The Plague as Allegory
Attempts to explain an allegorical work are, at best, rarely satisfactory. Allegorical interpretations are as elusive and as tenuous as their interpreters. One critic will charge that the work has been diced into irreparable ruins; another will dismiss the same essay as superficial and general. Camus recognized this difficulty and remarked that only broad outlines should be paralleled in allegorical comment. To attempt a thorough analysis would be to suggest that the work was not art but contrived artifice. It is in this spirit of generalities that The Plague has been considered.
Camus' chronicle had been conceived as early as 1939, but was not begun until after France was defeated and the Germans moved their occupation troops into the country. During these years Camus kept a series of notebooks and many of the jottings in the notebooks suggest the multitude of ideas that Camus considered before his book was finally completed. Nearly all these early Plague ideas reveal Camus' concern for a truthful realism and a rejection of sensationalism. They also indicate his continuing insistence that his book carry his metaphysical ideas of the absurd. Initially Camus was even wary of the word plague. Late in 1942, he cautions himself not to include the word in the title. He considers The Prisoners. Later and more frequently he mentions the prisoner idea and, especially, the theme of separation.
Several kinds of separation are apparent already in the first part. Within the plot line, many of the characters are separated from one another by their small-time greeds, their lack of human love, and their indifference. There is also the separation of the living and the dead as the plague progresses into Oran. The ill are put into isolation camps and are separated from relatives and family. Finally, and of philosophical interest, is the separation of nature and the Oranians. The setting is awesome and beautiful on the sea. Throughout the sick-tainted days of the epidemic, nature is radiant. Man's plight seems nonexistent. Here is Camus' crux. Man wants and prays fervently to be important to some guiding force in the heavens — something larger than himself. Yet there is only beautiful, sun-warmed silence; there is only separation between man and his universe.
What supreme irony that man should be in such total isolation and long most for the impossible. The universe is indifferent to us, to our plagues of whatever magnitude. Nothing is certain but death. We are isolated. Alone. These are the truths which Camus believed about existence and which he hoped to parallel in Oran's situation, cut off from the outside world and imprisoned by the plague. And, in this extreme situation, he created characters who would be forced to think, reflect, and assume responsibility for living. Death is faced by many of the Oranians for the first time — and with all the horror of a plague. This confrontation with death is mandatory for experiencing the Absurd. The symbol of the plague can, of course, represent any hardship or disaster, but rationally facing our existence is probably one of the most extreme of metaphysical trials. One never fully experiences until he has gone through a struggle for self-understanding and, in The Plague, the symptoms of the rats suggest the confusion one undergoes before this long struggle. The symptoms of distress — of this need to understand oneself and one's universe — can of course be ignored, but finally one does have to face himself honestly and endure a plague-like period of readjustment to the truths one must live with. Within existential philosophy this examination period is mandatory. It is actually a reassertion of Socrates' "the unexamined life is not worth living."
There seem, however, to be few positive or concrete symptoms of distress before man comes to terms with his existence in the universe. On the contrary, there seem to be only negatives and nothings to confirm this distressed feeling. One must reach rock bottom and begin questioning a faith that began long ago to cope with the revelation of the frauds of Santa Claus, of stork-delivered babies, and the perfection of, at least, one of our parents. Everyone finally seemed composed of a measure of hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness. People become, simply, human. And with honest consideration even the superhuman becomes suspectedly human. The universe is ever silent. Prayer seems much less than even 50-50 certain. God's whimsy confuses.
Awareness of a godless universe and a thorough re-evaluation of one's life and one's civilization is of prime importance within the existential context. Man's struggle to adjust to his new vision, his guilty relapse into easeful hope for eternal life, and his fleeting thoughts of suicide — all these will plague him until he will, with new insight, re-emerge to live with the absurd vision, with spiritual hope, or self-impose his own death.
The plague is also a useful symbol for all evil and suffering. The old Spaniard suggests that life is plague-like and Rieux seems to argue for this possibility of interpretation. Facing a plague's problems is no more than facing the problem of man's mortality. Camus' atheism may at first seem repugnant, but it is affirmative because it stresses each man's role as representative in its responsibility and commitment. Camus does not tempt man to endure suffering or evil for promised rewards in the hereafter. He denounces evil and offers human dignity to men who will end suffering through action, not through prayer. He offers man the awful burden of total freedom to determine the fate of mankind — with no recourse to an always, all-forgiving deity. God can too easily become last-minute insurance. His forgiveness entitles man to exist in the lifeless monotony of Oran, living life selfishly and indifferently until crisis time.
Leaving the metaphysical and turning to the concrete, remember that while he was writing The Plague, Camus was living in a homeland occupied by German conquerors. His country was imprisoned as completely as plague might seal off its borders. There was destruction, death, and suffering. The cruel violence of this was as unjust as the cruelty of a plague. And Camus' chronicle is a personal affirmation of the worth of human beings and life despite — despite being exiled in the universe, despite being ravaged by disease and tyrants. It is a belief in life's potential for multiple meaning and fullness.
This belief is especially remarkable because Camus realized that the world was not conscientiously reacting to the symptoms of war. France, particularly, has been criticized by historians for succumbing too easily to the Nazis and delivering their country into German hands. But France was not alone. These symptoms were known to all countries, and because Part I of Camus' book deals with symptoms of the plague and the reaction of the populace to them, we might now consider the symptoms that preluded World War 11 and some of the national reactions. Further, we might recount some of the major national deaths before the United States actively entered the fight against the Axis powers.
