When people start dying in the Algerian city of Oran the authorities are unwilling to accept that the city is in the grip of the bubonic plague. A handful of men like Dr. Rieux and Dr. Castel throw themselves into the task of fighting the epidemic, but they are hindered by the short-sightedness of others. During the early days the people of Oran sink into a prolonged state of self-pity. Gradually they realise that the plague is a collective tragedy and many of them choose to rise above selfish considerations and help fight the epidemic.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) believed that human suffering is meaningless in itself but an individual can make his or her life meaningful by rebelling against suffering. Being an atheist he did not believe that God had assigned any meaning to suffering, that is, suffering cannot be said to be just punishment for human sins. Camus brings out this idea through Dr. Rieux’s attitude towards Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest who preaches that God has sent the plague to Oran in order to teach the people a lesson. In the context of the two world wars (the novel was published in 1947), this reflection on suffering and death and the desire to assign certain purpose to life proved to be immensely valuable.
Camus’s language is deceptively simple and hides layers of subtle meaning. The narrative is taut and fast-paced. The most remarkable thing is that Camus succeeds in leaving a lasting impression with the use of the minimum number of words possible. The premise of the novel is an interlinking between diseases that plague the body and doubts that plague the mind. This parallel is continued throughout the story, making the novel extremely rich and open to many interpretations.
It is not too much to say that this novel has the power to change one’s outlook towards life. I started reading it with a feeling that it would turn out to be very bleak. After finishing it I found that it had neither depressed nor uplifted my spirits; it had moved me in a way that was entirely new. Subsequent readings have shown that the magic can never wear off. The people of Oran are ordinary men and women who lead lives of monotonous simplicity and petty selfishness. Most of them have an unexplored potential for good – they lead meaningless lives without realising it. Their lives become meaningful only when it is threatened by death – when they realise that they might not have much time to live. The struggle against death defines life as nothing else can. The Plague shows the disintegration and re-integration of a community in the face of catastrophe, and as such it has a force of optimism in spite of being a tragedy. The novel does not equate optimism with hope. In fact there can be no hope because we know that the cycle of suffering is interminable. The optimism lies in the belief that suffering can awaken the human spirit and ennoble it.
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