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The Journal of Camus Studies
Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.
The Plague is Albert Camus most popular novel. The story is of an Algerian town that is quarantined on the arrival of the plague. The novel's success probably lies in the accessibility of the book. The story begins with dead rats appearing in the streets before inhabitants start falling ill with a strange illness. But The Plague is more than a horror tale. The Plague is Camus brilliant allegory of the spread of fascism and revolt in the face of the absurd.
Camus set The Plague in the Algerian city of Oran. In April the inhabitants begin to notice more and more dead and dying rats. Panic spreads throughout the population as the sight of staggering, dying rats and the bodies they leave behind become more and more commonplace. The collection and cremation of the rats begins as the human population starts falling ill with a mysterious fever. The doctors become convinced the illness is bubonic plague but the authorities are slow to act. Finally, as Oran is ravaged by the plague, the city is placed under quarantine.
The response to the plague by the public is one of personal panic with a longing for absent family. Some inhabitants attempt to escape the sealed city while others remain to fight the plague the best they can. The plague and the fear that comes with it is embraced by a least one citizen of Oran. He is a criminal, wanted by the police, who lived a life of fear and hiding. After the arrival of the plague, he lives not in lonely fear but in a new community of fear. He exploits the plague, acting as a smuggler and making a large personal fortune. After several months of the plague, the people of Oran come to recognise the collective suffering in what has happened. Putting aside feelings of their own personal misfortune, they band together to fight the plague.
When the plague finally passes, the Oran survivors, as one would imagine, react differently. However, after time, the routine gets back to normal as it was before the rats started to die in the street. Before we get to comfortable having reached the end of the novel, Camus reminds the reader that although the plague has left Oran, the bacillus microbe lies dormant. The plague could return at any time.
... only when a strong wind was blowing did a faint, sickly odour coming from the east remind them that they were living under a new order.