Summary and Analysis
The tragedy of a plague is announced in the book's title. It is also underscored in the first chapter. This technique, it is worth noting, is somewhat similar to that of a Greek tragedy. Here also we know in advance the horrible fate in store for the characters, and we watch as the scenes unfold the familiar fate and the agony of, say, Oedipus or Creon.
While reading this novel, one should remember that Camus has an initial prerequisite for an understanding of his philosophy of the absurd: a realization and recognition of the fact of one's own death. A man only begins living, according to Camus, when he announces in advance his own death to himself and realizes the consequences. This is, in a sense, what Camus is doing in the opening scenes of The Plague. He is announcing the deaths of many people, common people, and as spectators, we will wait, watch, hear, and perhaps learn from the consequences of the everyday Oedipuses and Creons of Oran — citizens warned again and again of their fate to die, yet who choose to be unbelieving, antagonistic, and indifferent to the warning. The announcement of death is paramount in Camus' philosophy and in his novels.
In the first paragraph of the book, the ordinariness of Oran is contrasted with the extraordinary business of the plague, and on the surface the comment seems possibly only a bit of literary formula. Camus, however, had good reason for beginning his work with just such a contrast. In his volume of essays, The Myth of Sisyphus, published five years before The Plague, he says that contrasts between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday are essential ingredients for the absurd work. Camus conceived of the universe in terms of paradoxes and contrasts: man lives, yet he is condemned to die; most men live within the context of an afterlife, yet there has never been proof that an afterlife exists. Camus' idea of living meaningfully, yet knowing full well that life has no eventual meaning, is a positive-negative contrast. It is natural, then, for him to begin and set his novel in terms of an extreme contrast.
Still considering his setting, note that Camus has done two things with Oran as a stage for his chronicle. As an actual Algerian town in North Africa, it functions as an anchor of reality for the reader. The book, after all, is an allegory, but becomes more successful in all its levels partly because of its existent geographic setting. Gulliver's Travels has improbable place names, as does Erewhon, and both works have a fairy tale quality, largely because of their ambiguous settings. The Plague, on the other hand, is more satisfying on the literal level because of its specifically placed setting, and, in addition, the literal level has more concern for the human condition than, say, the literal level of Gulliver's Travels.
Camus was not, however, to faithfully render Oran much further than geographically locating it for the reader. Once he set the novel in the hot region of North Africa and had captured our belief in its existence, he began recreating Oran and its people in Western terms. Oran is not the typical Mediterranean town described in guidebooks as having a "delightfully sunny complexion and charming little balconies overhanging narrow streets, with delightful glimpses of shady courtyards." Camus refutes this armchair attitude; he characterizes the town as filled with bored people, people who have cultivated habits, people whose chief interest is "doing business." This is far from the romantic Mediterranean town we might expect on the shores of the sea. These people Camus describes are recognizable as Americans and as western Europeans. There are numerous articles written in popular magazines satirizing our culture as mechanistic and materialistic. And, in his quiet way, Camus is also using satire. He is showing people who choose to spend their time commercially, people who "fritter away" what time is left for living. He has, then, created a city far enough away esthetically and geographically for his artistic purposes, but one which has the tempo and coloring of our own environment.
Examining the city more closely, the narrator says that love is particularly repulsive in Oran. People either have intercourse much as robots might, or they go about it animal-like — all this, he says because they lack time and thinking. Camus has often been characterized as a godless Christian, meaning that he expounds all the Christian virtues, but only in terms of man. Love, for Camus, is a mixture of "desire, affection, and intelligence." It is given to other men instead of to God. In this sense, man is sacred, but absurdly sacred; he may die in any moment, just as love may disappear within a moment. Yet one must live committed "as if" man and love ultimately mattered. The concern with love gone wrong is a symptom of an illness within Oran even before the plague of death strikes.
