The plague seems on the retreat, but people are hesitant to allow themselves to hope, as they have become so weary and cautious in their isolation. Dr. Castel’s serum becomes more effective, and there are more cases of recovery. M. Othon dies just as hope begins to blossom. The retreat of the plague is just as mysterious as its arrival – the doctors’ treatments have not changed, but they suddenly grow effective.
Again Camus undercuts any feeling of heroism or victory in the retreat of the plague. It is the disease itself randomly disappearing, not the heroic humans defeating it through their medicine or struggle. This story is not about the human spirit overcoming the Absurd, but simply about the struggle against it.
Change is slow to come to the populace, but optimism slowly increases. The Prefect announces that the town gates will open in two weeks, but the sanitation restrictions will remain for another month. The night of the announcement there is much celebrating, except among the houses still grieving lost loved ones, who feel exiled by the joy of others. Rieux and his friends join the festivities, and Tarrou sees a cat run across the road – the first cat seen since spring.
The Prefect as usual is concerned with making optimistic statements and spinning the epidemic into a positive story. The celebration of Oran is well-deserved, but it will soon become a means of forgetting the plague and pretending that nothing has changed.
Tarrou still takes a few scattered notes in his diary – he records that the man who spits on cats does not appear again even when the cats return, and Tarrou wonders if he is dead, and whether he was a saint. Tarrou writes more about Rieux’s mother and her gentle kindness, and how she reminds Tarrou of his own mother.
The man who spits on cats remains a mystery, but as a small symbol of the human condition Tarrou cannot help wondering if he succumbed to the plague, gave up on his cat-spitting pastime, or moved on to something new.
Cottard is the only person upset by the retreat of the plague. He fears that as soon as the town gates are opened he will be arrested, and he suffers from extreme mood swings and paranoia. One day Tarrou is walking Cottard home, musing on making a “fresh start” after the plague, when two men who look like government employees emerge and ask for Cottard. Cottard flees and the men follow him unhurriedly.
Everyone else is feeling optimistic and has a new lease on life, but Cottard is distressed at being left alone in his paranoia once more. Oran is about to be freed from its exile and imprisonment, but Cottard’s is just beginning again.
Dr. Rieux’s days are no less busy than before, but he has a new hopefulness that makes him feel less weary. Then Tarrou comes down with the plague, and Rieux and his mother care for him instead of sending him off to the hospital. Tarrou promises to fight as hard as he can for life, but he asks Rieux to be totally truthful about his condition.
Tarrou struggles silently against the disease (which is strangely of both pneumonic and bubonic varieties) for several long, painful days as Rieux and his mother tend to him. Finally Tarrou rolls over to face the wall and dies, and Rieux cries “tears of impotence.” That night Rieux and his mother sit in silence, and Rieux wonders if Tarrou found peace in the end. Suddenly he feels a surge of affection for his mother, and he realizes how strongly they love each other, though they never speak of it.
Tarrou suffers both kinds of plague at once, as his struggle becomes the symbol of humanity fighting for life against all forms of suffering and death. Tarrou seems to achieve some of the peace he sought, but only in this last battle with death. Rieux cannot hold off sentiment this time, as the true cruelty of the Absurd strikes him close to his heart. The love between Dr. Rieux and his mother is no less powerful because it cannot be put into words.
The next morning Dr. Rieux gets a telegram reporting that his wife has died. He takes it with composure, as the grief is the same kind of suffering he is now accustomed to, especially in the last two days.
Everything strikes Dr. Rieux at once, but he has moved beyond selfish suffering and can grieve for his wife in the same way that he grieved for all of Oran.
The gates of Oran finally open in February, and packed trains enter the city, where many separated loved ones are reunited. Rambert’s wife is among them, and Rambert realizes how much he has changed because of the plague. He is still hopeful for their reunion, but it is no longer the single passion of his life. His wife arrives and they embrace, and Rambert tries to pretend that the plague has left no scars on his happiness.
Rambert also has been changed by the plague so that he is not so preoccupied with his own suffering and love. He and his wife have a happy reunion, but it is left unexplained how their relationship will be affected by the plague. This begins the phase when the townspeople will try to forget about plague and return to their habits.
Most of the reunited citizens return to their homes and begin to act like everything is the same as before. But some travelers get off the trains to find no one waiting for them, and for these their grief is just beginning. Otherwise the streets are filled with celebration, and the happy lovers once again have their “proud egoism,” purposefully forgetting that they live in a world where humans “were killed off like flies.”
