Summary and Analysis
Throughout Part I, there is a sense of urgency and frustration. Death darkens the pages and we are among the few to realize what is happening as the toll increases. The frustration, however, is not wholly a life and death matter. Now, besides lives, there are values which are being annihilated. But Camus is structuring an irony. Death does not finally seem as important as knowledge does. We do not feel horror when the plague is proclaimed; the horror of the disease has already saturated us. We have read of its ugly symptoms — the heaps of rats' bodies and the blood — and pus-swollen sores. The plague is already very real to us. When the designation is officially announced the news seems good, for it means that although death, for awhile, is the victor, at least ignorance has been defeated. We read of the acknowledgment of the plague with a sense of relief. Truth has a victory. A lucid evaluation of the crisis has been achieved, the enemy has been revealed and can now be confronted.
Part II re-begins the chronicle in a different tone and with a different sense of time. The tone is less intense. Remembering the first days after the gates were closed, Rieux pulls back the focus of his narrative for a long general view. Here and there he recalls events that link disjointedly to one another — hands scribbling last notes, the look in lost eyes, feet wandering aimlessly. This is how it was, he seems to be saying and his tone is that of a man who has survived, but only barely. As a participant, he is almost absent; he is the raconteur and he speaks of a new element of time. Previously, in many lives, there was never a definite yesterday, a definite tomorrow and today; they were all part of an ambiguous dimension. Now the plague has shut the city gates, walled out the outside, and given a name to the hours prior to closing: that time is Before. The present, the now, is particularly frightening because it is seen against and as a part of a sequence of days and nights of living and dying. At least, then, the future had always been there — somewhere — even if it hadn't been seriously considered. Now even its existence seems in doubt.
Because this first chapter of Part II is a jumble of summary, perhaps it is best to begin considering Oran's new environment and the adjustment of the townspeople toward it. Like children thrust into a dark room, they are taken by surprise and caught unprepared; perhaps "dark room" isn't an exaggerated analogy: this new environment of Oran is like a world turned upside down — by accident, loved ones are away from the city, there are no letters, no telephone calls, no word from Out There. Several times Rieux refers to the city as a "prison house" and as a "lazarhouse," and of their existence as one of exile.
As for adjusting — to face a problem does not necessarily mean that one faces it honestly. Few Oranians, it would appear, do. In general, there seem to be two ways of coping with the quarantine. At first some people succumb; others invent diversionary escapes.
Rieux describes those who give up as ones re-walking where memory has now made certain streets precious. He also speaks of those who enfold themselves in nostalgia; they create new habits, slow down their pace, and orient themselves toward waiting for the inevitable. Then there are those who do not give up, but who run. They run after hope. They hope letters can be sent someday, so they continue writing. They send telegrams, but realize that clichés and platitudes are the most concise and satisfactory texts for communication. Finally they realize the futility of any messages. The telephone arteries break down early. No amount of processing can handle the swollen flow. The next step is make-believe: waiting for the renewal of train services, the jingle of the phone, of the doorbell. Why this creativity? Largely because their pasts are full of remorse. Thus, they try changing; they ritually remember a mother's face throughout the day; they become model husbands for the wives beyond the walls. All these activities are their answers for ways of living under a sentence of death.
Of particular interest is how the plague binds men together and then, ironically, cuts them apart and rebinds each man within himself. Each man is as trapped as his neighbor; no one has special consideration under the plague's regime. There is an immediate leveling of social distinctions. All are equally in trouble, but they cannot comfort one another because they have never done so before. They have never expressed conventional emotions, and thus it is frustrating and useless to speak of the extreme emotions that the plague produces. The people talk past one another. They are doubly imprisoned — within Oran and within themselves — and this double-barred atmosphere of each man is awesomely new and menacing.
Besides the Oranians, there is one more type of prisoner in Oran. Rambert is such a man. He is a journalist, trapped here without a loved one and outside his home. Rieux pities him most. But we should remember that the plague is unrespecting. Lastly, Rieux suggests that the Oranians are lucky — a strange statement. But it has its genesis in Camus' fondness for irony. The Oranians are lucky because their suffering is selfishly and limitedly personal. Because no one feels great compassion, they escape the deepest distress; Rieux mentions indifference being taken for composure. His irony is icy when he concludes that this limited despair saves Oran from total panic.
Finishing the random rememberings of Chapter 9, Rieux now concentrates on a subject dear to the people of Oran — their commerce. And only by considering what must certainly have been one of their gravest trials can we arrive at more of the truth about those days.
The plague has sealed the harbor. Money has stopped flowing in and out of the bay, and once again there is irony as Rieux describes several Oranians gazing out at the corpse-like ships afloat. The Oranians, you remember, seldom looked at the bay or responded to the natural sea beauty on their city's edge. Now they look upon a scene of stagnation. Commerce has ceased. In comparison, people seem of lesser consequence. Perhaps this enormous natural symbol of death, more than most any other factor, staggers them. They cast about, worried and irritated, for someone to blame.
To blame the Prefect, their business leader, seems natural enough. The city's business has failed, the city's chief is to blame. They seem like children blaming their mother because rain has begun to fall. The control of gasoline and foodstuffs confuses them; their failure, however, to understand the death statistics is plausible. Before, they thought principally of themselves and of their accumulation of money and material things. Death held little interest for them — particularly when it was a numerical statistic. Now comparisons are futile. Imagination, as an antidote, is impossible because the city's supply has long since atrophied. And so most of them either run from realizing what the plague involves or give up.
