The narrator, who is at this point unnamed, begins by describing the city of Oran, a port town on the French Algerian coast of northern Africa. Oran is an ugly town whose occupants are mostly concerned with making money and then spending it on mild pleasures. Overall the narrator emphasizes the town’s general banality, although it has an interesting location, resting atop a plateau over a bay, though it “turns its back” on the water.
At the end of the novel the narrator will reveal himself as Dr. Rieux, but he remains unnamed to try to keep his chronicle objective. Despite this, he begins the story by describing Oran in a sardonic way, emphasizing the hollowness of its citizens’ lives as they follow the same preset routines of love, work, and entertainment. The sea is often a positive symbol in Camus’ writing, so it is significant that Oran turns its back on it, caught up in its own habits.
The narrator promises to reveal his identity later, but for now he wishes to remain objective and distant in chronicling the events that befell Oran during a certain year in the 1940s. He reveals his credentials as narrator by stating that he himself was witness to many of these events, and the rest he heard or read from other firsthand witness.
Camus will later develop the theme of the impossibility of true communication through language, but Rieux still seeks to convey objective truth by writing a detached, journalistic chronicle of the plague. The plague takes place in the 1940s, in the first parallel between the epidemic and WWII, particularly the German occupation of France.
The narrator then launches into the events themselves, beginning with a morning in April. Dr. Bernard Rieux steps out of surgery and finds a dead rat on the landing of his apartment. He mentions it to the concierge, M. Michel, who denies that there could be any rats in the building, and insists that someone must have left the dead rat there as a prank.
The plague is foreshadowed by the sinister omen of the dead rats. It is telling that M. Michel denies the first rat, just as the people will try to deny the plague for as long as possible. The rats first appear as symbols of the darker side of humanity and the Absurd, the side that humans try to ignore.
That evening Dr. Rieux sees another rat in front of his apartment, this one still alive but with blood spurting from its mouth. Dr. Rieux doesn’t pay it much attention, as he is reminded that his wife, who has been ill for a year, is leaving town the next day to go to a sanatorium.
Dr. Rieux experiences a lover’s separation even before the plague, when there will be a collective feeling of exile and separation from absent loved ones. The dying rats prefigure the suffering that will soon come to Oran.
The next day M. Michel reports that he found three more dead rats, but he has been holding them out as people walk by in the hopes that the pranksters will give themselves away by smiling. Dr. Rieux goes to visit his asthma patient, an old Spaniard who stays in bed all day with two pots of dried peas in his lap. The old man declares that the rats are coming out, and he says that the cause is hunger.
The asthma patient will become an example of the absurdity of life (as he spends all day transferring peas from one bucket to another) and as a sort of mouthpiece for the whims of the public. “Hunger” is no explanation for blood spurting from rats’ mouths, but it shows people’s need to “rationalize” the ominous rat epidemic.
More people are talking about the dead rats around town, but Dr. Rieux is distracted by his wife, who is leaving. Rieux tries to apologize for not looking after her better, but she stops him and says she is hoping to come back healed and make a new start. As she leaves on the train she starts to cry, but Rieux stops her. When he leaves the platform Rieux sees M. Othon, the severe-looking police magistrate, who is with his small son, and who briefly asks Rieux about the rats.
Much of the dialogue between characters in the novel is sparse and restrained like this, which creates a feeling of a struggle to communicate. The inner lives of the characters are much richer than anything they are able to express through words.
That afternoon, a young journalist named Raymond Rambert calls on Dr. Rieux. Rambert wants to discuss his latest report on the sanitary conditions among the Arab population of Oran. Dr. Rieux first wants to make sure Rambert will be able to tell the “unqualified” truth, and when Rambert hesitates Rieux refuses to give him a statement. Rambert is impressed by the doctor’s principles, and as they leave Rieux refers him to the story of the dead rats.
Camus introduces the main characters before the plague appears and draws them together. Rieux shows a kind of world-weariness here, as he has no time or energy for games and half-truths, but at the same time he reveals his strong principles and practical beliefs – Rambert will get the truth or nothing at all.
