Once the gates of the town are shut, the plague becomes everyone’s concern – no one is trying to ignore it anymore. People immediately react to their sudden isolation by yearning for their loved ones outside Oran. No is even allowed to write letters lest the plague spread through the mail. People can only send brief telegrams, and they soon give up this as well, as they cannot express much in only ten words.
Critics have compared the quarantine of Oran to the German occupation of France during WWII, and it is likely that Camus did draw on his war experiences for the novel. Both represent the cruel, meaningless catastrophes of life, and the suffering and death that is inevitable. The importance of communication becomes clear only when it is taken away.
Loved ones who are abroad may return to Oran, but then they cannot leave again, so no one is willing to put their lives in danger for the comfort of closeness. Only Dr. Castel’s wife returns to Oran to be with her husband. Other couples begin to be jealous of their lovers who are away, and give more thought and consideration to their relationship.
The closing of the town gates makes the plague everyone’s business, but the townspeople are still too wrapped up in themselves to see this. Instead of trying to ignore plague and stick to their habits, they now feel they are unique in their suffering and bereavement.
It is this feeling of exile that is the first result of the plague. People walk aimlessly about town, feeling like prisoners, but also like there is a void inside of them that they can only fill with nostalgic memories. People quickly stop trying to speculate how long the epidemic will last – if someone pessimistically assumes six months, they then realize that there is no reason it should not last even longer. When they think of the present they grow impatient and frustrated, the past brings them regret and longing, and the future is filled with uncertainty and despair.
Camus makes more comparisons between war and plague. The citizens feel both exiled and imprisoned, as they are separated from loved ones and normal life, but also trapped inside their own homes and unable to escape. Camus spends a lot of the book musing about the general public’s reaction to the Absurd – after the stage of denial comes this sentimentality and despair.
The narrator compares those exiled in their own town to those physically exiled like Rambert, who have only memories of their homes. Parted lovers grow remorseful of their past mistakes and think of how they could have done better. Each person becomes so preoccupied with his or her own personal suffering that they all feel alone and isolated, even though the whole town is in the same predicament. People find themselves unable to express their personal distress and feelings to each other. This selfish despair at least prevents a mass panic, however.
The importance of language again comes into play as the townspeople (like Grand) cannot “find the right words” to describe their suffering. They feel that if they spoke it aloud, their pain would become common and mundane. Instead people want to feel unique, like they are suffering more than and differently from others, when in reality the plague has become the human condition now, the natural state of existence in Oran.
At the gates and ports ships and travelers are being turned away, so that all commerce is halted by the plague. People first deal with the quarantine by growing irritated and abusing the government. They are unable to comprehend the daily number of deaths, as no one knows the usual death rate or likes to think about it, so people can still act as if the plague is something frustrating but temporary. The cafes and movie theaters are always full, as the public tries to occupy their lonely leisure and distract themselves from plague. People begin to drink heavily as well.
As when Rieux tried to imagine the astronomical death tolls of the plagues of history, the townspeople are unable to truly comprehend the deaths of their fellow citizens. In plague, like war, the suffering and death can take on such a massive scale that the mind balks at it. This is the Absurd that Camus confronts us with in the novel – a vast, meaningless, uncaring universe that we must deal with in some way.
Cottard is the only person who seems in a better mood because of the plague. He talks excitedly to Dr. Rieux about how long the epidemic might last. Grand also confesses his past to Rieux, explaining that when he was young he had married a poor girl named Jeanne. They fell in love while looking at a shop window at Christmas time. After they were married they continued to love each other, but they both had to work so hard that they eventually forgot their feelings, and Jeanne left Grand. She left a letter explaining that she was fond of him but very tired, and she needed a new start.
Cottard represents those in France who collaborated with the Germans, as Cottard delights in the plague’s appearance and will soon begin to work alongside it. Grand shows how his inability to express himself properly has cost him his marriage to Jeanne as well as a better job and success as a writer.
Since then Grand, too, had been trying to make a new start, and had struggled for years to write a letter to Jeanne justifying himself. But as usual he cannot find the right words. Grand weeps as he tells Dr. Rieux all this. That night Rieux sends a telegram to his wife explaining the plague situation.
Grand can be a comedic figure in his eccentricities, but he is also a sort of hero, cursed by his inability to communicate but still struggling on to find the right words.
One evening the journalist Rambert reintroduces himself to Dr. Rieux. He says he is determined to escape Oran to rejoin the woman he loves in Paris. He had tried to use his influence as a journalist to convince the authorities that he didn’t belong in Oran, he was only there by chance, but the government refused to let him leave. Rambert declares that he was put on earth only to love this woman, so he is not being fulfilled while quarantined. He asks Rieux to give him a certificate stating that he is free of plague, but Rieux refuses.