Who is making money? Only someone or something able to furnish hope or illusion for the troubled: bars and movie houses. Alcohol and the silver-screen are instant relief for personal misery that is festering. Pathetically, movie house crowds do not diminish when it becomes necessary to begin showing re-runs. Nor does common sense seem to care when taverns boast that spirits are the most effective agents against infection. For some, then, there is money to be made from misfortune but, for most, commerce is indeed dead. With expected irony, Rieux remarks that the idle crowds filling the streets make the city look festive and holiday-like.
For the remainder of Chapter 10, Rieux leaves his commentary to record three conversations: one with Cottard, one with Grand, and one with Rambert, the journalist. To each of the men he is a kind of father-confessor figure.
The brief Cottard episode is disturbing. In the midst of death and confusion he is still the beaming fellow that we left pages ago. His behavior is totally incongruous. His anxiously happy questioning about the plague's getting worse, his jokes about grocers getting rich — these seem almost the actions of a madman. He could be easily tagged a psychotic if he didn't mutter that "We'll all be nuts before long." He has come back to life in the poisoned air of Oran, but what's more important — he seems to realize why he is now happy and why he must seem ludicrous and "nuts."
Why does he talk to Rieux? There are two possible reasons: first, Rieux has doctored him, shown kindness, and offered to protect him; second, Rieux is a doctor and can function meaningfully only when people are sick or dying. For the first time in months Cottard finds himself functioning, if not meaningfully, at least satisfactorily — and in the shadow of a plague. The values of the men are antithetical, yet Cottard is reaching for fraternity. Dr. Rieux is admirable; the plague increases his chances for stature. And because Cottard has a new sense of well-being, he resorts to a superficial analogy to provide himself with some kind of peer. Yet there are moments when he (and we) can see another analogy. If he is happy because he is surrounded by people waiting for death sentences, perhaps it is because he has his own sentence waiting for him — a legal one. His earlier fear of the police supports such a supposition. For the present we know very little about Cottard, but should be aware of his increasing uniqueness. Camus intends for this character to carry considerable symbolic weight.
Cottard meets Rieux in the morning, two days after the gates have been closed. The same afternoon Grand comes to Rieux's office and, stimulated by a picture of Rieux's wife, becomes suddenly talkative about his past. In this scene Grand's character loses much of its previous vagueness. His mulling over of the past is exactly what some other Oranians are doing, but Rieux has said that those who suffer remorse have turned into escapists. This is not true of Grand. He has remorse, but considers and weighs the liabilities of his past actions. His wasn't a glamorous or even a happy marriage — which shouldn't surprise us, knowing Grand even as superficially as we do.
He was a shy young fellow and felt protective toward Jeanne. They shared, one day, the loveliness of a Christmas-decorated shop window and were married soon afterward. Knowing Camus' affection for natural beauty, and having Oran's commercialism as a background for Grand and Jeanne, we might wonder if their sharing of happiness — for what seems to be the first and last time — in a shop window, artificially contrived to be beautiful in order to induce people to buy, isn't a comment on the meagerness of their chances for a full, rich life together. Grand's tone is fatalistic as he continues the episode.
His wife's leaving was admirable. Here was revolt. Because her life with Grand was bleak, silent, and doomed did not mean that she had to submit to its certain fate. She did not even have a lover who promised her happiness. Her remark that one needn't be happy to make another start suggests that groundless optimism is as ridiculous as the pessimism that her marriage was fostering. The important thing is the fresh start, the refusal to be trapped by convention or environment. Man has a right to change. This is Christian and also existential. Marriage had become a habit for Jeanne and Grand, its banality became unbearable. The only honest courage was to rebel against the mores of Oran that urged acceptance of a barren marriage as inevitable and final — even good because it had been decided and contracted. A decision, in an existential sense, is never irrevocable. There is always scope for insight, growth, and change.
Grand continues that he has always wanted to write and justify himself, but he sees his failure to find the words as a flaw in his will power and in his vocabulary. Could he justify himself? His attempt to write the perfect book is cerebral, a kind of passionless fantasy. Too often, his frustrated love of words seems to be a grotesque parody of his indifferent marriage.
With both Cottard and Grand, Rieux does very little communicating. Just as Oran is sealed off, so these people seem to be fenced apart. Cottard needs Rieux for support — someone solid whom he can trust, to whom he can mutter a weakness, and as someone whom he can bounce wisecracks off. Their talk is over in minutes. Grand's contact with Rieux is a bit more fruitful. He confesses for the first time the circumstances and the consequences of his failed marriage. There may be a degree of self-deception in his narrative, but his attempt to ponder is admirable. It is, in a sense, as fresh a start as Jeanne made years ago. And Grand's story has its effect on Rieux. For days the plague has been foremost in his mind; now he sends his wife a telegram expressing his concern and hope for her recovery.
Rambert's talk with Rieux takes place approximately three weeks later than the meetings with Cottard and Grand, and it is longer than the talk with either of those. Rambert insists on being an exception, on being released from the fate imposed on the Oranians. He wants Rieux to give him a certificate of release. Rieux notes that the journalist talks "incessantly, as if his nerves were out of hand." This is significant because Grand and Cottard also talked in this fevered tempo.
