The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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Albert Camus | Biography


Albert Camus was born in Mondavi, French Algeria, on November 7, 1913. His parents, Lucien and Catherine Camus, were hardworking people of modest means, his father a vineyard worker and his mother a cleaning woman. When Albert was just eight months old, Lucien went away to fight in World War I, where he was fatally wounded in the Battle of the Marne. The loss of his father was a blow to the family. Albert, his mother, and his siblings were forced to live in a small apartment with Albert's uncles and grandmother. His grandmother ruled this diminutive domain with an iron hand, enforcing her will with a whip when necessary.

Albert began school in 1923, and his intelligence was quickly recognized by his teacher, Louis Germain. Germain helped Albert obtain a scholarship to high school. This proved to be a turning point in young Albert's life as he encountered people of various cultural, racial, and economic backgrounds and excelled academically as well as in swimming and soccer. He was introduced to French writers such as André Malraux and André Gide, who would have a lasting effect on him. But in 1930 he contracted tuberculosis, a contagious disease, and he had to leave school for a time. He could not live with his mother and siblings, either, for fear of passing the illness on to them. He went to live with his uncle and aunt, Gustave and Antoinette Acault. They treated him, in many ways, like a son. The Acaults were well read and enjoyed discussing politics and literature, unlike Camus's illiterate mother and grandmother.

When he recovered, Camus returned to school and there met philosopher and author Jean Grenier, whose book Islands is remarkable for connecting ideas and linking the author to his readers and to society at large; it would have a lasting effect on Camus's literary style. Grenier encouraged Camus to publish a few pieces of writing in Sud, a literary journal. This achievement gave Camus a taste for publication. By the time Camus entered the University of Algiers in 1933, Grenier had become a professor there, and so his mentorship of Camus continued. Grenier also encouraged Camus to join the Communist Party, but the political association between Camus and the Party ended in 1937 when Camus differed with communist policies and was kicked out.

Throughout these tumultuous years, Camus continued to write and publish a number of plays and essays. At this time, his published works included two volumes of essays, Betwixt and Between (1937) and Nuptials (1938). These volumes and another book of essays titled Summer (1954) are considered by critics to be among his best writing. They focus on Algiers and contrast pleasures discovered in nature such as the sun and sea with the darkness of realities such as poverty and death. He also worked on the staff of a political newspaper, but when World War II began, the paper was no longer published, and Camus relocated to Paris to work for another newspaper as an editorial secretary. He finished work on his famous novel The Stranger during his time in Paris. The publication of this novel in 1942 brought Camus fame as an important French writer, and he was able to meet many prominent authors, artists, and philosophers, such as Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Pablo Picasso. He also joined the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. Then in 1942 he published an essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he discussed his view of the absurd—the separation between the lack of meaning in the universe and the human need for sense and purpose.

Beside being an important part of Camus's life experience, World War II also provided inspiration for The Plague. Although Camus used actual epidemics, such as the 1849 cholera epidemic that occurred in Oran, Algeria, as inspiration for the novel, the book is also an allegorical view of the rise of the Nazi party and the events surrounding World War II. The slow, reluctant recognition of the problem, the apathy of the initial response, the beginning of war, the long fight, the victory, and the warning people must remember what occurred to avoid its occurring again, all parallel the events and concerns of World War II. The Plague proved to be tremendously successful, selling more than 100,000 copies and being translated into more than a dozen languages.

In addition to The Stranger and The Plague, Camus contributed several other novels, plays, short stories, and essays to French literature. These include The Rebel (1951), The Fall (1956), and Exile and the Kingdom (1957). Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. After he was killed in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960, two books were published posthumously: A Happy Death (1970) and The First Man (1995).

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