Summary and Analysis
After recording the particulars of Oranian burials in a complete chapter, in fact in a complete section, Rieux now takes up the situation of those who were living during the period of lethargy. The first half of Chapter 19 describes more fully the drugged state of general despondency, and brings us up to date on the principal characters. It especially examines Dr. Rieux's responses to the exhausting spiritual and physical fatigue. The second half of the chapter is quite different. As a contrast, Cottard, from Tarrou's notebook sketches, is presented, still happy and smiling.
The lethargy refuses to lift itself from Oran. Even the October rains do not cleanse the town of its hold and the townspeople continue to exist for the moment at hand, but see their present without a context. Rieux uses, as an analogy, soldiers held under continual fire and strain. Both suffer similar stupors, he says. This lethargic state of mind lulls Grand into sentimentality; he talks of Jeanne more often and feels deeper remorse. Rambert continues to maintain some hope for escape. Tarrou loses the colorful diversity that was in his early notebooks. Now his subject is primarily Cottard. The narrator reveals several unexpected reactions of his own — unexpected because he is usually reticent about his personal life and unexpected because they are confessions of his feelings of loss. Rieux has so successfully convinced us of his physical and mental strength, neglecting his personal complaints, that he sometimes loses a sense of human individuality. Here he modifies the impression of a superhuman with devoted perseverance. He admits that the plague has fiercely exhausted him and that he has had to harden himself as a preventive against collapse. Under the strain of growing deaths and the increasing ineffectiveness of his serum, he feels less and less competent. At the same time, he questions whether or not in the face of this growing futility, his decision to send his wife to a faraway mountain sanitarium was wise. He is certain that he could have helped her make a good recovery.
This chapter re-humanizes Rieux; he feels a lump in his throat as he stares at the collapsed sleeping position of his colleague, Dr. Castel. Rieux even talks to Grand of his personal feelings, something he has never done before. He cannot say whether or not the plague is more fierce than it was yesterday; he can only measure his own competence, and the result is negative. Medical aid grows more meager. He can only diagnose; he cannot cure. Throughout the epidemic he has resisted death as thoroughly and as rapidly as he could save his patients. Now, however, his serum is losing its strength and his own physical vigor is wasting.
Ironically, Rieux concludes that because his strength is being sapped, so he is being saved from perhaps overwhelming sentiment and pity. Confrontation with such extreme disaster might strike down a man with alert senses and sentiment. Previously, at the beginning of Part II, he had noted that most of the Oranians were saved from disastrous panic because of their lack of pity. Now he remarks that he is saved from disastrous sentiment because of exhaustion.
Rieux clarifies another misfortune of the lethargic state — the slackening of Tarrou's medical crews. No longer do they take personal precautions of hygiene and vaccination; their sense of self-preservation is slipping away.
Obviously Cottard — criminal, black marketeer, and fugitive — is a dramatic contrast to this infectious weariness, and because of Cottard's uniqueness, Rieux includes a few of the sections of Tarrou's notebooks which center on this fellow. Cottard is rather patriarchal in his pity and affection for the townspeople. He has already suffered the fear of distrust and insecurity; the present despair of Oran makes him somewhat of an elder citizen. And, like an older member of the community, he most enjoys hobnobbing with the younger set, walking at night, joining the flow of the crowds into theaters and coffeehouses.
Yet one can be somewhat objectively sympathetic toward this human rarity. He most fears what many people do: solitude and the feeling of being an outsider. For the first time, he belongs; he has a niche in the human condition. He also has a clever logic rationalizing his own immunity. He theorizes that he cannot contract the plague because he carries his own death sentence and men never die of two illnesses. One infection immunizes a man from all other infections.
The concluding scene is, somehow, amusing — perhaps because it seems so apt. Nothing less than a highly ironic Creator, in this case Camus, would have trapped the opera company of Orpheus within Oran when the gates were sealed. The opera contains the identical elements that the citizens are experiencing. Orpheus' laments and Eurydice's vain appeals from Hell are ordinary, common Oranian acts. The theme of lovers separated is exact, current realism. It is little wonder that the opera is performed again and again, and is popular and successful during the season of plague. Even the actor portraying Orpheus catches the rhythms of his surroundings and improvises an extreme grotesqueness for his final position of defeat. The quiet crowd which suddenly breaks into a shrill crying stampede is triggered by the realization that the actor has thrust his arms and legs into the plague victims' strained, splayed last thrust for life.