There is another similarity among the three men. Within the core of each of their conversations is a secret. For Cottard, his secret is a crime; for Grand, it is his miscarried marriage. Rambert's secret is that he has discovered that love and happiness are all he really cares for. Now, as though he is asking for a parole to go back to Paris, he appeals to Rieux. The plague has stopped him in Oran and caused him to realize that he is failing to love his wife as completely as he might. As the two men talk, Rieux picks up a small boy who has tumbled down. Ironically, he cannot right matters quite so easily for Rambert. Rieux says that Rambert has an excellent subject to write about in Oran. This sounds callous and ironical, and there is probably a vein of irony here, but there is deeper truth. The future for everyone in Oran is uncertain. Today, even tomorrow, may be one's last. To escape is impossible. To plead is futile. Rambert is a journalist and, however valid and heartbreaking his discovery that he has a potential for human warmth and love, nothing can alter the black-bordered present. To write about the plague is quite a worthwhile task; in fact, for Rambert this seems his only rational course of action. He has talent and training for reporting and here is a subject for him. To try to right an unsatisfactory past is impossible for all three men. The present, as Rieux tells Rambert, is their only time. For Cottard, this means a perilous freedom and a brotherhood with the threatened populace. Grand seems to be thinking, if not about the plague, then at least about the past, and thinking is an Oranian rarity. Rambert has, admittedly, a larger problem. He is caught within a strange city, the probable victim of a hostile and indifferent disease. He is totally alone and must now put all of his values to test if he is to survive with his integrity intact.
After he leaves Rambert, Dr. Rieux considers the journalist's slur that medicine has hardened him and that he deals only in abstractions. Rambert's remarks stem, of course, from his disappointment and failure to get a certificate of release, but there is a certain truth in his attack. Death and sickness are both concepts and realities; Rieux deals with them in both senses. In addition, Rieux's professional pace is extremely taxing: long hours of diagnosing, of treating, and of disposing of the dead. Often one must, in such an emergency, become as abstractly enduring and as effective as one's enemy. Couple this with the temperament that originally creates a doctor and the result is an anomaly. Rieux's heart is, no doubt, more sensitive than any in Oran, yet a doctor cannot survive on onion-skin sensitivity the way a poet can. He must keep emotion alive — in spite of habitually seeing sickness and in spite of daily seeing death. Death can easily become the norm, sensitivity an outmoded burden. More than anyone else in Oran, Dr. Rieux has continued his declaration of war on death and on the plague. He honestly admits to occasional periods during which pity dies and he becomes indifferent, but it is during these times that he sleeps and forgets and heals an exhausted mind and body.
He ends the chapter with an incident which is a kind of travesty the plague has produced. Doctors must physically battle members of a family in order to remove and isolate the plague's victims. The once welcome face of a doctor is now as foreboding as though he were wearing a mask of death. Here is one more type of isolation within Oran. Already we have seen the city isolated, then large numbers of citizens isolated by selfishness and ignorance; now we have the isolation of the sick. This concept of separation is increasingly walling in the city and its prisoners.
Chapter 11 is brief but highly dramatic and most important. It concerns the role of the Church during the plague — what its attitude was and how it battled Oran's murderous enemy. More than any single scene thus far, this chapter is loud and vivid and, as a reader, you should not overlook Camus' art in readying us for its drama. In the novel, as in any other art form — music, painting, poetry — rhythm is necessary; the tempo and the modulation of mood must be in balance before an artist is satisfied. The result is beauty, but unobtrusive beauty — a whole so skillfully produced that one is usually unaware of the separate parts and their tension. A critical analysis seems the proper place to call attention to some of the mechanics of esthetic pleasure in literature.
Consider the whole of Part I. Frustration fuses the individual scenes and builds steadily until the last sentence is read with the same intensity that one feels at the culmination of a Chopin crescendo. After this emotional exercise one is not ready for an immediate, feverish movement. It is necessary now to have a breather — to relax before the next burst of theatrics. Camus gives us opportunity to do exactly this. After Part I he begins an unhurried reminiscence through Chapter 9, concentrates his recollections upon commercialism in Chapter 10, and finishes the chapter with three conversational scenes, each a little longer than the last and each more important in the quality of personal revelation. Camus moves from the general to the less general and then to various lengths of specifics before presenting again a full chapter of action.
For Chapter 11 there is special preparation because there is more than a confrontation between major characters. Camus presents Religion versus Plague. Of course the character of Father Paneloux is significant, but the Church takes precedence. Since man's beginning, he has worshiped and feared some aspect of the natural world and has hoped in terms of an Eternal. Faith in a Something larger than man has millenniums of tradition; Camus' ideas challenge all these years of seemingly instinctive faith. In this chronicle, alongside the Oranians, the Church is on trial. It is, however, not the cave of safety that critics often accuse it of being. It does not ignore Oran's epidemic. But neither does it attack it forthrightly; instead, the Church injects reason into the plague's power. Before the Week of Prayer's Sunday sermon, people had been harried by something irrational and meaningless. This is no longer true. The Church has defined: the plague has a beginning and, ostensibly, an end. It has originated in the sin of Oran, its purpose is punishment, and its termination is dependent upon repentance. The logic of religious truth is responsible for this interpretation.
