Book Review: The Plague – Camus

Another masterpiece by Camus filled with is existentialist angst and an elaboration of his theory of ‘absurdity’. The novel centers around the spread of plague in the Algerian city of Oran and the attempts by the inhabitants to cope with the epidemic, as well as the quarantine that the city faces. While people like Dr. Rieux and his colleague Castel work tirelessly to fight the disease, others like Rambert seek to escape the city so that he could be with his wife. In this, he seeks help of Cottard, who is shown as having committed a crime in the past, and is ever fearful of his past catching up with him. During the epidemic, he amasses a lot of wealth through smuggling. However, by the end of the epidemic he can’t cope up with his troubled past and is finally caught by the police, when he comes out on the street and begins firing randomly. There is the chaplain Father Paneloux, who initially, at the outbreak of the epidemic, argues that the plague is God’s way of punishing Oran for the sins of its inhabitants. However, later on seeing the death of Othon’s child, who has committed no sin and is innocent, he is deeply shaken and delivers a sermon arguing that such deaths force the Christians to either believe everything, or nothing, about God. The book also has other fascinating characters like Grand, who in his desire to express himself perfectly, is always searching for the ‘right word’. This makes him unable to either write a letter of protest or to make any progress with his book which he wants to write. Finally, the epidemic is controlled and the quarantine is lifted. However, Dr. Rieux knows that the battle against plague is never over as the bacillus can lie dormant for years and then reappear.

The main theme of the book in my view is the way Camus treats the concept of freedom. Before the outbreak of plague and the quarantine, the inhabitants of Oran thought that they were free, their freedom having been constrained by the epidemic and the imposition of quarantine. While reading the novel however, it becomes clear that this idea of their’s i.e of being ‘free’, was really an illusion (especially if you keep the prism of Camus theory of absurdity at the back of your mind, like I did).Before the imposition of quarantine, despite their semblance of being free, they however, unconsciously remained a slave to their mundane ‘habits’. The novel is full of references of the inhabitants mindlessly moving from one cafe to another and wasting their time. The quarantine only added another layer to their enslavement.

Another important fact brought out in the novel is regarding, what I would call for the want of a better word, their understanding of love. It is only when they are under quarantine from friends, families and lovers do these people realize their value. It is only then they realize how much they loved and missed them. Earlier, they mostly took them for granted.

The book elaborates upon Camus theory of absurdity and the inevitability of death by using plague as a metaphor. Now it was for men to choose, despite this inevitability whether they would fight the epidemic or choose to die without fighting it. But even in this futile meaningless choice, the choice of fighting against plague (which most of the inhabitants of Oran finally chose), did convey the value of optimism.

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