The public reacts to their unexpected isolation with an intense longing for loved ones outside Oran. Mail service is stopped for fear of spreading the plague beyond the city walls. The public, settling into a grim acceptance of exile, ceases to ponder a hopeful future. If someone speculates that the epidemic will last six months, he or she quickly realizes that there is no reason why it should not last for a year or longer. Contemplation of the present provokes helpless impatience, and the past provokes regret. The citizens, who now consider themselves prisoners, drift aimlessly through the days because all of their hope and suffering seem irrational. Fortunately, the selfish obsession with personal distress prevents widespread panic. The cafes and the movie theaters enjoy brisk business because the idle public needs to occupy its time.
Grand explains to Dr. Rieux why his marriage to Jeanne failed. They married, continued to love one another, and worked. However, they worked so hard that they forgot to love one another, and she eventually left him. Grand has tried unsuccessfully for years to write her a letter explaining his actions.
Rambert is determined to escape Oran in order to rejoin his wife in Paris. He tells the authorities that he is entitled to leave Oran because he has no real connections to it, having been trapped there by chance. The authorities state that they cannot set a "precedent" by letting him leave. Dr. Rieux refuses to give him a certificate declaring him free of the plague. Rieux acknowledges that it is an absurd situation, but there is nothing to do but accept it. Rambert accuses him of using the language of abstraction. After all, the interests of the public are a collection of the interests of private individuals. Meanwhile, Rambert settles in lethargy, drifting from one cafe to another.
Dr. Rieux muses that his situation requires a certain "divorce from reality." The beds in the emergency hospitals are full, and there is always an emotional scene when he evacuates patients from their homes to isolate them from their families. Pity has become useless, so he no longer indulges in it.
Only when they are imprisoned do the citizens of Oran realize the relative freedom they once enjoyed. Before, there was nothing restricting them except the force of their own habits. However, just as before the plague, they continue to be selfishly self-absorbed with their personal suffering. Each citizen believes his distress is somehow unique. They do not try to "find the right" words for their suffering because they are horrified to think that their listener pictures a common, mass-traded emotion. Partly, Oran's people lack the imagination to communicate their suffering to other people; they were consistently "bored" before the epidemic.
The plague makes Rambert realize that he values love and happiness over his profession--that is, his means for making money. However, he is still preoccupied with his personal distress. Insisting that he doesn't belong, he declares that there is a rational reason for his "right" to leave Oran. Nevertheless, he does not realize that there is nothing rational in his situation, just as there is nothing rational in the arrival of a plague epidemic in Oran. Rieux must treat everyone as if they had the plague even if they may not be infected. The consequences for acting otherwise are too dire. The plague requires an all-or-nothing attitude if the authorities of Oran are to prevent it from spreading to other cities.
Rieux realizes that Rambert's accusation that he uses the language of abstraction is true to some extent. He does have to avoid pity and sentimentality because he needs to preserve his emotional stores to continue working against the plague. Unlike Rambert, he recognizes that the plague is his concern. The plague concerns everyone in Oran whether they want to admit it or not. Everyone in Oran is a potential carrier of the illness, and thus, a threat to everyone on the other side of the city walls. Therefore, in one sense, the plague is an abstraction, existing outside and beyond itself in the threat it poses. It requires people like Rieux to respond abstractly, and coldly, in response to the individual suffering of people like Rambert.
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