Having briefly illuminated Oran's life and love, the next focus is naturally enough on the other end of the human cycle — death. Death is a "discomfort." The tone here is low-keyed because the narrator is speaking of the normal day-to-day process of dying. And if fatality is wretched normally, imagine what discomfort will be encountered during the pages of this long chronicle of death. The casual mention here is being heavily underplayed. Even now, perhaps, one believes that the novel will not be so wholly concerned with death, but it will be. Here is a point, brief as it is, of normalcy to weigh later against the extreme. The mention of a "normal" dying man, "trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat," suggests the mazes of Dante's hell, mazes which must be traversed before the plague's thousands of deaths are tolled. And since Camus has lamented that man's imagination has ceased to function, perhaps the reader would do well to expand it here in this trapped, sizzling, "normal" situation of death and imagine the eventual effect of the plague.
The emphasis on the habits which have been formed and cultivated by the "soulless" people of Oran are significant. Vital living can be stifled by habits: in Oran, love-making is relegated to the weekends. Camus has said in one of his essays that the absurd is often encountered when one is suddenly aware that habits have strangled natural responses and reactions, that habits have simplified one into simplemindedness. It is at this point that one should revolt against his stultifying pattern of living. Recognition of bottomless death makes a habit-bound life even more absurd. Camus seems, then, to be creating a society of habit-oriented people in order to confront them with death in its most horrible form — the plague. Then, from this confrontation, new values regarding living will emerge.
"It is impossible to see the sea," the narrator tells us. Oran turns its back on the bay. The sea, of course, is a striking symbol for life, richly and lushly lived. Camus himself loved the sea; when he swam in it, he encountered it nakedly and boldly, in a way virtually impossible to encounter society. Societies too often contain hypocrisy and jealousy; there is seldom honesty and directness. One knows what he encounters when he swims. In social waters, swimming is done blindly. Oran turns its back on nature, on sincerity, and truth; its concern is with the materialistic and the habitual. As a natural and symbolic backdrop the sea, with its unbound waves, is an ever-present, ominous comment on the action.
The narrator's insistence on the book's objectivity stresses his wish to present the truth, as nearly as possible. He lists his data and where he got them. He will tell, he says, "what happened." Knowing, of course, that he (the narrator) is Dr. Rieux, we can see a kind of scientific detachment to his style, in addition to his hope to be objectively truthful.
The style, which is semi-documentary, is reminiscent of journalism. Perhaps Camus' several years of newspaper writing were the genesis of this style or helped formulate his ideas concerning the need for careful, documented truthfulness. In any case, the reader should note that Camus does not single out lovers clinging together during a plague situation to snare his readers' attention. He hopes to tell his story authentically, directing the narrative to our intellect and our imagination rather than to our heart strings. His result has the tone of precision — much the same as Truman Capote's nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.
The reader should also remember that the book is not, per se, a novel; the volume is a chronicle, and thus we should not expect avant garde or impressionistic devices — nothing except, as nearly as possible, a factual account of a plague and the people affected.
In addition, Camus is striving for an esthetic distance between the reader and the novel which will keep the reader an observer. Close identification, a major objective for most fiction authors, is to be avoided because emotional involvement will keep us from seeing the book as, at least, a three-dimensional allegory. Camus' immediately attacking the problem of exposition and setting, and defining them simply and directly, establishes a tone which he will hold until the book's end. This objective tone is particularly important because by underplaying the sensationalism of the plague, he hopes to startle our intellect more completely to its lessons. In this first chapter, then, he has rather formally given us the setting, almost dryly discoursed on its features, and finished his brief, journalistically sounding framework for the action to follow.
The chronicle's action, however, develops slowly. The Plague's first chapter is a rather neat, concise package of setting and background, and Chapter 2 is, in a sense, another such block of writing, somewhat like a second solid step taken into the novel, but with a difference. Chapter I is written in a sum-up style by a narrator who slips us occasional asides throughout his short discourse. This narrator slips out of Chapter 2 and the book moves forward with conventional plot interest and the introduction of several main characters, yet it retains Chapter I's sense of structural completeness. The chapter begins with Dr. Rieux's discovering a dead rat and a crotchety concierge's indignant and comic fussings and it ends with a total of several thousands of dead rats, plus the plague's first death — M. Michel, the concierge. The first dead rat begins the chapter; the first victim ends it.
