abstraction relieves one of it. For example, those missing people eventually cope by reducing the person to but a distant concept; a face slowly blurring in the daily struggle against the plague. Rieux himself survives both the horror and exhaustion by dissociation and by telling himself that doing his job is the only logical response in the face of an epidemic. In essence, he constructs a narrative that changes his perception in order to help himself survive.

Yet, as much as the narrator recognises the necessity of narratives, he remains conflicted about them.

Narratives are our perceptions of a thing. They are not the thing itself. They are therefore (at least) one step removed from the thing itself. During a plague epidemic, the thing in question is physical human suffering at its worst— as well as the all-too visceral grief, fear and desperation rattling noisily in its wake. Is abstraction through narrative, helpful as it may be, ultimately an act of cowardice; a disavowing of compassion? Does it exacerbate the loneliness of the sick by quarantining them away from a healthy population both psychologically on top of physically?

This comprises a central dilemma and tension in the novel. On the one hand, The Plague hails Grand, an aspiring author, as the hero of its narrative. Grand is a man confounded by the task of self-expression and diction. He spends a year working on the first line of a potential novel, pained by the absolute need to construct a narrative that faithfully presents the scene it wishes to convey. With the narrative that is The Plague, Rieux has similar ambitions to make the novel as objective and impersonal as possible, telling the story of the town instead of his own.

On the other hand, Camus also suggests that the foregoing narration is the only thing that can remedy a situation as horrific as the plague. Grand is in the throes of a raging fever when he, in a fit of delirium, commands Rieux to burn his manuscript. The next day, he becomes the town’s first survivor of the plague as it unexpectedly subsides. Following the novel’s conclusion that the plague comes “for the bane and the enlightenment of men”, then perhaps the act of beholding the thing itself and relinquishing our narratives about it (indeed, violently burning them all at once), is what ensures such suffering fulfils its latter purpose (enlightenment), and subsides.

Rieux himself is taught this lesson when his own friend Tarrou dies a prolonged death after catching the plague. Tarrou comments that he is the only patient Rieux does not immediately quarantine after diagnosis. Indeed, Rieux allows his friend the dignity of dying in the home they both share, keeping vigil at his friend’s bedside till his last breath. He refrains from both physical and psychological abstraction that quarantining his friend or mental dissociation would offer. As compared to the abstract metaphors and nouns chronicling the rest of the plague, such as “lime pits”, “exile” and “death toll”, Tarrou’s death (the suffering at the core of it all; the thing itself) is described in visceral and heart-wrenching detail. Rieux, and therefore readers, are not spared by the distance language affords. In fact, in the descriptions Rieux cobbles together— “A visceral cough racked the body of the sick man’s body and he was now spitting blood. The ganglia had ceased swelling but they were still there, like lumps of iron embedded in the joints”— language’s deficiency in truly conveying the extent of such human suffering becomes embarrassingly apparent.

Nevertheless, narrative is all we have. As the town opens its gates and plague subsides, Grand resumes his writing (this time deciding to forgo all adjectives) and Rieux compiles the narrative that is The Plague as a memoir to the town’s suffering past and present. Aside from the rare moments when the veil lifts and we can behold the thing itself in the eye, narrative remains the only way we can attempt to approach it at all.

Ultimately, Camus suggests that true heroism lies in this persistent attempt, no matter how inadequate.

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