The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | Themes


Human Suffering

As the plague ravages the population, it becomes clear that suffering is universal and inevitable. The plague causes suffering among the rich and the poor, the old and the young, and men and women. No group is untouched.

The suffering has three effects. First, it demonstrates a way all the people in Oran are alike. They all live in fear; anyone could come down with the plague at any moment. Humans suffer, and their suffering makes them the same, erasing boundaries to the point where men and women together are buried in mass graves without ceremony.

The second effect, however, is the opposite. The plague isolates people, as they imagine that their particular brands of suffering are different from those around them and as they are separated into quarantine camps and even into individual tents in those camps.

The third effect is awareness. While the citizens of Oran suffer both before and after the plague as well as during it, the difference in the aftermath is that the citizens are aware of their suffering. Ultimately, they learn that suffering acts as a teacher, urging people to become their best selves by opposing suffering in favor of mankind.


Before the plague, the people of Oran were free to come and go and to live, love, and work as they pleased. Despite this, they live as prisoners of habit, going through the motions of life without truly living or loving. Paradoxically having to face the fear and death the plague generates has the potential to release people, in some ways, from this habitual existence. Yet the attraction of habit and the tendency to sink back into denial of mortality constantly pull people back into the captivity of ignorance.

This state of perpetual captivity, despite the status of the plague, extends the concept of freedom from a physical condition to the realms of emotion, spirit, and intellect. Thus, real freedom survives as a state of mind, regardless of whether the city gates are open or closed.

Facing Death

In coming to terms with dying, people are finally able to experience life. Since death is part of human existence, to face death is to face a fundamental truth about being human. Just as Tarrou wants to be told, in complete honesty, what his chances for survival are, people must face the truth of their own mortality, or they will simply live as prisoners to their own denial. Once death has been accepted, a person can truly live life unfettered by fear. This may be why the elderly members of the population seem to be unchanged by the fear and suffering of the plague. They have accepted their mortality and no longer fear it.

The plague and the war imagery make the citizens of Oran conscious of death. This consciousness is empowering. With the possibility of death at the forefront of life, it becomes almost impossible to live passively. Death, too, like suffering, is a great equalizer among the citizens, who must choose to live while they are able.

Isolation and Language

Physical and emotional isolation play a role in The Plague. The plague cuts off physical communication with the rest of the world, leaving the town isolated. Within the town, people are further isolated into quarantine camps, into individual quarantine tents, and, at times, into their own homes.

But emotional isolation also affects the characters. For example, Cottard is isolated by his fear of arrest, and he only feels less isolated when the plague causes universal fear. Dr. Rieux is isolated by his need to set aside his emotions to focus on the work at hand. Both Rambert and Rieux have difficulty communicating with the women they love. Joseph Grand is isolated by his perpetual inability to find the "right" language, highlighting a larger issue regarding communication. Language is, by its nature, difficult to use, subjective, open to interpretation, and often meaningless. This inability of many of the characters to truly connect with each other through precise communication adds another layer of isolation to their experiences. A problem that cannot be named or adequately defined cannot be addressed in any meaningful way. So this failure of language isolates those who would confront the problem of the plague, making it that much more difficult to combat.

Questions for Themes

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