The Plague

by: Albert Camus

Part II: Chapters 15-17

Summary Part II: Chapters 15-17

Tarrou is impatient with the authorities' inability to recognize the plague as a collective disaster. They engage in their own form of denial with daily death statistics and bombastic talk about whether 130 deaths as opposed to 150 is a "victory." They do not respond to the deadly menace of the plague with real, devoted action. Most of the public chooses to complain about the state of affairs, but Tarrou is one individual who decides to do something about it. Because the authorities have not really made a concerted effort to recruit volunteers, Tarrou takes on that responsibility for himself. He does not believe in forcing people to fight the plague. It is only meaningful if people volunteer their time and efforts; he refuses to see people condemned to death, in contrast to Paneloux.

Paneloux believes that there is a "Truth" behind the plague. However, for Rieux and Tarrou, "truth" is a matter of recognizing the plague as a collective disaster that must be opposed. As a doctor, Rieux has frequently seen people face impending death. One patient declared her resistance to death even as she took her last breath. The dying realize the utter futility of their resistance, yet many of them declare defiance anyway. Rieux does not harshly condemn Paneloux because he views the clergyman as merely ignorant. Paneloux has not watched plague victims struggle with the excruciating pain of the disease. Neither has he seen the implacable manner in which the plague continues to kill its victims despite their intense desire to continue living.

Rieux's personal life experience has taught him what ignorance can do. He did not choose the medical profession out of ideals of heroism. He only learned what it meant to be a doctor when he saw his first patient die. His experience has taught him about the absurdity of human existence. Human beings are condemned to die from birth, yet most people have an intense attachment to life. Rieux decided then that his duty is simply to fight death with all of his resources. Since he does not believe in God or the afterlife, Rieux believes that the here and now is all that matters. Although the anti-plague efforts seem to make no difference, he is unwilling to consent passively to death. He gives meaning to his life by choosing to accept the absurdity that his struggle against death is a never-ending defeat even though denial and inaction are much easier.

It might seem that Cottard's delight in the plague is due to his participation in the profitable smuggling trade that it spawns. However, his happiness is also due to his relief that everyone in the city now shares his terror. Prior to the epidemic, he was alone in his fear. Nevertheless, he fails to make the crucial connection with others that Tarrou, Rieux, and eventually Rambert, make. Although everyone in Oran is now afraid, he is still alone in his suffering. Others share their distress by contributing to the collective anti-plague struggle. He states that it's not his job to help fight the plague. However, this is no different from what many people thought before Tarrou's extensive recruiting effort. He is indifferent to the scale of death brought by the plague because of his selfish obsession with his personal suffering.

Rieux offers Grand as a "hero" because he does not believe in idealized ideas of "heroism." The capacity for good deeds, he asserts, exists in every person, not a few, noble, exceptional people. A very few people commit truly exceptional good deeds, but the numerous little good deeds are, on the whole, more important and more meaningful.