The Plague

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Exile and Imprisonment Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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.
Exile and Imprisonment Theme Icon

The plague simultaneously exiles and imprisons the town of Oran, and its closed gates leave many citizens separated from their loved ones. Rambert and Rieux are both separated by the quarantine from the women they love, and Rambert, a foreigner, is exiled from his own home as well. Camus also describes the townspeople’s feelings of exile as the plague progresses: first everyone wants to speed up time and end the plague, or they work ceaselessly (like Rambert) to escape and rejoin their lost loved one, while later many citizens give up hope or live in fantasies of regret and longing. For others like Tarrou, their exile is a separation from an idea, a sense of happiness, or a peace that Tarrou only finds in his last struggle against death.

The closed gates of Oran also lead to a sense of imprisonment within the town itself. Many critics have compared the plague to war, and the quarantine of Oran to the German occupation of France in WWII. There are many examples of this in the novel, such as the martial law imposed on the town, the mass graves, and Camus’ own experiences working for the French Resistance against the Nazis. Like an occupied town, the plague makes Oran a microcosm of Camus’ absurd universe. The townspeople all suffer the same epidemic and experience similar kinds of exile and imprisonment, but they still distrust each other and feel alone in their suffering. Only those who accept the plague’s power and their own state of exile, but still struggle against it – like Rambert, who finally refuses to escape to his wife if he must escape as a coward – are able to find a personal sense of freedom.

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Exile and Imprisonment Quotes in The Plague

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

Moreover, the epidemic seemed to be on the wane; on some days only ten or so deaths were notified. Then, all of a sudden, the figure shot up again, vertically. On the day when the death-roll touched thirty, Dr. Rieux read an official telegram that the Prefect had just handed him, remarking: “So they’ve got alarmed at last.” The telegram ran: Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), The Prefect
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Even after the plague has arrived in Oran, the people try to deny its existence for as long as possible. People are dying all around them--and yet nobody seems particularly concerned, unless someone they know is dead. It's only at the very last moment, when the death roll shoots up enormously, that the town gets its act together. The political leadership (represented by the Prefect of the town) makes the decision to close off the town, and by the same token, the people seem to be taking the plague more seriously, too.

The passage is a good example of how law and order function in civilization. The main business of law and order, we could conclude from the passage, is to distract people from the chaos of the world, and to ignore chaos for as long as possible. The Prefect, quite aside from attending to his people's needs (as a good Prefect should, you'd think), drags his feet for as long as humanly possible before doing anything about his community's problems. Society's highest priority, we can see, isn't safety at all--it's order.


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Part 2 Quotes

Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the situation in Oran has gotten more serious. The plague has killed many of the town's citizens, and the town's gates have been shut to the outside world. We're told that the true result of the plague, at least at first, is exile. What does Camus mean by "exile?"

Literally, of course, the plague exiles the town from the rest of the world, and vice versa. People in Oran can't leave their community, for fear that they'd spread the plague to the rest of human society. Such a plot device allows Oran to stand in for all of civilization--the town is a microcosm for the world itself. Furthermore, Camus may mean "exile" in the sense of alienation. The people are isolated from each other, since they're often forced to stay in their homes, and fear that their neighbors may infect them with the plague. But they're also alienated from themselves--deprived of communities, they're forced to recognize the void inside each one of them.

At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer…

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker)
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're told how the people of the community respond to their forced exile. The people of Oran are unable to leave their community for any reason--yet it's not until Father Paneloux's sermon that they realize how trapped they really are.

The passage could be considered a critique of religion, as articulated in Father Paneloux's sermon (see quote above). Paneloux has told his followers that they're been imprisoned by God himself as a kind of ambiguous punishment. The knowledge that there's some logic to the plague--God is using disease to make his children into better people--is comforting in a narrow, limited sense. But it's also horrifying: the people have been told that they're being punished, but nobody knows what, exactly, the punishment is for. (As Camus later says, in being treated like criminals, they start to act like criminals.) In other words, religion does some good by providing a sense of order and meaning to the universe; and yet it also causes problems by filling people with an irrational sense of guilt and culpability.

Notice also that the passage mentions the "blue dome of the sky," as if life itself is just a big prison. In such a way, Camus emphasizes the microcosmic nature of the town of Oran--like it or not, we're all just trapped in our own mortality, at once totally free and totally imprisoned.

A system of patrols was instituted and often in the empty, sweltering streets, heralded by a clatter of horse hoofs on the cobbles, a detachment of mounted police would make its way between the parallel lines of close-shut windows. Now and again a gunshot was heard; the special brigade recently detailed to destroy cats and dogs, as possible carriers of infection, was at work. And these whipcrack sounds startling the silence increased the nervous tension already existing in the town.

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Camus's novel is at its most political. As the plague gets worse, the leaders of the community form patrol groups, whose duty is to round up the cats and dogs in the town and kill them. It's believed that cats and dogs spread the plague (through their fleas)--therefore, the patrol sees itself as saving the town by murdering the animals.

Camus gives no indication that the patrol groups' actions prevent or slow the spread of the plague in any way. And yet the patrol groups continue with their actions, perhaps just to have something to do. In times of crisis, human societies often turn to a scapegoat, whom they can blame for all of society's evil. Here, cats and dogs are the scapegoat--and we can tell that the patrols enjoy taking action in a helpless situation, getting their "revenge" on the animals by shooting them. (The passage is full of Holocaust imagery, possibly associating the patrol's actions with those of the German Gestapo, which rounded up and murdered millions of Jews, the convenient scapegoats for Germany's problems.)

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. 

Part 5 Quotes

And with his arms locked around her… he let his tears flow freely, unknowing if they rose from present joy or from sorrow too long repressed; aware only that they would prevent his making sure if the face buried in the hollow of his shoulder was the face of which he had dreamed so often or, instead, a stranger’s face. For the moment he wished to behave like all those others around him who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men’s hearts.

Related Characters: Raymond Rambert
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

Tarrou has died of the plague just as the epidemic is retreating. Rieux is so upset--upset that his brave friend is dead, and that he himself has been unable to do anything about it--that he cries bitterly. Rieux has spent almost the entire novel behavior stoically and collectedly--he's always argued that his detachment is a sign that he's still invested in actually healing people, rather than just feeling sorry for them.

Are Rieux's tears a sign that he's finally given up--that he's finally accepted defeat in the face of an unbeatable disease? Perhaps, but notice that even here, Rieux recognizes that it's important to respond to the plague in some way--he wishes that he could pretend, as many people do, that the plague can "come and go" without changing someone in an irrevocable way. At all times, Rieux wants to use his training to fight off the plague, even if only by telling made-up stories about it. Perhaps Rieux's tears are inevitable--no human being can repress his emotions forever; to do so would be a sign of inhumanity, or of not truly facing the suffering and death inherent in life.