The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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Why does Dr. Bernard Rieux refer to a "happy city" at the end of The Plague?

Dr. Bernard Rieux, as the narrator, uses the term happy to refer to the noise and bustle of the city. In Part 1, Chapter 5, he refers to the "noises of a happy town," and in Part 1, Chapter 8, he talks of the "tumult of a happy town." Happiness is connected to human activity and possibly to the noise and activity that drowns out the reality of human suffering and the silence of both peace and death. This is why the rats, in some future time, might go out into a "happy city" with their plague. The rats, as representations of the plague and of death, interrupt the frivolous "happy" denial of the population.

How does religious imagery help readers interpret the death of Jacques Othon in The Plague?

In Part 4, Chapter 21 of The Plague, Jacques Othon, a young boy, dies of plague in a terrible agony of suffering. He is described as being in "a grotesque parody of crucifixion," and having the plague fever spasms come like three "fiery" waves. These images recall the crucifixion of Christ and the disciple Peter's three denials of Jesus. This suggests an interpretation of Jacques Othon as a Christ figure. The trouble, of course, is that Christ's death was meaningful. The death of Jacques Othon is just one death of many and has little particular meaning in the greater scheme of things. This death becomes representative of the meaninglessness of the universe.

What tone does the narrator maintain as he describes the death of Jacques Othon in The Plague?

In Part 4, Chapter 21, the narrator does not maintain an objective tone as he describes the death of Jacques Othon. It is clear that, for the observers, this is a turning point in their attitude toward the plague, because "they had never yet watched a child's agony minute by minute." The narrator uses terms such as "abominable thing," and "small tortured body" to describe the plague and the boy's suffering. In addition, the detail with which he describes the death of the boy is far greater than the detail he used thus far for any other single individual's death in the novel. This death is clearly more significant to the narrator than the others he has witnessed.

In The Plague, what symbolic value does Joseph Grand's manuscript have, and why is it important he asks Dr. Bernard Rieux to burn it?

Joseph Grand asks Dr. Bernard Rieux to burn his manuscript because he believes—they both do—that Grand is near death. This is significant because the novel becomes a symbol of Grand's life. It is an unfinished sentence that demonstrates the failure to accomplish Grand's goal of true expression and communication. Destroying the manuscript provides closure to Grand's life and demonstrates that he has accepted his own death. Yet Grand miraculously lives. This unexpected turn of events causes his manuscript to take on new significance as he begins again on the same first sentence. He starts fresh, a symbolic rebirth, but he attempts the same sentence. So not only is his manuscript a symbol of resurrection/rebirth, but also of the futile, yet noble, struggle to communicate.

In The Plague, how does Jean Tarrou's discussion of "wasting one's time" demonstrate situational irony?

In Part 1, Chapter 3, Jean Tarrou asks himself, in his journal, how one can avoid wasting time. His own answer to this query is ironic because he suggests an unexpected answer; in order to avoid wasting time, one must pay attention to it and always be aware of it. If one is spending one's awareness on thinking about time, one is not paying attention to the things that fill time in meaningful ways. The examples he suggests are tedious activities, not ones people would normally find productive or pleasurable, such as "listening to lectures in a language one doesn't know."

In The Plague, why does Raymond Rambert complain that Dr. Bernard Rieux uses the language of "abstraction"?

Raymond Rambert is a person who believes in love, who desires to be with his lover beyond all else, and who believes that following your true love is the key to happiness. He lives by the language of heart—of love. Rambert complains that Dr. Bernard Rieux talks and lives in "abstractions," because Dr. Rieux places the needs of the population in general over the personal desires of Rambert by his refusal to write a note saying Rambert is plague-free (which no one can know). Rambert does not see the community as a collection of persons, but as an inanimate thing, and he can't understand how Rieux can sacrifice Rambert's happiness to protect it.

In The Plague, what surprise occurs during the performance of Orpheus, and how does it develop important themes in the novel?

During the performance of Orpheus, the actor playing Orpheus dies of plague. This is an example of dramatic irony, because in the story, Orpheus lives although his wife Eurydice is forced to return to Hades, the land of the dead. If someone were to die, it would be more predictably Eurydice. This reinforces the idea that the universe and the plague are indifferent to human matters and are not predictable. But it also furthers the theme of facing death, since the people of Oran have gone to this opera to escape the terrible reality of the plague. They are forced to face the reality of death in a context where they are trying very hard to avoid thinking about it. Ironically, the people of Oran go to the opera to escape the terrible reality of the plague, ignoring, or perhaps not understanding, the fact that the tragedy is about the inability to escape death. It takes the real death of the actor to force them to confront the very thing they are trying to avoid.

Why does Jean Tarrou have such a low opinion of M. Othon in The Plague?

When Jean Tarrou was a child, his father, a prosecuting attorney, allowed him to view a trial he was involved in. His father argued for the accused man to be put to death. At the end of the trial Tarrou felt that his father, and all those involved in a system in which people are put to death for any reason, were murderers. This is why he has such a strong reaction to M. Othon, a magistrate (judge). To Tarrou, M. Othon is part of a murderous system. "Enemy Number One" as he says in Part 2, Chapter 17. This bias against the legal system may be one reason Tarrou seems sympathetic to Cottard.

In The Plague, how does the idea of "abstraction" illuminate Jean Tarrou's strong reaction to the trial he witnessed as a child?

Something that is abstract exists as an idea but not as a physical thing. The tension between abstractions and concrete, physical realities is explored throughout The Plague. Is the plague an abstraction, an idea? As long as it is just numbers of the dead or the idea of something happening to someone else, it remains in the realm of the abstract. When you see a person suffer and die from it right in front of you, the abstraction suddenly becomes a physical reality. Is Dr. Bernard Rieux's concern about the spread of plague an abstraction? To Raymond Rambert, it seems less concrete than the woman he wants. And indeed, Rieux admits he has to sometimes think of it as an abstraction so he can continue his work. The same tension can be seen in Jean Tarrou's description of watching the defendant at the trial. As long as he thought of the accused man as "the defendant," the man's life and death remained abstract. "Until then I'd thought of him only under his commonplace official designation, as 'the defendant.'" Suddenly, however, Tarrou's perspective changed, and he saw the man as a real living being, not a "defendant": "they were set on killing that living man, and an ... elemental instinct ... swept me to his side."

What is the significance of the idea of "parted lovers" in The Plague?

The experience of parted lovers—those who are separated by the plague and resulting quarantine—is one way that Camus explores the themes of isolation and human suffering. The parted lovers suffer after the town is quarantined because they long for each other. Their separation is a microcosm of the separation and isolation experienced by the town of Oran. When the quarantine is lifted, the "parted lover" focus allows readers to see the two fates of these pairs; some are reunited joyfully, while others find out that they are parted by death and their suffering continues. The focus on "parted lovers" also allows Camus to highlight important differences between main characters. Raymond Rambert, Dr. Bernard Rieux, and Joseph Grand all are separated from their lovers, although the actual plague is not the culprit in each case. But how they cope with the separation and how it affects their actions during the plague is a way that Camus distinguishes among these men and develops their unique characters and concerns.

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