Albert Camus’ “The Plague” is a much different work than his more famous “The Stranger.” While hardly uplifting — it’s about a city being quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, after all — the novel offers a far more positive view of humanity than we see with Meursault’s bleak (though fascinating) insularity. Exiled from the world, the characters in “The Plague” fight two battles; as they battle the disease which threatens their physical lives, they also struggle to defeat their isolation, to retain their connection to each other and their loved ones outside the city.
But it’s the narrative structure, more so than the characters or the plot, that makes “The Plague” so memorable. Up to the final chapter, the narrator appears to be an anonymous citizen of the city; as the plague ends and the quarantine is lifted, the narrator finally reveals himself as one of the central characters in the story he’s just told. The narrator’s identity comes hardly as a surprise, but the revelation casts his earlier relationship with the reader in a new light. His prior anonymity now seems like a deliberate attempt to keep distant from his readers, as if he’s been afraid to infect them with the spiritual plague that has been afflicting him. Or perhaps the narrator was more concerned with himself than his reader; perhaps talking about himself in the third person was the only way the narrator could think of himself as being human. However you choose to interpret the narrative structure, it seems a brilliant decision on Camus’ part.
I liked “The Stranger” for its fascinating character study and profound philosophical insights, but in my opinion “The Plague” is the more inspiring work.