by Adam Watson


Albert Camus's The Plague (Vintage Books, New York: 1991, translated by Stuart Gilbert) can be seen as a literal description of what happens to a town when it is besieged by an invisible illness. However, there are metaphorical interpretations as well. If seen as a "disguised account of the European struggle against fascism," to use Camus's own phrase, we can instead see plague as Nazi oppression.

Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of the story, notices the first sign of trouble with "a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing" (7). One rat quickly turns into two, then dozens, then hundreds. The rats become mini-goosestepping Nazis, which "emerged in long wavering files into the light of day," stormtrooping into the collective consciousness of the townspeople of Oran. Despite this ominous sign, the rats, like fascism itself in the 1930's, is ignored at first; some, out of fear or ignorance, deny they even exist. The concierge of Rieux's building is emphatic that "there weren't no rats in the building" (8). Later, when he is one of the plague's first victims, he blames "[t]hem rats! Them damned rats!" (22) Those "higher" in society, presumably more intelligent than a concierge, are equally in denial. "[O]ne doesn't talk of rats at table," sniffs an elegant man at dinner (28). Castel, a doctor friend of Rieux, repeats with sarcasm a remark of one of his colleagues: "It's unthinkable. Everyone knows it's ceased to appear in Europe" (36). The "it" is supposed to be the plague, but could equally be fascism. The narrator sums up the foolishness of denying the plague: "[W]e tell ourselves that pestilence . . . will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away . . . it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken their precautions" (37). Ignoring Nazis won't make them go away.

The town is woefully unprepared for its "war" against the plague; it "hasn't a gram of serum" (47). Meanwhile, Rieux becomes exasperated by the town leaders, who are not sure if they want to call the epidemic a plague. Oppressors kill, regardless of what name you give them: "'It doesn't matter to me,' Rieux said, 'how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be'" (51). The town finally goes under quarantine, and closes its gates. The oppression of the plague has brought "exile" to the town (71). It could also be said that a Nazi-like force has ghettoized it.

The effects of the plague on the various characters illuminates other fascist parallels. Cottard is a criminal who is so despondent and fearful of getting arrested that at the beginning of the novel he tries to kill himself. But as the plague's evil nears, he becomes a different person; his actions are almost like a "collaborator." He treats strangers more kindly, hoping to get "witnesses" to "say I'm not really a bad kind of man" (54). He reads the conservative newspaper, and makes "a point of reading it in public places" (55). In fact, under the new Vichy-like regime of the plague, many offices created to administer the quarantine continue without disruption, which amazes Rieux: "The really remarkable thing . . . was the way in which, in the very midst of catastrophe, offices could go on functioning serenely . . . purely and simply because they had been created originally for this purpose" (108).

Rambert, the reporter unlucky enough to be visiting the town when the gates are closed, faces another dilemma. He desperately wants to escape and get back to his girlfriend in Paris. It is unfair to be kept in Oran, after all; he is not a citizen of it (84). Again, a comparison could be made to those who were "unfairly" persecuted by the Nazis. Rambert may not be an Oran citizen, or a Jew, or a homosexual, or a Communist, yet he is "punished" all the same. At first, however, he does not see the injustice against his fellow man, or wish to fight against the "plague." He is only selfishly worried about himself. "But I don't belong here," Rambert whines; Rieux replies, "Unfortunately, from now on you'll belong here, like everyone else" (86).

Rieux, along with Grand and Tarrou, forms "sanitation squads" to combat the plague. (Eventually, Rambert does as well, although he still wishes to escape.) But as Rieux points out, there is no special heroism in battling the plague. "[Y]ou'd need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague," he tells Tarrou (126). He later makes the point that "we do not congratulate the schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four. . . . the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four. . . . There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical" (132-133). We must fight the plague, or fascism, not because it is a good thing to do, or the right thing to do, but because it is "merely logical" to do so.

As the plague's death toll rises, burials become impossible, and a crematorium goes into use. There are some disturbing passages that echo descriptions of the Nazi death camps: "[O]nly when a strong wind was blowing did a faint, sickly odor coming from the east remind them that they were living under a new order" (178-179). Yet, even as the plague seems to be impossible to defeat, the characters remain resolute. Rambert gives up on trying to escape, realizing "[t]his business is everybody's business" (210). When Father Paneloux attempts to convince Rieux to "love what we cannot understand" - submit to the plague's punishment - he responds with "all the strength and fervor he could muster": "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" (218). To those that would capitulate and pledge loyalty to a Fascist government, Rieux's reply is a condemnation.

The plague finally retreats in defeat. As Tarrou puts it, now there can be "a return to normal life," the simple pleasures of "[n]ew films at the picture-houses" (279). But the plague's lessons, good and bad, must not be forgotten. Rieux says the plague shows "there are more things to admire in men than to despise," but warns "the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years . . . and that perhaps the day would come when . . . it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city" (308). A fascist plague, with its stormtrooper rats, can always be hiding in the shadows, and we must remain ever vigilant.

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