Some of Camus' descriptions of the rats in this chapter are worth brief notice. The townspeople of Oran insist that the rats are surely meaningless, whereas the rats are extremely meaningful. Black is white to the people, and Camus' adjectives, in a parallel, often describe something quite the opposite of what is. For example, Dr. Rieux feels something "soft" under his foot. Usually soft is associated only with pleasant sensations, but here it is used in reverse. It describes the bloated corpse of a rat. Shortly thereafter, when a rat comes from the sewer it is described as spinning on itself with a little squeal, a sort of miniature ballet before death. In fact, Camus says later that the rats were coming out in long swaying lines and doing "a sort of pirouette." He describes the blood puddles around their noses as looking like red flowers. Again, as in Chapter 1, he uses an extreme contrast — here, to point to the absurdity of the symptoms: rats can't be seeping out of houses and sewers for a reason — rats' deaths can't be beautiful. Yet both are.
This is a small point, for there is much description of the rats as repulsive and rotting, but Camus' occasional contrasts of appearance versus reality in his description is exactly what the chapter is concerned with.
The character focus of the book is not wholly on Dr. Rieux, but because he is, in disguise, the narrator, he assumes a kind of early main character or hero focal point. Studying his reaction to the dead rats — the symptoms of the plague — we find him to be a common-sense type of "hero." Camus does not slide him into a pivotal part to be an obvious mouthpiece for any heroics of philosophizing or, for that matter, any other kind of typical heroics. Rieux is a doctor; throughout the book, he doctors.
As a character, he is initially fleshed out with a good deal of personal preoccupation when he first encounters the dead rats. The blood leaking from their mouths reminds him of his wife's illness and her imminent trip to a mountain sanatorium. Their numbers seem only an oddity, a curiosity. He shrugs away the matter, saying "it'll pass." It is, however, Rieux's early indifference to the rats which eventually passes. With his wife away, he is left in a perspective larger than any plagued romantic tragedy. He is totally pledged to the populace, but not even yet does he divine what it is that hovers over Oran. Plague never enters his head. When the garbage cans begin filling with rats, he telephones the sanitation department — a businesslike and correct way to deal with the situation. Indeed, this thorough and methodical attitude will continue throughout his dealings with the plague. His is a quiet, unsensational role, but it is exemplary in that he is totally committed to his fellow men and has "no truck with injustice or compromises with the truth."
Another character, although her part in the book is small, is introduced in this first chapter and is important because she exhibits a general Oranian attitude toward the plague's symptoms. "It's like that sometimes," says Rieux's mother, suggesting a seen-much, lived-through-much mind. She survives. She has seen depression, a loss of her husband, has surely even seen war; besides, she's with her son. She'll decide the importance of this unpleasant talk about rats when need be.
Jean Tarrou, on the other hand, is intrigued. This is a wholly new experience and he savors it.
Very briefly, we also meet in this chapter the senile, chuckling old Spaniard. Perhaps because he is so near death himself, he enjoys with relish the instinctive feeling that he will not die alone but with numerous companions.
The journalist Rambert seems, at this point, only a foil for Rieux. His role will enlarge as the story develops. At present, he admits that he works for a newspaper that compromises with truth. Rieux, of course, is intolerant of such a situation and abruptly ends their conversation.
Grand, too, seems to furnish a foil-like situation for a deeper insight into Rieux's character. Being poor, Grand is not charged for the doctor's visits. Rieux responds immediately to the old man's call for help — help for a neighbor who has tried to hang himself. Further, he says he will ask, as a favor for the man, that the police inspector hold up the inquiry for a couple of days. When Grand explains "one's got to help a neighbor, hasn't one?" the doctor's several instances of demonstrated humanity are now even more clearly emphasized.
Richard, the telephoned colleague of Dr. Rieux, exhibits an oft-used approach of intellectuals toward problems. The situation of the rats may or may not be considered "normal," he says. His defense is with a semantic shield.
In the beginning, then, the rats are a ready topic of conversation for the townspeople, drawing them together in chattery groups. Later the Oranians become vaguely uneasy. The rats, they say, are disgusting, obnoxious, and a nuisance. When a total of some 8,000 dead rats is made public, there is even a demand for some kind of action and an accusation of carelessness is made against the sanitation bureau. But, when the symptoms suddenly vanish — tritely, like the sudden calm before a storm — all concern vanishes and the people breathe, as Camus says ironically, more freely.