Objective narrative is probably impossible when recording what Rieux (and Camus) would consider ignorant, if holy, sermon-shouting. One should be aware that this chapter is not as objective as Rieux has said his chronicle would be; there is irony shot throughout its length. In the first sentence, Rieux means that the word truth be understood conversely. Truth is impossible for the Church. Truth comes only after unbiased thought, repeated analyses, and admitted mistakes. The Church, never erring, once again applies its subjective, cover-all formula of "sin = punishment" to this current crisis. There is further irony in Father Paneloux's being an expert in deciphering ancient inscriptions. Deciphering hieroglyphics may be possible for the priest, but deciphering the meaning of the plague is beyond his capabilities. There is additional irony in the chapter's imagery. The church service occurs during a torrential downpour and when Rieux uses such words as the "swelling tide of prayers," the "backwash" of invocation, the "overflow" of the congregation, he is building, tongue-in-cheek, image support for a major irony. Here, in the cathedral, away from the rain and the plague, people have gathered for a rebirth of hope. But do they receive hope?
Before the congregation enters the church, they undergo a baptism of soaking rain. Then they enter, and Rieux notes the smell of their soggy, wet clothes; this suggests the soggy, wet rats of Chapter I which escaped from Oran's sewers to die in the streets. Now, in a reversal, the Oranians are soggily leaving the streets and going inside a church to escape the plague. They come for help and for blessing, but find themselves intimidated, browbeaten, and charged with criminal acts; they receive spiritual death, a parallel to the death of the rats. The sermon will not rouse the populace to coping effectively with the physical menace which is slaughtering them. The sermon prescribes soul-flailing and prayer, but not practical precautions. It compounds confusion by creating guilt and fear when strength and courage are needed.
Finally, there is another example of irony. The long sermon is highly effective because it is so passionately powered with emotion. It descends with the fury of the rain outside. In fact, the pounding of the rain and the pounding of Paneloux's rhetoric join forces to drive the crowd to its knees. Yet, when Paneloux has captured their wills by emotional means, he exhorts them to "take thought." Of course what Paneloux actually means by "taking thought" and what Camus would mean are two different concepts. Paneloux desires the congregation to take his thoughts. Thought, for Camus, would include thinking, not a substitution of mass confusion or mass acceptance of a doctrine of punishment handed down by a furious representative of the Unknown.
Besides the idea of "taking thought," there are two more ideas concluding Paneloux's sermon which Camus would champion, but which he would interpret antithetically. The priest charges the Oranians with "criminal indifference." Camus, in his novels and essays, pleads for an end to indifference among men. Paneloux refers to man's neglecting God; Camus' concept is in terms of a conscious and intense humanism.
Paneloux concludes his sermon saying that a prayer of love might help matters. But after the orator has been so striking in his sermon about devils and bloodied spears, this suggestion is colorless and vague — a kind of post thought, a p.s. of love to soothe before he releases the congregation. Practical brotherly love and love's responsibility are ideas which we have seen in use — by Dr. Rieux. For him, and for Camus, these ideas of love and responsibility are primary and basic, certainly not vague and benedictional.
Before leaving the chapter, one might note that for a holy man, Paneloux's image during the service has an ironic blend of the satanic. He is described as looking massive and enormously black. His big hands grasp the pulpit; the connotation is exact. Grasp is exactly what he does to the congregation that fills his church. He seizes their minds and grips until they are united in their shame. In addition, he addresses the public as his brethren, yet he indicts them in the second person, in the "you." He does not say that "we" — if he is a brother to his brethren — have deserved the plague; he steps outside his judgment.
If there is distinction in creating a national image, Father Paneloux is responsible for a share. Rieux noted earlier that the Oranians had felt a vague sense of union because they were equally in trouble. After the Sunday sermon they increasingly see themselves as criminals — prisoners serving sentences in the prison of Oran.
In addition, after the Sunday sermon, Oran begins noticeably to change; Rieux says that panic flares up. And, in part, Paneloux is also responsible for that, but he is certainly not the only factor to consider. To blame one man would be unjust and erroneous. The priest is probably more at fault for what he failed to do than for what he actually effected. Paneloux's responsibility lies in fanning the flames of panic — of giving impassioned and unverified reasons for the deaths. To his church service came people who were directionless and questioning. He hurled to them biblical horror tales of punishment by plague, convincing them that they deserved what was happening. He cried that the Oranians were enemies of God, were proud and indifferent — charges which are necessary ingredients for regular Sunday scourging; Paneloux had only to fire these charges vocally and imagistically until he saw heightened fear and awe in their faces. It was likely terrifying, yet what takes shape within people during a harrowing Sunday sermon has partially dissolved even by Monday morning.
At the root of Oran's panic is probably the resurgence of fresh deaths. Death has vivid bloody traces; it is visual. A sharp rise in its slaughter will stir panic before preaching will. But the combination can be lethal especially if, in Paneloux's case, the preaching is fortified with reasons that are emotional fuses. Reasons, per se, without emotional fuses, are seldom as terrifying to people as a phenomenon which seems monstrously superhuman and destructive. Reasons can be weighed by examining their validity, considering who gives the reasons, what the man's background is, and how objective he is. Rationality usually averts panic. But alarming inquisitions — emotionally colored, misunderstood, and ignorantly interpreted — can be chaotic to a people panicking in the terror of a disaster.
