The Plague

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A man visiting Oran when the plague strikes, who takes detailed notes about the city and therefore has a very good record of the early days of the plague. Eventually Rieux and Tarrou become close friends. Tarrou has a similar belief in social responsibility as Rieux does, but Tarrou is more philosophical than the doctor, often musing about sainthood, the death penalty, and the absurdity of life. Tarrou forms the volunteer anti-plague effort and works just as hard as Dr. Rieux in battling the epidemic. He contracts the plague himself, and his failed struggle to survive it is the novel’s climax.

Jean Tarrou Quotes in The Plague

The The Plague quotes below are all either spoken by Jean Tarrou or refer to Jean Tarrou. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Absurdism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of The Plague published in 1991.
Part 1 Quotes

Every day… a dapper little old man stepped out on the balcony on the other side of the street… Leaning over the balcony he would call: “Pussy! Pussy!” in a voice at once haughty and endearing… He then proceeded to tear some paper into scraps and let them fall into the street; interested by the fluttering shower of white butterflies, the cats came forward, lifting tentative paws toward the last scraps of paper. Then, taking careful aim, the old man would spit vigorously at the cats and, whenever a liquid missile hit the quarry, would beam with delight.

Related Characters: Jean Tarrou (speaker), The man who spits on cats
Related Symbols: The Man Who Spits on Cats
Page Number: 25-26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to one of the most loaded symbols in the novel--the man who spits at cats. This old man, very well-dressed, goes outside every morning and tries to lure stray cats to within "spitting distance." When the cats have congregated, the old man spits at them again and again, taking great pleasure in hitting them.

What, if anything, does the scene symbolize? Camus seems to intend his scene as a symbol for the absurdity of the universe. Humans are ill-equipped to recognize the truth: the universe is a crazy, meaningless place. As such, they often choose to to invent their own meanings for life: they give themselves routines to distract themselves from the absurdity. The irony, of course, is that the routines and hobbies that humans adopt for themselves are every bit as absurd as the universe itself (and, Camus argues, no less absurd than this man's bizarre ritual). The old man seems to hate the cats (he enjoys spitting at them) and yet he clearly needs cats--they seem to give his life meaning, and when the plague kills them, he disappears into his apartment and presumably despairs. Humans are all alone in the universe--even our enemies serve a useful purpose in giving us someone to connect with. In all, the episode of the cats suggests the absurd measures we take to entertain ourselves and build communities for ourselves in the face of the crushing meaningless of existence.

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Part 2 Quotes

“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 me to 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… in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road – in fighting against creation as he found it.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), Jean Tarrou (speaker)
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Camus offers an eloquent defense of absurdism as the ultimate humanistic doctrine, using Dr. Rieux as something of a mouthpiece for his own beliefs. Tarrou asks the doctor why he spends so much time trying to cure patients and risking his life, when he doesn't even believe in God (and therefore, presumably, doesn't believe in any divinely-ordained morality or duty). Rieux's answer is that it's only because he doesn't believe in God--or any other order in the universe--that he devotes so much time to helping other people. Religion, Rieux suggests is a distraction from true human freedom. To believe in God is to put one's trust in another being--an omnipotent being. Religious people don't truly put their full energy into changing the world, because they believe that God can always change it on their behalf. The only truly heroic people are those who accept the terrifying truth about life--and still struggle onward.

“After all,” the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, “it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?”
Tarrou nodded.
“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”
Rieux’s face darkened.
“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), Jean Tarrou (speaker)
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, Dr. Rieux continues to explain his philosophy to Jean Tarrou. Tarrou is still having trouble understanding how anyone could deny the existence of God and yet not deny the importance of life. (It's suggested that Tarrou shares a similar worldview to Rieux, but wants Rieux to clarify things so that Tarrou himself can figure out his own beliefs). Rieux explains that those who deny God, such as himself, deny him only to struggle harder against death and suffering. Furthermore, Rieux suggests that even if God does exist, it might be more moral to still live out Rieux's philosophy, rather than taking the easy way out and "giving up" by putting things in God's hands--particularly when any God who rules over such a universe of suffering must be sitting in inexplicable "silence."

The major problem with Rieux's belief, as he admits, is that any victories against death, pain, and injustice will always be short-lived. If you don't believe in an eternal Heaven, Tarrou notes, then you can't believe that anything you do really matters--your achievements die along with you. Rieux admits that Tarrou is right, but doesn't see the fact that victories are "never lasting" as a problem in and of itself. the transient nature of success and happiness, on the contrary, is a mandate to keep trying to create happiness and success--a struggle that's equal parts heroic and futile.