Later that day Dr. Rieux passes Jean Tarrou, a man who he has seen before visiting the Spanish dancers who live in Rieux’s apartment. Tarrou is watching a rat convulse and die on the stairwell, and he and the doctor briefly discuss the rat situation. As he leaves the apartment, Rieux talks to M. Michel, who is still distressed about the rats and is starting to feel ill.
Tarrou first appears here as a curious observer of plague, a role he will continue to play. M. Michel is the first victim of plague, and it is ironic that he is also the one most personally upset by the dead rats – although this is what led him to hold them and probably get their plague-bearing fleas.
The next day Dr. Rieux’s mother comes to stay with him to look after the house while his wife is away. She is a calming presence for him, but Rieux is still concerned about the rats. He calls Mercier, the man in charge of pest control for the city, and strongly urges him to deal with the situation.
Rieux takes a similar no-nonsense approach as he did with Rambert. Mme. Rieux will become a sort of anti-plague for the doctor, as she remains calm and kind and never seems touched by the epidemic.
The narrator steps back and says that it was from that day forward that the public began to grow uneasy, as the numbers of dying rats continued to increase. People demand some action, so the city government sends trucks out to gather the rat bodies and incinerate them. Yet each day more rats emerge from cellars and gutters to die with blood in their mouths.
The sinister epidemic of dying rats would seem like an obvious warning, but the townspeople show the human desire to ignore the Absurd – the plague, or the cruel meaninglessness of life – and maintain their habits and peace of mind.
The phenomenon takes on a menacing feeling and the public begins to panic, but on the day after 8,000 rat bodies are gathered up the situation abruptly disappears. That same day, however, Dr. Rieux sees M. Michel looking very sickly and being escorted home by Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest. Rieux briefly examines M. Michel and finds that he is feverish and that his neck, armpits, and groin have developed hard, painful swellings. Rieux sends him home and promises to visit him that afternoon.
As they simply wanted the grotesque situation gotten rid of, the public is relieved that there are no more rats, even though it is a sign that the real human plague has begun. M. Michel’s swellings, known as “buboes,” are symptoms of the bubonic plague, the same disease that caused millions of deaths throughout history, particularly during the “Black Death” period in Europe.
Later that day Dr. Rieux gets a call from a former patient of his, Joseph Grand, saying that his neighbor has had an accident. When Rieux arrives, he discovers that the neighbor, Cottard, has tried to hang himself. Rieux examines Cottard and says that he will have to inform the police as a formality, but this clearly distresses Cottard. Grand offers to stay with him that night in case he becomes suicidal again.
More characters are introduced. This seemingly random smattering of men will be brought together by the plague. Cottard tries to commit suicide, which in the absurdist worldview is a viable option in dealing with the Absurd, but is ultimately the path of cowardice.
Dr. Rieux visits M. Michel again to find that his condition has worsened. He is now vomiting and extremely thirsty, and the ganglia (hard swellings) on his neck and limbs have grown and darkened. Rieux calls his colleague Dr. Richard, who says he has also had two patients with similar symptoms. That night M. Michel grows more feverish, babbling about the rats. The next morning his fever has dropped, but then it suddenly rockets back up. Dr. Rieux calls an ambulance, but M. Michel dies on the way to the hospital.
These will become the all-too familiar symptoms of the plague – the swellings, the thirst, and the fever that drops one morning but then returns with fatal results. M. Michel’s last words – cursing the rats – creates an even greater sense of foreboding and impending calamity, and also cements the link between the rats, which people tried to ignore, and the plague that will change their lives.
The narrator marks M. Michel’s death as the end of the “first period” of the plague, when the town still tried to pretend nothing was wrong. The narrator then reintroduces Jean Tarrou, who is a visitor to Oran. Tarrou lives in a hotel and makes detailed, inquisitive notes about daily life in the town. The narrator gives some examples, as Tarrou is a good chronicler of the earliest days of the plague. More people succumb to the same sickness as M. Michel in the days following his death, and the public grows more frightened.
