Among the misfortunes haunting humankind throughout its history, the most significant three were wars, famine, and epidemics; these three often come together. In the Bible, one can find these calamities described as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death as the eternal companion of the first three. Each of these disasters are morbid, and probably due to the human nature, each message about them draws the attention of millions of people. However, media rarely goes further than calculating the amounts of victims, and people rarely bother themselves with an attempt to comprehend and philosophically reflect on these misfortunes; usually, people say “how awful,” and forget about bad news until the next news report.
At the same time, in world literature, these disasters have been widely described, discussed, and paid a lot of attention to. One of the most famous French philosophers and writers of the 20th century–Albert Camus–wrote a novel in which he tried to not just describe the horrors of the plague raging in a small French town, but to convey the atmosphere, thoughts, and moods of the people who found themselves locked up in the quarantine in the contaminated city of Oran.
It all starts with a rather innocent episode, when the main character of the novel, Dr. Bernard Rieux, finds a dead rat on his staircase. Consumed with his personal concerns, he barely pays attention to this event, and only informs a porter. Within the next several days, however, Dr. Rieux finds a couple more dead rats, and also gets to know that other city dwellers have also encountered the same problem. No one really cares, however, and the newspapers only publish a small note about this fact.
As time goes on, the scales of the seemingly-innocent event increases. Dead rats are found all over the city, they are everywhere, and municipal authorities do not seem to have efficient ways to deal with this problem. At the same time, a porter at Dr. Rieux’s house develops strange symptoms–in particular, enlarged and painful lymph nodes, and abscesses. In a couple of days, the porter dies.
Soon, the same cases appear in other corners of Oran. The disease quickly gathers momentum; Dr. Castel, Rieux’s colleague, is the first to name the problem directly: this is the plague that has caused the first mass extinction of rats, and then deaths among citizens. Soon Dr. Rieux and other specialists have to meet with the authorities in order to decide what can be done to prevent the plague’s further spreading.
The preventive measures, rather mild at first, gradually become more and more harsh, and sometimes unjust as the plague carries away even more victims every day. Oran becomes completely isolated from the rest of the country; no one is let in or out. This causes additional stress for many common people and the main characters, including Dr. Rieux–his severely-ill wife has left the city, right before the epidemic broke out; he misses her but, on the other hand, he is glad his wife is not in danger.
Camus pays a lot of attention to the mental anguish among Oran inhabitants. In general, people are depressed and desperate, their condition can be described as emotionally and mentally numb. Citizens only hope that the plague will finish as quickly and unpredictably as it broke out. However, there are people who have not lost their ability to act and to make decisions. Dr. Rieux, doing his best fighting the plague; Rambert, a Parisian journalist trapped in Oran, desperately seeks all possible legal and illegal means to leave the city, looking forward to meet his beloved woman again; Cottard, a smuggler who tried to commit suicide because of becoming a suspect for police in the beginning of the story, on the contrary, seems to enjoy the mess the plague has caused–the more ravaging the plague becomes, the safer he feels; Tarrou, a playboy and a seemingly light-minded person, who suddenly shows nobility and dedication–he organizes and leads teams of volunteers helping the authorities fight the plague; Grand, a modest and unremarkable officer, who does his best to help with gathering statistics and other important data. These, as well as other characters, are depicted with all their emotions and thoughts, and through them, Camus manages to convey all the palette of emotional conditions people go through during severe times of disaster.
In the end, an anti-plague serum is invented, and the death rate decreases gradually. Tarrou dies right before the plague is dealt with; Cottard cannot stand the fact that the emergency is over and that he can be caught–hysteric, he starts a shooting in the streets. Grand, who got sick with the plague, gradually recovers. Dr. Rieux’s wife has died from her sickness, far away from him. Rambert reunites with his beloved in Paris as soon as the city is open again. Common citizens seem to be doing their best to forget about the catastrophe as quickly as possible.
“The Plague” is an incredibly strong and touching novel, not just about the disease itself, but about those changes that an unexpected emergency can cause in people, about their feelings, hopes, and dreams when faced with one of the greatest dangers in the history of humankind–the pestilence.