Summary and Analysis
Oran does not begin to jubilate immediately at the first signs of the plague's waning. Hope has become so slender that it cannot bear the weight of sudden happiness. It must be strengthened with caution and a degree of fear. In spite of the plague's diminishing, Chapter 26 is not a cheerful one. Nursing their own hopes, the Oranians ignore the deaths of the scores of new victims. The weekly statistics remain all-important, but only as they reflect a dropping off of the total number of deaths. To be among first victims or even to be struck down at the plague's peak is to gain sympathetic thoughts, yet now that freedom and victory seem forthcoming, death appears more outrageous.
The blue winter sky may be taken as a sign of promise. Of course, had the plague still been rampant, the same sky would have seemed to be healthily jeering. But currently Castel's serum begins to be effective and the universe seems suddenly acquiescent, not almighty and indifferent.
Rieux refers in this chapter to the number of wild escape attempts that occur. Here he is being sociologically accurate. Oran had certainly been prison-like and most escape attempts occur during the last weeks of the sentence; temptation increases until common sense is overpowered. Once again the communal life of the convents is restored and although this seems very much like new pockets of self-exile, it is evidence that men are able to once more live without breathing death ' onto one another. Man is free to once again effect his own exile if he wishes. The plague has given him a chance for examination of his values; he must now rebuild his future in terms of what he has learned.
Rieux's images continue to be consistent. Earlier he had referred to Oran as an "island of the damned." Now he says that the inhabitants are like a "shipload of survivors." Time, he implies, isolated them, surrounding them with endless days of terror; now they are setting out on this sea of time toward the future.
Returning to thoughts of Cottard, Rieux ponders the validity of Tarrou's notes on the black marketeer, wondering at their increasing subjectivity. But Rieux himself is guilty of occasional lapses. As the plague became more abominable, he revealed himself more fully and openly. Tarrou's diaries also contain passages concerning Rieux's mother, who reminds Tarrou of his own. He does not say that the women were saints, yet they have many qualities that Tarrou associates with his pattern of sainthood. Both women were humble, simple, gentle, and kind. They had a "dimness," he says. Perhaps this dimness is because they withdrew. Rieux's mother stays inside, is devoted to her son, and does not overly concern herself with the deaths outside. Tarrou is unable to do this, but he seeks reasons and justifications for the beauty of such withdrawal because it contains no harm for others and he is terribly afraid of committing an act against another human being.
Cottard remains unique. Rieux says that he does not share the high spirits of the city; no longer does he feel an indefinite lease on life. Death, not life, is promised him as soon as the city gates are opened. As the Oranians begin to come out of their burrows, he retreats and stays in his room more frequently.
Tarrou's remark that a return to a "normal" life means new movies is not that of a cynic. It is realistic. New movies will only be one of the many commercial changes, but he has chosen movies because of their illusion. Once more people can share someone else's life for two hours; they can leave their unexciting evenings and live through colorful, musically sung romantic ups and downs, or live the vicarious adventures of a secret service agent, even live, for two hours, within the filmed world of a plague. Whatever illusions they pay for will cost everyone the same amount of coins and at a predetermined time the illusion will be over. Life is being returned to the people and once again they can afford a variety of silver-screen illusions. After all, the return to life after the gates are opened will have all the outer aspects of Before. Yet even this will be an illusion. On each heart, in varying degrees, will be scars of the plague and each Oranian will have somewhat of a new dimension as an individual.
The chapter ends with the disappearance of Cottard. Fleeing into the night, he no doubt knows that his running is futile. Tarrou's diary ends, Rieux tells us, with his sensing an end. His tiredness is not ordinary; plague has entered his body. Both men, Cottard and Tarrou, are sensitive to the symptoms.
Rieux, in Chapter 28, relaxes and, like the Oranians, shares the prospect of a fresh start and a reunion with his wife. Absurdities will continue however. Tarrou's illness, the headache and a raging thirst are warnings that he will not survive Oran's plague. Rieux has never before refused to isolate a patient, but he keeps Tarrou in his room. Why Tarrou dies before the book's end is speculative, but perhaps this breaking of rules is significant. Perhaps also Tarrou has always been, as he said in Part IV, too much on the "victims' side." This death, like Paneloux's is unique. The priest's death showed no definite symptoms of plague. Tarrou's, on the other hand, has an extreme conjunction of both forms — the swollen buboes and the pulmonary attacks. Just as Tarrou had advocated living — in silent courageous struggle against a murderous mankind, so he struggled against the plague. Othon's son had twisted violently. Tarrou is unmoving; he fights with silent concentration. At the bedside, Rieux notes ironically that the night sounds seem remarkably like those of a plague-free city. He imagines seeing the last flinches of the plague burning the body before him. Tarrou may be the epidemic's last victim. Perhaps this too is unlikely, absurd, and as irrational as he knew life to be.
