Book Review: Lessons on Life and Death from The Plague by Albert Camus
In Albert Camus’ The Plague, the city doctor Rieux takes us along on his journey battling with the plague in his exceedingly ordinary sea-side hometown of Oran. We meet Rieux’s colleagues and friends; one of which is the curious fellow Grand. The simple man Grand lives an unremarkable government daytime job yet dedicates his off time on nights and weekends to a fascinating activity: writing and rewriting the opening line to a book he is writing. That line at some point in the revision process read, “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”
The majority of the novel reads much like Grand’s opening line, making the readers feel as if they too were trotting along on the handsome sorrel mare. Up-and-down, up-and-down, plodding along slowly but surely forward, the young horsewoman is stuck in this routine not unlike how the citizens of Oran live the same day everyday stuck in their town’s lockdown.
As days, weeks, and months pass by, Rieux along with his colleagues and friends witness and contemplate on the varied human approach towards mortality and the significance of life in the face of tragedy. They show the reader how people naturally fear death and are initially cautious, locking their doors and seldom interacting with others or expressing their thoughts and feelings. They hide from death yet have a careful curiosity around it. The book showed however that sometimes no amount of running and hiding can remove a person from the risk of death. Quite haunting is the “scene” that Rieux describes in the book. As a doctor, Rieux visits the house of the sick and manages to give the diagnosis with just one somber look. The “scene” then ensues with the family realizing their fears and expressing their panic and fear as they know that once the ambulance takes their relative, they are gone forever. Some even go so far as to plead to keep the plague-ridden relative at home for separation from loved ones is worse than contracting and dying from the plague itself.
As time passes, the citizens who can afford it engage in lavish displays of luxury to feel alive. Amid these efforts, however, it is difficult to conceal the listless, empty feeling inside. Camus truly captures the emotion in the line that reads, “the habit of despair is worse than despair itself.” Yet, even when death is lurking at every corner, the citizens of Oran learn that one cannot and must not stop living. Several references are made throughout the novel towards the idea of man, man’s purpose, and love. This is summed up with the line, “Man is an idea once he turns his back on love.” And so, one can see the citizens of Oran showing love for one another and using love to motivate them in their everyday life.
Perhaps one of the most inspiring acts of love is the initiative taken by Tarrou and other volunteers as part of Oran’s sanitation crew. Acting as frontline workers, they put their own lives at risk to clean up the city with hopes that this lowers the likelihood of others to contract the plague. Camus gives justice to these characters as he describes the selflessness of their volunteer service. Rambert, a foreign journalist, spends much of the novel in plight as he goes through the struggle of trying to smuggle himself out of town to reunite with his beloved. He goes through several phases of what this love means to him. At one point, he finds that the effort to escape the city takes away the energy he otherwise spends devoted to thinking of his love. At another point, he reflects on the concept of love in the grand scheme of life and the love he has fostered with the locals who he has befriended in Oran.
Our main character Rieux’s personal experiences with love are more varied and leave more room for analysis. Of course, his livelihood as a doctor implies his love for his patients as he devotes his days without so much as a second thought to saving his fellow countrymen, no matter how dire the situation or how difficult this may be for him. He loves his friends sincerely and his mother silently. From a long distance, Rieux and his wife find purpose and comfort in each other’s love.
Towards the end of the book, the trotting ends abruptly as the one-line manuscript is thrown in the fireplace. Following the parallelism, the plague and the lockdown also reach their end. The outcomes of Rieux and his loved ones show the reader how love is preserved and dies in different ways, highlighting the fragility of mortality, fragility of life as an experience, and the fragility of love.
The 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature Albert Camus created a sentimental masterpiece out of a tragedy, pulling into focus the beauty of man’s inner nature through his vulnerabilities. Several decades later, readers find that his voice still resonates through time and space. We in the present can use Camus’ point of view to see the world not through losing and winning but through life and death, and strive to ensure that there is sincere, innocent, and vulnerable love that brings substance and purpose to our living.