Nonbelieving Literarti: The Plague  

Friday, February 01, 2008

The selection for the Nonbelieving Literati was The Plague by Albert Camus. I really wanted to like this book. I mean, come on. What better selection of literature could there be than a Nobel-winning book? But, I found it kind of dull.

I kept expecting something more to happen. I suppose that's been a theme with these selections. This time I didn't set myself up expecting an atheistic world-view, I just expected more from the story.

I couldn't identify with the time period, or maybe the culture. They had cars, and yet they still had city gates that could close people in? Rats were dying in droves and yet no one thought there might be a contagion? The doctor didn't try to stop people that wanted to break quarantine? The biggest threat to decorum was burying men and women in the same mass grave? Maybe it's the hyper-sensitivity of our time to bio-terrorism, but all of these things seemed unbelievable to me.

I never really bonded with the characters. They seemed nice enough people, I suppose, but they were too reticent. I never really felt like I knew them as people, just as characters. Perhaps it's that I dislike the style of the author. He would begin a scenes with a conversation, and then as if it's too laborious, sum up the conversation by telling the reader instead of continuing the conversation in scene.

For example, my favorite scene in the book is when Tarrou comes to Rieux's house to talk about Paneloux's sermon. The scene is defined pretty well, but abruptly cuts off in places.

"My question's this," said Tarrou. "Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don't believe in God? I suspect your answer may help mine."

His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he'd already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. Anyhow, in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road -- in fighting against creation as he found it. p. 126 - 127
Then the conversation picks up again. It's jarring and could be accomplished much better by the conversation flowing naturally. It's almost as though the narrator wants to break into first person, but keeps himself in check with some effort.

Despite those objections there are times when the prose is startlingly beautiful. Towards the end as the plague winds down and the people quarantined inside the city are reunited with their loves, Camus writes,
If only he could put the clock back and be once more the man who, at the outbreak of the epidemic, had had only one thought and one desire: to escape and return to the woman he loved! But that, he knew, was out of the question now; he had changed too greatly. The plague had forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn't think away, and which like a formless fear haunted his mind. Almost he thought the plague had ended too abruptly, he hadn't had time to pull himself together. Happiness was bearing down on him full speed, the event outrunning expectation. Rambert understood that all would be restored to him in a flash, and joy break on him like a flame with which there is no dallying. p. 294 - 295
I felt like I was missing something. When I read that it was likely a metaphor for the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, more of the story clicked into place. A human, mortal enemy seemed to fit better than nature itself, though in that enemy some of the impact in the implied theme that there is no control over one's life is lost.

In the end the book made me think, not about the characters or the story, but more about the themes that the author was conveying and that was what made it worth the read.

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14 comments: to “ Nonbelieving Literarti: The Plague

  • C. L. Hanson
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:40:00 AM CST  

    I felt like the characters' and society's actions overall seemed fairly realistic. It's easy to say that the rats dying should have clued people in about the danger when you're reading a book called The Plague. But the human death toll started small and wasn't well publicized in the town until after they were locked in.

    On the other hand, one point you mention stood out as weirdly incongruous to me as well: the fact that the doctor encouraged the guy who was planning to escape. The doctor saw first-hand every day the horrors of the plague and was fighting it with all his strength. So supposedly the idea was that he was so worn-down by all the despair that it was nice to see some hope and potential happiness, at least for one person. But the doctor was enough of a pragmatist and realist that I would think he'd be a little more concerned about the plague spreading -- perhaps to cities that didn't have walls -- and potentially devastating the entire country or more...

  • ordinary girl
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 6:34:00 AM CST  

    It's easy to say that the rats dying should have clued people in about the danger when you're reading a book called The Plague. But the human death toll started small and wasn't well publicized in the town until after they were locked in.

    I know, and I did tell myself that. The title gives it away to the reader right off the bat. But when the townspeople can't walk down the street without stepping on a rat because the streets are so full of them, don't you think they'd start wondering what was killing the rats?

    The author explains it with denial, and maybe that's the answer. I think it's a place where the metaphor breaks down a little.

  • Lifeguard
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 8:06:00 AM CST  


    I think you hit the nail on the head with "denial." Camus starts the novel off with a detailed description of the banal routine the town's life had fallen into and how basically contented everyone was with that. But they have no idea the plague is about to surface.

    I think the reason they don't realize it is because they don't want to face the reality of death. They walk around continuing their lives as if nothing is wrong and simply ignore the warning signs that have been growing. Personally, it made me think about how much like death their daily routines already were. The plague just came around to finish the job.

    I thought the whole novel was just the story or characters dealing with the realization that we are all going to die no matter what we do and how different individuals deal with that. Some go insane, some go on living like nothing has changes, and others react heroically.

    I actually really liked it, although I have some friends who've read it who reacted the exact same way you did regarding style and not identifying with characters.

  • The Ridger, FCD
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 8:06:00 AM CST  

    I wondered about that. Camus calls the people "humanists" and says:

    "In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away."

