The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the quarantine of Oran in The Plague draw upon Camus's World War II experiences?

During World War II, German forces controlled by Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party invaded and occupied France. Camus lived in Paris for some of that city's occupation, joining the French Resistance in its efforts to fight the Nazis. He would have had ample opportunity to see how people could begin to feel like prisoners in their own city, as do the fictional townspeople of Oran, and how daily death toll reports could fail to reflect the true nature of the human suffering caused by the war, as they fail to reflect the suffering of the plague in the novel. Taking part in what must have seemed like a fruitless struggle against the powerful German invaders surely gave Camus the kernel of Dr. Bernard Rieux's persistent struggle to fight the plague, regardless of whether they will result in success or failure.

How is the human imagination viewed in Albert Camus's The Plague?

The human imagination is seen as both a helpful and a harmful force in the novel. It is the difference between the town government's lackluster efforts at fighting the plague and Tarrou's imaginative plan to recruit teams of volunteers to become part of the "sanitary squads." The imaginative route proves to be more effective at engaging people in the fight. On the other hand, human imagination is what causes people to suffer more keenly the separation from loved ones. When Oran is first quarantined, it is people's imagination of what their loved ones are doing that makes them miss them all the more. It is imagination and speculation of an uncertain and fearful future that causes them despair.

In The Plague, why does the narrator say visitors are "doubly exiled"?

All people in Oran feel a kind of exile since they are separated from the larger world. They cannot communicate with those outside the town or move outside its gates. Their exile is from participation in the humanity that exists outside the gates. Some people are visiting Oran when the quarantine is declared. For example, Raymond Rambert is visiting Oran from Paris to work on a news story. These people feel the same exile that others feel. Since they are stuck in a city that is not their home, they are also exiled from their own homes and cities, so their exile is doubled.

In what ways does The Plague draw parallels between war and pestilence?

In addition to the allegorical nature of the novel, given its political and historical context, The Plague makes a point of drawing specific parallels between war and plague. Both cause so many deaths that people have a hard time comprehending the sheer numbers. Yet, the sheer numbers make the deaths seem to be an abstraction rather than a concrete reality. Both cause the separation of loved ones; in war, soldiers go off to fight, leaving their loved ones behind. Both are predictable in that they continue to occur, yet seem surprising to people when they do occur. Both cause terrible suffering. One reason Camus compares these two causes of suffering is to point out that the attitudes that cause violence and war, or perhaps more specifically Naziism, are like a disease. These attitudes are a contagious sickness that spreads quickly, becoming an epidemic before people are willing to face it and do something about it. Another is to comment on the inevitability of war and plague. These two causes of suffering seem to be part of the human experience. Camus suggests that fighting against them is worthwhile and can be done better if people remember the past and learn from their experiences.

In The Plague, how are Dr. Bernard Rieux's actions similar to the actions of the man who lures cats and then spits on them?

In The Plague Tarrou enjoys watching an old man who lures cats near his balcony, then spits on them. This character represents the absurd. His actions are meaningless, and the meaninglessness of them is increased when the cats no longer come, and the man spits on nothing instead. On the surface Dr. Bernard Rieux's actions would seem to be the opposite. He gives comfort and relief to his patients, and tries to help Oran take measures that will halt the spread of the plague. Yet there is an element of the absurd in Rieux's actions, as well. Despite his best efforts, the plague escalates. And when the deaths slow, Camus makes a point of suggesting that the plague simply got tired and stopped, not that Rieux did much to cause it to slow. Like the spitting man, Rieux continues his meaningless actions.

In The Plague, how do Dr. Bernard Rieux's and Father Paneloux's reactions to the plague compare and contrast?

Dr. Bernard Rieux's first reaction is to identify the plague, name it publicly, and then fight against it. He pushed the other doctors in Oran to agree that the plague is the right diagnosis and then pushes for the quarantine. On a personal level, he treats patients day-by-day from the very beginning. Rieux struggles against the plague. Father Paneloux's first reaction is to frame the plague as God's punishment and try to make sense of it. He has a hard time making this sound convincing, even to his own ears. After more experience helping those with plague, and the death of Jacques Othon, Paneloux tries another tack and tries to fit the plague into God's greater plan. Paneloux struggles to accept the plague.

In The Plague, how does Father Paneloux's work with plague victims change his perspective regarding the plague?

Father Paneloux's work brings him into close proximity with those who are suffering with plague symptoms and those who are in the process of dying of plague. In particular, it brings him into close contact with Jacques Othon, a young boy whose terrible suffering and death is observed closely by Paneloux, Jean Tarrou, Dr. Bernard Rieux, and others, because they are waiting to see if the serum will work. This changes Paneloux's perspective by putting human faces on something that, before, he had only considered theologically. It makes him doubt his first conclusion, that the plague was God's punishment, because he sees an innocent child die. It causes him to doubt his faith.

In The Plague, how are people's lives ultimately changed and also left unchanged by the plague?

As related in Part 1, Chapter 1, before the plague, people in Oran generally went about their daily lives out of habit. The narrator says that you can understand a place by "how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die" and then describes how the people of Oran work "from morn till night and then [proceed] to fritter away at card-tables, in cafés and in small-talk what time is left for living," without thinking about death. Just after the plague is over, it seems as if the people have been forever changed. Raymond Rambert feels as though he is a different man. The parted lovers feel as though they are owed something, having been through such suffering. However, Dr. Bernard Rieux soon sees signs that the people are "just the same as ever," and will soon put the plague behind them and carry on with their lives as if death did not exist once again.

What is the significance of the discussion of earthquakes in The Plague?

In Part 1, Chapter 3, the night watchman says he would not be surprised if an earthquake happened. In Part 1, Chapter 8, Cottard says that what is needed is an earthquake—a big one. In Part 2, Chapter 14, the night watchman who "predicted" an earthquake says it would have been better if the disaster had been an earthquake, rather than a plague. His reason is that an earthquake is a "good bad shock, and there you are! You count the dead and living, and that's an end of it. But this here damned disease—even them who haven't got it can't think of anything else." The earthquake is brought up in the text as a contrast to the plague (and perhaps to war). Like plague, an earthquake is unexpected, and it kills. However, it is over quickly, the results can be dealt with, and everyone moves on. Plague lingers on for months, and even when it seems like it is over, cases of plague continue. Plague has time to settle into the minds of people, and the prolonged nature of it causes it to dominate people's thoughts.

Why does the narrator wait until Part 5, Chapter 30 of The Plague to reveal his identity?

The narrator, who is revealed at the end of the novel to be Dr. Bernard Rieux, may wait to reveal his identity because he does not want the reader to see the novel as if it were from one person's point of view. He wants to be perceived as an objective observer, presenting himself as an amateur historian rather than as a key player in events. If readers knew that the narrator was really the doctor who plays such a large role in the story, the narrative would lose this objectivity. The objective tone of the narrative is an important part of the power of the story, and its aim to present greater truths about human suffering, love, and war.

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