The Plague

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Absurdism Theme Icon
Suffering and Death Theme Icon
Heroism and Defiance Theme Icon
Language and Communication Theme Icon
Exile and Imprisonment Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Plague, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Absurdism Theme Icon

The Plague is essentially a philosophical novel, meaning that it forwards a particular worldview through its plot and characterization. Camus is often considered an existentialist, but the philosophy he most identified with and developed was called absurdism. At its most basic, this philosophy holds that the universe is absurd and meaningless – there is no God or cosmic order – and that humans are doomed to suffer and die. Because of this situation, humans have three options in life: to commit suicide, to make a “leap of faith” and choose to believe in a divine entity or order, or to accept the Absurd and create one’s own meaning in life. Camus advocated this third choice, as the first option is a kind of cowardice and the second is a psychological lie that Camus even compared to suicide.

In The Plague, the besieged town becomes a microcosm of the universe, and the different characters illustrate different ways humans deal with the Absurd – that is, the plague. Cottard first tries to commit suicide (because of his guilt, another kind of plague) and then works with the epidemic, profiting off of others’ suffering. Father Paneloux tries to assign order to the plague (as a punishment from God), but when he is faced with the true nature of the Absurd through watching a child die, Paneloux loses his faith and succumbs to disease himself. The protagonists of the novel, Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou, live and struggle in the way that Camus advocates. They recognize the Absurd (the power of the plague and their own inevitable doom) but still work ceaselessly against it, finding meaning in healing others.

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Absurdism Quotes in The Plague

Below you will find the important quotes in The Plague related to the theme of Absurdism.
Part 1 Quotes

Michel’s death marked, one might say, the end of the first period, that of bewildering portents, and the beginning of another, relatively more trying, in which the perplexity of the early days gave place to panic… Our townsfolk realized that they had never dreamed it possible that our little town should be chosen out for such grotesque happenings as the wholesale death of rats in broad daylight or the decease of concierges through exotic maladies… Still, if things had gone thus far and no farther, force of habit would doubtless have gained the day, as usual.

Related Characters: M. Michel
Related Symbols: Rats
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the novel, the plague comes to the seaside town of Oran. At first, the people of the community are in denial of the plague's very existence. A hotel concierge, M. Michel, is the first to die of the plague--and at that point, the people can no longer deny that they have a problem.

What's interesting about the community's response to the plague, we should keep in mind, is that they don't get wind of the problem sooner. Only when they have no other choice but to recognize the danger do the people change their behavior. Furthermore, we're told that the people would have returned to their ordinary lives had only M. Michel (and all the city's rats) died--their desire for normality is so great that they only change their routine in a moment of utter crisis. The passage is representative, then, of the force of "momentum" in human civilization. Humans refuse to accept the fundamental absurdity and danger of the universe--they cling to their habits and routines to distract themselves from what, deep down, they know to be true.


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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.

The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise – since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the majority of the townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux
Page Number: 36-37
Explanation and Analysis:

For the first time in the novel, a character uses the world "plague." It's as if the full measure of the danger to the town of Oran didn't exist until people gave it a name. The doctor, Bernard Rieux (who, we later learn, is the true narrator of the novel), is baffled, along with everybody else, by the arrival of the plague. It's worth understanding why.

History is full of plagues--and yet each new plague surprises humanity. Humans are so desperate for order and unity that they can't accept the basic truth: their lives are always in some kind of danger. As soon as a danger like a plague passes, humans forget all about it, deluding themselves into believing that their civilization will last forever. In short, the plague brings out the deep truths that most people, Bernard included, would prefer not to accept. By the end of the novel, Bernard seems to have reached his own peace with the plague; he realizes that humans have to face directly the chaos and looming death in their lives.

And this difficulty in finding his words had come to be the bane of his life. “Oh, Doctor,” he would exclaim, “how I’d like to learn to express myself!” He brought the subject up each time he met Rieux.
That evening, as he watched Grand’s receding form… He realized how absurd it was, but he simply couldn’t believe that a pestilence on the great scale could befall a town where people like Grand were to be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities.

