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The Plague by Albert Camus

The Plague (original 1947; edition 1962)

by Albert Camus

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13,474152262 (3.94)2 / 454
Title:The Plague
Authors:Albert Camus
Info:Time Incorporated (1962), Paperback
Collections:Your library

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The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)


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English (133)  Italian (5)  Dutch (3)  Spanish (3)  German (2)  French (2)  Portuguese (1)  Hebrew (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (151)
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This literary work by Albert Camus might be rewarding if read simply as a novel. But to comprehend the work in the context of his philosophical "book-length essays", The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel (which I am yet to read), and his other famous novel, The Stranger, requires an understanding of Camus' philosophy of the absurd. While Camus refused the label of existentialist philosopher, it is clear that he develops a philosophy of the absurd in the three of the above works I have read thus far. I suspect that a reading of The Rebel and also Nuptials will provide further insight into his ideas, but much like reading Nietzsche, I think one could develop a sense of Camus' ideas no matter where one starts. I enjoy referring to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy when trying to comprehend philosophical works, but I follow Mortimer Adler's advice to read the work first, so as to form my own impression, before immersing myself in the interpretations of others'. This particular edition of the novel is helpful in that it contains an afterword, rather than an introduction, by the late Professor Tony Judt. Whenever I think of absurdity, I tend to think of the Dada Movement. But the ridiculousness of Dada served the purpose of mocking the bourgeois, so it does not relate so much to the absurd in the philosophical sense as it does "absurd" in the sense of "ridiculous". What I gather from my reading is that the absurd relates to the absence of any meaning of life. It is irrational in that you cannot reach, by reason, the meaning of life other than that you live and then you die. There is an element of Nietzsche's "God is dead", too, in that Camus attacks religion, no, challenges religion, in its attempt to provide meaning to life (or the after-life). As the title suggests, this novel is a fictional story about the plague striking Oran, Algeria, and the lives of a group of men who are caught up by the inevitable quarantining of the city. In his afterword, Tony Judt tells of how Camus relied on his personal experience of Nazi-occupied France (Camus was a reluctant hero of the French Resistance) as a basis for his story, and how as soon as the tragedy is over, people simply pick up from where they left off and seem to forget the lessons learnt from the trauma. Without giving too much of the plot away, nor the interesting use of the narrator, the non-religious protagonist simply does his duty. In doing so, we see a human Sisyphus at work. It probably didn't help being sick myself while reading this, and wondering if each time one of the pets scratched themselves I might be in for a dose of the plague, but like all of Camus' work I have read thus far, it leaves me with a strange sense of resignation. I was going to say hope, but this is where Camus disagreed with Sartre and the existentialists: he saw them as "deifying" the knowledge that there was no god (or God or gods), and turning existentialism into its own form of religion, much like the anti-religionist non-scientist science-lovers do on social media these days. Something that strikes me with Camus is the absence of hope. If one doesn't like it, then one can always end it. And here I draw parallels with the Stoics. There is always that macabre option. But if we choose to live, we can only live for the present moment. What appears again and again in The Plague is a sense of duty. Not so much for a cause, but to do what one does because that is what one does. To live in the present moment, for the future is death, and the past is beyond our control. Yet this doesn't mean we adopt a hedonistic approach to life, but rather that we do our duty, in accordance with our nature. Of course, these ideas are difficult to comprehend without a thorough reading of Camus, Nietzsche, and the Stoics; even so, it is still difficult to articulate the concept. Camus' use of the novel to explain these concepts is powerful, in that through metaphor, we can come to understand his non-philosophical philosophy. Rather than attempting to find meaning in life (which is absurd because there is none), we can exist in the present moment and do our duty. And while this may sound nihilistic, there is a sense of peace one can gain by acknowledging that all we can control are our impressions of external events, and then how we react to the things we cannot control. As Camus observed in The Myth of Sisyphus(p. 64):...integrity has no need of rules.It would seem that there is some relation to Stoicism, in that personal decision and choice is a central theme. But that is just my take on it. If you would rather just read an excellent novel, then this is it. If, of course, you can not wonder about the absurdity of it all after reading it. ( )
  madepercy | Jun 10, 2018 |
Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. In it, the protagonist struggles eternally to push a heavy rock uphill, only to have it slip and roll to the bottom each time he reaches the top. Yet, Sisyphus endures, gets some satisfaction, and is even ennobled from the effort, albeit unavailing. In Camus’s worldview, Sisyphus embodies the human condition, in an "absurd" (his word) situation.