Rieux tries to flesh out his journalistic narrative (which is actually quite philosophical) with another source in Tarrou's observations. Tarrou displays a curious inquisitiveness and an eye for mundane details. Rieux’s original description of the people of Oran is confirmed by their initial, selfish reaction to the outbreak of plague – trying to ignore it or deny it until the last possible moment.
Tarrou describes an old man who lives across from him, who comes out onto his balcony every afternoon and drops some torn up pieces of paper into the street to lure the stray cats below. When a cat approaches, the old man spits at it, and if he hits his target he looks delighted. Tarrou then muses about random things – such as how not to waste time by experiencing something boring or unpleasant, and so appreciating the passing minutes – and when he returns to the old man, it is to say that the cats have recently disappeared, and the old man seems depressed.
This old man is a symbol of Camus’ absurdist universe. His actions seem ridiculous and meaningless, but this only emphasizes how all human action is ultimately meaningless. We are all doomed to die, there is no order in the Absurd, so we must create our own meaning – even if it is gaining happiness by spitting on cats – to find any kind of peace or purpose in life.
Tarrou records some conversations about the rats and the mysterious illness, and then he describes a family of four who dine at his hotel. The father, M. Othon, is severe and disagreeable, and Tarrou compares him to an owl, his wife to a mouse, and his two small children to performing poodles. Tarrou records a conversation with the hotel manager, who is dismayed by the dead rats and upset that the outbreak of fever has made his hotel just like “everybody else.” He says one of his chambermaids has it, but he is certain it isn’t contagious. Tarrou then describes Dr. Rieux, which the narrator includes to add accuracy to the narrative.
Tarrou’s seemingly mundane observations show how the townspeople initially react to the plague – that is, the Absurd. M. Othon, the extreme of conservativeness, sticks to his tradition and routine as if nothing is wrong. The wealthy, like the hotel manager, are still concerned with maintaining their social status and fear the “equality” that plague might bring. Everyone is in obvious danger, but as the citizens could ignore the rats, so the manager can pretend the disease isn’t contagious.
The narrator returns to his own account, and describes Dr. Rieux’s calls to Dr. Richard, who is also head of the local medical association, and to some of his other colleagues. Rieux urges Richard to put any new cases with the strange disease into isolation wards, but Richard says the Prefect must issue such an order, so he deflects the concern.
Dr. Richard shares Rieux’s job, but he takes a different approach to the plague. Richard prefers the government’s (and ultimately the citizens’ as well) approach of delaying until the last minute, hoping the plague will not get worse.
The weather grows rainy and damp and the whole town feels feverish and exhausted, except for Rieux’s Spanish patient, who welcomes it for his asthma. Rieux returns to check on Grand and Cottard, and he waits in Grand’s room for the police inspector to show up. While they wait Grand says that he has been practicing Latin, and that he did not know Cottard very well.
The weather is often linked to the plague in the novel, as the hot weather coincides with its peak and the coming of winter with its decline. But this is just another example of the Absurd, as the weather is just as unordered and unconcerned with humanity as disease is.
The police inspector arrives and Grand grows very anxious choosing the right words for his statement about Cottard. He settles on the phrase “a secret grief” to describe Cottard’s troubles. The inspector then questions Cottard, who appears very nervous and complains that he is being disturbed. The inspector replies that it is Cottard who is disturbing the peace of others.
From the start Cottard is paranoid and fears punishment – another kind of plague – as he has committed some crime in the past. Grand starts to exhibit his preoccupation with language. Through him Camus will develop the idea that true communication is impossible, but that it is still vital to keep trying.
More people come down with the mysterious illness, and Dr. Rieux visits them to lance the swellings on their necks, groins, and armpits. A mixture of blood and pus comes out, and most of the sick people die painfully. The newspapers, which have wildly reported about the rats, remain silent on the disease.