The plague, for the present, offers life to Cottard. But to no one else has it been so instantly gratuitous. It has forced Grand to reconsider his entire past, particularly his lost marriage and the values of his present daily living; it has tested Dr. Rieux's belief and devotion to his job of keeping Oran alive and it has also revealed his human failings. Tarrou's plan of the civilian sanitary squads was conceived because of the plague's dramatic emergency. All these men have changed; unlike Cottard, each of them has sworn to maintain a personal revolt against the monstrous disease that threatens their city's entire population. But two characters have yet to be fully tested: Rambert and Paneloux. Both have enlisted as plague fighters, but Rambert's offer was not quite a wholehearted pledge and Paneloux's decision came from Christian duty, not from a love for man or from a crusading spirit of Good versus Evil; his faith is tried in a later chapter. Chapter 20 is crucial to Rambert's integrity.
Chronologically, Chapter 20 precedes most of 19; the latter, however, was used as an overall review of characters after the crisis, plus the notebook jottings about Cottard, and for a graphic look at one of Oran's centers of pleasure. The brief theater scene is crucial because unhappiness, sickness, and poverty are becoming Oran's daily tenor and Oranians are therefore seeking out the last bits of pleasure in the city.
Chapter 20 is not general like 19, nor does it deal with several different matters. Rambert is stage-center throughout. The chapter is structured in this way: Rambert contacts Gonzales and his agents, then discusses his leaving with Rieux. Afterward he meets the Spanish agents and, before leaving, returns to Rieux. Returning to Rieux, of course, is synonymous with his decision to stay in Oran until the plague is defeated and the gates are once more open.
Although Rambert still retains some hope of escape, there are hints in the chapter that foreshadow his decision to stay. Another two weeks of waiting grate deeper into his residue of hope, and his long hours on the sanitation squad fatigue him but make him aware of the value of work versus a life of idleness. He now talks little about his plans of escape; no longer does he boast. When his nerves at last shatter, he runs toward the sea crying to his wife and this release of emotion is his last genuine grasp for happiness. Afterward, he walks through the last phases of the plans for escape, but silently considering, listening to others and to himself.
It is not surprising that Rambert is caught off-guard by Rieux's telling him to hurry if he means to escape. Rieux is not an absolutist in his humanitarianism. Nor has he evolved a finished philosophy concerning his actions during the plague. He has acted and has listened to his heart and his conscience. Rationally he knows he could have escaped with his wife, supervised her convalescence, and claimed that he was only doing what was his by "right of happiness." But Rieux would not have been happy; happiness is of relative value. Thus he says to Rambert that the journalist would not be happy if he stayed, that he would be dishonest with himself and with Rieux. Rambert, it seems, expected a sermon from Rieux; he wanted urging. The decision, however, to be valuable has to be Rambert's own. Rieux, an atheist, tells Rambert to claim his happiness and as a counterpoint, the mother of the two Spanish boys, a devout Catholic, gives Rambert essentially the same advice. She too understands why he must return to his wife: the girl is pretty, Rambert is sensual; he does not believe in God, man must worship and believe in something — even if it is no more than a girl, himself, and their love.
Rieux was absolutely correct to juxtapose these two scenes. Usually the abyss separating believers and nonbelievers is thought to divide two views of man, totally incompatible with one another. Yet here both sides wish Rambert to be honest and to be happy. An educated atheist and an illiterate Catholic mother elect to stay in Oran, yet they understand Rambert's desire to leave and will not damn him for preferring personal happiness.