Rambert, like the rest of Oran, still cannot perceive the absurdity of the plague. He expects plague to be fair or rational and excuse him for not really belonging in Oran. Of the protagonists, Rambert has the most achievable goal in life, as he only seeks happiness through human love. Rieux must hold to his principles, as if he allowed the plague to spread beyond Oran it could cause thousands more deaths.
Dr. Rieux acknowledges that Rambert is in an absurd situation, but there is nothing he can do. Rambert grows upset and accuses Rieux of speaking too abstractly and not understanding the individual suffering of the heart. He argues that the interest of the public is a collection of private, individual interests. The doctor seems distracted, and Rambert apologizes for losing his temper, and they part ways.
Rambert is also like the other citizens in that he is totally preoccupied with his personal suffering. He cannot see the plague as a public calamity, but only as an obstacle in the way of his own happiness. Rieux indulges in this a little, but overall he is better at seeing the big picture than most.
Dr. Rieux muses on the conversation and whether he really is living in a “world of abstractions” even while spending all day at the hospital treating plague victims. He accepts that a kind of “divorce from reality” is necessary to deal properly with the plague, as otherwise it would be overwhelming. Still Dr. Rieux struggles on, one case at a time.
Rieux recognizes that plague itself is a kind of abstraction, as it exists also in potential suffering, fear, and exile, and so in a way he must deal with it abstractly as well as practically. The doctor is rational as ever, and tries to dispense with sentimentality when it gets in the way of what is important – fighting plague.
The emergency hospitals, which include a requisitioned schoolhouse, are all full now, and there is a swift system for cleansing and isolating plague patients. At night Dr. Rieux goes out to make house calls, and there is always a tragic, emotional scene when he is forced to evacuate people with the plague and isolate them from their families. The families beg him to have pity, but Dr. Rieux can no longer afford to indulge in pity – to fight abstraction he must dwell also in abstraction.
Dr. Rieux’s struggle against the plague is the prime example of Camus’ absurdist philosophy. Even though there is little Rieux can do for the victims, as no serum is effective and the disease is usually fatal, he still keeps working, fighting against death and suffering even in the face of defeat. Rieux dispenses even with pity and philosophy, leaving all his energy for defiance.
After a month of plague, Father Paneloux declares he will deliver a sermon on the subject. The town has grown more pious and superstitious in the time of crisis, and the cathedral is packed when Father Paneloux goes to preach. In his sermon he declares that the plague is a punishment sent by God, and that the people of Oran deserve it, as they have been sinful and scorned God. He hopes that they will learn from the disease, which is like a harvesting angel separating good from evil.
Paneloux offers another option of how to confront the Absurd – he rationalizes it and tries to see a divine order in even the greatest of calamities. Paneloux truly dwells in abstraction, and so can justify the plague, as he has not yet seen its ravages firsthand. The irony is that a plague death is no more meaningful than any other death, and the citizen’s lives before the plague still mostly involved entertaining themselves until death came, all the while trying to deny death’s existence.
The result of the sermon is that people feel more and more that they are trapped and being punished, and so they try harder to escape or revolt. In being treated like criminals, they begin to act like criminals. The true nature of the situation begins to dawn on the public and mass panic begins to grow.
Paneloux’s sermon makes people feel like prisoners being punished for some sin they don’t feel guilty for. They respond to this with revolt, but not the heroic revolt of Rieux – instead a selfish sense of injustice and panic.
Rieux and Grand go to a café to discuss the situation, and Grand explains the nature of his secretive work – he is trying to write a book, a manuscript so perfect that when the publisher reads it he will say “Hats off!” But so far he has only written the first sentence, and even that he is constantly struggling over and reworking. Rieux follows Grand back to his house and Grand shows him the sentence, which concerns a horsewoman in May. Grand discusses the importance of each word, while outside more people try to escape Oran, and there is occasional violence.
Grand’s quest for the perfect manuscript is similar to the quest to defeat the plague and death – ultimately hopeless. Many of the citizens despair because they know they are helpless against the plague, but Camus advocates another way of dealing with the Absurd, to keep struggling against the plague and the imperfections of language, and create one’s own meaning and happiness from that struggle.
Rambert also continues his attempts to escape, but keeps being held up by red tape. He is briefly hopeful when he is given a form to fill out about his identity and family, but then he learns that is only to be used in case he dies of plague. Rambert is amazed that the bureaucracy functions as usual despite the plague. He eventually grows lethargic and hopeless, and drifts from café to café. He often goes to the deserted train station and dreams of Paris and the woman he loves.
