The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In The Plague, how is Camus's humanism distinct from the humanism of the townspeople of Oran, of whom the narrator says, "they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences"?

In Part 1, Chapter 5 of The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux says of the people of Oran, "they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences." This is not a flattering opinion of humanists since disbelief in pestilences is ranked as a very poor quality in the novel, not a good one. Denial of plague or any other death-wielding force is seen as a problematic. The humanism of Camus, as demonstrated by Dr. Rieux, is that suffering—when struggled against—can reveal the good traits of humanity. He declares that people are mostly good, and that they can be healers and even saints.

In The Plague, what is the significance of the red robe worn by Jean Tarrou's father in the courtroom memory?

In Part 4, Chapter 24 of The Plague, Jean Tarrou's father wears a red robe to show his role as an attorney. It is the uniform of his job. The red color may symbolize blood, as he is part of the legal system that permits the death penalty, and a murderer in Tarrou's eyes. The fact that he covers his own identity in the robe of his profession is more important. It suggests a parallel with the uniforms of soldiers in war, who give up their own wills to execute the will of their leaders. It also suggests a parallel (and a contrast) with Dr. Bernard Rieux, who covers up his own needs with the "uniform" of a doctor in order to perform his duty to the community.

In The Plague, why is the narrator reluctant to "ascribe to these sanitary groups more importance than their due"?

In Part 2, Chapter 16, the narrator (Dr. Bernard Rieux) is wary of giving the sanitary squad volunteers too much credit. He says he does not want to overemphasize "praiseworthy actions," because this might reinforce a harmful assumption that "such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule." After this he discusses the basis of morality—or, "good" and "bad"—actions. He suggests that virtue and vice are on a continuum of ignorance ("more or less ignorant") not inherent and absolute morality. This suggests that a further danger of giving too much praise to the volunteers suggests that their good intentions make them moral or good. These same people could participate in harmful actions with good intentions. So, it is not the people but the actions that are worthy of praise.

In The Plague, why does Joseph Grand cut all the adjectives from his novel?

From the beginning of his writing, Joseph Grand struggled with the adjectives of his sentence. In Part 2, Chapter 16, he replaced "elegant" with "slim" and "had some anxiety about the adjective 'handsome.'" So the adjectives are a significant part of what holds Grand back from feeling that his writing is complete. In the final chapter of the novel, after Grand miraculously recovers from the plague, he feels that he can make a fresh start at life, including making a fresh start on his book. "He'd made a fresh start with his phrase. 'I've cut out all the adjectives.'" Like the horsewoman in his sentence, he is now free of the adjectives that had defined him ("insignificant," "mouselike," "humble," "shy," and so on). Adjectives are descriptive words, and unlike nouns or verbs, they carry value judgments. Grand, in his quest to convey truth, longs for a state of pure objectivity and wants to eschew moralizing of any sort. Unfortunately for him, the human condition is a subjective one from which he cannot escape.

In The Plague, why is Jean Tarrou so interested in Cottard?

The driving force in Jean Tarrou's life is his experience watching his father prosecute a defendant in court. His hatred of the death penalty that resulted from that experience may make him more sympathetic to Cottard, a criminal who fears, beyond all other things, arrest. However, Tarrou's interest seems to go beyond that. In Part 4, Chapter 24, Jean Tarrou says to Dr. Bernard Rieux, "this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side." Like other characters, Tarrou is an all-or-nothing person. He hates the death penalty and all forms of plague and struggles against them. Perhaps Tarrou's interest in Cottard stems from the fact that Cottard represents nuance in Tarrou's otherwise tidy worldview. Cottard, after all, benefits from the pestilence, and seems to delight in it. Tarrou's willingness to listen to Cottard without judgment shows the human desire to seek understanding even it's thought there is nothing left to learn.

In Part 4, Chapter 20 of The Plague, how do Dr. Bernard Rieux's and the old Spanish woman's attitudes toward Raymond Rambert compare and contrast?

Dr. Bernard Rieux, an atheist, and the old woman, a devout Christian, have very different points of view about what constitutes morality. However, on the topic of Raymond Rambert they tend to agree. Rieux could stop Rambert from escaping the town. But Rieux will not act against his attempts. "Rambert had elected for happiness, and he, Rieux, had no argument to put up against him." Later, Rambert discusses his desire to reunite with his lover with the old Spanish woman from whom he has rented a room. She seems to agree with Rambert that it is fine, even right, that he should pursue his small slice of happiness, even though she would not make the same choice. "You must go back to her. Or else—what would be left you?"

Why is it significant at the beginning of The Plague when the narrator notes, "it's impossible to see the sea, you always have to go to look for it"?

In Part 1, Chapter 1, the narrator describes Oran and its citizens in less than flattering terms. Oran is boring, and people there do everything by rote, without thinking or really even experiencing their own lives. The sea, to Camus, was a positive force. It represents peace and a benevolence that is healing and cleansing, attributes that can be seen when Jean Tarrou and Dr. Bernard Rieux go swimming in it. By suggesting that people have to go looking for this positive force, the narrator (and through him, Camus) suggests that people must go looking for the positives because they are not always the most visible or obvious parts of life. This aligns well with the sentiment at the end of the novel that the plague can provide enlightenment.

In The Plague, how does Jean Tarrou ultimately find the peace he desires in Part 5, Chapter 28?

Jean Tarrou does not go to his death willingly. He struggles and fights. And despite his final battle against death, the plague finally takes him. Dr. Rieux, his friend, is unsure whether Tarrou found the peace he desired. "The doctor could not tell if Tarrou had found peace, now that all was over." However, there are also indications that Tarrou does find the peace he was looking for. In his last moments, Mme. Rieux and Dr. Rieux observe a smile on his face. "Despite the sealed mouth, a faint smile seemed to hover on the wasted face." After Tarrou's death in Part 5, Chapter 28, Dr. Rieux experiences an "elemental peace" that he feels has enveloped his friend. While Rieux interprets this silence as defeat, it is possible that this elemental silence is just what Tarrou was looking for.

In The Plague, why does Dr. Bernard Rieux compare the townspeople of Oran to prisoners in Part 3, Chapter 18?

The narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux, compares the people of Oran to prisoners because they cannot leave the city. They are literally held captive inside locked gates, as if they were prisoners. But he also uses this metaphor to explore the way they feel. They share with prisoners and exiles the fate of having "to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose," because they can only think of things that they cannot have, and may never have. The metaphor also allows him to explore the nature of captivity and freedom. For example, in Part 3, Chapter 18, he describes how the prisoners try to act as if they are free, even when they are not: "Some ... even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men."

In Part 1, Chapter 6 of The Plague, how is Dr. Bernard Rieux's statement that Joseph Grand is the "kind of man who always escapes in such cases" proved wrong?

In Part 1, Chapter 6, Dr. Bernard Rieux states that Joseph Grand is the "kind of man who always escapes in such cases." He seems to think that a man like Grand—odd and inconsequential—is the kind of character who seems to escape real calamity or tragedy. He takes some comfort in that thought. However, Grand does come down with plague, so he does not escape completely. In fact, since he miraculously and surprisingly recovers, he almost becomes less of the "kind of man" he was before. So Rieux proves to be wrong, both about what might happen to Grand and what kind of man he turns out to be.

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