Rieux is again reminded of his impotence to hold off the mightiest ravages of death. He has survived the plague and the rigorous exertion it demanded, but he is no more than human; he is weak, saddened, and can continue only to fight absurdly. But if Tarrou's death has saddened him, it has also raised new resolve for the doctor to continue his stopgap measures against death. His defiance has fresh conviction. It is his fresh start.
Rieux reflects on his failure to fully give and respond to love and what he says is very much like what Grand confessed — that he never was sufficiently physical and verbal to Jeanne. Rieux's and his mother's lives are somewhat like that. And neither Rieux nor Tarrou was given an opportunity to share a deep continuing friendship with each other. Perhaps, however, during the plague the two men helped each other more freely, willingly, and with more sympathy than would have otherwise been possible. Both men were of ironic temperaments, personalities which do not lend easily to simple affection. Before the plague Rieux was busy and Tarrou was aloofly inspecting the city. It is doubtful that the friendship Rieux contemplates could have been effected. The death of Rieux's wife is joined to the suffering he undergoes following Tarrou's death. He is brief about it, as he was about the worst days of the plague. Excessive grief and real love seldom find adequate words.
The remaining chapters of Part V are much like listening to the recording of a radio commentator who was present at the reopening of the city. New and old faces flow in and out of the railway arteries and Rieux especially is observant of the reunited lovers. Throughout the chronicle he has commented on the townspeople's failure before the plague to attain a more varied, joyous, appreciative sense of life. Thus if one were to paraphrase a common fault, it would be easy to say that they failed to "appreciate the moment." Now, he sees lovers wishing to slow their new moments into slow motion so as to savor all of its thrill. Memories will no longer be static faces and tableaux. They will be of flesh and blood again. Minutes are too quick for them. The slow motion of swimming through time would be more satisfying as they rush toward one another.
Rambert is used as an example of the change wrought within the people of Oran. Once an outsider, a stranger, he has become part of this community and is aware that he can no longer be oblivious to consideration beyond himself
Rieux also describes those who returned and found no one waiting. For them the plague will remain. Like the last victims, these people are lost and ignored in the bursting of cannons and reunited love. But for the majority of Oran, today is timeless. Tomorrow clocks will cut the day into pieces, but today is a day that will never again exist. Rieux rings Oran's numerous church bells for us, colors the sky gold and blue; fraternity catches fire as was never possible during the siege. The misery of even yesterday is diminished. Someday it will be partly denied, but for the present human love is violently rekindled.
Rieux, revealing his identity, explains that perhaps his greatest temptation in writing the chronicle was to make it a record of his personal struggle. He has tried, however, to show himself as only a part of a large, suffering community.
He ends his chronicle not on the ecstatic, crowded city of new lovers, but by finishing Cottard's curious history for us. The plague-reprieved criminal has gone mad amid the loud happiness outside his window — firing into the crowd, attempting to destroy the gaiety that means his doom. The dog he kills is curiously like himself. Both have survived by being kept in hiding. Cottard is carried out loudly protesting and is vocally reminiscent of a plague victim. His arms are pinioned and he screams convulsively.
Grand has written to Jeanne, something he could never have accomplished without the plague's baring the truth about himself. His humor, as he says that he has done away with his adjectives, is also good news. His subject and verb are unburdened and can move as freely as he now seems able to.
Choosing to close the book with the old Spaniard's philosophy gives assent, at least in part, to its wisdom. The asthma patient recognizes that plague is sometimes little more than life and that combating it is of no more importance than combating daily injustices. He prophesies that much will be forgotten and, of course, much will. Life is always more important than the past and its dead; memorials can be erected to clear one's forgetful conscience.
The celebration's fire rockets are spectacularly awesome. Only yesterdays ago death was described by such adjectives. Then the sky was colored by crematory smoke and life was razed by fiery temperatures. Rieux has written his book as a reminder of just such incongruities as a warning that "normal" times are always subject to plague, that the bacillus of tyrants and war most easily infect and destroy a nation ignorant of symptoms and consequences.