Part 4 Quotes

“In short, this epidemic has done him proud. Of a lonely man who hated loneliness it has made an accomplice… He is happily at one with all around him, with their superstitions, their groundless panics, the susceptibilities of people whose nerves are always on the stretch; with their fixed idea of talking the least possible about plague and nevertheless talking of it all the time…”

Related Characters: Jean Tarrou (speaker), Cottard
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Ironically, the plague is good for one resident of the town: Cottard. Cottard is a criminal who committed a serious, unknown crime a long time ago. He's used to being ignored and shunned for his differences--and thus, when the plague hits, he's delighted. Suddenly, everybody is equal, and nobody is trying to arrest him. Furthermore, everybody has become a threat--i.e., a potential carrier of disease. Cottard is no longer so "lonely" then.

The passage reinforces how the plague dissolves all social boundaries. Hierarchy of any kind is just a human illusion--confronted by the harsh facts of death and chaos, the community of Oran abandons almost all hierarchies altogether, and thus Cottard is no longer such an outcast. 

Tarrou, when told by Rieux what Paneloux had said, remarked that he’d known a priest who had lost his faith during the war, as the result of seeing a young man’s face with both eyes destroyed.
“Paneloux is right,” Tarrou continued. “When an innocent youth can have his eyes destroyed, a Christian should either lose his faith or consent to having his eyes destroyed. Paneloux declines to lose his faith, and he will go through with it to end. That’s what he meant to say.”

Related Characters: Jean Tarrou (speaker), Dr. Bernard Rieux, Father Paneloux
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

As Father Paneloux spends more time among the plague-ridden community he finds it harder and harder to continue being religious. Paneloux tells his followers that they must embrace the plague as a part of God's plan. But as Paneloux sees untold horrors--particularly the death of M. Othon's young son--he finds it increasingly difficult to accept this worldview, and he seems to have doubts about the very existence of God. Yet Paneloux continues to believe in God, or at least praise him in public.

Here, Tarrou and Rieux discuss Paneloux's faith, and agree that he has come to an impasse. In the face of such meaningless suffering, the Christian can only deny nothing or deny everything--and Paneloux is afraid to deny everything. Thus he clings ever harder to his desperate trust in God, choosing to believe that even the plague is part of a larger "plan." Paneloux even refuses to call a doctor when he gets sick, sticking to his principles in the face of reality. Tarrou and Rieux actually admire this stubbornness, even though it leads to Paneloux's death, and he may have led others "astray" with his sermons, because Paneloux at least stuck with his beliefs "to the end."

All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilence and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences…

I grant we should add a third category; that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace.

Related Characters: Jean Tarrou (speaker)
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the novel, Jean Tarrou seems to be dying from the plague. As a result, his speech is earnest and philosophical--he knows that he doesn't have much longer. Here, Tarrou lays out his model for life. As he sees it, human beings are always suffering from some kind of plague or pestilence. Sometimes, the plague is very concrete--a war, a disease, a tyrant, etc. In other cases, the plague is more psychological--it could be depression, alienation, or sheer loneliness.

The only way to live, Tarrou insists, is to fight the plague. Such a fight may be a folly, since there will always be some other plague coming along in the end. And yet fighting plague is better than joining forces with it--becoming a bully, an executioner, or a tyrant. Tarrou's description of life is both hopeless and hopeful, and it shows how Camus' philosophy of absurdism--while seemingly depressing and nihilistic at first glance--actually can lead to real-world change and great acts of philanthropy. (Camus himself fought "the plague" by joining the French Resistance against the Nazis during WWII.)

Part 5 Quotes

“Rieux,” he said at last, “you must tell me the whole truth. I count on that.”

“I promise it.”
Tarrou’s heavy face relaxed in a brief smile.
“Thanks. I don’t want to die, and I shall put up a fight. But if I lose the match, I want to make a good end of it.”

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), Jean Tarrou (speaker)
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final Part of his novel, Camus faces the overwhelming question--how to die? How, knowing to a certainty that our lives are going to end, do we behave in the years or days or hours leading up to the end? Tarrou offers us one model of how to behave: with dignity, with a fierce struggle, never submitting to the inevitable. Tarrou insists that he will keep fighting, up to the end, despite the fact that his fighting seems to be in vain.

Notice also that Tarrou requires the complete truth from Rieux--he wants Rieux to tell him how much longer he's got, and how bad his condition is. Tarrou celebrates truth, even if it's harsh truth, at all times. Only by accepting the truth about the human condition can people attain a measure of dignity and heroism for themselves.

