When I was 17 years old, and still blissfully ignorant of the most difficult things in life, my Grade 12 English teacher handed me a list of novels for the winter semester that included a downer of a title. But reading The Plague by Albert Camus turned out to be a transformative experience that lit a burning desire within me to figure out the meaning of life.
Needless to say, I’m still working on it. But no single piece of literature has informed my journey more than Camus’s 1947 masterpiece, which, in recent days, has been flying off the shelves and downloaded faster than a cat video as distressed citizens the world over try to make sense of the coronavirus scourge.
Spoiler alert: As The Plague teaches us, there is no sense to be made.
If you were unfamiliar with history or human nature, you might deem The Plague prophetic. The events and emotions depicted in the novel do seem to be playing out in real time. But instead of unfolding in a single Algerian city in the 1940s, they are happening on a global scale as the COVID-19 pandemic transforms – or soon will – everyday life almost everywhere.
Yet, Camus, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, was not trying to be prophetic. He had meticulously researched previous epidemics going all the way back to the Middle Ages only to discover that all plagues, whether literal or metaphorical in nature, have common elements. So far, the coronavirus pandemic is no different in that respect.
The first commonality is denial. Even as evidence mounts that no one is immune to the plague, the residents of Oran refuse to believe or worry much about it – much like the Spring Break revelers who frolicked this week on Florida beaches. “When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long,’” the novel’s narrator observes. “Stupidity has a knack of getting its way, as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”
The war analogy led Camus’s French contemporaries to see The Plague as an allegory depicting the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, an interpretation that has withstood the test of time. But the novel’s overriding message is that war is war, whether the enemy is Hitler or a novel virus. Battling plague is a collective endeavour that concerns us all.
“We are at war, a public health war,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday in an address to the country that set a television ratings record in France. “We are not fighting against an army or another nation. But the enemy is there, invisible, elusive, advancing.”
Much of The Plague is devoted to a dialectic between its two main characters, Dr. Bernard Rieux and Father Paneloux. Rieux is an atheist and sees battling plague as a simple matter of common decency. He tries not to think much about the senselessness of the suffering endured by the plague’s victims, lest he go mad or let his emotions distract him from the grim task of tending to them. He can’t be mad at God, because he doesn’t believe in him. But throughout the book, a quiet rage burns within him.
Paneloux has an easier time of it because he has faith. Early on in the novel, he warns his parishioners that the plague is a punishment from God for having failed to obey him. Yet, when a child dies of the plague, even Paneloux concedes that his faith is being tested. How could a supposedly loving God be so seemingly cruel? Paneloux has no answer for that.
If you can bear it, you should read or reread The Plague now. It will remind you, in a strangely comforting way, of how absurd life can be. That is one of the main lessons of the novel that has stuck with me over the years. As it happens, above my desk hangs a quotation from Camus: “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience. It should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”
Plagues bring out the best and worst in people. Profiteers and fraudsters are already seeking to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to make a buck. Calls for social distancing are still being resisted by many among us; self-isolation is taking an emotional toll on many others. It is a test of wills.
Yet, as Rieux concludes by the end of Camus’s novel, plagues ultimately teach us that "there is more to admire in men than to despise.” Through this darkest of springs, we must try to hold on to that thought.
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