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The Plague

Albert Camus

Summary and Analysis Part 3

Part III consists of only one chapter — a short, intense chronicle of the crisis weeks in Oran, the time when two natural powers — the plague's rising fever and the midsummer sun-incinerate the city's prisoners. No longer is there active revolt. The panic-generated energy of Part 11 is gone. Despondency has stultified the population. As the chapter builds in intensity, corpses are piled quietly in ever-higher heaps, and Rieux does not dwell with the monotonous minutes of daily living, waiting, and enduring. His concern here, for the most part, is with the dead and dying, and because most of the section deals with the details of interment, Rieux has, like the Oranians in their task of withstanding the fever and the summer heat, his own test. The dying and the burying of which he must speak have loathsome particulars. Oran's crude mass burials would have tempted most writers to create the most vividly dramatic inferno imaginable, the volume's longest chapter. Rieux, however, controls his sensational subject, writes succinctly, and reports what he saw, not lapsing into melodrama. His sense of objective purpose concerning the chronicle has the same perseverance that he has demonstrated in his doctoring.

Rather than exaggerate, Rieux uses imaginative images and factual realism for the chapter's atmosphere. Once again he uses the words "prisoners" and "prison-house," reminding us of the image most common to Oranians. He describes the summer in provocative detail: the blistering, savage heat, heightened by the dirt storms, transforms the city into a gigantic bake oven, a larger version of the recently reopened crematory on the city's outskirts. One device, he implies, burns the living; the other, the dead.

All of the prisoners' senses are attacked in this chapter. The crematory assails the city with its stench; the skin is parched by drought, the eyes are stung by the dirt, and for weeks the wind shrilly whistles above the town, at times seeming to moan, at other times seeming to wail. Plague makes direct kills on some citizens; but on others it is more devious. The latter must battle on several fronts: fear, panic, and a feeling of exile and separation drain love from the heart; the senses are physically assaulted; the mind suffers major losses of hope and logic. Even imagination fails finally to recall separated loved ones, just as memory eventually succumbs. There is a trance-like adaptation to the plague. Horror reaches a point that fails to horrify any longer; it becomes a kind of monotonous norm, a habit. The Oranians live for the present, but are so despondent and spiritless that they cannot inject their living with meaning. Rieux insists that we not interpret this state as total resignation. There were some new habits to replace the old, and only a few citizens wholly gave up; the former steadfast refusal to be coerced by death is no longer in the city, but in its place is lethargy and a limboish state of waiting and enduring.

The changes within the people and within the city are important elements in this section. The plague, for example, is no longer concentrated in the outer districts. Suddenly it strikes the center of Oran, at its heart. Civil law is no longer effective and the city is under martial law. The acts which necessitate martial law are examples of highest absurdity, only a step below murderous anarchy. The burning of homes is not spontaneous, however. There are symptoms: mounted police gun down pets, symbols of home; first, the symbol is destroyed; later, the home itself. The action of this chronicle always builds; absurdities develop logically into one another toward the final culminating of atrocities in this chapter.

As always, there is irony. Homes are burned by people living on scraps of common sense. The plague proves to be so silent, elusive, and deadly that something has to be done. If serum is not always effective, perhaps germs are harboring in the safest of places — in homes. So homes are burned in moments of breakdown and irrationality. Martial law threatens the offenders, of course, but — with imprisonment. Within the prison of Oran, if a man burns his home, he is legally imprisoned and, once behind bars, certain of death, for nowhere is plague so thorough as it is in the prison house. The irony increases when we realize that plague initially isolated Oran from the outside world. Then, once inside the city, after it had given the town if not a responsible solidarity, at least a united sense of common trouble, it viciously attacked not individuals, but groups (prisoners, nuns, monks, soldiers) and caused the members to be in individual quarantined isolation, miniature exiles of their city's exiled state. The chapter also records the separation of Oran into habitable and off-limit districts; the various kinds of separations will increase as the chapter continues.

When Rieux turns to the changes in burial processes, he remarks that his motive for retelling what may seem excessively repulsive is not morbidity. His tone here is defensive, but justifiably so. Especially to an American audience of amateur analysts, many of whom have never seen the systematic strokes of slaughterhouses, much less the chaotic extermination and the seemingly inhuman acts Rieux means to recount, the grossness of the chapter might seem too Gothic for belief. Since Rieux has said earlier that he has told only what happened, his artistic integrity cannot be questioned. Thus an audience of today might interpret his including these scenes as traceable to morbidity or to another neurotic genesis. Freudian divining has popularly replaced the horoscope in contemporary living; each system has labeled sections with precast futures, and Rieux (Camus) was aware that many readers might — even as early as twenty years after, in a comfortable well-civilized country — evaluate this chapter as the dreams of a morbid necrophiliac. Thus his word of caution reminds us that what we are reading is based on fact.

Note particularly in this chapter the circumstances of the burials. The civic authorities, once more, are identified with their endless paper work. Official forms, Rieux says, are the most important part of burials. A satiric attitude toward the men in charge is a convenient viewpoint and perhaps too easily superficial. Although the men seem to be strangling themselves in red tape, they are fighting the plague as efficiently, and often as humanely, as possible.

To forbid vigils is to suggest a lack of feeling, but isolation of corpses is a health precaution. In a similar way, speedy funerals appear to be the end product of a speed-oriented society, but the health factor is paramount. Propriety is the principle behind separate pits for men and women after cemetery plots are filled. Then, of course, when separate pits are impossible, Oran's officials conceive of stratified burial — alternating layers of corpses and quicklime — as the most competent alternative. Even the utilization of streetcars, at night, to transport the dead en masse to the crematory has humane efficiency as its motive. All of these absurd, unbelievable acts are part of a plan to struggle against Oran's enemy; they may seem barbaric, but the plague demands such survival tactics.

And then the worst is over. When the city can withstand no more, the plague begins to level off. Had it continued its killing, Rieux projects, carloads of bodies would have been dumped into the sea. It is interesting that in 1941, when Camus was jotting ideas for the novel in his notebooks, he had decided to have a sea full of corpses. Of course, he was more of a symbolist then. Several years later, he had lived through a world war and an occupation by enemy troops. His country had been witness to bestial atrocities; these he used in this book to serve his literary purpose more effectively than the elaboration of a literary symbol. Although he intends his chronicle as an allegory, he does not sacrifice realism on the primary level for blatant symbolism. To date, man has not resorted to mass sea burials. By 19479 however, open pit interment, filled by the blades of bulldozers, had occurred under Nazi supervision. Camus does not jeopardize his book's strength with exaggeration. His realism includes only acts actually committed by man.