As the newspapers remain silent, the public still collectively tries to deny the growing epidemic. Camus emphasizes the suffering of the plague victims and the horror of the disease, which is the potential horror of the Absurd and the human condition.
Dr. Castel, one of Dr. Rieux’s older colleagues, visits him and they discuss the illness. They both think it is bubonic plague, but they are afraid to name it, and Castel predicts that the government will try to deny it to avoid alarming people. Rieux agrees – the common myth is that the plague had vanished from “temperate climates,” but in reality there was an outbreak in Paris just twenty years before. Rieux hopes that this outbreak will not be as bad as others.
This is the first time the word “plague” is spoken, and Rieux notes the importance of the moment. While true communication is impossible through language, words and the lack thereof still have power. Fear of the word “plague” and the silence of the newspapers makes the epidemic even more ominous in its namelessness.
The narrator notes the importance of the word “plague” being spoken for the first time. He says that plagues, like wars, have always existed among humans, yet we manage to be surprised every time a new one comes. Even though Rieux has seen several people die already, he is still caught unawares just like most of the populace – no one believes it could really happen to them. The people of Oran continue to go about their business, confident that nothing too terrible could be coming.
Rieux makes the first explicit connection between war and plague. Many critics see the plague as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France in WWII, when Camus himself fought and wrote for the French Resistance. Rieux is writing this in hindsight, and admits that he too shared the human trait of trying to deny the Absurd. Death is inevitable for everyone, but it still always comes as a surprise.
Dr. Rieux recalls what he has read about the disease, and tries to make sense of the horrifying statistics. He finds he cannot even comprehend the idea of a hundred million deaths – the result of the worst plagues – and he tries imagining such numbers as individual faces, or the physical length of each body. Rieux looks out the window at the tranquil sky and imagines scenes of death and destruction throughout history. He braces himself, and resolves to do what must be done to fight the plague.
Rieux’s imaginings of plague – like the book he could have written, had he not tried to remain objective – are sentimental and grandiose, while the chronicle will show that the true horror of plague is its crushing banality and inevitability. Rieux shows his practical courage by banishing these grand images and focusing on what needs to be done – the immediate measures that must be taken to slow the epidemic.
Joseph Grand visits Dr. Rieux, as it is his job (as a Municipal clerk) to count up the daily deaths, and he is accompanied by Cottard. Grand tells Rieux that the numbers of deaths are going up. Rieux offers that they accompany him to the laboratory and “call this disease by its name,” but Grand excuses himself, as he must return home to work on some secretive activity. After he leaves, Rieux tries to imagine a man like Grand in a time of plague, and feels sure that he would survive.
Camus presents Grand as an anti-hero, a mediocre, strange sort of everyman who still contains the practical goodness and daily heroism that is the best response to plague (or the absurdity of life). Rieux recognizes the importance of the plague’s name, but even he still seems afraid to say it and create panic.
The narrator describes Grand, who is tall and thin and wears clothes that are too big for him. When he accepted his menial job twenty-two years before, he was promised a promotion to a better-paying position. But by the time Grand became dissatisfied with his continuing low salary, the head of his department had died and Grand himself could not remember the terms of his agreement. He can never seem to express himself or get things done because he can never “find his words.” He weighed each word obsessively before trying to write a letter of protest to his job, and in the end the letter was never written.
Grand’s defining characteristic, other than his humanity, is his inability to express himself. He weighs each word interminably, and has missed out on large opportunities in life because of his lack of language. With this theme Camus associates the world of language with the absurd universe, as it is impossible to find the perfect words to truly communicate between two souls, but we must still keep struggling to do so.
Grand eventually settled into his austere lifestyle. He still experienced deep emotions and performed kind acts, but could never properly express himself. He brings up his struggle with words every time he sees Dr. Rieux. Back in the present, Rieux watches Grand leave and intuits that Grand is writing a book of some kind. He feels vaguely comforted, as Grand and his eccentricities seem like the antithesis of plague.