Just as they could ignore the rats or the epidemic, the townspeople show the amazing human capacity to deny the Absurd. As soon as the plague leaves they try to pretend they live in a world where plague (or war) could not randomly strike, which only ensures that they will be just as surprised by the next disaster.
Rieux walks through the streets and thinks about all the isolated, exiled people who are now safely together. He thinks about Tarrou, and muses that Tarrou was separated from something he could not define, which was perhaps peace. He thinks about those like Rambert, whose hope lies in human love, and how these people are the only ones who can achieve happiness. Others like Rieux and Tarrou, who hope for something beyond humanity, have not found their answer.
Rieux recognizes his own experiences in the plague, and wonders if there is a way to achieve the peace Tarrou found without waiting for death or hoping only in the human individual. Rieux sought the impossible, to defeat plague by his own struggle, and though he has achieved a temporary victory it brings him little peace.
Dr. Rieux reveals himself as the narrator of the chronicle, and explains that he chose the role of impartial observer to try and make his account more objective. As a doctor, he was a firsthand observer of the plague among the individuals of Oran. He tried to comment on the only certain things people have in common – love, exile, and suffering, all of with Rieux himself took part in – rather than speculating further.
This final reveal of the narrator reminds us of Rieux’s attempt at achieving objectivity and truth in his story. But by the end he admits that the only thing people have in common are love, exile, and suffering, and these are the only things he was able to truly describe.
Dr. Rieux feels he must end with Cottard, the only man he cannot understand, but whose only real crime was approving of something that killed people and having an ignorant, lonely heart. Rieux chronicles himself as he goes to visit Grand and Cottard, but finds a police cordon blocking off the street. Grand approaches at the same time, also confused about the situation.
Cottard’s past crime is never explained, and neither Rieux nor Grand seem particularly interested in it. They are most concerned with his present state of “plague,” and the ignorance of the human condition and common human bonds that led to his support of the epidemic.
A policeman explains that Cottard has shut himself in his apartment with a gun, and he has been yelling and firing indiscriminately at people in the street. A dog appears and Cottard shoots at it. Then more police arrive with a machine gun, and they take the screaming Cottard into custody.
Cottard finally is driven mad by his paranoia and inability to connect with other people. His final acts – firing a gun at strangers – shows how separated he truly is, as he cannot perceive that he is the same as those people he uses as targets for his frustration.
Shaken by this incident, Rieux and Grand part ways, and Grand explains that he has written Jeanne a letter and is feeling much happier. He has also resumed work on his sentence, but has “cut out all the adjectives.”
Grand, the “hero,” has found a kind of peace after overcoming plague. He has new hope about the possibility of communication, though cutting the adjectives suggests the experience of the plague has made his ideal language more spare.
Rieux visits his asthma patient that night, who is transferring peas from one pot to another as usual. The old man comments on Tarrou’s death, saying that the best always die. He also remarks on the pride the townspeople seem to take in having survived the plague. They will put up a monument to the dead, deliver some speeches, and then return to their normal routine. The asthma patient says the plague is just life, and nothing more.
The asthma patient here points out the absurdity of the populace (instead of echoing it, as he usually does) in trying to forget the plague, when in reality life is filled with all kinds of plagues. The universe itself is a plague of sorts that ends in death, so to try and deny it is an act of ignorance or cowardice.
Rieux goes up onto the terrace where Tarrou had told his life story. Rieux listens to the public rejoicing and is inclined to agree with his asthma patient – the people have not changed because of the plague. Because of this, Rieux decides to bear witness to the plague victims by writing this chronicle. He also intends it to show that there is more to praise in humans than to despise.
Rieux chooses to draw an optimistic view from his chronicle, but he has painted a very bleak picture of the universe and humanity. He tries to keep his chronicle “objective” to simply memorialize the victims and healers of the epidemic, rather than romanticizing the “heroism” of the human spirit or declare that the plague is gone forever.
Even so, Rieux knows that he is not recording a “final victory” by any means, as the bacillus microbe can lie dormant for many years in the most innocent, commonplace objects before rising up to strike down a city once more. Instead the chronicle is only a record of what “had to be done,” and of those who struggled against the plague and tried to be healers.
Though Rieux and Oran have achieved a respite from plague, the doctor has learned that all the inevitable suffering and death of life is a kind of plague, and that even if this particular disease does not return, there will always be something else that people must be vigilant against and struggle with.