The Plague

Five years ago I read and reviewed Albert Camus’ 1947 novel about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran. When a local literary society announced a reading workshop on pandemic fiction that included this and another novel I’ve enjoyed, I decided the novel was worth revisiting.

Comparing Camus’ fictional plague to COVID-19 is unavoidable; the Oran government’s manipulation of disease information seemed prescient. But the passage that stood out on my second reading came in the discussion of the city’s food supply crisis:

Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.

That last phrase made me think of a concurrent phenomenon that has no easy answer.

A few months after the start of COVID lockdowns, protests erupted across America over racial injustice. Why these uprisings occurred is no mystery, but it’s the when that has many confused. If Black Americans have been killed by police for decades, and Trump has been in office three years. why didn’t these protests happen earlier? Why finally take to the streets in the middle of a pandemic?

Perhaps the passage quoted above contains part of the answer. Just as the citizens of Oran were more outspoken to injustice due to the plague, maybe the restrictions caused by COVID enraged Americans enough to make a stand against systemic racism. If true, it’s shamefully tragic that it took a deadly physical disease to get us working on a deadly social disease. But the fight has begun, and Camus’ novel may help us understand its timing.

The Plague

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.