September and October come and the weeks drag on. Dr. Rieux and his friends realize how tired they are, as they ceaselessly work against the plague. Grand often talks to Rieux about Jeanne, and Rieux in turn finds himself talking about his own wife. He wires the sanatorium authorities and finds that his wife’s condition has worsened, as he suspected.
Dr. Rieux is so absorbed in the plague that it is easy to forget that he is in the same situation as Rambert, separated from his life partner. The relationship between Rieux and his wife is not explored much except as an example that the doctor, too, experiences all the varied suffering of Oran.
Dr. Rieux is forced to harden himself against the desperate families of the plague victims, as he must save all his energy for saving lives and dispensing information. His sleeplessness saves him from growing overly sentimental and giving in to despair. All the workers are so weary that they grow lax in their own inoculations and sanitation habits.
Rambert was almost right in accusing Rieux of hardening himself against the human heart, as Rieux is forced to dispense with pity and sentimentality when they get in the way of his work. He also has to repress his own suffering as he learns of his wife’s worsening state.
The only man in town who seems content is Cottard. Tarrou offers a sympathetic ear, so Cottard spends time with him and Tarrou takes notes in his diary. He explains that Cottard has always lived in a state of fear, as he distrusts everyone as a possible police informant, but at the same time he needs human contact. He has “blossomed” during the plague, as the whole town is now in the state Cottard is used to – craving human contact, but distrustful of others as possible plague-carriers. There are also no more police concerned with past crimes, so Cottard is temporarily a free and innocent man, and he rejoices in the sense of community the plague creates.
Cottard feels less alone now that others share his paranoid state of mind, but he never really breaks free from his isolation. He feels like part of the crowd, but he is still unable to make any meaningful connections with other humans or recognize his duty to fight the plague on behalf of all the townspeople. In a similar way the people of Oran remain isolated by their distrust of others as possible plague-carriers, even though they are unified by the state of plague.
Tarrou records an incident at the Municipal Opera House, where he and Cottard attended a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus. People have still been seeking out lavish pleasures and distractions, so the opera is still popular even though it keeps playing the same show over and over. In the third act of the play, just as Eurydice is being taken back to Hades, the actor playing Orpheus collapses on the stage, succumbing to the plague. The audience immediately exits the opera house, calmly at first but soon devolving into a stampede.
The public continues to try and distract themselves with entertainment, and Orpheus is especially symbolic because it is about two lovers separated by death who are almost, but not quite, reunited – a fantasy that speaks directly to the longings of the townspeople. The collapse of the actor then destroys the illusion – there can be no escape from plague, and no reunion with dead loved ones – and the audience reacts with panic.
Rambert meets with Marcel and Louis again, and he moves in with them and their mother, a little old Spanish woman. They agree that he will escape at midnight the next night. The next day Rambert finds Dr. Rieux in the middle of his work and tells him that he has decided to stay in Oran, and give up his happiness to keep fighting the plague. Rambert confesses that if even he did escape, he would feel like a coward. Rieux is pleased at this, but he is too weary to deal with the philosophical implications of turning one’s back on love – he says “a man can’t cure and know at the same time,” but curing is the more important job.
Rambert finally comprehends the nature of the plague and accepts that it is his responsibility to fight it alongside Rieux. Rambert and Rieux are in similar situations, but Rieux seeks fulfillment and happiness in something beyond the human individual, while Rambert looks no further than human love. Again Rieux is willing to dispense with everything unnecessary – even a philosophy to justify his work – that might get in the way of fighting the plague.
Dr. Castel finishes his anti-plague serum, and he and Dr. Rieux are present to give the first injection to M. Othon’s small son, Jacques, whose case is almost hopeless. M. Othon is forced to leave for a quarantine camp, but he accepts the rule of the rest of the public. Father Paneloux (who has joined the sanitation league) joins the vigil and he, Rieux, Castel, Grand, and Tarrou watch to see if the serum has any effect on Jacques.
This begins the longest description of a plague victim’s suffering in the novel, and makes the true horror of the epidemic more graphic and intimate than simply a high death toll. Camus has Paneloux witness this ultimate injustice – the suffering of an innocent child – so that his abstract idea of the plague as collective punishment can be broken.
Jacques suffers terribly before dying, the fever abating and then returning three times, and he finally expires “in a grotesque parody of crucifixion” as the men watch in horror. Paneloux cries out to God to save the child, but in vain. As he leaves the room, Rieux lashes out angrily at Paneloux, saying that the child was innocent.
Jacques becomes a kind of Christ-figure in the language Camus uses (crucifixion, the fever striking three times like Peter denying Jesus), but his death is entirely meaningless and random. Jacques’ suffering and death is the ultimate representation of the plague and the cruel, absurd universe.
