cutesmart7, April 02, 2009
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By Georgina H Brandt
February 25, 2003
How do the events of The Plague
lead Dr Rieux to an understanding
of why man’s existence has meaning?
In Camus’ The Plague its events lead Dr. Rieux to an understanding of the meaning of man’s existence. In this novel, several existentialist principles are illustrated: first, men have freedom of choice; second, we are responsible for our actions and its consequences; third, what each person does he believes is good for all mankind (we become role models or examples); fourth, this responsibility brings anxiety or suffering; fifth, the absurdity of life through the inevitability of death; and sixth, alienation from societal institutions. This novel is divided into five parts like a classical drama.
The first part of the novel is introductory. The town of Oran is introduced as a place where: “…everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.’ Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as lovemaking, sea bathing, and going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible….” This description illustrates the limited freedom of the population; as slaves of commerce and habits.
The plague is introduced as a problem through the death of the rats and the efforts of Dr. Rieux and Castell in their discoveries. Its symptoms are described; and the history of several plagues in different countries is retold. At first, Dr Rieux among others engage in a bitter struggle against the authorities who drag their feet about warning the city because they do not want to create panic.
Part II begins with the closing of the city’s gates and the population’s affliction to their imposed exile or alienation from the outside world. This exile is portrayed as: “Still, if it was an exile, it was, for most of us, exile in one’s own home. And though the narrator experienced only the common form of exile, he cannot forget the case of those who, like Rambert the journalist and a good many others, had to endure an aggravated deprivation, since, being travelers caught by the plague and forced to stay were they were, they were cut off both from the person with whom they wanted to be and from their homes as well. In the general exile they were the most exiled; since while time gave rise for them, as for us all, to the suffering appropriate to it, there was also for them the space factor;…” Every person reacted differently: Dr Rieux dedicated himself to his work of saving as many lives as possible (alienating himself from his family); others resorted to loving each other as if they would die the next day; and still others took advantage of the situation by smuggling goods for profit. Father Paneloux calls onto the population to turn to God, for the plague has been sent to punish the wicked; his message run thus: “…to quote a text from Exodus relating to the plague of Egypt, and said: ‘The first time this scourge appears in history, it was wielded to strike down the enemies of God. Pharaoph set himself up against the divine will, and the plague beat him to his knees. Thus from the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened himself against Him. Ponder this well, my friends; and fall on your knees.’” Dr. Rieux sees it as a test: “…What’s true of all the evils of the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves….”; later Paneloux agrees with him after he sees a little boy die. Solidarity became commonplace, and Tarrou and his friends formed a group of volunteers to help the doctors: “…Since plague became in this way some men’s duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.” At the end of it, Dr Rieux tells us his definition of ‘common decency’: “…it consists in doing my job.”
Part III consists of the devastation of the plague and the fight against it. The town and its population is now portrayed: “…contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice…. only a collective destiny,… sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear…. excesses of the living, burials of the dead, and the plight of parted lovers.” And later as: “…wasting away emotionally as well as physically….” The anxiety caused by so many deaths is portrayed as: “…without hope, they lived for the moment only…. killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship….” and “…the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts.”
In Part IV, the protagonist begins to be victorious as the plague is forced into retreat. Rambert decides to join with them in the fight against the plague: “…a life of idleness to one of constant work had left him almost void of thoughts or energy….” Father Paneloux has a reversal of attitude after he sees a child die and his message changes to: “…time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you, I ask, would dare to deny everything?” and “…in periods of extreme calamity He laid extremes demands on it….” The town also experienced an immense weariness after so much death and despair: “…we all have plague, and I have lost my peace….” and “…nothing remains to set us free except death.”
In Part V, the plague is finally but temporarily defeated; nevertheless, the gates are opened, and the town returns to normalcy. Just days before it the population reacted thus: “It must, however, be admitted that our fellow citizens’ reactions during that month were diverse to the point of incoherence. More precisely, they fluctuated between high optimism and extreme depression. Hence the odd circumstance that several more attempts to escape took place at the very moment when the statistics where most encouraging.” Dr Rieux wins the fight against the plague but loses his friend Tarrou to it: “…So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.” The gates were opened, and people feasted and went to parties; and now Rambert unites with his love, but he is no longer the same person.
The events of the plague, its indiscriminate punishment, the relenting fight against it at times without much hope, and the final return to normalcy were quite an ordeal to the town as well as Dr Rieux. Yet he had won, and he rejoiced that the town was happy; even though, he had lost his wife and also his best friend Tarrou. He decides then to write about the plague, because it should come back he wants to inspire others to fight against it; for inspiration and solidarity do indeed give meaning to a man’s existence.