Novelists have always been interested in epidemics. Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, when the English novel was being born.
Since then, writers have been drawn often to the subject of how people cope with the terrible pressures of living in the midst of a contagion. It’s no wonder; as the world is fast relearning with the spread of COVID-19, pandemics are dramatic and revealing times.
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and Philip Roth’s Nemesis have all tilled similar soil.
Perhaps no writer has made better use of this material than Albert Camus. In La peste, his canonical treatment of a fictional bubonic plague outbreak in the Algerian city of Oran, the Nobel laureate trained a piercing eye on life under quarantine, with all its strangeness and misery.
But the novel also takes seriously the lessons these trying moments can teach – treats them, even, as a kind of redemption. The Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien called it “a sermon of hope.” It’s worth revisiting that hopefulness – the spirit that prompts Camus’s narrator to declare, famously, that plagues remind us “there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
The titular outbreak in La peste takes place in an “ordinary" city. The year is given as 1940-something.
Sick rats are the first sign that something is wrong. They emerge from sewers and cellars in “long tottering lines” to die in plain view, the narrator, Dr. Rieux, recalls. Despite that omen, the seriousness of the epidemic creeps up on the city. Rieux’s concierge, who proudly insists that there are no rats in his building, becomes the first human victim.
For a time, the citizens of Oran refuse to believe what is happening; they treat the scourge as a “bad dream,” make vacation plans and nurture opinions about this and that. As Rieux puts it, in hindsight, “They thought of themselves as free.”
Reality quickly sets in. The city is closed to outsiders and residents are forbidden to leave. Mail and phone calls are restricted, leaving separated families to communicate by telegram. Church funerals are banned in favour of perfunctory burials.
Living in a state of crisis predictably brings out plenty of ugliness and despair. Shortages launch a black market and profiteers thrive selling marked-up cigarettes and booze. An eerie Christmas comes and goes. The shops are dim and mostly empty; only the rich celebrate, with expensively procured goods. Rieux sees a man he knows weeping in front of a toy store.
As it becomes clear there is no cure, the sick lose faith in medicine. Others find their focus narrowing to banal details of Oranaise life. Rieux finds he can only muster a perfunctory interest in his wife, confined to a sanitarium outside the city gates. A sports stadium requisitioned for quarantined families is full of abandoned people packed into little red tents, listening to the buzzing of flies. “These are forgotten people, and they know it,” one character reports.
As a “sermon of hope,” this doesn’t seem much good. La peste is not a cheerful book, especially for those living through their own pandemic. Residents of China and Italy especially may find it all too familiar. But what the novel offers as consolation is a powerful insight about what we learn to appreciate in these times.
Throughout Oran’s plague, residents show an odd craving for mass gatherings. The movie houses remain full, even though there are no new films. The café terraces are crammed late into the night. A recluse named Cottard finds himself rejuvenated by a sudden access of feeling for his fellow man.
The novel is written with an almost clinical sense of distance – typical of Camus’s style – but a friendship between the doctor Rieux and a kind of flâneur named Tarrou takes up the emotional heart of the story. The two men are heavily involved in fighting the disease and become unlikely confidantes.
For Tarrou – who, as a boy, was permanently marked by witnessing his father, a judge, sentence a man to death – the plague doubles as a kind of abstraction. The word stands in for humanity’s common indifference to the lot of others, our hardheartedness, even our cruelty. “Everyone carries it with them, the plague. … What’s natural is infection,” Tarrou says. “The rest, health, integrity, purity, if you like – is a product of the will.”
For the length of the outbreak, he and Rieux steel their wills against this permanent human plague. On a night with a milky moon, the men go swimming in the sea. A guard inspects their papers, and they cross a patch of ground that smells of wine and fish toward the jetty. Rieux feels a strange happiness, amid everything, and sees the same feeling on his friend’s calm, serious face. They dive in; the water has an autumnal warmth that comes from months of stored-up summer heat. Rieux takes pleasure in the froth that his feet kick up and the water that sticks to his legs. He and Tarrou swim side by side for a time, "freed at last from the city and the plague.” When they climb out, they get dressed without saying a word.
You can see similar scenes playing out in Toronto today, as the empty streets fill with joggers, often in pairs, side by side in their leggings and gloves, gulping down lungfuls of newly temperate spring air as they try to outrun their claustrophobia. My girlfriend and I have been among them. Like Rieux and Tarrou, our confinement has given us a sharpened taste of the pleasures of the natural world experienced in company.
As the spectre of contagion begins to dissipate from the streets of Oran, signs emerge that the epidemic has done something to change its people. A giddy old man rushes up to Tarrou and Rieux and tells them he has seen rats for the first time in months. “You should see them run,” he gushes.
(How often does the innocent scurrying of animals, squirrels and dogs in city parks elicit a similar response now?)
What is this change that the Oranaise have undergone? Tarrou does not live to see it. After a violent struggle against the disease, Camus’s secular saint dies in bed: its final victim. Rieux, a lonely survivor, reflects on what he has won and lost in the city’s year of sickness. “Having known plague and remembering it,” he thinks. “Having known friendship and remembering it.”
Thousands of others in the city feel instinctively that they have learned the same thing: that the epidemic has reminded them of the primal importance of fellowship. The literal plague has cured them, at least momentarily, of that more permanent scourge that makes us harden our hearts to one other.
The day the plague is declared over, people dance in the town squares, rubbing shoulders with strangers. Class distinctions crumble, as they ultimately did not during the epidemic. The city’s residents "knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.”
Even in our isolation, maybe we can appreciate that lesson before it’s time to dance in the streets.
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