The image Rieux uses during the suspense of Rambert's decision-making is that of a caged animal — not a particularly original image, but excellent for his purpose. Rambert is caged because he has wanted desperately to leave, but has stayed, worked with the sanitation crews, and found a value in hard work and a satisfaction in becoming part of a whole bigger than himself combating an impartial, impenetrable, deadly plague. He is trapped within high, sealed city walls and he has tested their strength; they seem as sturdy as the plague. His animal-like qualities include the importance of sex to him. He wishes to return to Paris to make love to his wife. Until now, he had never realized how much he enjoyed and needed love-making. Rambert is physically virile, animal-like, and powerfully built. His bare chest is described as glistening with sweat, like polished wood, as he paces. In Camus' novels, sex is never the fulcrum that it is in other contemporary fiction. Either it is matter of fact or else mentioned in passing. Rambert. enjoys a sensual life and it is important to realize that Rieux understands this desire. It is a fallacy to see the doctor as a valiant, asexual knight in surgeon's clothing.
The final scene in the hospital has, besides Rambert's affirmation, several other matters of importance. Tarrou has caught Rieux's frustration. Both men begin to feel that their revolts are becoming obsolete. Tarrou says that the doctors are becoming accountants. Rieux remarked similarly when he talked of the evacuations and the burials in Chapter 19.
The hospital is described as being pale green inside and the light as being like that of an aquarium. Hospitals are usually places of rest where one recovers his strength. They are like the sea in the sense that it is therapy for Rieux to swim; soon he and Tarrou will renew their determination and perseverance while swimming together, in rhythm. The hospital Rieux remembers as being not promising, not restorative and not recreative, like the sea. Instead, it is like an aquarium, like an imprisoned sea where the patients are once again locked in. Here, behind barred windows, they are imprisoned within the hospital exactly as they are imprisoned within their city. They die in the stagnant hot air that is also held prisoner.
The talk about the car running out of rationed gas and Tarrou's speculation that they'll have to walk the next day is an obvious parallel to the professional situation of Rieux and Tarrou. Their serum supply and its effectiveness is "running out of gas." They'll have to walk, might fall behind, and perhaps perish in the heat and fever of Oran's desert.
After Rambert tells Rieux that he will stay, we probably learn more about Rieux than we do about Rambert. The doctor questions him, testing his sincerity, and says that nothing is worth the exchange of whomever one loves. But this is Rieux's mind talking and he confesses that he has contradicted his statement by his actions. He doesn't know why he sent his wife away. He simply acted. There seemed to be no choice and he says that he has not examined yet why he did it. Immediately thereafter he and Tarrou assign Rambert to the surveillance of one of the city's districts. There are to be no congratulations and toasts for Rambert's conversion. The plague is still rampant and must be continuously contested.
After the chapter describing the mass burials, Chapter 21 is probably next most successful in catching our sympathy for the plague victims. It is a chapter which gives us a full-length portrait of a dying child; it is also the record of Dr. Rieux's first witnessing of the entire last stages of the disease. Never before has he so minutely observed the tortured last hours before death. He is specific about his reactions. As he searches for the child's pulse, he feels an instinctive empathy attempting to pour his own strength into the boy; he aches to scream in protest against such vile injustice. His revolt against death and disease is a kind of madness, he says, but he insists on the child's innocence. We, like Dr. Rieux, have seen until now only glimpses of death and last moments — never the full process of death.
Camus could have, without seeming awkward, described a lengthy death scene long before this. Rieux, being the narrator-doctor, might likely have sat at a bedside and early initiated us to the cries and contortions of suffering. But he deferred this scene until the reason for presenting it was crucial. The reason for this particular vigil is much more genuine than the simple disposition of Rieux into a sickroom would have been. The scene is inserted when Rieux is losing his endurance; in addition it regroups — besides Rieux-Tarrou and Rambert, plus Grand, Dr. Castel, and Father Paneloux together as multiple witnesses (and sufferers) of the death throes of M. Othon's young child. We have the opportunity to know all of their reactions, which won't be first terrified impressions, but will come from hearts already seasoned to death and suffering.
All of these characters are called to Othon's home to watch a last-resort experiment of Dr. Castel's new serum on the boy. If the serum is not effective, it is possible that plague will prove to be the victor. After the boy dies, there is general blank depression, but there is also a bit of optimism. Castel is impressed by the serum's lengthening of the suffering period. There seems to be a strengthening of resistance even if it eventually fails. This effect, you should note, also lengthens the chapter for readers, making us more exactly imagine the swelling, the convulsions, and the incessant screaming.