Rambert first attempts to escape using the government’s help, feeling that it is his “right” to leave Oran, as he is a visitor there. It is telling that the bureaucracy continues to function during the plague, as the ultimate symbol of habit and tradition denying the Absurd.
Soon after Father Paneloux’s sermon summer descends on Oran with scorching heat and a sharp increase in the number of plague victims. The sound of groaning victims drifts into the street, but no one stops anymore to listen out of curiosity or pity. There have been violent attempts to escape at the gates, and long prison terms are now the punishment for rebellion. The people realize that the hot weather will favor the plague, and so any pleasure they might have gotten from the summer is destroyed.
The weather is again associated with the plague, and the summer heat increases the feelings of tension and imprisonment in Oran. The townspeople are already growing “bored” of the suffering of the plague, as it is no longer sensational and new, so the epidemic increases in its crushing drudgery and despair.
The narrator returns to some of Tarrou’s observations. The death toll is now announced daily rather than weekly so that the numbers seem smaller. Tarrou records a woman opening her window, screaming twice, and then shutting it. The man who spits on cats has lost his pastime, as the cats have all been killed as possible carriers of fleas or plague. He looks sad and bewildered for a few days, and after that he does not appear on his balcony again.
Tarrou’s observations seem strange, but he is the one with the most experience of “plague,” and so he records more interesting reactions to it. The man who spits on cats has been robbed of his meaningful action, absurd though it was, and he gives up in the face of the plague.
Tarrou reports that the hotel manager has lost most of his customers and is depressed by the thought that only cold weather will stamp out the plague, as it never truly gets cold in Oran. M. Othon continues to dine at the hotel restaurant even though his wife is in quarantine, and the manager says Othon is “under suspicion.” Tarrou also describes the kindness of Dr. Rieux’s mother, declaring that such goodness will “always triumph over plague.”
People continue to be distrustful and selfish, refusing to accept the plague as a common bond. The manager still wants to keep the divide between rich and poor, and between those who are suspicious (because contagious) or not, when in reality everyone is in the same predicament now. Even Tarrou cannot help rationalizing the plague a little in his thoughts on Mme. Rieux.
Tarrou goes with Dr. Rieux to visit his asthma patient. The old man gleefully explains that the world is “topsy-turvy” now, with “more doctors than patients.” Tarrou records the old man’s account of his life – at age fifty he decided he had worked enough for a lifetime, and since then he has stayed in bed all day. He hates watches, so he marks the passage of time by transferring dried peas from one saucepan into another. He has never left Oran, and seems totally content with his life of strict habits. Tarrou muses that the man is perhaps a saint in some ways.
The asthma patient’s routine of counting peas is similar to Tarrou’s musing on “wasting time.” The old man fully experiences the passage of time, but he fills it with a totally useless, meaningless routine. This is an extreme example of the people of Oran as Rieux originally described them, wasting their days in boring habits and trying to ignore suffering and death.
Tarrou notes that no one laughs out loud anymore except for drunk people. A new newspaper has been launched called the Plague Chronicle, which claims to keep the public informed about the epidemic but actually contains mostly advertisements for “infallible antidotes” against the disease. Still people buy up all the newspapers.
The townspeople are still seeking distraction or trying to blame someone else instead of confronting the plague directly. The newspapers that sensationalized the rats and then ignored the epidemic now shift with the public mood.
Tarrou observes that people seem to try to counteract the plague by living extravagantly, spending large sums on expensive meals and wines. In the evenings the streets are empty now. Tarrou muses that when the epidemic began people first thought of religion, but now they turn to desperately pursuing pleasure.
People try to distract themselves from plague by indulging in pleasure, but the irony is that this is very much how the people of Oran lived before the epidemic – ignoring suffering and death and focusing on routine and banal diversions.
One evening Dr. Rieux watches his mother, who seems so tranquil and resigned, and he thinks about the routine of his days. The new serum from Paris seems less effective, and the plague has become pneumonic and more contagious. Rieux suddenly feels great affection for his mother, but they only exchange a few words. Rieux has gotten a telegram from his wife, but he thinks she is covering up her poor health to keep him from worrying.
Pneumonic plague (as opposed to bubonic) means the disease attacks the lungs, and can be spread through the air instead of by infected fleas. It seems that Dr. Rieux’s efforts are in vain, yet he still keeps working. Rieux’s relationship with his mother echoes the struggle to communicate in the novel, as they love each other but can never speak of it.