Related Characters: Joseph Grand (speaker), Dr. Bernard Rieux
Page Number: 46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Joseph Grand, a lowly clerk whose life is perhaps the most absurd of anyone in the town of Oran (except for the man who spits on cats). Physically, Grand is a comical figure--he wears clothing that's a little too big for his body. Furthermore, Grand finds it very difficult to express himself--he spends his life trying to write a book, but only ever revises the first sentence constantly. He also wants to justify himself to his ex-wife, who left him, but doesn't because he feels he can never find the right words.

Although it's easy to laugh at Grand, Camus is sympathetic to him, and sees in Grand the strengths and weaknesses of the human race. Humans simply lack the capacity to explain their feelings to other people. Language is our only weapon against chaos--and yet, when we need it most (i.e., when a plague hits), language fails us. But it's crucial that--like Camus, and the farcical Grand--we keep trying to explain the chaos of the universe with language.

On another level, Rieux's thoughts on Grand further show how our human sense of order and civilization serves to distract us from the absurd reality of the universe. Grand is a farcical figure, but also familiar and somehow comforting--his existence is a sign that Oran is the kind of place where such "obscure" and "harmless" men can live out their lives in peace. This small vision of life is then contrasted with the massive, uncaring plague--something that seems to exist in an altogether different universe from Grand and his futile search for the right words. Yet both Grand and the plague exist in the same world--and it's this fact, Camus argues, this clash between the absurd and the human will, that we must constantly be confronting.

Part 2 Quotes

One grows out of pity when it’s useless. And in this feeling that his heart had slowly closed in on itself, the doctor found a solace, his only solace, for the almost unendurable burden of his days… To fight abstraction you must have something of it in your own make-up.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the novel, Dr. Rieux has begun treating the plague, only to realize that there's really nothing he can do to fight it--all his medicine and education is powerless to defeat the sheer destructive force of the disease. And yet the doctor doesn't give up. He devotes all his time to fighting the plague. He's so intent on defeating the plague that it occupies his entire consciousness, to the point where he doesn't even show pity or compassion for his patients.

The simple reason why the doctor doesn't pity his victims is that pity is useless in such a situation--it's a mere distraction from medicine. Rieux's explanation might seem pretty callous and even cruel (surely his patients would benefit from getting a little comfort or kindness from their doctor, if only to ease their final moments of life). But perhaps Rieux sees something disingenuous about pity itself. By showing pity for his victims, he would be accepting defeat--thus, it's because he continues to fight the plague that he doesn't show emotions of any kind. Furthermore, we're told that Rieux behaves abstractly--that is, he treats the plague as an entity itself, something that he is battling on an ideological as well as physical level. Rieux's idea is somewhat like that of a vaccination: in order to fight the enormous, indifferent forces of destruction, he has to become a little indifferent himself.

“If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.”

Related Characters: Father Paneloux (speaker)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, an authority figure, a priest named Father Paneloux, tries to offer the people of Oran comfort and reassurance in the face of the plague. Paneloux offers a rather frustrating "explanation" for the plague: it's a punishment from God. Those who are good and moral have nothing to fear from the disease (or from dying from it, as they will be rewarded with Heaven); those who are wicked, however, are either dead and in Hell already, or will soon be.

Paneloux's sermon is indicative of the kind of reasoning that many religions use to offer comfort to their followers. Life is full of pain and chaos, we know--religion tells us that we can overcome chaos by being righteous, pious people, or by following a set of rules or beliefs. Paneloux's speech doesn't offer any concrete reassurances or comforts: instead, he offers the "comfort" of meaning. The simple fact is that the plague has no meaning--and that is its true horror. Paneloux tries to swap morality for meaninglessness--a futile but perhaps heroic struggle. In the face of an indifferent, destructive world, humans try to tell stories to make themselves feel better--religion may be the best story of all.

Grand went on talking, but Rieux failed to follow all the worthy man was saying. All he gathered was that the work he was engaged on ran to a great many pages, and he was at almost excruciating pains to bring it to perfection. “Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction!”

Related Characters: Joseph Grand (speaker), Dr. Bernard Rieux
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Joseph's Grand's quixotic project: a book that expresses itself perfectly, in which every word is ideal. Grand puts so much time into his book that, so far, he's only on the first sentence. He struggles with his book all the time, often spending hours on a single word--which he often crosses out in the end. Grand's struggle for literary immortality is slow, and also comically futile. (And the sentence itself isn't even very good.) And yet he keeps writing.