The young boy, even though he is unsuccessful, wages his own small revolt against the plague. Castel's serum gives him additional strength to endlessly scream in protest against the invisible death that burns and bites into his flesh. He fights and dies in a classroom, a room where he should have come for growing and maturing. On the blackboard, like a Camus crest, is a half-obliterated equation. Equations add up; they equilibrate and are based on logic. Nothing in Rieux's moral code will admit an equation that calls for an innocent child to suffer. The utmost in abominable evil is exactly what he is witnessing: the suffering of a young innocent child — conclusive proof for him that the universe is irrational and indifferent to man. No divine equation is possible, and so the logic of equations is almost obliterated. Paneloux's sermon linking sin with punishment will later be partially obliterated by a new philosophy after he is witness to the innocent suffering of this child in a schoolroom. At present, the priest is visibly shaken by the ordeal; Rieux's anger disturbs him, and although he answers the doctors dogmatically, the boy's death will ferment within him and he will reconsider Rieux's angry assertion that because of the child's innocence they have been joined and bonded.
The motif of separation is once again used in this chapter. The boy's parents accept Rieux's diagnoses with quiet terror and acquiescence. The father is sent to an isolation camp; the mother and daughter are confined to the quarantine hospital. Plague continues to multiply separation and exile.
Paneloux, because of the extreme philosophy in his second sermon, is even touched by this quality of the exile. We should be aware of the nurture period for this change in the man. It was not long after his "sin = punishment" sermon that the priest became a diligent member of Tarrou's plague fighters. And once at work he no longer supervised quiet last rites. Punishment, if he could still call Oran's suffering by that name, was no longer an abstract threat: it was visual, disgusting, and a fact. Rieux is aware of the priest's outer composure as well as the fear that grows beneath the skin. Death threateningly crackles around him and the priest knows that inoculations are never foolproof. His faith in divine vengeance is worn thin by the time he witnesses the death of M. Othon's child. Because he is no longer comfortable with his ready-made store of threats, he begins to question the basis of his faith. He begins to construct sermons from his doubts. Like Grand's gradual evaluation of his marriage and his literary work, Paneloux's quest for honesty begins. It is more thorough and serious in its consequences, but as necessary and as difficult as Grand's.
Paneloux was not alone in questioning his faith. The townspeople are confused and Rieux notes the reduced audience for Paneloux's sermon to the men. His congregation had generally decided in favor of prophecies, numerology, and speculative charms. The church offered little understanding and hope for their plight. The people seem to need an external order that is reassuring. If the church becomes distasteful, they turn to nature's logic and to mathematical chances and schemes. They are persistent in seeking a logical answer to their torment and a logical end to its massacre. Irrationality is generally denied.
Since his work as a plague fighter, Paneloux no longer speaks particularly loudly or distinctly. His gentle voice now says "we" instead of "you"; he has joined the ranks of his community. He is no longer one of the crimson-robed elite; his clothes have been stained by Oran's bloody suffering and Paneloux has been humbled. He has realized that death is not a symbolic angry fist in the heavens and he reminds his audience of its tangible presence. The change in Paneloux, since his earlier sermon, is largely this: suffering does not necessarily imply punishment; it is for Christian good and offers a trial during which we must continue to believe in God's plan. The plague's image has changed from that of a whip to that of a teacher. Living has been easy; this phase is for rededication. Once Paneloux would have assured the congregation of the eternal happiness waiting as the wages of suffering. No longer. He cannot loudly preach such promises because he has become uncertain. He can only believe that God has a reason that is unfathomable but that there exists a holy logic that must be trusted. He asks for complete belief in God or else a complete denial of God, an All or Nothing proposition. Paneloux's acknowledging that God is testing man's faith is akin to Rieux's viewing the plague as a test of one's humanity and integrity. Neither man asks for resignation and both desire active acts of faith. Paneloux asks that his congregation pray for a completion of the divine will, and in the meantime to trust completely in God's plan for good. He brings to his sermon many examples of the Church's reactions to previous plagues. It is evident that he has done a great deal of thinking and considering before this assessment of Oran's catastrophe. Above all, the priest maintains that God must be loved. Man must not allow unfathomable suffering to lessen his passion for God. Man must approve of God's will and make it his own.