For an example of Oran's growing panic, Rieux tells an incident that centers upon Grand and shows us what is probably one of the less spectacular of panicky reactions. By using Grand — the petty official ("the kind of man who always escapes" plagues and wars) — as an emotional measure, our imagination can begin with him and extend up the scale of Oran's panic. Rieux therefore does not have to be encyclopedic.
Grand trembles violently, gulps his drinks, mutters, and is on edge. He is short with Rieux, who doesn't understand the writing project or the weeks spent on one word. It is not known what Rieux thinks about Grand's problem with conjunctions, but within the circumference of this special trouble is, in miniature, a parallel to his problem in living responsibly. Grand has confined himself so totally in his off hours to his room and to the numerous revisions of the first sentence of his book that he has lost real zest for living and for reality. He seems to lack a social conjunction just as he lacks the proper and, but, or then.
Grand has, besides general troubles with conjunctions, an additional problem which he explains in detail to Rieux. He has evolved a scale of difficulty in choosing conjunctions. It is hard, for example, for him to choose between but and and. He doesn't say why, but it is important to speculate about. And is a simple joiner, whereas but can imply a stand on an issue. And joins two ideas innocuously; but, however, follows a statement, qualifying it with a second statement. One cannot utter a but impersonally; a new dimension of the speaker is apparent. And there is even an added risk when one uses a but. And's can be pedestrian; but's, though, register objection, and with different motivation, can even excuse the first assertion. One has to choose then between an unassuming and and a more forceful but and, if the latter, there is the additional burden of dilemma. For a man as introspective as Grand, here in his prose problems are exactly the kinds of decisions that, in a social situation, try his courage.
And and but are hard to choose between, but harder yet are but and then. Remembering what has already been said of but, think now about then. The word connotes a continuance, an evolution. It has a positive, growing quality. Grand's hardest choice, however, is whether or not to use a conjunction at all. To initially commit oneself is, simply, the most difficult trial.
With Grand, Rieux is sympathetic, but no doubt the genuine tenor of his feelings is partly supported by professional poise. He listens to the constant whistling of the wind and it conjures an image of Paneloux's holy flailing, slashing the air over Oran. Rieux's mind wanders as he listens to Grand. The assertion that he made to Rambert — that he must face actual facts — finds a humorous echo in this chapter. He thinks Grand's dream of creating the perfect prose to which publishers will say, dramatically, "Hats off!" is largely impossible on account of the fact that publishers don't wear hats in the office. This bit of faraway musing that is stimulated by Grand's repetitive gesture of "Hats off!" is one of the few touches of humor in the book.
As for imagery in Chapter 12, you might note that Grand's labored first sentence is blessed with beautiful adjectives. This is in extreme contrast to his poverty and to the plague. The morning is fine, the month is May, the rider is a lady and elegant, her horse handsome, and their path flowering and running through a park filled with greenery. The words try, in addition, to jog with the horses' trotting pace. The sentence is stuffed with superlatives and promises. And ideals. The effort Grand has set for himself needs the will to join the first sentence with the second and so on. But Grand remains with his first words. Perfection: this is his dream. He must produce a perfect work to be left behind for posterity. This will be his life's labor and, even though it may seem impossible to us, at least he has not compromised. To some, he has wasted hours and pages of paper, but he has kept a dream alive. As beset with difficulties as he is, he has worked to produce nothing less than the best. There is nothing of genius in Grand, but because he is a human being, we should see that he does possess something admirable. Absurd, perhaps, but also admirable. Even within this nobody, this drudge, there is life and an individual sense of purpose being kept alive.
Rieux makes the transition from Chapter 12 to 13 rather cleverly. While listening to Grand talk about perfecting his prose, Rieux hears a commotion outside, goes to the window and sees people racing through the streets toward the city gates. He rushes down the stairs and pauses a moment. Here is evidence of the latest gossip — the epidemic of attempted escapes. Rieux literally dashes down the stairs into Chapter 13, pausing only a moment to ponder these escapes before beginning the subject of the chapter: the escape tactics of Raymond Rambert.
On first reading, this chapter seems only one more tale of frustration, but it is more; it is one part of a principal irony Rieux is preparing. Chapters 13 and 17 will be contrasted against each other. The former recounts the numerous business-like dead ends that Rambert encounters as he tries legally to leave Oran. Chapter 17 concerns his illegal attempts. Both systems — Oran's civic structure and Oran's underground — are ironically built of similar bureaucratic labyrinths and both refuse Rambert's request with the same kinds of Kafkaesque ambiguities. In addition, Rambert's attempts to escape have a rather interesting quality of setting within this larger dimension of irony; Camus gives them a sporting image. Rambert is not the often-seen, lean journalistic type. He is a squat, powerfully built, former football player, and his refusal to accept the status quo of official and unofficial no's has the kind of muscular resolution that he has surely experienced on the playing field.