Aggression was first initiated by Japan in September, 1931, when she moved into Chinese Manchuria. The trouble spot was oceans away. The Chinese made appeal to the League of Nations, who appointed a committee to study the problem. The committee verbally condemned the aggression, but no active measures were taken to repel Japan. Her next move was a deeper penetration into northern China.
The actions taken against the enemy, then and in Camus' book, were on paper — compiling, counting, suggesting. To combat either a plague or a hungry aggressor, piles of study reports often amount to the same kind of ashcan effectiveness.
The Chinese Nationalist government recognized Japan's conquests, but the rebelistic Chinese Communists refused, demanding that the invaders be driven out. They finally kidnapped Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and demanded immediate military action against the enemy. But the Chinese continued to retreat and in 1938 Japan openly proclaimed a New Order. Chiang Kai-shek's empire was to be annihilated and all Occidentals were to be removed so that a new and completely Oriental government might be established.
Here was solid proof of aggression that should be halted, but because Japan had not declared war, could another nation label her actions aggressive? The policy of look-see (the same as that of Dr. Richard, Dr. Rieux's opponent, in The Plague) was generally agreed to at this time.
Meanwhile, happenings in Europe were somewhat parallel. In 1936, Hitler had sufficiently mesmerized the German people into a growing Nazi war machine. His first move was to march into the Rhineland. After World War 1, this area had been a kind of no-man's land. Originally it was to have been ruled by France; later decisions filled it with Allied occupation troops. It was to be strictly demilitarized. Hitler's invasion was in gross violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Further, it violated the Locarno treaty, which reaffirmed the zone as demilitarized and which France, Germany, and Belgium agreed not to invade. Any offender would be attacked by the other two signers.
Camus could be justifiably proud of his nation in this crisis. While the rest of the world looked on at the Rhineland, France mobilized 150,000 troops. She alone responded. Other nations thought it unwise to engage in militaristics; some feared the label of "warmonger"; others simply saw Germany as arming her borders, a rather natural thing for a country to want to do.
In 1936, Italy overran Ethiopia. France, Britain, and the United States seemed indifferent.
Meanwhile, Hitler continued his expansion. Austria was swallowed in March, 1938; a year later, Czechoslovakia was overwhelmed by the Nazis. In America people went to their jobs, hoping for the best. Enjoying relief from the earlier Depression, they were not anxious to face the horrors of war.
During this time President Roosevelt delivered his "quarantine speech," stating that peace was being jeopardized by a small portion of the world. Later in 1939 he speculated that "in case of war" the Germans and the Italians might win.
Even earlier than Roosevelt's quarantine speech, however, Winston Churchill (a Rieux or Castel figure) had the reason and the imagination to consider what confronted the world. "Do not suppose that this is the end," he said. "This is only the beginning of the reckoning . . . which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom . . . . . .
United States armed soldiers came to Europe late. Only in December, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, did the United States officially enter the world conflict. Before this entry the Nazis had invaded Poland, conquered Denmark and Norway, defeated Holland and Belgium, driven through France, captured Paris, annexed Rumania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Finally they threatened Britain with successive air raids. Then they turned toward the Soviet Union.
Throughout these years, the people of the United States had commented on these tragedies to each other over bowls of breakfast cereal. And, as the Nazi machine devoured the houses of European neighbors, the United States continued to go its way — like Grand, Cottard, Rambert, and many others of the Oranians. We hoped for the best, that this plague would sate itself and relent. Ironically, after we quarantined ourselves from the European conflict, we found ourselves in a kind of quarantine after Pearl Harbor. Our Allies lay wounded at the Nazis' heels and we were surrounded by enemies.
Thus not only can one see parallels in the French people's failure to curb German encroachment and occupation, but a general reluctance on the part of people everywhere to recognize the germination of the plague of war. Finally, of course, must come the formal declaration.
Even before their country was occupied by la peste brune (the brown plague), as the brown-uniformed Nazis were called, the French people did not consider the mobilization orders serious. Sisley Huddleston, in his book France, the Tragic Years, reports that the general comment was "it will be like last year." The people thought it silly to cry "Wolf!" when there was no real danger.
When war was official, there was the same sense of incredulity that Oran suffered. There was also death, but it was not caused by the kind of war fought in 1914. This time war was mechanized. Nazis parachuted their troops, had amphibious craft, and Panzer divisions. The French were ill-equipped and fear was as destructive as the Nazis' machines. This fear, plus the lack of any cohesion weakened the country. By degrees, waves of panic, dejection, and indifference swept the trapped people. At the war's beginning, even Camus was rather unbelieving; later he was morose when the conflict could not be averted. He blamed both the masses and the leaders for their weaknesses, just as in The Plague, he attacks the indifferent citizens and their wishy-washy officials.
The plague lasts almost a year; the Occupation of France lasted four years. During those years the majority of the French people clung instinctively to life, seeking out small pleasures, praying intermittently, hoping for signs but, largely, neither aiding nor resisting the enemy. The Resistance was not a large organization, just as Rieux's team was also not large. But they persevered, believing in the rightness of their efforts. It was not easy to murder men merely because they were Occupation troops. Tarrou's philosophy seemed most humane, but Camus and others finally took the stand that he writes of in his "Letters to a German Friend." Here he confesses the difficulty he had in affirming violence to counter the enemy. He stresses the agony that intelligence burdens one with, especially when one is fighting savage violence and aware of consequences of which the enemy is ignorant.
The despair and the separation were endured by the French people until the Allied troops liberated the country trapped behind the Occupational walls. And, like all men, like even those survivors of World War 1, the French swore never again to let tragedies like this happen. Mankind, however, is free. Camus believes in the potential of the human race to avoid destroying itself. But he offers it the freedom to do so — under one condition: that each man assume his guilt for the holocaust.