Tarrou approves of the extreme position which Paneloux has taken for himself. In the army he has seen priests faced with Paneloux's dilemma. There too either a priest approved of the gross agony of death he saw as a part of God's good or else he denied everything.
Paneloux's faith, however, tests itself even more severely. The pamphlet mentioned by the young deacon suggests that Paneloux is considering not only the plague's illness, but simple sickness itself. His logic is this: if man is ill, then that illness is a part of God's plan. Doctors, by issuing medicine and performing surgery interrupt God's processes, a heresy. Rieux, you should note, sees his work as an interruption also — not of God's plan, however, but of death's irrationality.
When Paneloux is stricken, he abides by his city's regulations and asks to be taken to the hospital, but in the early stages of his sickness, he refuses a doctor's help. Strangely, the symptoms are not ordinary. His throat is clotted with a choking substance; later he looks as if he has been thrashed. (By the flail of God that whips the air over Oran? By his own questioning faith?)
The ambiguousness of his death is best interpreted as the result of a conscious will at work. Paneloux has seen such a variety of undeserved dying that he affirms the rightness of such suffering by joining the victims in their role in God's plan.
After three dramatic chapters, Chapter 23 begins quietly on All Souls' Day, November 1. Winter has not yet arrived to hopefully freeze the plague germs. Autumn is mild; a cool breeze replaces the hot shrill whistling of summer and the light is no longer blinding. The fall sky is pale and golden. Beauty, after being charred by the summer, surrounds the city of pestilence. Again, the irony of natural beauty is played against natural ugliness and death. This is a fairly common irony, especially in this book, but here it is used as a transition into another incongruity. The mass conversion of Oranians to superstition has clothed them even on mild days in oil-cloth raincoats because two centuries previously doctors had recommended them. Imagine how the city must have looked from above with — its absurdly shiny, rubberized, uniformed citizenry.
Even a greater incongruity, however, than the raincoat costumes in the plague city is the lack of men and women carrying flowers to the cemeteries. Remembrance of death is no longer a once-a-year day. Dying has assumed such major proportions that one can almost say that life seems the exception. Absurdity, irony, and incongruity are increasingly the constant atmosphere of the city. Even Cottard, Tarrou notes, begins to toss off ironic comments. And Rieux adds his own, remarking that the crematory was blazing as merrily as ever; the plague seems as efficient as a civil servant, he says.
Dr. Richard proves in this chapter that even an educated physician can become as absurd as the plague. As the disease achieves the quality of an efficiency expert, he is relieved at its leveling out on the progress charts. The number of deaths has less importance than the fact that no longer is the toll mounting. Just as the populace looked for logic in the Church, in horoscopes, and superstitions, Richard (and the townspeople, we may assume, had he been allowed to inform them) hopes that an equation can be assumed concerning the plague's progress. His relieved optimism and his new sense of happiness in the face of plague seems impossible. Certainly absurd, but true. Dr. Castel is uncertain. His serum is being lauded, but he has learned not to trust his enemy and maintains his defense and his revolt against the illogical visitor. Castel survives, but with efficient irony the plague disposes of Richard, the optimistic doctor. Then, curiously, it allows itself to be more exactly diagnosed into two definite forms: pulmonary and bubonic. The latter is disappearing, the former becoming more frequent.
Still summarizing, Rieux notes the profiteering based on, in addition to raincoats, food supplies. A change has taken place once more in the social levels of Oran. Previously the city has been indiscriminately attacked. Now the rich can afford the steep prices, the poor cannot. Despondency naturally begins to give way to envy and protests. Journalists, as Rieux has noted, continue to defraud the public of truth. Camus, during his career as a journalist under wartime conditions, had been no doubt witness to many incidents of journalistic Yes — writers. Because Rieux uses more of Tarrou's notebooks at this point, we can probably assume that the truth about Oran is probably impossible to ascertain if one were to consult its newspapers during the plague period.
