Despite the enormity of suffering and death in the world and the seeming omnipotence of the plague, there are instances of heroism and altruistic struggle as well. Camus immediately undercuts the “heroic” efforts of the volunteer groups by declaring that to the fight the plague is the only decent, truly human thing to do, but this is because he believes that humans are generally good. These “heroes” fit into his idea of Absurdism, as in the face of a harsh, uncaring universe, one must struggle to help others and “fight the plague,” even if defeat is inevitable. This kind of struggle in the face of certain death is a possible definition of heroism, however, so Camus is proposing a kind of heroism in everyday life – to embrace the Absurd, but at the same time to struggle hopelessly against it.
The anti-plague sanitation squad is the most concrete example of this kind of defiance, and the most sympathetic characters of the novel try hard to be “healers” rather than merely “pestilences” or “victims,” as Tarrou says. Rieux, the central protagonist, does not have a concrete philosophical or religious reason for struggling against the plague, but he knows that he must struggle, and Camus implies that this is the most important thing. Grand is the only character that Camus explicitly calls heroic. This might be because Grand is a sort of mediocre everyman, but he also joins the anti-plague effort and inspires others to defiance.
Heroism and Defiance ThemeTracker
Heroism and Defiance Quotes in The Plague
And this difficulty in finding his words had come to be the bane of his life. “Oh, Doctor,” he would exclaim, “how I’d like to learn to express myself!” He brought the subject up each time he met Rieux.
That evening, as he watched Grand’s receding form… He realized how absurd it was, but he simply couldn’t believe that a pestilence on the great scale could befall a town where people like Grand were to be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities.
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.
“My question’s this,” said Tarrou. “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God? I suspect your answer may help me to mine.”
His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him… in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road – in fighting against creation as he found it.
“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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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?
“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.”
…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.