Outside the hospital Paneloux talks to Dr. Rieux, who apologizes for his outburst. Paneloux understands that Rieux’s anger is directed at his sermon and the idea of divine punishment, but Paneloux still clings to faith in a system he professes to no longer understand. Rieux vows to never support a system where “children are put to torture.” He says he is not concerned with man’s salvation, but only his health. He declares that he and Paneloux are still allies as long as they are both fighting plague, and the two men part ways.
Camus implies here that to try and justify the death of a child is to be cowardly and untruthful. Paneloux’s faith is clearly shaken by this experience, but he chooses to maintain his “leap of faith” even in the face of evidence. Rieux accepts Paneloux as an ally against the plague, but he will not accept the priest’s justification of needless suffering.
After watching the child’s death, a change seems to come over Father Paneloux in the following days. He begins working on an essay about whether a priest should consult a doctor, and he invites Dr. Rieux to come hear him preach another sermon about the plague. Since the epidemic has worsened, the public has turned from religion to superstition and vague prophecies, so the church is much emptier than the last time Paneloux preached.
At first people were eager to rationalize the plague, so they wanted to hear Paneloux’s religious justification for the epidemic, but at this point they have seen the true nature of plague – its random, meaningless suffering – and so many have given up religion.
In his sermon, Father Paneloux declares that the extreme and seemingly meaningless suffering of the plague only makes his first sermon more relevant. The unknowable question of an innocent child’s death, which they must now face, is a test to the Christian’s faith. He is forced to deny everything or accept everything – there can be no middle ground anymore, and perhaps not even any purgatory. Paneloux presents this dichotomy and asks only who would “dare to deny everything?”
Paneloux basically asks his congregation to make a leap of faith in the face of evidence – to become purposefully ignorant to the suffering of children and put all their faith in God. Camus saw this kind of sacrifice of ego and rationality as a cowardly surrender. He preferred to struggle on alone against death and the Absurd state of the universe.
Father Paneloux references a story of a previous epidemic in which only four monks of a monastery survived, and three of them fled. Paneloux declares that each of his congregation “must be the one who stays.” They must not give in to the plague without a struggle, but they also must trust in God and do what good is in their power to do. Paneloux ends by again emphasizing the difficulty of faith, but that in such times one must choose to either love God or hate him.
Paneloux’s sermon is a variation on Rieux’s approach to the plague, as the doctor also sees things in an “all or nothing way,” in which the decent thing to do is to fight the epidemic, and anything else is selfish cowardice – but Paneloux takes the opposite view, advocating that his listeners put their lives in God’s hands.
Afterward Rieux and Tarrou discuss the sermon, and they overhear a priest and deacon talking about Paneloux’s new essay, which apparently states that it is illogical for a priest to call a doctor. Tarrou agrees, saying that in the face of a dying child a Christian must either lose his religion or “consent to having his eyes destroyed,” and Paneloux will keep clinging to his faith to the very end.
Soon afterward Father Paneloux grows sick, but he sticks to his principles and refuses to call a doctor. The woman he is staying with calls Rieux nonetheless, as she fears Paneloux has the plague. Rieux examines him and Paneloux does not have the usual symptoms of the plague, but his condition quickly declines and he dies. Rieux marks him as a “Doubtful case.”
It is implied that Paneloux’s crumbling belief ultimately kills him, as he desperately throws everything into his faith and refuses even a doctor’s help. He passively accepts death, which is something Camus argues against in the novel. The “doubtful case” is ironic because of Paneloux’s new doubt in God, and his doubtful understanding of the human condition.
All Souls’ Day, where the dead are usually honored, passes and is ignored this year, as death is already all too present in the public’s mind. Meanwhile the death toll stops increasing, but still remains at “high-water mark,” and Dr. Richard succumbs to the plague just before he is supposed to make an optimistic statement to the public. All public places and buildings have been turned into quarantine camps by now, and the anti-plague workers mechanically maintain their “superhuman” efforts.
Dr. Richard and the authorities are still looking to spin the plague in an optimistic way rather than actually admit it is a catastrophe and do something about it. This is why it is so ironic that Dr. Richard dies just before he is about to say something encouraging about the death toll remaining steady – the plague has no concern for optimism or politics.
The food supply of Oran also begins to dwindle, and the divide between rich and poor grows as the rich buy up extra supplies and the rest are left hungry. Under pressure from the authorities the newspapers remain optimistic, praising the “courage and composure” of the public.
The newspapers too try and make a dramatic narrative out of the epidemic, praising “heroes” in the way that Rieux refuses to do. The selfishness and class differences return to the populace even in the face of death, the great equalizer.
Tarrou records his visit to a quarantine camp with Rambert and Gonzales, Rambert’s football-loving friend. The camp is a requisitioned football stadium, and the people living in tents inside spend their days marking time listlessly and rarely speaking, well aware that they have been forgotten. M. Othon (who is quarantined now) approaches the men and asks them about Jacques’ death, and Tarrou falsely says that Jacques did not suffer.
