The Plague

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Suffering and Death 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.
Suffering and Death Theme Icon

The rest of the themes generally follow as corollaries to Camus’ philosophy. In the novel the bubonic plague is a symbol of many things – the harsh, meaningless universe, the human condition, or war – but all of them mean suffering and death. The people of Oran deal with this meaningless suffering in various ways. At first they try to ignore or downplay it, and then they see it as a personal antagonist separating them from their loved ones. Some see it as divine punishment or a means to profit, and others eventually give up hope and succumb to what seems inevitable. Jacques, the young son of M. Othon, is the most poignant example of suffering and death in the novel. His torturous death is described in detail, and it ultimately leads Father Paneloux to doubt his faith in God. The novel is bleak and often crushing, as suffering and death loom constantly overhead, but it is through this that Camus reminds us of the potential horror of the human condition, and the need to confront it directly.

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Suffering and Death Quotes in The Plague

Below you will find the important quotes in The Plague related to the theme of Suffering and Death.
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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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.

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.

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.

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.)

“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.)

“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.

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.

…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.