The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In what ways is the overall message of The Plague one of despair or one of hope?

The overall message can be seen as despairing if the focus is on the indifference of the universe, represented by the weather and the plague, to humans. The sheer numbers of dead and the terrible manner of their deaths is not a hopeful picture, especially when one considers Dr. Bernard Rieux's opinion that plague will certainly come again in one form or another. The inevitability of both human suffering and death is also not a message of hope. However, Camus was a humanist and so it is important to note that his narrator, Dr. Rieux, did feel that humanity was worth fighting for and suffering was something worth fighting against. Rieux, Jean Tarrou, and Joseph Grand act with great courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and they do not give up. So from that standpoint the overall message is one of "don't give up," because there may be hope for us yet.

How does Jean Tarrou's interest in sainthood reflect central tensions in The Plague?

Jean Tarrou is an atheist, so it is an example of situational irony for him to search for sainthood, a fundamentally religious concept. However, in the face of the plague, he, like other characters in the novel, seeks meaning. Perhaps more than most, Tarrou recognizes the absurdity of the search, but search he must. The attempt to pin down a definition for one word to give that word meaning also reflects the struggle to express meaning through words, which are an approximation of meaning, not perfect. Joseph Grand shows this struggle through his attempt to write a letter to his wife and his attempt to write a novel. The narrator explains how, once the quarantine was in place, communications were reduced to telegrams full of stock phrases. Like Tarrou's search for the meaning of sainthood, the search for the perfect words is ultimately a losing battle. Yet it is important to continue the battle, even when it is a defeat.

Which characters in The Plague have heroic qualities?

Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator and protagonist, has many qualities one would associate with a "hero." He stays calm when there is a crisis and doesn't let emotion cloud his thinking. He does not give up. He treats the sick at personal risk to himself. He sets his own needs aside for the sake of the community. Jean Tarrou has the hard-working, persistent quality of Rieux, and also helps fight the plague, putting himself at greater risk of catching the disease. In fact, he does catch it and dies as a result. This could be seen as a heroic death. He is less self-sacrificing in attitude than Rieux, because he doesn't have a sick wife he must try not to think about, but he is no less dedicated to fighting the plague. Even M. Othon develops some heroic qualities; he returns to the quarantine camps after his own release and after seeing what the plague did to his own son. However, it is unassuming Joseph Grand whom the narrator "commends to his readers," saying "this insignificant and obscure hero ... had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal." The doctor may be biased toward Grand because of his "goodness of heart," since this may be what persuades Rieux that "there are more things to admire in men than to despise."

In The Plague, how are the situations of Raymond Rambert and Dr. Bernard Rieux alike and different?

Both Raymond Rambert and Dr. Bernard Rieux are separated from the women they love. They both long for a time when they will be together again. Because of this similarity, the differences between them are significant. For a very long time, Rambert thinks of nothing except his lover and trying, by any means possible, to escape Oran. He is motivated by love, he says. But Dr. Bernard Rieux never considers escaping the town. He thinks of his wife, but he also believes that his duty is to help those in Oran who are sick with the plague and to fight the spread of the disease.

What is the purpose of including the character of Dr. Bernard Rieux's mother, Mme. Rieux, in The Plague?

Dr. Bernard Rieux's mother, Mme. Rieux, comes to Oran to help her son while his wife is in the sanatorium with what is most likely tuberculosis. She is a fascinating character because she is unafraid of the plague. In Part 2, Chapter 15, Dr. Rieux asks her, "Don't you ever feel alarmed, Mother?" And she replies, "Oh, at my age there isn't much left to fear." This suggests that the elderly, who have perhaps accepted their mortality, do not fear death and therefore do not fear the plague. This supports the theme of facing death. She also represents Camus' humanism, because she is kind. In Part 2, Chapter 14, Tarrou's journal notes describe her eyes, saying that "a gaze revealing so much goodness of heart would always triumph over plague."

What is the significance of Jean Tarrou and Dr. Bernard Rieux going for an ocean swim in The Plague?

In Part 4, Chapter 24, the two men go for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea "for friendship's sake," and for the sheer pleasure of it. Jean Tarrou notes that "it's too damn silly living only in and for the plague. Of course, a man should fight for the victims, but if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what's the use of his fighting?" Their desire for a swim shows that they are still human and reminds readers and characters alike that fighting plague is not an end in itself. The sea, like the weather and the plague, are indifferent to human needs or suffering. But unlike the plague and the weather, the sea is described in positive terms. "Gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild." It is a place where the men can find peace, "isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague," as well as a "strange happiness." The happiness is a "happiness that forgot nothing," so it is a happiness one can experience even when one remembers the suffering of the world. For Tarrou and Rieux, the ocean swim is a healing event that allows them to continue in their daily fight against the plague.

What is the importance of Joseph Grand's novel in The Plague?

Joseph Grand's novel is important for developing his character and for developing the theme of isolation in the novel. As an important part of his character, it represents his inability to express himself in words. This inability has caused him to remain in the same job, without a promotion, for his entire career. It caused him to lose his wife and prevents him from winning her back. Through Grand's novel, and his description of why he fails to make much progress, readers see that the core of his inability to communicate is his dissatisfaction with the words. He cannot find the perfect words to say what he wants to say, so he ends up saying nothing. This develops the theme of isolation, since the lack of the right words, or the true words, is one way people remain isolated from one another.

In what ways does The Plague support or not support Dr. Rieux's statement that there are "more things to admire in men than to despise"?

The novel contains many examples of less than admirable behavior, such as Cottard's opportunism, the government's slow response to a crisis, and the generally boring and habitual everyday lives that people go about in order to continue in their denial of death. However, the novel makes a strong case for "more things to admire than to despise." Admirable things include Dr. Bernard Rieux's own perseverance and commitment to fighting the plague, the fearlessness of Mme. Rieux, and the imaginative problem solving of Jean Tarrou. In addition, many characters move away from their mundane, selfish existence toward a more self-sacrificing one. Raymond Rambert, Father Paneloux, and M. Othon begin as self-centered, limited by religious doctrine, and wrapped up in their own troubles, respectively. Joseph Grand is initially characterized as a failure in every area of his life. Yet all of these characters do join together in the fight against the plague, eventually. This ability to change and grow is admirable.

What is the effect of including Jean Tarrou's journal observations in The Plague?

Jean Tarrou's observations, made during the plague, are collected into a journal that Dr. Bernard Rieux uses to flesh out his narrative. They are an interesting narrative device because they give the novel a realistic style, as if the events really did happen and the narrator is actually pulling information from various sources. They lend believability and an objective tone to the novel and allow the novel to include events that Dr. Rieux did not himself observe. They also provide insight into Jean Tarrou, a fascinating character and a friend of Dr. Rieux, the narrator and protagonist. Tarrou's and Rieux's friendship and their philosophical musings are an important part of the novel. Tarrou's journal, by focusing on the absurd or inconsequential details of the townspeople, develops the absurdist idea that all human actions are similarly meaningless.

In The Plague, how does Dr. Bernard Rieux's asthmatic patient reflect the doctor's early descriptions of the people of Oran?

Dr. Bernard Rieux's early descriptions of the townspeople of Oran indicate that they are creatures of habit and do everything by rote. To wit, "The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits." By their habits, the people mark time. The asthmatic man transfers peas from one pan to another in lieu of a clock. This habit of transferring peas is one he has cultivated for the purpose of marking time; Jean Tarrou observes that the man is a saint "if saintliness is an aggregate of habits." Although the asthmatic man is an extreme example, he highlights the futility of living by accumulated habits.

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