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The Plague

Albert Camus

Part II: Chapters 11-14

Part II: Chapters 9-10

Part II: Chapters 15-17

Summary

On Sunday, Father Paneloux delivers a sermon to a packed church declaring that God has sent the plague to punish Oran's citizens for their sins. Rambert continues his efforts to persuade the authorities to allow him to leave Oran. Rambert is briefly hopeful when he is asked to fill out a a detailed form about his education and work experience until he learns that it will be used to contact his family in case he dies of the plague. He is amazed that the bureaucracy continues to function as always.

Grand explains to Rieux that in writing his book he wants to create a flawless manuscript. So far, he has succeeded in creating a rough draft of his opening line, which he shares with Rieux. Outside, the mood of Oran drifts towards hysteria. Some people try to escape, and there are scenes of violence.

Summer descends on Oran, accompanied by its characteristic scorching heat. When the sounds of groaning victims drift out to the street, no one stops to listen in pity. Escape attempts are now punishable by long prison terms. The tally of deaths is announced daily over the radio rather than weekly. The little man across from Tarrou's room ceases to appear on his balcony because all the cats have been shot as possible carriers of the plague. Othon, the magistrate, continues to dine at Tarrou's hotel with his children even though his wife has been quarantined.

Rieux's asthma patient declares that everything is "topsy turvey." Although there are "more doctors than patients," the death toll continues to rise. Tarrou records that the asthma patient decided one day that he had worked enough for a lifetime. He detests watches, so he marks time by moving peas from one saucepan into another. The Plague Chronicle is launched under the guise of providing informed commentary on the epidemic, but it contains nothing but advertisements for "infallible antidotes" against the plague. The public spends extravagantly on costly meals and expensive wines at restaurants.

Commentary

The irony in Paneloux's sermon is that death is an irrefutable fact of human existence. He states that no human science can save a doomed victim of the plague. In truth, no human science can save any person from death of any sort. There is nothing that makes a plague death more meaningful than any other death. Camus implies that death is senseless no matter how it happens. Before the plague, the citizens of Oran were doing little more than waiting for death, passively entertaining themselves as their lives slipped through their fingers. They did not have the capacity to love intensely simply because they lived in complete denial, or completely unaware, of the certainty of their deaths. Paneloux doesn't ask his congregation to break with their meaningless inaction, to make the most of what may be the last day, the last week, or the last month of their lives. The plague is neither a rational nor a moral disaster. Hence, the only meaningful thing to do in response to it is to rebel against it, that is, against death.

Tarrou's hotel manager states that Othon's wife is "under suspicion", but he and Tarrou are not. His statement is an irrational denial of the shared catastrophe of the plague. It echoes Rambert's request for a certificate declaring him plague-free from Rieux. Everyone in Oran must face the prospect of catching the plague; everyone is "under suspicion" of contagion. Denial, flight, indifference are all forms of "wasting time," of surrender to the plague. It is ironic that the hotel manager and Tarrou should criticize Othon for his indifference and inaction. They are indifferent to him, his wife, and his family. It is not solely Othon's responsibility to fight the plague for his wife's sake, but everyone's. Most people in Oran expect someone else to take responsibility for defending their lives, so they waste time complaining about the lack of effort on the part of the city government, the medical authorities, and their fellow citizens.

Rieux's asthma patient has chosen to mark time by counting peas from one pan into another at a firmly regulated speed. This image is strongly reminiscent of Tarrou's suggested methods to avoid wasting time. He speculated that constant awareness of time via tedious, complicated, or frustrating routines would prevent an individual from wasting time. However, his suggestions were merely forms of filling time with unpleasant activities rather than pleasurable ones. Such activities are merely cultivated "habits." Tarrou now realizes this because he considers the asthma patient's method for marking time a meaningless, time-wasting "habit." Even though the asthma patient decided that he had worked enough, he still does not make any meaningful use of his time. He exchanged the habit of work for a different way of marking time.

Grand desire to write a flawless manuscript may be admirable, but it is also debilitating. A flawless manuscript is an ideal, but it is also impossible. To write a flawless manuscript would be akin, then, with curing the plague. Neither is possible. Camus thus outlines the inverse of the habitual daily routines that take up the days of most of the inhabitants of Oran: a complete lack of action because of an understanding that the ideal can never be attained. Both ways of being are ultimately isolating and stultifying; both are meaningless. As the plague progresses, though, and Grand begins to try to help fight the disease, a third option for facing the meaninglessness of life appears: acknowledge the absurd impossibility of winning the struggle for the ideal, and then struggle anyway; only in such a knowing, futile structure can an individual carve out both self-meaning and community.

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