In The Plague (published in 1947), Camus develops and expands the Sisyphean theme, writ large. The story takes place in Oran, Algeria, (Camus’s actual home town) in “194_.” In the opening chapter, Camus describes “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it.” The residents are at first slow to recognize an outbreak of the bubonic plague. But once they become aware of what has befallen them, the entire city is quarantined from the rest of the country. The story focuses on a group of men, and how the plague helps define them.

The story is related by a “narrator,” who does not identify himself until the very end of the book. By this device, Camus is able to relate the heroic deeds of a certain Doctor Rieux (who turns out to be the “narrator”) without seeming to be bragging.

Camus’s narrator describes the experience of the plague as follows:

"The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them, the grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path."

All of the characters are faced with the stark choice of how to spend their time trapped in the city, facing an imminent threat of a painful death. Father Paneloux, a well-respected Jesuit, preaches a sermon ascribing the laxity of the Oran laity to God’s purpose in directing the plague to that city. Paneloux later engages in several deep conversations with Dr. Rieux about submitting to God’s will and not being able to understand the presence of evil in the world. Camus uses the occasion of the death of an innocent young child to write:

"Thus [Panelou] might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when, to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? [Emphasis added.]"

Clearly Camus meant the work to be allegorical, but exactly which plague he was describing is unclear. Some critics think he meant to signify the Nazism occupation of Vichy France. But a modern audience can see all sorts of other correlations, such as the widespread contention by some clergy that AIDS was a pestilence brought down by the “immoral” behavior of those contracting the disease.

One can also extrapolate to larger philosophical and metaphysical questions, about the persistence of evil and suffering in the world generally. Humans struggle against all manner of obstacles, occasionally overcoming them, only to be struck down by the aleatory sword of war, or weather, disease, or accidental death, inter alia.

One of the characters, Raymond Rambert, is a journalist temporarily assigned to Oran to write a story about the living conditions of the Arabs living in the town. [Curiously, although the story takes place in Algeria, it contains virtually no Arab characters.] Rambert is separated from his wife, and makes many unsuccessful efforts to elude the quarantine. In the end, however, when presented with a chance to escape, he decides to stay with the friends he has made as a sort of existential duty. In this way, Camus explores the nature of altruism and the grasping hold of moral precepts that are determinative for so many lives.

Another character, Cottard, takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor. In the end, he becomes unhinged, shooting at people and killing a dog. He is arrested shortly before the quarantine is lifted. Challenges inspire some to heroism, others to insanity.

Jean Tarrou is a good-natured man who keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which Rieux incorporates into the narrative. Tarrou tells Rieux that he wants to become a saint even though he does not believe in God. He believes the plague is everyone’s responsibility and that all people must do their duty. Accordingly, he comes up with the idea of organizing teams of volunteers to fight the plague before the authorities begin to conscript people. When the epidemic is virtually over, Tarrou becomes one of its last victims but puts up a heroic struggle before dying. Camus’s narrator observes:

"So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match."

Whatever the true meaning of the story, it has rich layers that hold relevance beyond the scope of its original intent. The story stands on its own as a tale of Camus’s philosophy of atheistic, dogged persistence in the face of adversity.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Feb 10, 2018 |
Camus has written a "drawing room" account of an Algerian plague outbreak--an overview of town politics and human behavior: no gore, very little pathos. I was perplexed to find the population more inconvenienced than terrorized by events. But the ultimate conclusion: "There is much less to despise in Man than there is to admire." ( )
  LaurelPoe | Dec 25, 2017 |
(review originally written for bookslut)

To be perfectly honest, I was more that prepared to dislike The Plague -- I was actually relishing the idea of hating it. Let's just say that my first encounter with Camus, The Stranger, did not go well. That book was one of the most annoying and frustrating reading experiences of my young life, second only to Ethan Frome, the book I love most to hate. But based on the amount of respect given to Camus by friends whose opinions in books I usually trust, I knew I had to give him a second chance. It was indeed possible that The Stranger was an incredibly interesting book, and that there was only something about my state of mind at the time that kept me from appreciating its subtle nuances. As much as I wanted to believe that, the thought of picking up and reading it again filled me with a sick sense of dread. So I chose an alternate route: I read The Plague, instead.

