“There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
These words, coming near the end of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague,” is the central message of the book.
“The Plague” tells the story of, well, a plague, the bubonic plague to be precise, and how it ravages the French Algerian town of Oran. At the center of the book is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a stoic, practical young doctor who fights the battle to treat the townsfolk.
The work starts at the plague’s very beginning when Rieux and others struggle to understand what exactly is going on. The epidemic is first met with denial by the town leaders and residents until it quickly worsens. Oran is then sealed off from the outside world as more and more people die. Social unrest develops and local politicians declare martial law. The residents of Oran live and die under these conditions for the better part of a year until the plague finally weakens, allowing the town to lift restrictions.
There is a range of reactions among the characters. Rambert desperately wants to get out to see his wife in Paris and tries to do so. Cottard welcomes the plague because the police are too distracted by it to look into his criminal past. Tarrou wants to live for higher ideals and organizes sanitation teams to care for the afflicted. Father Paneloux sees the plague as a test of faith from God.
Rieux recognizes that he is continually engaged in a hopeless task. There is no treatment for the plague and there is almost nothing he can do to relieve the suffering of his patients. Rieux’s dilemma is very much like that of Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods for trying to eliminate death. His eternal punishment is to roll a boulder up a hill only to see it tumble back down every time he managed to get it near the top. Rieux tries to overcome the insurmountable force of nature and stave off the inevitable. Nevertheless, when he is at the bottom of his own hill, when one of his patients dies, he begins all over again on a new case, doing the best he can.
The plights of Rieux and Sisyphus illustrate ideas of the Absurd. This idea is a constant among existentialist authors. For Camus, the Absurd is when human beings are confronted with the realization of the limitations of their own reason in a world they can’t make sense of or change. Instead of resigning ourselves to despair and taking a nihilistic view of life, Camus encourages us to recognize life’s absurdities and find the courage within ourselves to live life meaningfully. Camus himself demonstrated that courage when he was part of the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. In a time when many people feel despair, “The Plague” dramatizes the courage of living day-to-day dealing with isolation, sickness and death.
Today, health care workers are engaged in an epic Sisyphean struggle like Rieux. This book depicts the courage they are showing when he says “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”