The Plague | Study Guide

Albert Camus

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The Plague | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Albert Camus's The Plague, first published in 1947 in French as La Peste, is one of the most thought-provoking philosophical novels of the 20th century. Scholars consider The Plague an important text in the field of existentialism, a subdiscipline of philosophy focusing on the individual's experience in relation to an absurd world.

Set in a disease-stricken city in Algeria, The Plague shows how different characters of various social classes, backgrounds, and professions react to the impending demise represented by the outbreak. The spread of this disease provides a backdrop for Camus's exploration of the human condition. Characters react with courage and heroism as well as with cowardice, panic, and confusion. The philosophical merit of the novel comes from its focus on each individual's ability or inability to adapt to this terrifying and absurd external force.

1. The Plague was inspired by Camus's own struggle with tuberculosis.

Camus was afflicted with tuberculosis, a respiratory disease that often proved fatal during the time he was writing. Scholars speculate Camus's battle with this illness influenced him to write The Plague, particularly noting the similarities between tuberculosis, called the "White Death," and the bubonic plague, called the "Black Death."

2. The plague hit Oran, Algeria, nearly a century earlier than The Plague is set.

Although Oran was stricken by outbreaks of various diseases in the 20th century, Camus modeled the pestilence in his novel on an outbreak of cholera that struck the city in 1849. This plague was part of a world pandemic that affected Europe from 1829 to 1849, although it was not the Black Death Camus describes.

3. The Plague is often read as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.

Camus himself admitted he envisioned the novel's plague as analogous to the threat of Nazi Germany. He noted this comparison was self-evident since, upon publication, many readers in Europe viewed the story as an allegory of the war and the struggle against tyranny:

The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof is that although this enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized him.

Shortly after World War II ended, Camus lamented the lingering effects of Nazism, stating that another destructive ideology would soon "rouse up its rats again" for "the bane and enlightenment of men."

4. Camus hated being labeled as an existentialist.

Camus's works, particularly The Plague and The Stranger, are often viewed as fundamental texts of existentialism. The author was often likened to existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre but refuted the comparison again and again. He once stated:

No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other. ... It's a joke actually.

5. Camus chose to feature the bubonic plague in The Plague because of its connection with Europe's history.

Although it was cholera that actually struck Oran, Camus chose the bubonic plague as his pestilence because of its place in medieval thought as an effect of God's wrath against humankind. In conjunction with his allegory of Nazi tyranny, he associated the notion of a plague as punishment with that of World War II as the self-punishment of human nature.

6. Camus reportedly disliked the city of Oran.

Camus did not enjoy his 1942 stay in the city where The Plague is set. He much preferred his hometown of Algiers, about 250 miles east of Oran. One reason for his distaste for Oran may be his tuberculosis worsened a great deal while he was writing there.

7. Scholars have criticized the lack of Arab or female characters in The Plague.

Camus did not include a single character of Arab descent in The Plague, despite its setting in a North African city. Instead, his characters are all French colonists or nationals, and they are predominantly male. Critics have noted women are always elsewhere in the novel, appearing as visions, memories, or dreams—rather than being part of the action.

8. Camus was the first African-born writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Camus won the prize, which had never before been awarded to an author from an African country, in 1957. He was also the second-youngest winner of the literary award, after The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling.

9. Camus references another famous philosophical novel in The Plague.

Camus often referred to the works of German author Franz Kafka in his texts. In The Plague, a character notably misinterprets one of Kafka's novels, The Trial. Kafka is often cited as an inspiration for Camus, as Kafka's work also focuses on matters of existential anxiety and absurdity.

Author Franz Kafka

Author Franz Kafka Anonymous

10. Camus had an unfinished manuscript with him when he died.

The author died in a car accident along with his publisher, Michel Gallimard, in 1960. In the wreckage, 144 pages of a manuscript based loosely on the author's life were found in a briefcase. Camus's daughter published the book under the title The First Man, though she noted, "My father would never have allowed publication of a first draft because he often did three, four, six versions of his works."

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