Within Camus' situation of Rambert's ineffectiveness in his dealings with the city and its underground, there are smaller ironies. For example, the one official piece of paper that seems to promise most toward an official escape is finally revealed to be only a form that all strangers in Oran are requested to fill in. It has nothing of hope in it; it is information necessary for Oranian clerks should Rambert die during the plague. Its purpose deals with death, not life. The form has one function: locating his next of kin and, probably most important, determining who will pay funeral and burial costs. Living, we realize, requires many formal-looking forms, numbers, and computations, but under the new regime of plague, death demands as thorough an accounting of its citizens. There is only one word to describe such irony: absurd.
Rambert has one small reason for hoping: he is being considered. With everything else so topsy-turvy, he is not completely anonymous in this strange city of the dying. His name is on paper; he is calling attention to himself. Unlike so many of the townspeople, he has not given up. He is demanding recognition through perseverance. And while reading of Rambert's perseverance, remember that Rieux is telling the story and that his definition of perseverance is not the same as Rambert's. Rambert believes that perseverance can finally, literally, pay off. Rieux does not. He is a believer in perseverance, but only in this way: victory is an impossibility when one struggles almost hourly with death as Rieux does, but perseverance gains in value when one realizes it must inevitably fail — that in the darkness of an eternal nothing, it is all meaningless. To say a lifetime of no to death and an ever yes to life, with unflagging perseverance, is the essence of the revolt of Dr. Rieux. Rambert has not yet developed a philosophy concerning his perseverance; his present concept is little more than a sustained, physical endurance. Currently he is in active protest and this chapter details its intensity — for example, his satiric but accurate catalog of the guardians of the blind alleys he confronts: the sticklers, the consolers, the triflers, etc. It is a sharp focus on the ineffectiveness of his hope and perseverance versus the absurd.
Some of the chapter's other ironies are these:
There seem to be two ways of "killing time" in Oran. One way occurred earlier — an enormous spurt of energy, panic, and hope of escape. Then, when this energy was depleted, it was replaced by a lethargic drift, and hope of escape has been replaced by a hope of the plague's waning. Thus, one can kill time during a death sentence by two diametrically defined ways of hoping. There is even a kind of absurdity in the phrase "killing time." Time is killing the Oranians while they imagine that they are "killing" it.
Rieux talks again of vast nostalgia, but in this chapter uses Rambert as a particular instance. Remembering his wife, Paris, and evening walks, Rambert visits the railway station. Here you should be aware of the parallels between his faith and that of the religious townspeople. Their faith is in God's mysterious justice; Rambert's faith is in his own determination and a justice based on rational logic. He does not belong in Oran and once this error has been corrected and processed, he will be released. Only for the present is he trapped. And, in the way that churches for the faithful are places of promise, so the railway station becomes almost a holy shrine, a station of deliverance, to Rambert. Former freedom takes on a sense of the hallowed. Like the cathedral, the station affords relief from the searing midday sun of Oran. Inside, both the cathedral and the railway station are dark and cool and made of stone. Rambert studies the timetables and departures posters as though they were religious stations of the cross. The defunct iron stove is fired only by memory now; its function is ornamental during the plague's duration. But for Rambert it is as evocative as a holy statue.
Before leaving the chapter, note the poetic images Rieux records. He refers to natural beauty in the midst of Oran's dying world. The satin-white marble tops of the cafe tables have a touch of Tiffany against the pearl-colored sunset. The immensity of this beauty seems indifferent to Oran, the exiled abscess on the sea, and the universe seems at odds with civilized notions of beauty. It makes the death of the day seem flawlessly beautiful; death in Oran is torturous, ugly, and foul-smelling.
Tarrou's notebooks are once again inserted to buttress Rieux's narrative. And because there is the sense of a philosopher behind them, the sketches remain convincing. His montage of quick impressions has the same mood that Rieux sustains — that of the ironic and the objectively aloof. Mounted patrols gun down cats and dogs. Tarrou doesn't comment, yet the implication is there. These animals may be carriers of infection, but they are also pets, symbols of home. As actual homes and family living are being exterminated by something abstract, human beings are destroying abstract symbols of that home.
The newspapers reporting the death statistics change their policy. They decide to publish daily totals. Why? The figure, although high, is not as staggering as the weekly total. You should remember that this is a reversal in policy. Originally totals were published weekly to keep the plague from having pressing daily existence. Now, of course, more factors have to be weighed and, in the public's interest, the less alarming the figure, the better. You should also note that in this atmosphere of death, a birth has occurred: The Plague Chronicle is born, publishing speculations, tips, morale boosters, and sure-cure advertisements. The townspeople rashly turn this parasitic publication into the city's most profitable enterprise.
The closed shops Tarrou speaks of are parallels of the dead in Oran, commercial corpses. And besides the dead, he speaks of the living, especially of their habits — such as the old man waiting for the cats — the habits such people retain lest they lose their sanity. He speaks also of those who actually crack within, open their windows and scream against the sky.
Again we read of the old Spaniard counting his peas, imagining that he has accomplished a twentieth-century feat by abolishing clocks from his house. He explains that every fifteen panfuls of peas is his feeding time. He doesn't need ridiculous clocks. In bed, however, for a quarter of a century, he is little more than a verbal mainspring of his timepiece of peas.