From the beginning, I sat in a state of anticipatory judgement of the book. I didn't want to like Camus. And the beginning of the book just did not win me over. Having both seen and read Stephen King's The Stand, and read entirely too many brutal and thorough books on the AIDS epidemic, it was highly unlikely that any description Camus might give of the plague would shock or move me much in comparison. As his book is set in relatively modern times, there was also not the shock of general filth and sewage running in the streets that might have been present in other accounts of plague.

If shock or horror would not draw me into the book, I didn't anticipate compassion to do so either. As in The Stranger, the characters of The Plague are not an emotive bunch. The doctor, Rieux, watches hundreds die every day and is separated from his wife for the duration of the plague -- he grinds on. His closest friend, Tarrou, keeps a detailed journal comprised entirely of observations of other people, the only personal details he records come very near the end of the plague, when he is presumably too exhausted to censor himself. "Well," one might say, "those are men, those were different times, you can't expect men to express their emotions, what about the women?" What about the women? What an excellent question! The only women in the book are the exiled wives from whom, conveniently, nothing can be heard, and Rieux's mother, who is even less emotive than Rieux himself.

I might have set the book aside entirely had it not been assigned for me to read for the 100 books list, and for that I am grateful. Because after plowing doggedly through the first three parts of the novel, it was in the fourth that the book finally set its hooks into my chest. In a brief moment of respite, Tarrou and Rieux sit on a terrace overlooking the town, and Tarrou tells Rieux how he came to be the man that he is. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, so I will just say that Tarrou finally gave me something to identify with and a reason to be involved in the book. His struggle as an athiest pacifist riveted me, and from that point on I could hardly bear to put the book down. Unfortunately, there was little left to the book after that point, but it was enough. I was converted. I could finally agree with all of those who consider Camus to be a great author.

But will I ever give The Stranger another try? Perhaps in a few more years.... ( )
  greeniezona | Dec 6, 2017 |
A slow-moving, wistful, at times shocking tale of a miniature apocalypse. Beautifully sad, sad, sad. ( )
  mrgan | Oct 30, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Camus, Albertprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Corsari, WillyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dal Fabbro, BeniaminoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gilbert, StuartTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not! -' ('Robinson Crusoe's preface' to the third volume of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe).
First words
The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran.
Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran.
Le matin du 16 avril, le docteur Bernard Rieux sortit de son cabinet et buta sur un rat mort, au milieu du palier
"Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern."
The distinction can be made between men and, for example, dogs; men’s deaths are checked and entered up.
"They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."
"In normal times all of us know, whether consciously or not, that there is no love which can't be bettered; nevertheless we reconcile ourselves more or less easily to the fact that ours has never risen above the average."
"You'd almost think they expected to be given medals for it. But what does that mean—'plague'? Just life, no more than that."
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Book description
Orano è colpita da un'epidemia inesorabile e tremenda. Isolata con un cordone sanitario dal resto del mondo, affamata, incapace di fermare la pestilenza, la città diventa il palcoscenico e il vetrino da esperimento per le passioni di un'umanità al limite tra disgregazione e solidarietà. La fede religiosa, l'edonismo di chi non crede alle astrazioni, ma neppure è capace di "essere felice da solo", il semplice sentimento del proprio dovere sono i protagonisti della vicenda; l'indifferenza, il panico, lo spirito burocratico e l'egoismo gretto gli alleati del morbo. Scritto da Camus secondo una dimensione corale e con una scrittura che sfiora e supera la confessione, "La peste" è un romanzo attuale e vivo, una metafora in cui il presente continua a riconoscersi.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679720219, Paperback)

The Nobel prize-winning Albert Camus, who died in 1960, could not have known how grimly current his existentialist novel of epidemic and death would remain. Set in Algeria, in northern Africa, The Plague is a powerful study of human life and its meaning in the face of a deadly virus that sweeps dispassionately through the city, taking a vast percentage of the population with it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:11 -0400)

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Chaos prevails when the bubonic plague strikes the Algerian coastal city of Oran. A haunting tale of human resilience in the face of unrelieved horror, Camus' novel about a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141185139, 0141045515, 0141049235

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