Tarrou arrives and proposes a plan to recruit volunteers for an anti-plague effort, a group of sanitation workers dealing directly with plague victims. Rieux is grateful for the offer, but asks Tarrou if he has considered the dangers of such work. Tarrou responds by asking what Rieux thought of Father Paneloux’s sermon. Rieux says he hates the idea of “collective punishment.” The plague can sometimes make people “rise above themselves,” but it brings with it so much suffering that there is no choice but to fight against it.
Tarrou and Rieux act out the only truly human response to the Absurd, taking action against the plague even in the face of defeat. As a doctor, Rieux has seen all the horror of the Absurd, but he still chooses to fight against suffering because it is human nature to cling to life. He cannot accept that the horrors of plague are part of a divine scheme – this is too abstract for someone dealing directly with suffering and death.
Tarrou then asks Dr. Rieux if he believes in God, and Rieux answers by saying that Paneloux is a man of learning, separated from real suffering and death, so he has the privilege of believing in absolute truth. Tarrou asks why Rieux is so devoted to healing people if he doesn’t believe in God, and Rieux responds by saying it is because he doesn’t believe in God that he must work so hard. If there was an all-powerful God, he could heal everyone, but as it is humans must fight the plague themselves.
Rieux does not condemn Paneloux as evil or cowardly, but merely ignorant, as the priest has not experienced the plague directly, or the suffering and death it brings without reason or mercy. The only absolute truth for Rieux and Tarrou is that the plague is a collective disaster, an evil that is everyone’s business, so they must work together to fight it.
Rieux suggests that it might be better to keep struggling against death, regardless of whether a silent God exists or not. Tarrou reminds him that any struggle against death is ultimately futile, but Rieux says that that is no reason to give up. After a while Tarrou says he agrees with the doctor’s opinion, and confidently says he “has little left to learn.” Rieux warns him that he has only a one-in-three chance of surviving if he works to fight the plague, and asks Tarrou why he has volunteered himself. Tarrou responds that it is his code of morals, which is merely “comprehension.”
As atheists, Tarrou and Rieux do not believe in any afterlife or heavenly reward for their struggle, so they try to live totally in the here and now, fighting for life and humanity. Again Camus equates evil with ignorance and morality with comprehension, implying that sympathy and healing are the only viable option if one truly understands the nature of things. It is only in being ignorant of plague that most people refuse to fight plague.
Tarrou’s plan works and a group of volunteers soon starts working, but the narrator tries not to exaggerate the heroism of their efforts, as that would make them seem exceptional. He believes that people are more good than bad, and that all vices basically stem from ignorance. Thus he tries to view the volunteers with objectivity as well as praise. He implies that it was “unthinkable” to not try to fight the plague, so the volunteers were merely doing the decent, fully human thing.
While the novel (and the absurdist worldview) is often bleak and crushing, Camus still maintains an optimistic attitude with his faith in the human spirit. Again, comprehension is shown as more valuable than good intention, as once one truly comprehends the plague, the only decent thing to do is to fight it. In this Camus both lowers the ideal of heroism to the everyday and elevates common decency to the heroic.
Dr. Castel begins working on an anti-plague serum using the local bacillus, which is slightly different from the textbook plague microbe. Grand acts as a general secretary for the sanitation squads. Grand has “nothing of the hero about him,” so it is he who most embodies the anti-plague effort – he realizes there is nothing to be done but struggle on. As he works he keeps refining the first sentence of his book, changing adjectives with great consideration.
Camus then shows examples of the small bits of heroism that add up to fight the plague. He emphasizes Grand, as Grand is not a natural “healer” like Dr. Rieux, and he has already been struggling against the Absurd in language by trying to write the perfect manuscript.
The narrator knows that readers will want examples of a “heroic” character, so he offers Grand, with his simple goodness and absurd ideal of expression, as an “insignificant and obscure hero.” Dr. Rieux muses on the difference between this kind of heroism – the small, necessary kind – and the grandiose speeches he hears on the radio about the plague.
Grand is an average, eccentric everyman who embodies the struggle that every human must make against suffering, death, and meaninglessness. This is why Camus does not want to call the volunteers “heroes,” lest it make their actions seem exceptional, when in reality they are necessary at all times.
Meanwhile Rambert grows frustrated with the government and starts looking for illegal means of escaping Oran. Cottard offers to help him, as since the plague began Cottard has been smuggling in contraband and selling it at exorbitant prices. He has made many friends in the criminal underworld by now, and he takes Rambert to a café where they meet a man named Garcia.
Rambert is still operating under the illusion of individual choice. He is not being cowardly or evil in trying to escape Oran – he simply does not comprehend the plague yet, or understand that it affects all people together, regardless of their personal happiness or love.