Considering now Chapter 3, we find yet another kind of "package" chapter than either I or 2. So that the book will not have a one-viewpoint narrative, the author of the chronicle offers the notebooks of — not an Oranian — but those of an outsider, Jean Tarrou. By presenting another viewpoint, that of someone who has no family or loved ones affected by the plague to color his account in his notebooks, the truth of "what happened" will be more nearly correct. Of course, Rieux, the doctor-narrator is, as nearly as possible, scientifically objective in his reporting, but the account of Tarrou aids and insures even greater honesty in the finished statement concerning this period. It is Tarrou who will supply the details to fill in the broader narrative outlines of Rieux. These details are the gears and wheels of Rieux's project of truth; they are the bits of conversation, street-corner portraits, the city's nerve ends.
Where Tarrou has come from is a mystery, but after several days of minute observation of the city, he writes: "At last!" Thus, it seems as though he is searching for an endpoint or goal of some sort — and has found it in Oran. But what interests him most about Oran? Surprisingly, it is the town's ugliness, its lack of trees, its hideous houses, and the ridiculous layout. He takes particular delight in regularly watching an old man coax cats beneath his balcony then, ecstatically, spitting on them. Tarrou's mention of the old man's finally spitting into space one day when the cats fail to appear is another voice to convince and remind us of what Rieux has said earlier about the town. It is bound, perhaps even strangling itself, with habits.
The mercantile air of Oran also pleases Tarrou. Perhaps he is looking for an epitome of modern foulness. If so, this amplifies the narrator's comment in Chapter 2 comparing the rats to pus, oozing from the abscesses beneath the town.
There is more, though, to Tarrou than a seemingly morbid curiosity. Rieux notes his sense of humor, his love of swimming, and his fondness for the company of dancers and musicians. More important, he is a questioner and a self-examiner. He wonders about wasting time, for example, and his present answer is "by being fully aware of it," one does not waste it. As a reader, you might consider how he would view the old Spaniard who carefully puts dried peas from one pot to another. Is the old man aware of what he is doing? Is he wasting time?
This idea of not wasting time and of infusing the utmost consciousness into the present moment is an important existential tenet. This minute — now — this is what matters. Tarrou's suggestion that one might profitably remain on a balcony during a Sunday afternoon is reminiscent of what Meursault of Camus' The Stranger does on Sunday afternoon — watching, looking, seeing. All of this can be an exercise, if done consciously, to revolt against time's silent, sure murder of the body.
Tarrou says he is only interested in acquiring peace of mind. Why, then, would he come to Oran? This is a question to speculate about after we know Tarrou more thoroughly. For the present, he records the snatches of shallow gossip in Oran: the decay of the rats' bodies is seen as the only danger. That the rats themselves mean something more serious is ignored by the general population.
Only once in his notebooks does Tarrou add a comment after his scraps of reportage. He speculates on a musician who continues to play his trombone after he knows that his lungs are dangerously weak. Why Tarrou singles out this particular instance to comment on is fairly obvious. Tarrou, besides liking musicians, sees Oran as a town built of physical ugliness and of a sterile commercial spirit. Here is a man who challenges death in this repulsive setting and accomplishes what he desires most — making music. He is somewhat of an oddity in Tarrou's album of sketches.
Rieux includes a brief physical description of himself written by Tarrou, and then ends the chapter which seems, on the whole, somewhat fragmentary. Like Meursault, Tarrou is unconcerned about most things. He seems disconnected, interested primarily in himself. But because he shows little concern for the rats, but is sufficiently fascinated by Oran to record its idiosyncrasies, he is excellent for Rieux's purpose — a substantiation in presenting as accurate a picture as possible about the first days of the plague.
As the plague gently begins its slaughter, Dr. Rieux discovers in Chapter 4 that he must battle another plague-like phenomenon — the so-called red tape of bureaucracy. The frustration is Kafkaesque. Rieux is also convinced that the victims of the unidentified fever should be put in isolation, yet he is stopped because of his colleagues' insistence that there is no definite proof that the disease is dangerously infectious. The other doctors refuse to draw conclusions or make an attempt to consider the cases. Rieux is futilely attempting a professional search for the truth. The atmosphere is as oppressive as a sickroom. Like the sudden relief from the rats before the plague sets in, the patients all seem to take a turn for the better just before their death struggles. The reality is like a bad dream — absurd. There is a breakdown in communication between Rieux and other men. Rieux seems isolated — in miniature, a situation akin to the total isolation which the plague will eventually impose upon Oran.