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Jean Tarrou Character Timeline in The Plague

The timeline below shows where the character Jean Tarrou appears in The Plague. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
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Later that day Dr. Rieux passes Jean Tarrou, a man who he has seen before visiting the Spanish dancers who live in Rieux’s... (full context)
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...when the town still tried to pretend nothing was wrong. The narrator then reintroduces Jean Tarrou, who is a visitor to Oran. Tarrou lives in a hotel and makes detailed, inquisitive... (full context)
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Tarrou describes an old man who lives across from him, who comes out onto his balcony... (full context)
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Tarrou records some conversations about the rats and the mysterious illness, and then he describes a... (full context)
Part 2
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The narrator returns to some of Tarrou’s observations. The death toll is now announced daily rather than weekly so that the numbers... (full context)
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Tarrou reports that the hotel manager has lost most of his customers and is depressed by... (full context)
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Tarrou goes with Dr. Rieux to visit his asthma patient. The old man gleefully explains that... (full context)
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Tarrou notes that no one laughs out loud anymore except for drunk people. A new newspaper... (full context)
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Tarrou observes that people seem to try to counteract the plague by living extravagantly, spending large... (full context)
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Tarrou arrives and proposes a plan to recruit volunteers for an anti-plague effort, a group of... (full context)
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Tarrou then asks Dr. Rieux if he believes in God, and Rieux answers by saying that... (full context)
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...better to keep struggling against death, regardless of whether a silent God exists or not. Tarrou reminds him that any struggle against death is ultimately futile, but Rieux says that that... (full context)
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Tarrou’s plan works and a group of volunteers soon starts working, but the narrator tries not... (full context)
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...for a large fee. They arrange another meeting, and while he waits Rambert goes with Tarrou to see Dr. Rieux. Late that night they go to a bar and Rambert drinks... (full context)
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...be making much difference, and that “once you have plague your number’s up.” Rieux and Tarrou respond that it is the duty of everyone to help fight the plague. (full context)
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Tarrou asks Cottard why he doesn’t join the anti-plague league, and Cottard, offended, says it isn’t... (full context)
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...were recently quarantined. They begin to start the whole process over again, which depresses Rambert. Tarrou and Dr. Rieux visit him that night, and he says that the plague is essentially... (full context)
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Rambert muses to Dr. Rieux and Tarrou that he stopped believing in heroism during the Spanish Civil War, where he fought for... (full context)
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...is not an attempt at heroism, but simply “common decency.” Then he goes out, and Tarrou reveals to Rambert that Rieux’s wife is away at a sanatorium. This surprises Rambert, and... (full context)
Part 4
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The only man in town who seems content is Cottard. Tarrou offers a sympathetic ear, so Cottard spends time with him and Tarrou takes notes in... (full context)
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Tarrou records an incident at the Municipal Opera House, where he and Cottard attended a performance... (full context)
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...(who has joined the sanitation league) joins the vigil and he, Rieux, Castel, Grand, and Tarrou watch to see if the serum has any effect on Jacques. (full context)
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Afterward Rieux and Tarrou discuss the sermon, and they overhear a priest and deacon talking about Paneloux’s new essay,... (full context)
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Tarrou records his visit to a quarantine camp with Rambert and Gonzales, Rambert’s football-loving friend. The... (full context)
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November ends and the weather grows colder. Tarrou and Rieux visit the doctor’s asthma patient, and after listening to his chatter for a... (full context)
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Tarrou explains that he has “had plague already,” and describes his childhood. His father was a... (full context)
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Soon afterward Tarrou ran away from home and broke off contact with his father. He became preoccupied with... (full context)
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Tarrou says that this is why the plague is nothing new to him – he has... (full context)
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Tarrou then suggests that they take a swim in the ocean “for friendship’s sake,” as they... (full context)
Part 5
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...feel exiled by the joy of others. Rieux and his friends join the festivities, and Tarrou sees a cat run across the road – the first cat seen since spring. (full context)
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Tarrou still takes a few scattered notes in his diary – he records that the man... (full context)
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...he will be arrested, and he suffers from extreme mood swings and paranoia. One day Tarrou is walking Cottard home, musing on making a “fresh start” after the plague, when two... (full context)
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...than before, but he has a new hopefulness that makes him feel less weary. Then Tarrou comes down with the plague, and Rieux and his mother care for him instead of... (full context)
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Tarrou struggles silently against the disease (which is strangely of both pneumonic and bubonic varieties) for... (full context)
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...thinks about all the isolated, exiled people who are now safely together. He thinks about Tarrou, and muses that Tarrou was separated from something he could not define, which was perhaps... (full context)
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...is transferring peas from one pot to another as usual. The old man comments on Tarrou’s death, saying that the best always die. He also remarks on the pride the townspeople... (full context)
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Rieux goes up onto the terrace where Tarrou had told his life story. Rieux listens to the public rejoicing and is inclined to... (full context)