Rieux no doubt was sympathetic to Tarrou's ironic copy. Tarrou was sensitive to such incongruities as the plague's seeming to relax at dawn. Dawn, of course, is traditionally a time of hope and promise. The description of the sun as swollen connotes the image of the large swollen buboes which Rieux is many times daily called in to lance. At midday the town has a deserted look; the people are inside and seem like animals burrowing for shelter. Then, at night, the "hectic exaltation" exists, and although Tarrou omits the analogy, it is as if the people were drugged by the presence of a deadly vapor in the air.
Plague is no longer an irritant or even a frightening, shadowy menace. It is a fact and it has firmly rooted itself around Oran's perimeter. The suburbs have steadily felt its growth and have become part of a tightening belt of death that draws together toward the center of the city. Moreover, the disease is no longer merely "plague." It begins to have a diversity and an adaptability belonging to the philosophy of adapting and surviving. The plague seems human in its individuality, in its not being unchangingly classic and therefore combatable. This new variety of plague increases its successful destructiveness by threatening the townspeople with pulmonary innovations. Even the buboes begin to diverge from their initial appearance; now they swell and harden, refusing to burst.
Rieux's task becomes more difficult. In a parallel to his belief that men have individual value, he realizes that once again evil too has its individuality. Oran's enemy is not a textbook villain. It insists on being countered on its own terms, and because of the lack of doctors, Rieux must overtax an already overworked physical endurance. After his work there is little time for his own happiness. He cannot worry his mother, who has absolute faith that her son will always return home. He tells his mother that the day has been "as usual." To his mother, this means that all is well. But imagine what the word must encompass for him. Usual involves agonizing dying, shrieking relatives, and an ineffectual and insufficient serum. Rieux's anxiety about his wife intensifies his exhaustion. In an ironic similarity, the doctor's wife is as inoffensively comforting to her husband as he is to his mother. His wife writes that everything is going "as well as can be expected." Her phrasing is as ambiguous and as uncommunicative as the doctor's "as usual."
For the remainder of Chapter 15 Rieux is host to Tarrou and is more explicit concerning his driving, godless optimism. He identifies his mortal foe as creation and its natural processes. Rieux rebels against death, holding it at bay as long as possible, realizing that he will eventually suffer defeat. But for the doctor, a seduction of oneself with the myth of a life beyond death or a destruction of oneself through suicide or apathy can be only the acts of a coward. Death is the adversary of man. To ignore it or to succumb prematurely to it is unworthy of man. After all, man is alone in the universe; he knows of no other worlds nor of a divinity. He is his all and at the mercy of the universe's plagues — suffering, ignorance, and death. Man is his own savior and fashions his own values in terms of intelligence, persistent courage, and a belief in the absolute value of the human individual.
Rieux has not always had these attitudes. They have developed as he began to assert responsibility. Even his doctoring did not grow from a childhood aspiration. To Tarrou, he is rather offhand when he says that he wandered into the profession much as he might have any other. Later, however, he reveals what is probably closer to the truth. Rieux was a workman's son and the medical profession was the most rigorous challenge available. It is easy to imagine a man who now pits himself against the absurdities of the universe as once accepting the challenge that medicine offered. He also confesses to Tarrou the first time he took his profession seriously: when he first watched a patient die.
It is a burden to talk to Tarrou. Rieux is terribly exhausted to try and explain himself in terms of his own values and metaphysics. But he continues and Camus offers a natural image as a kind of stimulus. Rieux stares out the window and sees the vague line of the sea. Within, he senses a vague feeling of kinship with Tarrou and so he makes himself speak seriously with this fellow. In a later chapter, the sea will consecrate this friendship between the two men.
Tarrou, up to now, has been fairly nondescript, but instead of becoming more familiar as the book progresses, he becomes more notable. He offers to organize a civilian corps to act as plague fighters. No one else, besides the doctors, has taken such moral action. Tarrou is the first nonprofessional to commit himself and offer a plan for defense. His commitment is offered at a time when he and Rieux realize that soon the plague will be out of hand and that Oran's few doctors will be obsolete. Rieux recognizes the courage behind such a proposal but he questions Tarrou concerning the "consequence," which is of course probable death. In spite of Rieux's having seen excruciating suffering and dying, he is aware that good intentions have not always considered the grisly reality involved.
Rieux also asks Tarrou to come by next day for an injection before his "adventure." His chances are I to 3 for coming out of this undertaking alive. Rieux's motive for offering the advice is realistic and practical, yet his tone has an ironic quality. Tarrou counters with a story about a burial overseer, the sole survivor of a historical plague. He is being ironic in return and implying that life rarely has I to 3 logic. To communicate like this is to be seemingly ambiguous, but both men have learned now that the other is aware of man as a being alone in an indifferent world.
Although Tarrou's plan of action is exceptional, Rieux cannot describe its members in such language. It is a fallacy to ascribe heroism to men doing only what they must. Rieux sees Oran in these terms: in an emergency, people are tried and this means that they do what they must — help others and themselves to survive. There is nothing of the heroic in this. It is man's duty to himself and he recognizes this responsibility through clear-sightedness. If, because of ignorance, he shirks, then ignorance is vice. Virtue is no more than fulfillment of a commonplace obligation. Real heroics are nonexistent. Neither does Rieux believe that callousness is the general rule. On the whole, he believes that men are more good than bad.