This isolation of Rieux and of Oran is buttressed by one of Camus' exacting images. Referring once more to Oran's position on the sea, he says that it is humped "snail-wise" on the plateau. The image expands and colors the chapter. A snail's pace is exactly the tempo that the town has taken concerning the investigation of the curious fever deaths. And a snail's shell of indifference and ignorance is hiding the townspeople and even Rieux's colleagues from the truth. Even before the crises that the plague will create, here is a crisis of major importance — a crisis for truth.
This chapter also provides a fuller treatment of the character of Grand. Earlier, he has said "one's got to help a neighbor, hasn't one?" and suggested a Samaritan attitude. This impression is now modified. He did not discover Cottard as a result of his coming for a friendly visit. He read the shocking chalk-scrawled note on Cottard's door and dashed in. Talking about Cottard, Grand says that the only previous instance of any odd behavior is that the fellow always seemed to want to start a conversation. Why didn't Grand respond then?
Grand seems paradoxical. He is sure that he is a good neighbor, but is he? On the contrary, he appears to be much more concerned with words than he does with people. His dictionaries, his blackboard, the crammed full portfolio, his study of Latin to perfect his French — all this — his search for the basic, the Ur-origins — is admirable, but he seems, thus far, neglecting the people who speak the language he delves into. Consider, too, the fact that Grand has a "finical anxiety" about his speech. But what comes out of his mouth? Empty phrases that he gropes forward with — phrases like "his grim resolve" and "his secret grief," phrases that border on being clichés. Language is living. His search is for a knowledge that will produce a perfect prose. Again, this is a marvelous sort of endeavor, but the result will be too perfect. It will be artificial and devoid of that vital flush of life that separates an artist from a craftsman.
Leaving Grand, Rieux tends more patients. The swollen ganglia which he sees recurring are often lanced and disgorge a mixture of blood and pus. This idea of disgorging is similar to the disgorging of the bloodied, bloated rats from beneath the town — another parallel image-idea of Camus'.
And Camus proves as facile with the paradoxical. The rats were headlines in the press. The ganglia deaths are not even mentioned, and a certain knowing cynicism about journalists' reporting only what happens in the streets — not behind closed doors — reveals Camus' ever serious concern with truth.
The chapter ends with Rieux hesitating before he actually acknowledges, pronouncing the words, that this is indeed plague which is beginning to devour Oran. An older doctor is present and urges him to admit it. As he does, Rieux is staring at the cliffs, the piece of bay, the sky — at nature, at creativity; he says "plague" to himself, and his thoughts of impending death create a polar contrast with the free, natural scene before him.
Rieux's initial acceptance of the plague is a major scene in this first section, and as relief from this tension Chapter 5 briefly changes the pace. This chapter is a kind of didactic catch-all for Camus-Rieux to vent personal feelings about the plague and all its implications.
Here again we see Rieux as quite the opposite of a wily Odysseus hero-type or an undaunted chivalric figure. He is staggered by the knowledge that he has reasoned out for himself. And, if up to now he has been one step ahead of the townspeople in conscientiously trying to isolate and arrest this mysterious virus, he has never completely stopped and considered the panorama of torment which will be in store for the prey of the plague. Rieux, as narrator, castigates the townspeople for their stupidity and frivolity, these people who refuse to conjure and consider consequences. He sees them as pitiful, and universal, dupes of illusion.
The plague is an enigma to the doctor. Its death-dealing powers are so enormous that his imagination fails to respond to the figure of a hundred million deaths, a figure he reckons as the historical toll of plague.
All imaginations cope ineffectually with such a figure, but the doctor's problem is compounded by the fact that he deals daily in death and has seen the raw damage that statistics are charted from. It should be especially noted here that the doctor is attempting an emotional response to the advent of plague. His try at imagining the annihilation of five movie houses of people is an attempt to arrive at something concrete and meaningful. His thoughts of fellow Athenians fighting one another centuries ago for burial rite space for their dead foreshadows a like battle he will fight when he attempts to properly care for the sick and dying.
