Camus’ “The Plague”: A Book for the Troubled ‘Tweens?

April 24, 2017 in General

According to the Economist (21.04.2017), classic dystopias like Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) are back in vogue as literate liberals strive to comprehend the concurrent resurgence of reactionary populism and illiberal xenophobic nationalism within the United States, Britain and Western Europe. One unlikely contender for this status is Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947). Ostensibly, the book is set in late colonial era Algeria, in the coastal town of Oran. One day, local Dr Rieux finds a dead rat, and suddenly the town is quarantined due to a consequent outbreak of bubonic plague. As the epidemic’s death toll mounts, and friendships, family bonds and intimate relationships break down under the stress of dealing with epidemic disease and its toll on the community. Funerals are replaced by rapid peremptory burials and looting and violence set in, leading to an atmosphere of resignation and despair. Doctors become distanced from their patients and yearn for solidarity with the outside world once more- Rieux is finding it particularly difficult, as his ailing wife is dying outside the quarantined community of a fatal illness and he cannot be with her. However, the tide turns when stranded journalist Rembert is offered a ticket out of the stricken community, but refuses, chosing solidarity with the victims and survivors of the epidemic. Thankfully and eventually, the disease passes- but Camus reminds us that plague bacilli stays present within furniture, clothing and housing, able to strike again when vigilance was lax. Camus wrote this as an allegorical description of France’s ordeal under Nazi occupation (1940-1944) and in these times of recrudescent right-wing extremism, anti-immigration racism and xenophobia, it may still speak to our contemporary anxieties, almost seventy years later.

Recommended:

Albert Camus: The Plague: London: Penguin: 1947.

Prospero: “Troubled Times: How “The Plague” infects the modern political mood” Economist: 21.04.2017: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2017/04/troubled-times