Camus seems to see something both heroic and absurd in Grand's actions. Much as the other characters embark on folly-filled projects of their own (like Dr. Rieux's practically-useless attempts to cure the plague), Grand has the courage to aim for something impossible, and never give up. (The fact that Camus himself is a writer, and often spent long amounts of time on a few sentences, is another sign that he admires Grand's fortitude, and even sees something of himself in Grand.)

“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.

Those who enrolled in the “sanitary squads,” as they were called, had, indeed, no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it. These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men’s duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker)
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

As the plague continues to ravage the town, a group of men puts together a sanitation squad whose duty is to fight the plague by keeping the town clean. Camus has no illusions about such a group: he admits that they don't necessarily accomplish anything concrete by trying to fight the plague. And yet the squad accomplishes one very useful thing; it spreads the message that all human beings in the community should be concerned with the plague--it's everybody's responsibility. There's nothing "heroic" about struggling to protect others from plague. Rather, it's just common decency.

The passage is indicative of Camus's absurdist, abstract thinking. Even if there's no way to ward off death or chaos itself--i.e., no way to fight off the plague--it's worthwhile to acknowledge death and continue to struggle against it. By accepting the role of death in the universe, people create a community for themselves, defined by a mutual acceptance of destruction. In a way, everybody in the town of Oran already knows, albeit deep down, that the plague is going to kill them. The sanitation squad, then, isn't giving out any new information--it's just helping people come to terms with the truth about the disease, and (hopefully) encouraging them to do the most human thing possible and fight against it.

Part 3 Quotes

No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker)
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

As the history of the plague drags on, people come to realize a few things about their community. There's no sense in celebrating hierarchy or social status anymore, since sooner or later everybody is going to be "equal"--i.e., equally dead. The implication seems to be that there was never any point to a social hierarchy--all hierarchy is just a fragile illusion, designed to distract people from their common mortality.

The plague is a great social equalizer, and yet it creates some new feelings of tension and revolt in the town. The people have a hard time accepting that they're all going to die soon--as a result, they lash out, both against the plague itself and against each other. Humans have a hard time accepting the harsh truth about themselves, and they compensate with prejudices and delusions.

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. 

“I understand,” Paneloux said in a low voice. “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.”
Rieux straightened up slowly…
“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), Father Paneloux (speaker)
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

How should human beings react when evil things happen to good people--when, for instance, innocent children die of a horrible disease? For Camus, there are a couple different responses. One potential response is represented in the character of Father Paneloux, the priest who urges his followers to accept the plague as God's punishment. Paneloux's ideas are characteristic of many organized religions, which accept that evil and suffering are just part of God's plan--i.e., pain is, in the long term, "good."

Camus--and the character whose beliefs are closest to his own, Dr. Rieux--refuses to celebrate or love a God who allows children to die in pain. Camus has some respect for Paneloux, because--just like everybody else in the novel--he tries to find meaning in a meaningless world. And yet Paneloux seems rather cowardly in the way he accepts pain, rather than fighting back against it. Rieux tries to fight the plague, rather than accept it, as Paneloux seems to do.

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.

…Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel draws to an end, we're told that the book we've just finished was written by Dr. Rieux himself. Rieux has witnessed some horrifying things; people have tried to fight against the plague, and lost. And yet, at the last minute the plague retreats, as suddenly and meaninglessly as it arrived.

Rieux is faced with a challenge: what sort of book should he write about the plague? Should it be happy or sad? Should there be an optimistic ending or not? In the end, Rieux seems to opt for a heroic account of the plague--an account that inspires people to keep struggling in the hopes that their example will inspire others to even greater acts of heroism and dignity. Rieux, if nothing else, is an admirer of human beings--he thinks that for all humans' faults, they're good, noble creatures, capable of almost anything. Rather than allow the plague to retreat into history (like to many other plagues), Rieux will use literature and language to communicate the story of the plague to others. Rieux wants humans to accept their own mortality and fight against it, rather than try to escape it or distract themselves from it.