At first I wasn’t too sure what to make of this book. It was written in 1947, shortly after the Nazi occupation of France, so there is apparently an inevitable tendency to associate the story with the application of National Socialism.

I’m not so sure though. While the story does have obvious parallels with a city or country under siege from an extremist government, it is more like the story actually uses the device of the bubonic plague to push a set of characters through the high and lows of the human existence.

But I get ahead of myself. The Plague is about a fictional outbreak of the bubonic plague in the North African city of Oran. The story centres on a Dr. Rieux, and follows his experiences as the plague unfolds, envelops the city, and begins to murder its inhabitants. And… that’s about it.

The Plague plays on ideas of heroism, true love, despair, courage, but doesn’t ever really unpack or explore them. Instead, it makes great human virtues little more than abstract features of the lives of ordinary people put through extraordinary stresses in a time of great misery. In this way the humanity of the characters is increased, because the reader sees them as willing but helpless actors in the face of a colossal calamity overtaking their lives at a pace they cannot control.

The characters are very much trapped in Oran, the city gates are locked for the duration of the plague, so they are required to interact with a tragedy beyond their reckoning. This serves to make the plague itself the only character in the story worth tracking, because all the lesser (human) characters are helpless and powerless.

Camus uses this situation to reduce the high and mighty to humility, and grant the criminal or insane a respite from their real lives. He also demonstrates how in times of great hardship people will cling to tenuous hopes of a better day, and old habits too hard to break. Finally, when the plague finally releases its grip on Oran, people will flock back to their old ways and resign themselves to their luck, without ever acknowledging that calamity could ever again overtake them.

The message, it seems, is that we are all just pawns being pushed to and fro by forces greater than our capacity to understand. Best just be the best person you can, and enjoy the ride. Sartre would have been proud.