Garcia walks with Rambert and Cottard and then puts Rambert in touch with a man named Raoul, who he will have to meet the next day. Cottard says he hopes that Rambert will “put in a word” for him in exchange for his help, but he doesn’t understand why Rambert is so eager to leave Oran, as Cottard himself has thrived during the plague.
At first it simply seems that Cottard is so pleased because he has used the plague to make a lot of money smuggling, but Tarrou will later examine the philosophical reasons that Cottard embraces the epidemic as well.
Rambert meets with Raoul, who puts him in touch with more members of the criminal underworld. Rambert has to wait days between each meeting and he grows more impatient, though he befriends a criminal named Gonzales through their mutual love of football. While he waits for his escape to be arranged, Rambert discusses the plague with Dr. Rieux, who is exhausted and short of equipment and manpower. Rambert feels guilty for leaving, but he explains again that he is just following his heart.
Rambert has a less lofty ideal than Rieux, as Rambert only seeks the happiness apportioned to him by loving this one woman in Paris. Rieux and Tarrou, on the other hand, are trying to struggle against death and the absurd state of nature. Camus was a great player and lover of football (soccer), and he drew many lessons about bravery and equality from the game.
Rambert has more delays in his escape plan, but he finally meets Marcel and Louis, who are sentries willing to smuggle him out for a large fee. They arrange another meeting, and while he waits Rambert goes with Tarrou to see Dr. Rieux. Late that night they go to a bar and Rambert drinks heavily. Tarrou suggests that Rambert might be able to help with the anti-plague effort, but this makes Rambert grow stubborn and quiet, and ends the conversation.
Rambert is clearly wrestling with his own decision to escape Oran, as he both grows frustrated with the delays and starts to comprehend the collective nature of the plague. He is not like Cottard, and can see beyond his own personal suffering to recognize the plight of others.
The next day Rambert’s escape plan is delayed again, as he cannot find Gonzales, Marcel, or Louis. He decides to start all over again, and goes back to Cottard, who is meeting Rieux the next day. Cottard remarks that the sanitation leagues don’t seem to be making much difference, and that “once you have plague your number’s up.” Rieux and Tarrou respond that it is the duty of everyone to help fight the plague.
Cottard represents a cowardly way of confronting the Absurd – surrendering to it and giving up. This often means suicide, which Cottard already attempted, but it also means complicity with the Absurd, as by refusing to fight plague he is increasing its power.
Tarrou asks Cottard why he doesn’t join the anti-plague league, and Cottard, offended, says it isn’t his job, and the plague suits him fine. Tarrou suggests that Cottard would be arrested for some past crime if the plague hadn’t come up. Cottard grows upset that they all know his secret, but then he confesses that he is indeed guilty of a crime, and that was why he tried to hang himself.
Cottard is not evil, but he cannot see past his obsession with his own suffering. He enjoys the plague because it means he is no longer alone in his pain, and he feels no obligation to help his fellow citizens with anything that doesn’t immediately concern him.
Rambert gets Cottard to help him again, and they make contact with Garcia, who suggests that Gonzales and the sentries might live in one of the districts that were recently quarantined. They begin to start the whole process over again, which depresses Rambert. Tarrou and Dr. Rieux visit him that night, and he says that the plague is essentially “the same thing over and over and over again.”
The longer he is delayed in his plan, the more time Rambert has to muse over the nature of the plague and his own connection with the rest of Oran. Rambert’s description of plague links it to the routines of the citizens before the plague arrived, as they just kept repeating the same habits over and over to fill up time.
Rambert muses to Dr. Rieux and Tarrou that he stopped believing in heroism during the Spanish Civil War, where he fought for the losing side. He is only interested in a man if he is capable of “great emotion,” such as dying for love, rather than dying for an idea. Rieux responds that “man isn’t an idea,” but Rambert retorts that man is an idea if he turns his back on love.
The protagonists all have different backstories that have led them to their similar philosophical worldviews. Rambert also takes a practical view of the universe, but he is less ambitious than Rieux or Tarrou. He looks no farther than human love for his sense of happiness and peace.
Dr. Rieux insists that fighting the plague is not an attempt at heroism, but simply “common decency.” Then he goes out, and Tarrou reveals to Rambert that Rieux’s wife is away at a sanatorium. This surprises Rambert, and he offers to join the anti-plague effort at least until he can escape Oran.
Rambert is a decent enough human that when he understands the plague is everyone’s concern (not just for “heroes”) he volunteers to help fight it. He also clearly feels guilty when he learns that Rieux is in a similar situation but elects to remain in Oran rather than escape to his wife.