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The Plague | Context

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War and Plague

In 1933, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party took control in Germany, and from there they continued to gain power and influence. In 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and set off World War II. France and England declared war on Germany, but despite their efforts, France surrendered to German forces in 1940. German troops then marched into Paris on June 14, 1940, and occupied the city for the next four years. Many scholars have noted that The Plague is an allegory of the rise of fascism in Europe. Like the plague in Oran, European nations accommodated Hitler and the Nazi Party, refusing to face its true danger until it was nearly too late. Camus's novel highlights the similarities between war and plague: both cause suffering and death; both cause people to band together and fight; and both can come back unexpectedly and with a vengeance.

Existentialism, Absurdism, and Humanism

Existentialism is a philosophy that originated with the 19th-century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard (although neither used the term). Existentialists believe the universe is devoid of any meaning and prefer to concentrate on the realities and problems of being, or existence. Existentialists hold that because any effort to apply meaning to the universe is ridiculous, no absolute morality guides people's actions; individuals create their own morals and meaning through their choices. Although Camus agreed with many existentialist ideas, The Plague's main characters seem to reflect an underlying moral code. Both Dr. Rieux and Jean Tarrou grapple with ideas of what is ethical, and both seem to conclude that doing one's duty and alleviating suffering are morally correct actions.

Absurdism is another philosophy that influenced Camus's work. In this view, meaning does not exist; it is simply something humans desire, and so they try to force an irrational universe into a rational box, causing pain. Absurdism is represented in several features of The Plague; for example, the man who spits on cats and the constantly changing weather.

Although Camus was greatly influenced by these philosophies, he was a humanist first, and so he believed in the value of human life. Except for Cottard, the main characters in The Plague all join together to help fight the epidemic, despite their differences. Their actions show a certain amount of heroism and bravery, traits that reflect a more positive view of humanity than either absurdism or existentialism would encourage.

Atheism

In his Notebooks, 1951–1959, Camus shared a somewhat conflicted view of religion, writing, "I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist." However, bothThe Plague's narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, and his friend Jean Tarrou are atheists. They believe God does not exist. This view became popular during the 18th century, and the work of 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin increased its popularity, as the theory of evolution challenged some of the Church's ideas. In The Plague, Rieux and Tarrou embrace atheism, but they also find that without the moral teaching and language of the Church, they have to redefine terms (such as "saint") and work to understand their responsibility to their community. Throughout the novel, Rieux and Tarrou seem to believe they have a duty to fight against suffering and death.

Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist philosopher and friend of Camus's (for a time), believed humans had to find meaning in existence apart from the idea of God and accept the consequences of their own actions. In many ways, Rieux and Tarrou struggle to do just these things in The Plague.

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