Rieux already recognizes Grand as the potential “hero” of the story. He sees that the battle against plague will not consist of heroic acts, but of everyday courage and a strength drawn from finding one’s own meaning in life. At the same time Rieux allows himself to indulge the idea that the plague will act rationally, and spare harmless citizens like Grand.
The next day Dr. Rieux convinces the government to call a meeting about the health situation, and he wires to Paris to request a plague serum. The doctors meet with the Prefect, and Rieux and Castel are the strongest voices urging immediate action and insisting that the illness is the plague. Dr. Richard drags his feet, saying they are still unsure, and the Prefect also wants to continue with the “wait and see” policy. Rieux insists, saying that half the population could be killed. Finally the doctors agree to officially declare the epidemic as plague, and the Prefect agrees to take preventative measures.
The other doctors act like the public did with the rat situation – everyone wants someone else to deal with the problem, so that no one has to grow alarmed or disrupt the status quo. Dr. Rieux is again practical and forward, as his concern is saving as many lives as possible – it doesn’t matter if the plague is the precise bubonic plague of history, what matters is that it might take thousands of lives.
After that the newspapers begin to discreetly mention the disease, but the authorities do not take much immediate action. A few official notices warning of fever appear, but not in any well-attended areas. The basic government response consists of exterminating the rats and sending anyone with a fever to a special isolation ward of the hospital. Meanwhile the death toll continues to rise.
The “preventative measures” seem more designed to appease Rieux and Castel (and the public fear of the rats) than to actually protect the town from plague. Despite the facts, humans always prefer to deny plague and imagine that their ordered existence will continue unobstructed by the Absurd.
Dr. Rieux visits Grand again and asks him about Cottard. Grand says that Cottard has been acting strangely gregarious lately, as if trying to make allies out of people around town. Grand and Rieux guess that Cottard has some serious crime weighing on his conscience, and he is trying to protect himself from punishment.
Cottard already suffers from the “plague” of guilt and fear of punishment, so he will show an affinity with the epidemic later. Grand and Cottard are both examples of ineffective communication – Grand labors over writing alone in his room, while Cottard only makes friends to try and protect himself from arrest.
The plague serum still has not come, and Dr. Rieux finally realizes that he himself is feeling afraid. Like Cottard, he feels the need for random human contact. He then visits Cottard, who acts strangely paranoid about people “taking an interest in him,” and asks the doctor if he could be arrested while at the hospital. They then discuss the epidemic, and Cottard suddenly shouts that the town needs an earthquake.
Though in many ways a unique figure, Dr. Rieux still feels the shifts of emotion that the plague brings to Oran. The sense of fear and isolation comes with a need for human contact, while at the same time there is constant distrust of other people. This is like Cottard, already “plague-stricken,” seeking out friends but suspicious of everyone.
All day Dr. Rieux visits patients who seem almost hostile to his presence, and he feels more weighed down by his work than ever before. He visits his asthma patient at night, and the old man excitedly suggests that the epidemic is cholera. Rieux sits in the old man’s dining room and thinks about how the government’s precautions are woefully inadequate, unless the plague should suddenly die out on its own.
The asthma patient acts as a mouthpiece for the general public here, as he completely misses the mark in diagnosing the illness. The government can only act in hindsight, as people continue to assume that an epidemic will act rationally.
Dr. Rieux keeps pressing Richard and the Prefect to take more drastic measures in dealing with the plague, but they continue to drag their feet. After the epidemic increases to more than thirty deaths a day, the Prefect agrees to enforce more sanitation and quarantine regulations. The serum arrives, but it is only enough for immediate cases.
Plagues, like wars, are not rational in the random suffering and death they cause, but humans still assume that no catastrophe will disrupt their ordered world – even though wars and plagues appear constantly throughout history.
The weather grows warm and clear, and from the outside it seems like a normal spring in Oran. People continue to live their lives as they usually do, and they go about their business pretending nothing is wrong. Suddenly the death toll spikes sharply upward and the Prefect declares a state of plague, and orders that the town must be closed off and quarantined.