The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | Part 1, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

As Dr. Bernard Rieux is leaving his surgery one April morning, he steps on a dead rat and kicks it aside. He tells the concierge, M. Michel, about the rat on the second-floor landing. M. Michel is outraged at the idea there could be a rat on the premises. Later, Dr. Rieux sees another rat as he is unlocking the door to his apartment. This rat staggers toward him, spins around, and falls over, blood spurting from its mouth. Dr. Rieux goes into his apartment, thinking more about his wife, who is ill and leaving for a sanatorium in the morning, than about the rat. But the next morning, Dr. Rieux learns three dead rats have been found in the hallway.

On his rounds, Dr. Rieux sees there are dead rats everywhere, and all of the people are talking about them. One patient, a Spaniard suffering from asthma, thinks the rats are hungry and have come out to look for food. M. Othon, the magistrate, is unconcerned about the rats, even though a man carrying a cage full of dead rats walks by as M. Othon and Dr. Rieux talk.

A journalist named Raymond Rambert visits Dr. Rieux later that day to ask him about the living conditions of the Arabs in Oran. Dr. Rieux encourages him to look into the rat question instead. Dr. Rieux speaks with another visitor to town, Jean Tarrou, who also seems intrigued by the strange behavior and deaths of the rats. The next day, Dr. Rieux's mother arrives to stay and help out while his wife is away.

Soon the number of dead rats has increased into the thousands, and people start to become concerned. The town authorities acknowledge the rat problem, mostly by making radio announcements about it, but do not take measures to stop the pestilence from spreading. M. Michel becomes ill, and Dr. Rieux sends him home to bed. Shortly thereafter, the doctor gets a call from Joseph Grand, who just saved a man named Cottard from hanging himself. As Dr. Rieux travels home from the scene, he observes there are no new dead rats along the way. This seems like good news, but later that day Dr. Rieux has a patient with a high fever and black patches on his skin. Other people in town are coming down with similar symptoms.

The next day, M. Michel dies.

Analysis

The narrator, continuing to insist upon the factual, objective nature of his account, includes exact dates of events and, often, exact numbers of dead rats on those dates. These details do not just add to the journalistic style, however. They demonstrate the very short time it takes the rat problem to escalate while working to dehumanize the action. To readers, the situation seems to be spiraling out of control; in just a few weeks, the story moves from one dead rat to thousands. The dehumanistic response is portrayed well by M. Michel, who represents the attitude displayed at all levels of the population: denial. Of course, there can be no dead rat! Nonsense! Compounded by the seeming indifference of the authorities, this denial causes a lack of action on the problem of the rats and painfully slow acknowledgement there is even a problem.

The finding of the first rat is significant because it is one of two bookends of this eventful chapter. The chapter opens with the death of one rat, and it ends with the death of one man. The first rat is significant, too, because it reminds Dr. Rieux of his ill wife and their impending separation. Little does he know that at this early stage, their separation from one another will not be a unique story as there will be many cases of parted lovers. Dr. Rieux's parting from his wife parallels the other cases of parted lovers in the novel, of which there are two kinds: those who are eventually reunited and those who are not.

This chapter introduces several of the main characters as Dr. Rieux interacts with them each in turn. Raymond Rambert, Jean Tarrou, and Mme. Rieux, all visitors from out of town, come to Oran for various purposes. An interaction between Rambert and Dr. Rieux reveals Dr. Rieux's desire for the absolute truth, a trait readers will find he shares with Jean Tarrou, whom he befriends.

M. Othon, Joseph Grand, and Cottard are, like Dr. Rieux, residents of the town. It also introduces the asthmatic patient who reflects both an element of the absurd and the generally irrational voice of the townspeople. In this chapter, he dismisses the rats, saying they are probably just hungry.

In an allegorical reading, the indifference and failure to act quickly to the pestilence on the part of the authorities, combined with the ineffective but alarming public radio announcements, is roughly equivalent to the way Europe and the United States first reacted to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

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