The notebook passages concerning one of the isolation camps has an interesting twist. The stadium is used as an isolation camp because it is large enough to accommodate the many quarantined family members. But remember this: the Oranians think of themselves as prisoners, encased within their city; here, they are again imprisoned. There is a coil-like pattern to their prison image, much like the maze pattern of their streets. The stadium once served as an arena for athletic events. Now it is filled with people sparring for life. Death can deliver swift punches; it is a formidable opponent. Escape is impossible; armed sentries guard the exits. The suspense is somewhat like the stadium fever of old Rome.
Tarrou visits the stadium with Rambert and Gonzales, two former football players, and the contrasts between the past and the present are more evident because of the presence of these men. The primary difference is the present lack of activity. The men in the stadium now do nothing and they are silent. The shouting football activity is gone. Instead of a rowdy, spirited comradeship, there is a core of silent distrust; anyone may be carrying death within him. There is also a feeling of futility. They can hear the sounds of life beyond the walls and, like Rambert, they have devised so many plans for escape. Then, after defeat, they have realized that they have thought so continuously of escape that they have failed to think of the loved ones they hoped to rejoin.
Tarrou's inability to tell M. Othon of his boy's suffering is humanitarian, but all men in the stadium know of the suffering that the plague produces. Othon asks for the impossible and is surely aware of what he is asking for. Tarrou pities him; Othon is a judge and should have a measure of objectivity, but he has proven to be as vulnerable as anyone else. Staring at the setting sun he seems resigned, lost, and asking for kind favors.
Winter approaches but the plague does not abate. The only improvement seems to be the clean shine of the cold air. Rieux notes this fresh quality at the beginning of Chapter 24 and remembers the old Spaniard remarking about its pleasant coolness. The night scene on the terrace, as Tarrou and Rieux relax, is another juxtaposition of a pleasant natural world in contrast with the town, sleeping and dying during the night.
Rieux's response to the evening is given more space here than the brief, ironic asides he has earlier slipped into his narrative. The slow-paced, relaxed style also contains fewer contrasts of opposites. There seems to be a longer time for looking and contemplation. The quiet night is indeed satisfying, but not absolutely so. Sky and sea meet grayly and stars are tarnished by the lighthouse's yellow gleam. Night is beautiful, yet flawed. The universe is not always blatantly superior; it too has its moods and imperfections.
On the terrace above the city, Rieux and Tarrou share what Robert Frost speaks of in his poem "Birches." There are times when it is not cowardly, but natural and necessary to want to swing high and away on birch branches, and
" . . . get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over."
This isn't the desire of a recluse but of a man who needs a time-out. The doctor has spent seven months in continual taut revolt and he is aware that his perseverance is fraying. His angry lash at Paneloux, the irritation of doubts about his wife's recovery — all these he diagnoses as danger signs. There seems even to be a more satisfying act performed by Rieux and Tarrou than merely "getting away." Tarrou calls it "taking an hour off for friendship." The time away is not spent alone; it is enjoyed with someone who shares one's own values and beliefs.
Also in this chapter is more necessary background information about Tarrou. So far, we know hardly anything. Rieux has not explained; he has allowed us to know only what he knew before this night. Thus far we know that Tarrou appeared in Oran, kept notebooks, did not try to escape, and volunteered to organize the civilian plague fighters. He has been as steadfast in his struggle to cure as Rieux has been.
The father Tarrou describes to Rieux had, in Tarrou's words, a peculiarity: although he seldom traveled, he knew the arrival and departure times for all trains that stopped in Paris; in addition, he knew the changes that must be made if one wanted to go as far, say, as Warsaw. Tarrou's mention of this side of the man's personality and later Rieux's speaking of it suggest that it was not altogether an oddity. Both Tarrou and Rieux believe in and defend the value of each human individual. The hobby of Tarrou's father, insignificant and seeming strange to others, is definitive. All people have a personal "something" that might seem ridiculous to anyone else, yet it is a kernel of their individuality. Some people believe that they keep a cleaner house than anyone else on the block, others can hold their liquor better, and still others believe that they can appreciate a musical performance more sensitively than anyone else in the audience. In that same audience may be a woman who knows that she is wearing the most expensive diamonds there. All people have a sense of pride in some facet of their individuality, which if confessed to would no doubt sound peculiar, but to Rieux, they are symbolic of the valuable intrinsic worth that comes with one's birth.