In contrast to his quandary in this chapter, the natural beauty of the outside beams healthily. As he watches and listens, it is the sea he hears most clearly as it murmurs with unrest, affirming "the precariousness of all things in this world." His coming-to-terms with whatever has invaded Oran must be accomplished soon, but with reason and observation. He does not undergo here a metamorphosis and emerge something much grander than before. His determination to be simply efficient and thorough is his answer for the present — doing one's job as it should be done. This is the careful, exact quality in Rieux that we have seen previously. He has considered, speculated, yet returned to his familiar role of the dedicated, commonsense doctor.
This speculation of Rieux's turns into musings throughout Chapter 6. He muses on the dimensions of Grand's character — measurements which are unexceptional, but important in their implications. Two things are done here with Grand. His unimportance is particularized and then this nonimportance is generalized into symbolic significance.
First, Rieux considers Grand's occupation as clerk. He seems to manage, cheerfully enough, on what certainly can't be more than a pittance of a salary. The reader must here see Grand against the background described earlier. Most of Oran talks, scribbles, and muscles their days into ample financial rewards. Grand, in contrast, does not. He lacks almost all sense of commercial survival. Holed up in his room, he pours over volumes of philology. Ironically, Rieux remarks, just such insignificant people often escape plague. Once more, as a point of reference, Camus' earlier fictional character of Meursault won't ask for a transfer; neither does Grand ask for salary raises or advancements. To both men, their leisure time is of prime importance. For Meursault, that time is spent swimming, going to the movies, and making love. Grand struggles over perfecting the beginning of a manuscript. Both men are, strictly speaking, nobodies — statistics, figuratively; actually, counters of statistics.
This inconsequentiality, however — isn't this, in a broad sense, definitive of Oran? In spite of their greed and thrift, there are no millionaires in the city, there are no artists of repute, no statesmen or politicians — there is actually no one known outside the city walls.
Rieux considers: none of these people matter, yet such a major tragedy as plague — what possible reason could there be for its singling out Oran? What logic, he wonders, is behind the destruction of Oran? Rieux has proven himself to be a man of logic; this pondering is quite in character. And, at this point, Rieux has pronounced the word "plague," but has not wholly adjusted to its revolting reality. He is still in vague, unbelieving awe, as if the word had barely left his open mouth.
Before leaving this chapter, there are two more incidents of credit for the doctor. Exhausted and preoccupied by the fever patients, he agrees to drop by and discuss a matter with Cottard concerning something about which Cottard is irritatingly vague. Originally, the doctor had suggested that Cottard drop by during consulting hours, but clearing his head of plague thoughts, he sympathetically responds to the fellow.
The doctor gives Grand credit for being a man of feelings. Is it, however, Grand who has admirable feelings toward his fellow men or is it Rieux? One should question, at this point, whether Rieux is wholly to be trusted. Making decisions about motivation and not succumbing to the evaluation of the central figure's is one of the hurdles in learning to read literature. Rieux says that Grand "confesses" to dearly loving his nephews and sisters. He even admits that his heart responds whenever he recalls his deceased parents. Rieux's observation of Grand has Oran as relief, a town which becomes uneasy at the suggestion of affection. As yet, Grand has to show us any real sympathy. Even with Rieux, on their way to the laboratory, he suddenly dashes away to spend the evening with his bookish project. Grand's character takes on ambiguous shapes.
