The Plague

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Language and Communication 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.
Language and Communication Theme Icon

While The Plague is a tale of absurdist philosophy, it is also a novel with living characters and a deeply human story, and Camus’ writing is potent in its imagery of suffering, despair, and courage. The chronicle’s unknown narrator eventually reveals himself as Dr. Rieux, who has been trying to take a more detached view of the plague. This is a reflection of Camus himself, who describes the calamity of Oran objectively, without romanticizing the suffering or heroism or preaching any moral lessons, except that humans must always do battle with plague.

Within the narrative, other characters also struggle with language and communication just as they struggle with disease. Grand, the most important example, is constantly trying to write a book but is never satisfied with even the first sentence, and he is incapable of justifying himself to his ex-wife because he can’t find the right words for a letter. Grand’s efforts often act as comedic relief, but they also serve as a kind of artistic struggle against the Absurd in communication. There is no hope of ever truly knowing or communicating with another soul, but Grand still defiantly keeps seeking that perfect sentence. The dialogue between other characters is also sparse and implies a struggle to communicate, as Rieux and his mother can never speak of their mutual affection, and Rieux and Tarrou must awkwardly confirm their friendship. Camus seems to say that the world of language is just as vast and unknowable as the universe, but we must still try to make connections between people.

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Language and Communication ThemeTracker

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Language and Communication Quotes in The Plague

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

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.


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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

Grand, too, had suffered. And he, too, might – as Rieux pointed out – have made a fresh start. But no, he had lost faith. Only, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. What he’d have liked to do was to write her a letter justifying himself.
“But it’s not easy,” he told Rieux. “I’ve been thinking it over for years. While we loved each other we didn’t need words to make ourselves understood. But people don’t love forever. A time came when I should have found the words to keep her with me – only I couldn’t.”

Related Characters: Dr. Bernard Rieux (speaker), Joseph Grand (speaker)
Page Number: 82-83
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn a little about Grand's past. As a younger man, Grand fell in love with and married a woman named Jeanne. Eventually, though, their love fell apart, and Jeanne abandoned Grand. Grand continues to look back on his time with Jeanne fondly--furthermore, he seems to recognize the role of language in the deterioration of their marriage.

Nietzsche said, "That for which we have words is already dead in our hearts." Camus seems to agree: the things that we have the power to talk about are somehow lifeless and meaningless. Language is supposed to be a tool for expressing our inner feelings, yet here Grand suggests that his and Jeanne's inner feelings can never be put into words. Thus Grand's farcical attempt to always "finds the right words" is actually heroic and very human.

“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.)

“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 5 Quotes

…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.