The quarantine camps are even smaller microcosms of the prison of Oran, as the people there feel more intensely the sensations of being both exiled and trapped. M. Othon seems softened by plague, and even the relentlessly truthful Tarrou takes pity on him and lies about Jacques’ horrible death.
November ends and the weather grows colder. Tarrou and Rieux visit the doctor’s asthma patient, and after listening to his chatter for a while they go up onto the terrace of his building, which offers a wide view of the sea and the night sky. The clear expanse feels like a momentary respite from plague. Tarrou and Rieux affirm that they are friends now, and Tarrou offers that they “take an hour off – for friendship.”
The sea is often a positive symbol in Camus’ writing, and here it is a place of escape for Rieux and Tarrou. As in most of the novel’s relationships, the two men struggle to communicate. They then take a break from fighting the plague to try and achieve some true communion.
Tarrou explains that he has “had plague already,” and describes his childhood. His father was a high-ranking prosecuting attorney, who had an obsession with memorizing train schedules. When Tarrou was seventeen, his father invited him to see him speak in court. The experience was traumatic for Tarrou, who was struck by the helpless humanity of the defendant (whom he compares to an owl) and his father’s ominous red robes as he condemned the man to death.
Camus also fought against the death penalty all his life, so Tarrou’s story has biographical overtones. In this philosophical conversation Rieux and Tarrou muse on the more universal meanings of “plague,” as Tarrou relates his guilt over taking part in a murderous system to the current epidemic.
Soon afterward Tarrou ran away from home and broke off contact with his father. He became preoccupied with the death penalty, and felt that all society was based on murder. Tarrou then became an “agitator,” fighting against executions in many European countries. He still cannot rid himself of his guilt, however, that even indirectly he has caused the deaths of others.
This is similar to Camus’ background, as the author also fought for human rights in several countries. Camus tried to put his philosophy into practice by struggling against human suffering at all times. Tarrou and Rieux have similar philosophies, but they arrived at them in very different ways.
Tarrou says that this is why the plague is nothing new to him – he has always been struggling against the plague inside himself, but he continues to struggle on, as it is the only thing to be done. He sees the world as made up of pestilences, victims, and true healers, and he tries his best not to be a pestilence, and seeks attain the third category, which he associates with peace. Tarrou pauses for a while and then tells Rieux that what most interests him is how to become a saint without God. Rieux says that he is not interested in sainthood, but only in “being a man.”
This is one of the theses of the novel: humans are always suffering from some kind of plague (as the Absurd is everywhere), and so they can aid the plague, despair and succumb to it, or try to struggle against it. Both Rieux and Tarrou are more ambitious than Rambert, as they look for happiness and peace in an impossible place – trying to achieve sainthood without a God.
Tarrou then suggests that they take a swim in the ocean “for friendship’s sake,” as they have passes that will allow them onto the pier. Rieux agrees, and they swim silently out into the starlit ocean, feeling a rare moment of joy and peace as they are swept up by the vastness of the sky and sea. Then they get dressed and return to the town, ready to struggle on again.
The ocean is an incarnation of the Absurd that is not malevolent (here at least) like the plague, and so it provides a healing respite for the two men. They can lose themselves in something large and unconcerned with them, but something peaceful and beautiful instead of brutal and deadly.
In December M. Othon’s period of quarantine ends, but he elects to go back to his camp as a volunteer for the anti-plague squad, as it would help him feel “less separated” from Jacques. Rieux is amazed to see a sudden gentleness appear in the severe man’s eyes.
Christmas approaches, and Rieux tries to write a letter to his wife but struggles greatly with his words. The season reminds Grand of his courtship with Jeanne – which took place at Christmas – and he grows depressed and sentimental. Rieux notices that he is especially upset one day, and he discovers that Grand has a fever. He comes down with the plague and stays bedridden in his own room.
Rieux again struggles to convey the truth of his experience through language, and mostly fails. He and his wife are basically unable to communicate, as she falsely pretends her health is getting better and he cannot explain his daily life fighting the plague.
As his condition declines, Grand asks Dr. Rieux to read through his papers. Most of them are variations of the first sentence of his book, but there is one unfinished letter to Jeanne, containing only eight words. Grand asks Rieux to burn the papers, and he does so. The next day Grand makes a miraculous recovery and his fever disappears.
Rieux is proven wrong – the plague does strike odd, harmless people like Grand – but Grand miraculously recovers, marking the beginning of the end for the epidemic. In his brush with death Grand seems to achieve some peace with his struggle to express himself.
Rieux then has another patient whose case seems hopeless but makes a similar recovery. Rieux visits his asthma patient, who excitedly declares that the rats have come back. When the death toll figures are announced that week, the numbers have gone down.
The rats again become symbols of the people of Oran, as their return foreshadows the exit of the epidemic. There is finally a little hope, though the plague’s retreat is just as absurd and meaningless as its appearance.