by Albert Camus
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The city of Oran is under quarantine as rat-borne plague rages within its walls. Its citizens, cut off from the outside world, are also alienated from one another for fear of contagion. As more and more people die, mass graves are serviced by the city’s tram lines, the cars modified to carry their corpses. Against this backdrop, Dr. Rieux and Tarrou work together to fight the plague until Tarrou (who is the book’s social conscience) finally succumbs. Oran, of course, is a metaphor for occupied France during the 1940s, and the story studies the way that various people struggle against the plague of Nazism. Many choose indifference and suspicion, but a few, like Tarrou, resist.
Of all the existentialist authors, Albert Camus is the most interesting—perhaps because he is the most accessible. His fiction is a testament to the power of fiction in the service of philosophy. It is also a chronicle of how one man’s outlook changes over the course of a lifetime. The Camus who wrote The Plague is clearly a more mature thinker than the author of The Stranger, and he was to demonstrate even more development in his final masterpiece, The Fall.
Discerning readers should compare the doctrine of Tarrou, who is determined to live a life that creates as few victims as possible, with that of the Apostle Paul, who strived to live a life “void of offense toward God and man.” The similarities and differences between these two goals are instructive.
by J. Mark Bertrand