The Plague by Albert Camus

An apt title nowadays. I read it maybe forty years ago, but hadn’t liked it nearly as well as I liked his other works: The Stranger, The Happy Death, the Exile and Kingdom stories, and the First Man – which are are all just magnificent. As you might imagine in these covid days, the title The Plague came to mind. So, I ordered it through Los Angeles Public Library’s new service: You order the books on-line and eventually you get an email, and then you call one of LAPL’s seven pick-up locations in town, make a phone appointment, and go pick up your books – which they pass to you in a paper grocery bag. Works OK). The book was quite brilliant of course. It was great to re-read. Camus is tremendously intelligent, and the conversations and discourses of his characters clearly mirror his own philosophical grapplings with the subject of suffering and death in this life of ours. As a fine novelist, he creates an “imaginary” plague that strikes his town of Oran in French Algeria. It is a chilling account throughout.

The similarities to today’s Covid pandemic are chilling as well. Camus states that plagues and wars occur periodically throughout history, and that each time they arrive, people are caught unawares. Also, he goes on, with each plague and each war, people tell each other that “it’ll be over in a few months”. But then these wars and plagues drag on and drag on for years. The Plague is a grim accounting, narrated for the most part by a local doctor, a non-descript Dr. Rieux. It’s a story about psychology. How things work. How people are. Naturally, for the philosopher Camus, the plague is a metaphor of sorts. How does one cope with the threat of the plague? Camus suggests that heroism, the willingness to unselfishly serve others that one often sees in times of plague can be redemptive. On the other hand, for Camus, the quest to attain happiness remains paramount.

Camus is surely brilliant. I would again recommend The Happy Death and The First Man, which are lesser-known, post-humous publications. To me, Camus’ excellence as a writer is his clarity: his ability to succinctly create an image, something palpable. I never much liked his philosophical works. As I say, Camus is best when he tells his little stories in his native Algeria. The Plague is surely an apt and a fascinating read. Even if it isn’t Camus’ best, it’s still pretty good.


21 thoughts on “The Plague by Albert Camus

  1. You can also order ebooks from library, too, but if you want a REAL book, you have to jump thru a couple hoops. The library bureaucracy is a doozey, but eventually it’s a wonderful institution.

  2. This was a great book, I really enjoyed it, if that’s the right word. It felt different from his other fiction I have read previously, but I think of all Camus’ work, The Rebel is my favourite but it’s been a long while since I ventured to the French Existentialists.

    1. I need to try The Rebel again. Have you seen The First Man autobiographical collection that came out about ten years ago? Camus had just a couple of powerful themes or motifs in his head and he saw them very clearly and strove to express them. Luckily he was a great writer too.

      1. I haven’t come across The First Man but will have to add it to the list, I do appreciate existentialism and need to read some more Sartre as well, not sure what it is about the French but they love their naturalism, and write it really good.

  3. Great relevant insight to such a classic story like The Plague drawing so many fascinating parallels with what we are struggling through in present day with the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. I remember reading The Stranger years ago and you gave me a good reminder to read The Plague next. Excellent analysis!

        1. The Happy Death is his discarded and unpublished first draft of the Stranger with many of the same scenes. First Man is a very touching autobiography also unreleased until recently.

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