Tarrou's reaction to a court trial before he actually witnessed a session was much like the Oranians' thoughts of death — vague and abstract. Even Dr. Rieux, you should remember, although he had treated victims for several months, had not fully experienced the plague's death throes until he watched the process take place within Jacques Othon. Tarrou's sympathy for the defendant was very much like that which Camus felt for a boatload of prisoners he saw in the Algerian port in 1938. Both men were confounded by the knowledge that these unfortunates had committed crimes and yet both Tarrou and Camus refused to assent to the verdict of punishment by death. Camus described his feelings in an editorial, saying that endless imprisonment was tantamount to death; thus he was grieved and felt that somehow it was as unjust to damn human beings for the rest of their lives as it was to take their lives as payment for crimes committed.
The disgust which Tarrou conveys in recounting the trial proceedings — the euphemisms for beheading, the duty of condemnation expertly pronounced by his father in a matter-of-fact fashion — is found in greater detail in Camus' essays on justice and death penalties in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Both men had early experienced the conviction that one human being may not demand the life of another. Tarrou's realization that even idealistic social revolutions shoot down the old order hardened his resolve never to harm another human being. Now that we have his story, we can understand the genesis of his early remark that he wants only to find peace of mind; he is haunted by the idea that he might be party to a kind of murder if he actively commits himself His kindness to Cottard, his saying that he gives people chances — these few verbal hints at last take on meaning. Camus, of course, was himself troubled with Tarrou's dilemma. If he supported the French underground to demolish, for instance, a troop train he would be aiding his defeated country in its struggle against the enemy. But troop trains are full of drafted soldiers following orders and taking no pleasure in war. May one kill individually innocent human beings, even during a war, with good conscience?
Because Tarrou aids Rieux, he is often confused with the doctor. His helping Rieux stems from the monumental emergency situation and from his friendship and respect for the doctor. But Rieux wages active revolt. Tarrou's revolt consists in not joining forces with the pestilence. As nearly as possible he attempts to remain innocent. Rieux, following his conscience, cannot; he must act regardless of accidental blunders. Tarrou is attempting a mortal sainthood. Rieux says that he is attempting to be only a man. Tarrou's answer that he is less ambitious is exactly what Rieux said to Paneloux, after the priest had said that his goal was man's salvation. They are a strange kind of trinity: Paneloux, Rieux, and Tarrou. One seeks salvation for man, one seeks a definition of man through action, the other quests for a godless sainthood for himself.
Winter fails to freeze the plague germs but not the city's walls. Chinks begin to appear, metaphorically. More cases of the pulmonary type of plague become easier to treat; patients become more cooperative. M. Othon, the judge, asks to be sent back to the quarantine camp. He, too, has ceased to feel alone in his sorrow and has assumed the civic burden of a plague fighter. Letters can now be clandestinely sent and received. The outside world seems closer in spite of the dreary Christmas season with its empty shop windows, its deserted streets, and the robot-like citizens.
Grand's surviving the plague's ravishes is much like a rebirth. Plague offered crucial questions that had to be answered. The clerk does have a potential for a life beyond the boundaries of statistics and graphs. A sense of humor, objectivity, and responsibility are all tested and proven during his illness. Before the plague he had been another man, but now he has begun a letter to Jeanne, has demanded that Rieux burn years of accumulated manuscript. He makes afresh start with his sentence.
The other recoveries in Oran are, as Rieux says, against all the rules. But this is how the plague began — against all the rules. It had been ousted from civilized countries and had no reason for attacking Oran. Nor were its symptoms exactly that of other plagues. Part IV closes with the ambiguity of the rats' return, but the implications are clear: rats are able to live again in Oran. The plague has begun its retreat.