The Plague

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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.
Heroism and Defiance Theme Icon

Despite the enormity of suffering and death in the world and the seeming omnipotence of the plague, there are instances of heroism and altruistic struggle as well. Camus immediately undercuts the “heroic” efforts of the volunteer groups by declaring that to the fight the plague is the only decent, truly human thing to do, but this is because he believes that humans are generally good. These “heroes” fit into his idea of Absurdism, as in the face of a harsh, uncaring universe, one must struggle to help others and “fight the plague,” even if defeat is inevitable. This kind of struggle in the face of certain death is a possible definition of heroism, however, so Camus is proposing a kind of heroism in everyday life – to embrace the Absurd, but at the same time to struggle hopelessly against it.

The anti-plague sanitation squad is the most concrete example of this kind of defiance, and the most sympathetic characters of the novel try hard to be “healers” rather than merely “pestilences” or “victims,” as Tarrou says. Rieux, the central protagonist, does not have a concrete philosophical or religious reason for struggling against the plague, but he knows that he must struggle, and Camus implies that this is the most important thing. Grand is the only character that Camus explicitly calls heroic. This might be because Grand is a sort of mediocre everyman, but he also joins the anti-plague effort and inspires others to defiance.

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Heroism and Defiance Quotes in The Plague

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

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.


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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.

“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 4 Quotes

“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.

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.)

“I’m afraid I did not make myself clear. I’m told there are some voluntary workers from government offices in that camp… It would keep me busy, you see. And also – I know it may sound absurd, but I’d feel less separated from my little boy.”
Rieux stared at him. Could it be that a sudden gentleness showed in those hard, inexpressive eyes?

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), M. Othon (speaker)
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, M. Othon, a judge and a symbol of order and tyranny, is released from his mandatory quarantine period. Surprisingly, Othon asks to be sent back into the quarantine facilities, despite the fact that he could be risking his life to do so. Othon wants to be close to his son, Jacques, who has recently died from the plague. The passage is interesting for a couple reasons. Othon, who'd always been perceived as a hard, cruel figure, seems to have softened in the face of the plague and his son's loss--he just wants to feel a connection with his lost family. Suffering, if nothing else, brings new humanity and compassion to even the cruelest and harshest human beings.

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.