    So that's a bit strange, but then, I suppose in the 40s you wouldn't immediately leap to think of such a disaster. If plague has been eradicated, then what's killing the rats might be a good (if unsettling) thing...

    (I think Rieux trusted that Rambert would take precautions to quarantine himself once he was out, by the way.)

    Ah, well. I have to admit I found the book very hard to get into. Once I'd made it halfway I was intrigued, but getting that far was a chore.

  • the chaplain
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 11:27:00 AM CST  

    The book grabbed my attention from the beginning, but my attention flagged partway through. The ongoing progress of the plague started feeling like more of the same old, same old - so tell me something new. But that was probably the point. If so, then Camus achieved the effect he wanted and I did feel like the plague was never going to end.

    I also was disturbed by Rieux's complicity with Rambert. Then again, none of us is thoroughly consistent in everything we believe and do. That incongruity in Rieux's character added a layer of complexity that probably made him more plausibly human. No one really likes a perfect do-gooder.

  • Lifeguard
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 11:47:00 AM CST  

    See, I didn't take Rieux as encouraging or being complicit with Rambert's attempt at escape. I felt that he was indifferent to it. You might ask what difference that makes, but in terms of evaluating Rieux and what motivates him, I think it's a relevant distinction.

    Along similar lines, however, why hasn't anybody brought up Rambert's selfish desire to be with the one he loves even if it means potentially infecting her and the rest of the world with plague?

    I think that might be because we understand his reasons, we know what it's like (maybe) to be that in love, but, isn't it, nonetheless irresponsible? Does Rambert even reference that when he decides to stay?

    I wonder if our "understanding" of Rambert might explain why Rieux acts the way he does with regards to Rambert's attempt to flee.

    I dunno... just some thoughts.

  • The Exterminator
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 12:49:00 PM CST  


    You're the only one so far who has mentioned that The Plague is, in many ways, written as a reaction to the horrors of Nazi occupation.

    Somewhere in Part III, there's a history of what the authorities had been doing with the dead bodies. It ends with a description of making train trips to crematoria outside the borders of the town. This little allegorical passage unsubtle on Camus' part, but I found it very powerful as I read it.

  • ordinary girl
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 1:53:00 PM CST  

    Lifeguard: Along similar lines, however, why hasn't anybody brought up Rambert's selfish desire to be with the one he loves even if it means potentially infecting her and the rest of the world with plague?

    I kind of generalized it with the whole bit about him escaping, but that is a good point to make. I remember someone asking him if he wasn't afraid he'd infect his wife and he said that he was a little, but it wasn't enough to overcome his desire to be with her. I didn't like Rambert in the beginning and I didn't like him then either.

    Ex: Yes, that was another very moving descriptions. I think if the beginning of the book hadn't lulled me so much I would have liked it better. It's one of those books that grows on you though over time, I think, and I'm appreciating more as I think about it.

  • The Ridger, FCD
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:22:00 PM CST  

    "It's one of those books that grows on you though over time, I think, and I'm appreciating more as I think about it."

    Me too. Just reading all this discussion about it makes me appreciate it more. Pretty soon I might realize it's great.

  • John Evo
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 6:38:00 PM CST  

    It's really interesting to read the different points of view on this book. None that I have read so far indicate that they thought it was a GREAT book. I don't think I even thought so, though I seem to have enjoyed(?) it more than most. I am really glad I read it.

  • The Exterminator
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 7:27:00 PM CST  


    Well, I think the variety and depth of our discussions prove that it's a great book.

    OG said, I'm appreciating more as I think about it, and Ridger concurred. I think we all have so many different things to say about the book because there's so much in it; it's rich in ideas.

    Is it enjoyable to read? Maybe not. But does it spark interesting dialogue among us, does it "grow" in stature the more we think about it? Yeah. That's what a great book does.

  • Lifeguard
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 7:30:00 PM CST  


    I have actually read it before, and it is actually one of my favorite novels. Probably my favorite.

  • John Evo
    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 10:20:00 PM CST  

    Lifey - WOW! I honestly didn't get that from your post. It seemed like it greatly effected you, but not that you liked it THAT much. Then again, it's been a bad day for me and I'm probably not as discerning as I'd like to be.

  • C. L. Hanson
    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 2:36:00 PM CST  

    Actually, the more I hear about how this book is supposed to be a metaphor for the occupation, the more I am annoyed with it. I'd already posted my review before I got wind of the connection (from my husband and the other reviewers).

    It's true the whole thing about foreigners thinking they should deserve to leave and Rieux thinking it's A-OK for Rambert to try to leave makes perfect sense for a foreign occupation, and not for a plague. I was willing to suspend my disbelief a bit on this (Rambert is just so selfish that he cares more about seeing his wife immediately than about her safety, Rieux smiles upon this choice because.....?) when I thought it was just some weird, imaginative twist in the story. But if the point is that it's some sort of roman à clef where the reader is supposed to be guessing what each parallel with disease is supposed to be telling us about the occupation and the resistance? I think he'd be better off writing about the occupation directly if he's more concerned about being true to that subject than about being true to his chosen subject.


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