And, as a specific, Chapter 16 offers Grand. Because he is used to dealing with statistics, he is made secretary of the sanitary squads — certainly not a heroic role even though Rieux muses that if readers seek a "hero," Grand has such merit. This is not contradictory. Rieux's values are not those of the military; awards are not given to the foolhardy who fear nothing and accidentally survive an excess of bloody skirmishes. Grand's stature as a hero is equated with his capacity for commitment and the sustaining of that commitment. The heroic is the human.
Grand is thorough in his numerical analyses; he is even creative, taking great pains to plan graphs that will be as lucid as possible. He slacks at times, but he is a man; most of all you should realize this quality about him. He is a man and he is insignificant, has failed to give love, has remorse, has a ridiculous goal, but in this emergency, with quiet courage, he has offered himself and serves as best he can. He does not neglect his writing; through his close association with Rieux, he gains even a sense of humor concerning the precision he works with. Grand is, in his small but meaningful role, more human than the radio announcers who assuringly maintain that the world Out There suffers with Oran. Rieux sees Grand as having crossed a line of indifference and, even with only his little goodness of heart, as having adhered to the human condition. He has moved from the fringes of Oran's social structure into one of its major supports by becoming a part of a common solid unit combating a common enemy.
To review, Chapter 17 is a contrast to Chapter 13. The earlier chapter dealt with Rambert's futile but legal attempts to leave Oran; this chapter is a record of his vain trys to illegally escape. The nature of the underground, Rambert discovers, has all of the intricacies of Oran's official red tape, but his discovery costs him almost all of his hope for personal happiness in escape.
Rambert begins this round of disappointments by contacting Cottard, and by trusting in Cottard, Rambert exhibits a measure of his determination. It is as though he will grasp at straws to return to Paris. Cottard's revelation that he is a blackmailer and a criminal makes little difference to Rambert. But, for Cottard, during their conversation eagerness begins to build steadily. He is anxious for Rambert's friendship and his reason seems logical. Rambert is a journalist; after the plague Cottard will be arrested and he will need all of the character references possible. A journalist in debt to Cottard for his life can be a prime asset.
Rambert's repetition of failures begins with Cottard and moves through Garcia and to Raoul, Gonzales, Marcel, and Louis; with each man's promises Rambert's hopes are bolstered and subsequently burst. Then, between links of the chain of plotting, are days of silence and suspense. Rambert's nerves are worn by the continual tension of belief and uncertainty; they are also frayed by the heat and the rising death toll. Often his surroundings seem surrealistic: deserted cafes, a rooster defecating on his table, conversation punctuated by a parrot's squawk and interrupted by queries from the dwarf waiter. Men, even with Rambert present, speak of him as though he were a profitable commodity. The city's lazy summer dogs are gone and the streets sizzle in the noon heat. All of the places of rendezvous have this mad, surrealistic atmosphere. At one time Rambert's collaborators insist on meeting in a hospital section of Oran, a section full of wailing relatives, clotted together in hopeful masses, crying for news from within. Another time, preparing the escape plans, the plotters meet near the war memorial — a spot commemorating those who did not escape death and their duty.
Rambert's change of mind to stay in Oran and assist Rieux and Tarrou is the climax of this chapter. The journalist has had to re-evaluate things of importance to him, and Camus is thorough in convincing us that the change, although Rambert continues to nurse a flicker of hope for escape, is genuine. At first the journalist was rational and insistent that he be allowed to leave the city. Failing, he became as rash and fierce as a Don Quixotish figure fighting the quarantine's decree. His goal was to return to the woman he loved. He was never afraid of the plague; as he tells Rieux, he has seen death as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. Only now, because of the plague, has he honestly faced "what matters." His discovery that Rieux is also without his wife is no doubt the factor that finally transforms his determination to leave immediately into a resolution to stay and help Rieux and Tarrou. For chapters, there has been a dramatic irony in which Rambert has talked to Rieux and sighed for his beloved wife and Paris, then reined in his emotions and muttered to the doctor that he wouldn't understand. Rieux never tells Rambert about his own separation. Tarrou flings the facts in Rambert's face after Rambert has been particularly ugly and maudlin. As the chapter ends, Rambert has given up almost all hope for escape. He will stay until he can find a way of leaving, he says, but he is beginning to perceive that the present requires more serious allegiance and he does, almost totally, pledge himself to it.
There is also a more subtle factor, but one which is important in Rambert's decision. He has tried desperately to escape for one reason: to return to the girl he loves; yet all the while he has been so enmeshed in the escape he has scarcely thought of her. Self-deception, of course, can only be confessed by Rambert. Rieux is the narrator and he does not comment. If Rambert realized that his concern for personal happiness was for himself, he would be making no gross discovery. At heart, most people are primarily concerned with themselves. Theology has tainted this4 concern with labels of pride and selfishness, but in terms of Rieux's philosophy, there is room for understanding of this desire for human personal happiness. Rieux does not, of course, place his own happiness first, but he understands this desire. He also understands and accepts that he has a different instinct — a higher loyalty to all men in theory and to all men personally, He has accepted this burden of love.
The other important decision in this chapter is made by Paneloux; he agrees to help Rieux and Tarrou. By the end of Part 11, then, all of the principal characters — Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, and Paneloux — have joined to battle together as plague fighters. The plague has separated Oran from the outside and many of the Oranians from their loved ones, but it has begun to unite men of different temperaments and philosophies and to create a feeling of common humanity among them.