Before Oran is finally quarantined, Dr. Rieux confronts one more tangle in the local snarl of red tape. The Prefect, or local magistrate, must be dealt with. His stand concerning the seriousness of the plague is important because he is the self-deceiver, one of the safest — and most despicable — of roles. The Prefect sounds like a Liberal, but is an arch Conservative; he imagines himself encompassing each of his city's crises with sage wisdom and acting accordingly. But when he says that prompt action should be taken but "don't attract attention," he is pitifully similar to the civil rights fighter who supports protest marches as long as they are done in good taste and don't "attract attention." The man is a coward, afraid of indiscreet remarks, and is actually very frightened of Rieux's charges of epidemic. But he is not alone. Another colleague of Rieux's loudly supports the Prefect's stand on the issue, explaining away the fever in vague, medical-book sounding generalities. Finally Rieux seems at a loss for an answer. Only old Dr. Castel says matter-of-factly that plague is their visitor. Rieux modifies his seeming indecision by saying that the symptoms are not "classic," and at this point his purist view is alarming. Is the man going to insist that definitions and clinical reports be compiled and printed? Camus is teasing our suspense. Rieux counters his introductory remarks by debunking them. He tosses semantics to the timid-tongued doctors. Word games are ridiculous now. Action is the only answer.
Irritated that Dr. Richard would sarcastically accuse him of having proven the disease to be plague, Rieux insists that he has not proven plague. He has simply seen something as deadly as plague with epidemic proportions. Rieux then insists that they must act "as if" it is plague. Only then can they perform responsibly and efficiently.
The final and short scene of the woman dripping with blood, stretching her arms in agony toward Rieux, is another incident to help us see Rieux as a man who is aware of human cries for help. He has fought throughout this chapter for official resolutions to help just such people. In the relaxingly furnished quarters of a municipal official, amid a background of professional-sounding doctors and their medical jargon, one is far from the bloody pus pockets of the city. Rieux is arguing from a distance, from scenes he witnessed on the city's outskirts, and here his opinions are so contrary to most of those assembled that he might seem absurdly radical in his insistence. He leaves the room of doctors, a room of health and sanitation and goes outside, into the fresh air — now full of disease, and he sees bloodied evidence that affirms his stand for us and stiffens his resolve for action.
In Chapter 8, the plague and municipal efforts play tick-tack-toe. The plague tallies a few more deaths, and officials respond with a brief notice or two in obscure corners of the paper and small signs at obscure city points. Officially, rats and fleas are to be exterminated; illnesses resembling the mysterious fever are to be reported and patients isolated. Cleanliness is to be observed. Perhaps, it is hoped, the plague will then take care of itself.
Cottard's character now takes on greater significance. Grand reports that a complete change has taken place in the man and Rieux does some firsthand observing. Camus delineates some of the manifestations of a guilty conscience, but does not yet answer all the why's of Cottard's behavior. The reader should imagine and reason possibilities for himself by asking such questions as: why did Cottard try to commit suicide? Why does anyone attempt suicide? Because of fear? Fear of the future? of the past? of being alone? Guilt? Why does Cottard have an irrational fear of the police? A fear that they will be "rough" with him? He is relieved, you remember, when Rieux says that he will protect him. Consider, too, the scene in which Cottard's suicide motive was discussed. He merely replied "a secret grief," and refused to look at the officer. He insists on being left in peace, yet now he effects a change. He is suddenly animated, amiable, and altogether not himself. He now eats in luxury restaurants and flourishes grand tips. His remarks about his new acquaintances being good — witnesses and his unease in a gossip about a murder case — these suggest to Grand that he has something on his conscience. His uneasy glances over his shoulder and his question about patients being arrested concern Rieux. Who is this man? He has tried suicide and recovered. Now, when the plague is eroding the town's edges, he has a new surge of life. He is now concerned that he live, that the police do not arrest him, and that his rights be fully respected. The taste of death in the town has invigorated him. Camus has swollen Cottard into major proportions in this last chapter of Part 1; later the man will merit even more consideration.
Rieux admits that he is afraid. His hopes for a natural cessation of the plague are of course futile. The emergency measures are insufficient. Castel says that, ironically, something as tiny as fleas are at the root of the problem.
And outside nature is serenely blue, brilliantly golden. Spring's heavy perfume is in extreme contrast to the heavy smell of death.
Tarrou continues to observe, the old man spits on the cats, Grand writes, Cottard goes his way, the Spaniard counts his peas. Nature seems indifferent to the mushrooming fungus of destruction. Even the population seem indifferent as they perform their habitual, meaningless gestures. The death figure drops, then spurts up sharply. At last word comes from the head of officialdom — Rieux's efforts to convince the proper authority that an epidemic has begun are rewarded — the town is to be severed, totally isolated. Plague is proclaimed.